Transforming Education in Serbia: Bringing society together for education that leaves no child behind
Adapting education to a rapidly changing world has become increasingly challenging.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic made it harder. With its largest disruption to education in history, COVID-19 brought into question the very access to education, along with its quality and relevance.
In response to this emergency, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres called for the Transforming Education Summit (TES) in September 2022 during the 77th UN General Assembly to mobilize greater political ambition, commitment and action to get education back on track. The intention for the summit was announced in his report, Our Common Agenda, as part of a greater commitment to championing lifelong learning for all.
His call resonated in Serbia. More than 1100 teachers, youth, parents, civil society advocates, and academia participated in national consultations from April to June 2022 with support from the UN Resident Coordinator's Office, UNICEF, and UNESCO to turn their COVID-19 coping strategies into lessons for the Serbian Government to future-proof the country's education system so no child is left behind.
Serbia is amongst the countries which responded to the COVID “lockdown” by efficiently switching its entire education system online. This impressive adaptation to distance teaching included lessons aired by the public broadcaster, the use of online platforms, IT tools, and solutions. Given the continuity of classes, albeit online, many in the education sector expected that pandemic-related learning losses would largely have been avoided.
Anamarija Viček, state secretary in the Ministry of Education, commends the teaching staff for doing a phenomenal job in adapting but also points out that the challenge was not just about the continuity of classes:
“For those families who were less well off, the need to acquire computers for online classes meant existing hurdles were raised even higher. It was, thus, incredibly important to be assisted by our development partners in the acquisition of required technology, especially in rural and less developed parts of the country”.
Transformation of education demands a holistic approach
Nonetheless, the consultation process demonstrated that more is needed, in addition to this immediate support. Françoise Jacob, the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, says the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), an inclusive and equitable quality education by 2030, will be a team effort:
“We continue to work in close partnership with the Government in promoting ongoing policy reforms and interventions in the areas of education technology, inclusive education, teacher professional development, and curriculum reforms, among others. These joint efforts are ultimately expected to contribute to the transformation of the education system in Serbia, in line with SDG4 ambitions.”
The consultation process recognised pandemic-related learning losses as the first order of business. Nearly three quarters of those participating from the ranks of academia believe that the pandemic caused significant losses in students' achievements. 90% of participating civil society organisations and all eight parent organisations that took part in the survey agreed. The real extent of learning losses, however, is yet to be revealed. It takes at least one educational cycle of four to eight years for any significant change in the education system to manifest itself in pupils’ educational attainment.
Students agreed that they had a hard time with online classes because they were denied contact with peers and learning in groups. Now everyone realises the importance of cooperative learning. Even in an online teaching environment, there is room for working in small groups, but this will require raising the capacities of teachers, including their ICT competencies - a policy priority following TES consultations.
Recommendations also call for education to be inclusive, with support to students, especially from vulnerable groups, during their entire educational journey.
Pupils of the Nikola Tesla Primary School in Belgrade also called for democratisation of schools. They expect to participate more in the running of their school:
“We have opinions that should be considered when making decisions, about maintaining school premises, improving classroom teaching, organising extracurricular activities. Our school life matters a great deal to us. This is where we spend most of our time. “
Switching gears: From short-term adaptation to strategic transformation
Yet, none of this was news. The pandemic only accelerated and magnified existing challenges - and the fact that the Ministry of Education, alone - cannot transform education. This traditional, top-down, sectoral focus of governance will need to change. An inclusive, accessible, and relevant education system that leaves no child behind requires all of society to pull together, including by committing to increased public investment.
Serbia's teachers have shown the resilience and resourcefulness to match that trust. Now, they must be helped not in implementing an endless list of incremental additions to existing curricula and reform narratives, but in carrying out transformational change, in reorienting education towards the future, to quality over quantity, towards knowledge and skills more applicable in rapidly changing labour markets,
What COVID-19 did is amplify this message and elevate it higher on the Government’s to-do list. It recognised education as the most important public good and human right, encapsulated by its Statement of commitment made at the TES Summit. It calls for all stakeholders to work - together:
“We stand for joint activities, actions, solutions, and solidarity in order to build a society that will provide access to quality lifelong education for every citizen of Serbia. Through the joint action of all parts of society, we will contribute to the recovery from losses associated with the pandemic and thus renew efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) by 2030 - Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
This commitment of the Government of Serbia prioritises education in line with both the SDG4 framework and the country’s aspirations for joining the European Union. The Summit agreed to review on annual basis the progress in delivering on TES commitments. The challenge now is to act on addressing learning loss, support for vulnerable learners and the well-being of students and teachers. On that journey, Serbia will continue to enjoy the support of its development partners, including the UN Country Team, to ensure that many hands make light work.
Written by Stevan Vujasinović