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Tasks awaiting the Czech Education Ministry need more than a temporary replacement in charge

3.6.2015 19:16
Marcel Chládek (PHOTO:  Czech Education Ministry)
Marcel Chládek (PHOTO: Czech Education Ministry)

Even though it may seem that Marcel Chládek is leaving office primarily because he has not treated women and colleagues not involved with sports well at the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, there are more reasons than that for his dismissal. The degree of his misconceived ideas, such as the distribution of tablet computing devices to schoolchildren, or the introduction of "practical" classes in the primary schools, had in fact exceeded all tolerable limits.    

Similarly, the number of weirder and weirder remarks the minister was making had also been increasing. For example, there was his remark about a "gentleman from India" (i.e., the Executive Director of Amnesty International) who has no business talking to us in the Czech Republic about the education of the "lazy Roma" whom we have to "drag out of bed every morning".

Then there was his proposal to close half of our colleges because we have "too many" college students. Lightning was striking closer and closer to the minister's ark and it seemed likely that in only a few weeks' time he would be engaged in the same kind of infamous chaos for which our last "best Education Minister ever", Josef Dobeš, was dismissed.

While Dobeš jumped from the burning deck of the ministry at the last minute in a way that at least seemed to be voluntary, Chládek didn't manage that kind of an exit. Due to his arrogance, he was dismissed before he could create the impression that he was resigning because Czech Finance Minister Babiš is unwilling to increase the budget for the schools.

What is not Chládek's fault 

Setting aside his personality traits, what was most problematic about Chládek was his lack of conceptual planning and the intangibility of his policy. He took office making speeches about the "Finnish" model, then reversed himself while in office and began speaking most frequently about the fact that "apprenticeships have not been about dirty overalls for a long time now" and that he intended to push more children toward training institutions - without paying much attention to what was actually being taught there.  

He submitted an enlightened strategic material to the Government for adoption on how education should develop by 2020 (a document created during his predecessor's term) - but instead of supporting the teaching profession and reducing the selectivity of the system, both of which are priorities for the 2020 Strategy, he proceeded to introduce across-the-board entrance examinations, a centralized high school graduation diploma, and the prescription of an obligatory mathematics component for all examinations. He was only successful with some of these ideas.  

His positive aspects included the ability to communicate with the directors and representatives of colleges, and he succeeded in pushing through a reasonably-designed amendment to the Schools Act and in sending long-delayed legislation on the colleges to Parliament. However, it was becoming more and more clear that in other areas of policy his results were rather average.  

Many important measures - a career system and the financing of the primary and secondary schools - remained at the beginning of their reforms, and his policy of aggression towards his own staff led to qualified people leaving the ministry. It became terribly difficult to find anyone to take up the Deputy Minister post.  

His initial attempt at communicating with experts through round tables slowly went dormant, until it ended with the usual lack of willingness of the ministry to issue any relevant information about its plans through official channels. On the other hand, it is a fact that the conceptual steps that need to be undertaken all require a great deal of money.

The current Government is not planning to pour that kind of money into education at this moment. Chládek did not prove to be a figure capable of designing such concepts, but the truth is that without a radical addition of funding to the ministerial budget, the Czech education system will not be changed even if the politician who succeeds him will be many orders of magnitude more competent.  

Is such a person even planning to take up this empty seat? Entrusting the Education Ministry to the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister is unequivocally just an immediate solution to this crisis.  

However, even the appointment of a minister like her should not be just about making a kindly-looking alternative choice. It would certainly be nice if the next minister would shout less at his or her subordinates, but what must be done at the ministry is really not a task for a temporary replacement.

On the contrary, the new minister must be a figure capable of standing up to the authority of the Finance Minister and defending why it is that education so urgently needs this money. The question is whether the Social Democrats have such a personality among them even if Prime Minister Sobotka were to be included among the candidates.

It won't be easy

What will it be possible to do now? The personnel situation at the ministry must be calmed, the documents approved by the Government must begin to be taken seriously, and the career system, the inclusion program, and the proposal for changes to the financing of the schools must all be completed.

What mainly needs to happen is that a clear calculation must be made of how much it will cost to introduce these measures and what their introduction buys us. This should be documented through data,on the basis of which it will be possible to establish positive expectations.  

Nothing of the sort exists yet, so it is not surprising that Finance Minister Babiš can so easily reject these budget demands. Even should such a plan fail with this government, it would be possible to go into the next elections with it as a realistic Social Democratic program.    

The second option is to begin supporting the teaching profession, as has been discussed for years, and nothing has happened in that direction yet. We must gradually build up, from zero, step by step, a network of teacher-mentors to aid schools in complicated situations by introducing the helping professions into them - such as special needs educators, psychologists, and teaching assistants.

This is something that is realizable, at least in the beginning, with EU money, something that has already been tested and that achieves results. It is also a process we cannot avoid.

The recent "spanking" that Minister Chládek received from the European Commission in the matter of the treatment of Romani children will be repeated in September at the very latest. There really is no reason to envy the new minister, whoever he or she ends up being - to rake over the garden that this little kid named Marcel has so diligently plowed up will not be easy.      

This commentary was first published in Czech in the Lidové noviny newspaper on 30 May 2015, reprinted in translation with the permission of the author.

Tomáš Feřtek, consultant with EDUin, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Marcel Chládek, Vzdělávání, Analysis, Czech Republic



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