It is easier to provide children with access to quality education in a big city. Many diligent pupils of pedagogical universities stay there after completing their education. All pupils usually have computers and internet access at home. In rural areas, only a third of pupils have that. As a result, we can see that pupils from villages pass the final exams on average 10 points worse than children from cities and 20 points worse than children from oblast centers.
However, two-thirds of Ukrainian schools are located in rural areas. These schools are often scattered in remote villages, with a small number of children in each class, and have a poor technical base. This is what we inherited from the Soviet regime.
Such a school system is beneficial neither to the children, who do not receive quality education and socialization nor to local budgets which pay for this great burden. Daring to say goodbye to this rudiment is not easy, because the word “reorganization” is scary. However, the Korets community in Rivne Oblast dared to do this for two years and is already seeing positive results.
The Centre of United Actions spread the news about the successes of our partner communities. Today we are talking about the reorganization of the network of educational establishments with Roman Sylin, head of the Department of Education, Culture, Tourism, Youth, and Sports of the Korets City Council.
The start of the full-scale war changed the plans and priorities of many communities. You, however, continued to reform your network of educational establishments. How did you manage to keep it a priority during the war?
We understood that optimization had to continue anyway, as the need for it during a full-scale war is greater than ever. The Cabinet resolution of April 1 took away 10% of the educational subvention from the communities. For our community, this is almost 12 million (hryvnias), i.e., this is the entire budget of 2-3 small schools. We have made a number of decisions so that our teachers were able to receive their full salary until the end of the school year. A number of bonuses were removed or lowered, but teachers received at least the minimum bonuses.
Various opponents (to the reorganization of the network — ed.) said that there would be additional funding for the educational sector at the expense of those schools that remained in the occupied territories or were destroyed altogether. But we all perfectly understand that the priority for the state is the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Therefore, the education sector was forced to take such unpopular steps.
Do you have information about neighboring communities that have not yet carried out a reorganization and now have problems with financing the sector?
At least two communities with which we border have a problem with a lack of educational subsidies. It was easy to predict, but, as always, everyone expected additional funding. It was not provided, and therefore I know for a fact that these two communities have problems with paying salaries to their teachers.
When you started the reorganization of the network, what indicators proved to you that these changes were necessary?
We are a newly-created community. And as for any newly-created community, the issue of education was one of our primary concerns. Considering the experience of communities that were created before October 25, 2020, we understood that if we do not take drastic steps, we would have a problem. We created a working group with the specialists of the Department of Education, Culture, Tourism, Youth, and Sports of the Korets City Council, accountants, and economists.
We analyzed the activities of each educational establishment taking into account a number of indicators. We analyzed pupils’ achievements: both the external examinations and internal olympiads. Expenses from the local budget per pupil were taken into account. The group concluded that establishments with a small number of pupils are funded at the expense of establishments with a large number of pupils. Due to the fact that somewhere, perhaps, teachers were not paid certain bonuses, and these funds were directed to low-staffed institutions.
For example, during the first phase of the reorganization, there were two schools with 8 pupils in each, 1-2 children in each class. Now the bus takes these children to a big school with a high-quality technical base. Children in a class with 20 or more pupils socialize. They learn in an environment where their development is much faster than when a child attends a class with 2 or 3 pupils.
How did you involve representatives of different stakeholder groups — parents and teachers — while preparing the decision?
We held public discussions in each locality. We went to schools and met with teachers and local residents. We explained all the challenges and risks the schools face.
Of course, this is an unpopular decision. Because, you know, some people said: “This school is 150 years old, it survived the First World War, the Second World War, the Holodomor,” and so on. Yes, the school was not closed. But it is problematic for this school to work under the current conditions and in compliance with all the requirements for educational establishments.
Sometimes, there was a mutual understanding between us (city council, parents, and teachers — ed.), sometimes not quite so. Even the arguments we put forward — that a child develops only in a competitive educational environment — sometimes were accepted, but sometimes not.
What were the results of such misunderstandings?
Let’s say, I was sued during both phases of reorganization. Last year, there was a lawsuit considered by the Rivne court. It ruled our actions legal regarding the reform of the network of educational establishments of the community. There was an appeal case in the Lviv Court of Appeal. It also confirmed this.
Just two weeks ago, there was a lawsuit against one of the schools. The court also decided that we acted lawfully and did not violate the children’s right to access to education.
That is why, first of all, it is necessary to abide by laws. Also, when making some reforms, it is necessary to understand whether they will have a positive effect: both for children, so that they get a quality education, and for the accumulation of funds for the maintenance of educational establishments. To develop basic educational establishments, their technical base.
How did external expertise help you with network reorganization?
It was a kind of independent evaluation of our educational sector. When reporting to the executive committee of the city council, I presented our data, which was fully confirmed by the evaluation conducted by the Centre of United Actions. Also, during the court hearings, I provided an example of an independent evaluation and conclusions of the analysts in addition to our department’s analytical report.
Such cooperation became an important argument for us because our work was evaluated and validated by qualified experts.
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