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To what extent does the current educational system offer equal opportunities for all?

In most instances, it’s safe to assume that there are considerable differences in the quality of education offered in different environments. After all, more urbanized environments should have access to more resources, more teachers, more experts, and more analysts. But are these assumptions backed up by data? Or are these simple generalizations?

What is the actual difference?

Before we dive deeper into the subject, we need to have precise information in terms of the distribution of students. Statistics show us that 67.3% of students are learning in an urban area and 32.7% in a rural area. With this statistic in mind, we can get a better grasp on the impact the pandemic had on students in Romania.

We also spoke to Pavel Anda and Pana Rodica, two elementary school teachers with over three decades of experience, for a deeper look at the situation.

According to World Vision Romania, 40% of all students in rural areas were completely unable to attend online classes during the peak of the pandemic. This can be attributed to a number of factors. But one of the main factors is the lack of access to newer technologies in rural schools.

This set of data by the Romanian National Institute of Statistics shows us that between 2001 and 2020 there is a growth in both areas when it comes to the distribution of PC equipment, it is clear that urban areas are in a far better place.

That issue could be caused by several factors such as lack of internet infrastructure, lower-income per family member, problems with the stability of present infrastructure, perpetual poverty, and many other reasons.

Another reason why this has been such an issue is the way in which information is distributed. Sorin Cîmpeanu, The Minister of Education, estimates that 20 percent of the students did not pick up the tablets promised by the ministry during the pandemic for online schooling because they did not know about them. On the other hand, some students received 2-3 tablets each – from the ministry, from the town hall, or from various sponsors.

The Minister also stated that the Romanian education system has problems in terms of performance, but more important are the problems related to the lack of equitable access to education.

Regarding these issues, Cîmpeanu stated the following:

“It is necessary for the Ministry of Education to develop its own digital platforms. We intend to replace the classic chalkboard with interactive boards in all over 80,000 classrooms in Romania. The teachers need to understand that their role has changed and that it needs to have a stronger component of learning facilitators, guiding students between all the informational sources.

[Students] will be able to have access even in those special situations when they cannot come to school, they will be able to download their lesson in real time. This is the advantage of a simple interactive whiteboard.

To that, we can add another worrisome trend in rural areas. That trend is the slow decline in children that are getting enrolled in school.

According to information from the Romanian National Institute of Statistics showcased in this graph, it is clear that between 2001 and 2020 the amount children enrolled in rural schools has steadily declined, reaching an all-time low in 2020. This all-time low could be attributed to COVID-19, but there is still a noticeable decline even with that taken into account. It is also clear, based on data between 2010 and 2020 by the Institute of Statistics, that this problem is highly present in the majority of the counties of Romania.

With that taken into account, there’s also the issue of dropouts. In rural areas, most students who drop out are in elementary school, showing us that, for most families, it becomes harder and harder to keep their kids in school. Opposite of that, the point where students in urban areas are most likely to drop out is 11th Grade, showing us that other, wildly different factors are at play

With that in mind, Pana Rodica, a teacher in a rural area, reminds us that:

there are no differences from the urban environment […] regarding the family’s interest in education”.

Even so, Pavel Anda, a teacher in Bucharest, has a different opinion, stating that:

children from rural environments have to face several challenges”.

She also states that there are multiple unfavorable conditions for children learning in rural areas such as:

lack of qualified teaching staff, the lack of continuity in the teaching staff, the teaching material, and outdated technology and their family being educated in the same unfavorable conditions”.

To that Mircea Bertea, the Director of the National Pedagogical College “Gh. Lazăr” in Cluj-Napoca, said:

 “Add to this the unusually high dropout rate or, at the other end of the spectrum, fake schooling, a situation that recently forced the Ministry of National Education to send inspection teams to schools across the country to find out where and when thousands of secondary school pupils were lost from their enrolment in 5th grade.

The reason why this issue is so prevalent in Romania is the fact that it has the lowest level of funding in the European Union. In 2015, the country spent 8.6 percent of its budget on education, which is equivalent to almost crisis levels. To combat the disparity between urban and rural areas, Romania launched a project to help students transition from primary to secondary education in 2015.

Romania’s problem through European eyes:

Now, it is important to understand that these are not uniquely Romanian issues. Most of the European Union struggles with many of the same problems. Specifically, the one regarding dropouts in rural areas. With that in mind, Romania is one of the countries where this issue is more noticeable. According to Eurostat, in 2021 Romania had the most number of school leavings in the European Union.

This project dubbed the ROSE Project, aimed to provide various support services to help students avoid dropping out. Unfortunately, programs designed to improve the participation and quality of education have been failing to reduce educational inequalities, since they have not been focused on the factors that affect the participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, namely the economic gap between the rural and urban areas reflected in their school performance.

Whilst public education is free of charge in Romania, the costs of sending kids to school are high for rural families struggling with poverty, and it can sometimes be overwhelming.

On the issue of poverty Pieter Bult, UNICEF Representative in Romania stated the following:

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Although the last 30 years have made significant progress in terms of children’s rights, 40% of Romania’s children still live in poverty or are at risk of social exclusion, one of the highest levels in the European Union.

There are still major disparities between the national average and the lives of poor rural children, Roma minority children, and children with disabilities.

In rural areas, children live in very different conditions, from a natural distance, and therefore lack of connection in the absence of routines such as going to school, to overcrowded housing, where it becomes difficult to focus on lessons.

Moreover, the education system in Romania continues to face significant challenges in terms of quality and inclusiveness, according to an EU Country Report, published in 2020.

This report specifies that Romania is one of the countries with the highest share of low achievers among 15-year-olds in all three areas tested under the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), more specifically 46.6% of 15-year-olds are underachievers in mathematics (EU average: 22.4%), 43.9% in science (EU average: 21.6%) and 40.8% in reading (EU average: 21.7%), which results in an average of 43.7%.

In other words, children cannot cope with the academic tasks they are presented with in school, because what they are taught does not enable them to learn enough to advance from one year to the next.

This issue is even more apparent when taking a look at students from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds who tend to perform poorly when compared to their advantaged peers. At the end of eighth grade, over 20% of students did not meet the minimum grade of 5 in their final exam. This indicates that the country’s education system is not producing equal opportunities for all. It also suggests that the link between education and parental involvement is very strong.

With that in mind, we can also take a look at Romania’s overall academic performance, where a recent study issued by the European Commission regarding a statistical overview of Romania’s main education and training indicators shows that over 40% of children have great difficulty performing simple mathematical operations and that their general knowledge about society, people, and the universe is very limited.

On this occasion, we find out that there exists a Romanian Literature Association whose leader, Liliana Romaniuc, coordinates two programs to reduce functional illiteracy by focusing on ways for teachers to improve their teaching methods. In a press release, she confirmed that Romania is ranking second to last among European countries regarding the area of ​​functional illiteracy, explaining that the main cause for this situation is the method of learning based on memorization and not on understanding the concepts. In other words, the problem is old-school teaching methods.

The larger picture:

Placing this problem in a larger context, studies have shown that, globally, more than 796 million people have literacy difficulties. As for Europe, one in five 15-year-olds has poor reading skills. Moreover, “it is estimated that around 13 million children under 15 years of age and around 55 million adults between 15 and 65 years of age have literacy difficulties”, according to Literacy in Europe: Facts and figures study. PISA scores (2018) show that Estonia ranks first in Europe, for Reading, Mathematics, and Science, the last-placed being represented by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And with all of that in mind, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the learning crisis, which could result in lower learning outcomes and higher dropout rates. According to measures of learning poverty, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that the number of children who are not able to read proficiently could be halved by 2030. However, new projections suggest that it could take until 2034 to reach that goal.

With all of this said and with the data in front of us, it’s safe to say that students in rural areas are indeed at a significant disadvantage in terms of education. The way in which information is distributed, poverty, lack of information, lack of access to technology, lack of resources, and qualified personnel, all play a huge role in why these students are at a significant disadvantage.

And while this issue is not unique to Romania, it is important to keep in mind that our country is one of the worst offenders when it comes to these issues.

Taking responsability:

But what can the government do about this? How can they improve the situation for students all around the country and reduce inequality in education?

Well, there are a couple of steps that should be taken if we want to improve the lives and academic performance of our students.

Given the effects of poverty on education, it is the government’s duty to draw up programs that can provide integrated solutions for all these problems in the rural environment.

Cross-sectoral approaches are needed to address the complex social and development issues facing rural and urban areas.

First of all, education should be allocated at least 6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to improve the quality of education in rural areas. This would allow teachers to implement new digitalized teaching methods, improve the school infrastructure, and it would also help with subsidizing school supplies for people living in poverty.

A higher budget could also help with attracting and retaining qualified teachers and personnel, by offering higher salaries and better benefits for people who pursue this profession.

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Moreover, we must improve the living conditions for the country’s Roma community and for all people living in rural areas. This would not only help in education, but it would also help with the integration of minorities into society at large.

Addressing the mass emigration of students and professionals would improve the country’s socioeconomic status, thus providing the government with additional resources to find ways of fixing or softening the impact of these issues.

The government should also work on developing  a comprehensive strategy to improve the quality of education in the country by 2030

And finally, we should include the principles of “children first” and “leave no children behind” so that we can ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to achieve success.

These are not easy fixes, but we should pressure the Romanian government into starting these initiatives as soon as possible. The pandemic has made it clear that the Romanian school infrastructure and the educational systems currently in place are outdated, faulty, and unprepared for any crisis. So if we want to improve the lives of our students, if we want them to be prepared for their future, we must act now.

Project by:

Ailenei Mihai-Cosmin

Berekméri Istvan

Mermezan Adrian-Mihai

Pavel Ioana

Șerban Irina