Education in Bulgaria is compulsory between the ages of 7 and 16. Parents have legal responsibility to secure the school attendance of their child. All schools in the country are co-educational, admitting students of both genders. The official language of instruction is Bulgarian. Schoolchildren who have a different first language, besides the compulsory study of the Bulgarian language may study their mother tongue in municipal schools under the protection and control of the state.
The educational system (prior to higher education) comprises 12 grades, organized in two major levels: basic and secondary. Basic education (grades first through eighth) is subdivided into two sub-levels: elementary (grades first through fourth) and presecondary (grades fifth through eighth). Secondary education normally encompasses grades eighth through twelfth, but can start earlier depending on the type of school. There are two major kinds of secondary schools: secondary comprehensive, usually called gymnasia (high school) and secondary vocational, most often referred to as tehnikum (vocational school.) Special schools at all educational levels accommodate students with impaired health. Private schools constitute a new element in the structure of the education system.
Special schools accommodate students in need of special care because of learning disabilities, health, or emotional problems. There is a wide variety of special schools, catering to children who are chronically ill, mentally retarded, blind or visually impaired, hearing and speech impaired, or who have behavioral problems bordering on juvenile delinquency. In 1999-2000, there were 146 special schools at all levels of the education system with 16,000 students enrolled. A significant number of the special schools function as internati (boarding schools).
Private schools are still relatively few in numbers. By January 1999, there were only 52 private schools. Six of the private schools were elementary, twenty-three basic, two presecondary, seventeen high schools, and four general comprehensive including all levels. There were 4,382 students enrolled in all private schools, or only 0.5 percent of the whole student population. Private schools are subject to social controversy because of widespread concerns that they undermine the nation's democratic traditions in education. Despite that, their numbers slowly increase: in comparison with 1998, there were eight more private schools and student enrollment enlarged by 389.
The curriculum is structured into three components: compulsory, elective, and optional; the correlation between those varies at different types of schools. Subjects fall into the following eight major areas of content: Bulgarian language and literature, foreign languages, mathematics, information technologies, social sciences and civics, natural sciences and ecology, music and art, physical culture and sports.
Schools operate on a five-day week schedule. September 15 or the workday closest to it marks the beginning of the school year. This is a festive occasion. Many students go to school carrying bouquets of flowers for their teachers and may be accompanied by their families. The duration of the school year varies by the school level and grade and depends on the quantity of material that needs to be covered. It ends on May 24 for grades 1 and 12 (in the latter case, the intention is to provide time for the matriculation examination). The school year continues until May 31 for grades 2 through 4, until June 15 for grades 5 through 8, June 30 for grades 9 through 11. The school year is divided into two sroka (terms, singular is srok); the first term begins on September 15 and ends on February 4, the second one starts on February 9. There is a Christmas break (December 24 through January 6), an inter-term break (February 7-8), a spring break (April 1-10), and a two-day break before Eastern Orthodox Easter. In addition, first graders only have a short break in the fall (November 11-13). Setting school vacations in relation to religious holidays is a departure from the practices of the communist regime, which did everything possible to discourage religion and banish it from the public sphere. The summer vacation spans from the end of the school year until September 15. If schools are to be closed due to inclement weather or fuel shortage, the days missed are compensated at the expense of vacation time.
Students from grades 1 through 12 normally spend half a day in school; the other half is dedicated to homework and independent study at home. In elementary school and sometimes in presecondary school there exists an option called zanimalnya (extended care) for students to spend the other half of the day in school working on their lessons under the control of a teacher. This is done upon the explicit request of the parents. Schools in big cities operate according to a two-shift scheme (morning and afternoon) because of shortage of school premises. In small cities and villages the one-shift scheme is prevalent.
The grading system is based on numerals, where 6 is otlichen (excellent), 5 is mnogo dobar (very good), 4 is dobar (good), 3 is sreden (satisfactory), and 2 is slab (poor). Passing grades are 3 through 6; 2 denotes a failure. Very rarely applied, 1 (very poor) is sometimes given for academic misconduct. This grading system is used at all levels of schooling. Grading is based on written and oral testing, homework, and in-class participation. Students do not pass automatically to a higher grade level. Students who have poor grades in more than three subjects repeat the year. In case of three or less poor grades the student has the right to take a supplementary examination, a failure in which also results in repeating the grade. There is no passing to a higher grade on probation. Students are not allowed to repeat grades more than twice in their school career.
Textbooks are subject to contest-based writing, publication, and distribution. All Bulgarian publishing houses that meet the criteria set by the Ministry of Education and Science can compete. The textbooks suitable for use in a particular subject are selected under conditions of real competition with respect to content, artistic layout, and price. On those terms, the Ministry works with more than thirty state and private publishing houses, which print and distribute over 480 textbooks for comprehensive and 800 textbooks for vocational instruction. The schools then place their orders directly with the publishers. The introduction of the contest principle in the publication of textbooks raised professional standards and resulted in improved quality of textbooks.
Bulgarian schools are well equipped with traditional audiovisual aids, such as maps, charts, and globes. Simple technical appliances (like overhead projectors, TV sets, cassette-recorders, and slide-projectors) are also widespread, but the instructional materials that go with them are often obsolete and not in compliance with the new content of study. Office equipment, copiers, and printers are generally lacking in classrooms. But schools face grave problems in securing contemporary computer hardware, software, and communications. The need to update information technologies is well recognized and guidelines have been developed for their introduction.
Bulgarian educators are generally quite open to new instructional techniques and methods. The problems stem from a poor material base. Relatively few computers are available, and those tend to be outdated models with inadequate performance. The existing computers in 1995 were IBM (about 30 percent), Macintosh (2 percent), and the archaic Bulgarian Pravets-8 (67 percent). Due to financial difficulties, very few funds have been allocated for purchase of new computers and any contributions in this field come primarily from donors. Despite all these difficulties, many Bulgarian schools are on-line and teachers and students partake in the information exchange.
Bulgaria has significant minority populations whose first language is not Bulgarian. Under the circumstances, it is very important that schools breed a public spirit of tolerance and dialogue. Traditionally, minorities have enjoyed all rights to education as Bulgarian citizens and have been well integrated in the education system. After the fall of communism in 1989, many former Eastern Bloc nations lived through a process of redefining of national identity, nation-states and citizenship that led to the eruption of conflicts and civil wars. Bulgaria constituted a fortunate exception from this pattern and the education system was entitled to some credit for preserving the national peace. Though, a significant deficiency is the lack of methods for teaching Bulgarian as a foreign language to schoolchildren who speak another language at home. An alarming symptom of alienation is the increasing dropout rate among Roma children who are of compulsory education age.
Education in Bulgaria, although fundamentally national in character, has significant foreign influences. Russian impact was most pronounced during the period of the national revival in the nineteenth century and stemmed the ideas of Slavophilism and pan-Orthodoxy. Many young Bulgarians went to pursue their education in St. Petersburg and Odessa. Immediately after the liberation from Ottoman domination in 1878, achieved with decisive help from Russia, Russian experts remained in Bulgaria to assist with the establishment of the administrative structure of the young nation-state. After the end of the World War II, Bulgaria became a satellite state of the Soviet Union and was heavily subjected to Russian influence in the sphere of culture and education. The model of the entire education system, and particularly that of higher education, was designed to emulate the Soviet education system. Russian language became a compulsory subject as early as fifth grade and intensified at every subsequent school level. The generations of Bulgarians educated under communist rule have command of Russian which provided immediate access to a much larger scope of publications. Russian was promoted as a lingua franca among professional circles of the Eastern Bloc nations. Many Bulgarians received their higher education in Soviet institutions of higher learning, particularly in the technical fields. Although, after 1989, Russian influences on Bulgarian education were on the decline.
Western European and American influences are also evident. German impact, channeled through the Bulgarian royal house which was of German dynastic descent and facilitated by German economic interests in the Balkans, was considerable during the two World Wars that Bulgaria entered as an ally of Germany. French cultural and educational influences infiltrated through the efforts of Jesuit priests in the nineteenth century and the francophone programs of the French government throughout the twentieth century. The first exposure to American educational influence began with the work of Protestant missionaries in the middle of the nineteenth century, remained in the country until the communist regime expelled them in 1945. Meanwhile, they opened some of the first nurseries in Bulgaria, as well as teacher training institutes, vocational schools, and a college in Sofia. The latter was restored in the early 1990s; despite its name, it is in fact one of the most prestigious high schools in the Bulgarian capital. The most significant embodiment of American presence in the Bulgarian education system is the American University in Blagoevgrad, which attracts students from all Balkan nations. Well-educated strata of the population normally speak at least one Western language. Until the 1970s, choices were almost evenly split between German, French and English; younger generations, especially after 1990, overwhelmingly opted for English.
A major goal of the reform of Bulgaria's education system was to bring standards in line with the European context and to harmonize the educational process with that of Western Europe. This was expected to assist the nation's accession to the European Union. In December 1999 Bulgaria was invited to begin negotiations to that effect with practical discussion that begun in March 2000 on six topics, the first two of which were "education and training" and "science and research." Of primary importance is the impact of educational programs and initiatives sponsored by international organizations: UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the World Bank. Joint initiatives in education, such as the programs PHARE, TEMPUS, COPERNICUS in the 1990s vastly improved Bulgaria's structure and content of its education.
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