In the Czech Republic the education system is divided into several levels and types of schools according to age and the kind of training provided. Preprimary education for children between the ages of 3 and 6 is optional, although there were about 6,400 kindergartens in the country in 1998. Compulsory, basic education is provided to pupils between the ages of 6 and 15, with pupils ages 6 to 11, 12, or 13 enrolled in primary schools and pupils 11, 12, or 13 to 15 enrolled in lower secondary schools or gymnasiums. Basic education schools numbered about 5,000 in 1998. Upper-secondary schools include vocational and technical schools as well as general-education schools (gymnasiums) for students extending to age 19, although some shorter programs in vocational education for students ages 15 to 17 also exist. Highereducation institutions of various types provide education and training opportunities for students between the ages of 19 and 22, 23, 24, 25, or 26, depending on the type of training course followed.
In the 1996-1997 school year about 2.2 million children and youth, out of the country's total population of about 10 million, were enrolled in educational institutions. Of these students, about 325,000 were preprimary children, 661,000 were primary pupils, 539,000 were lower secondary students, 513,000 were upper secondary students, and 196,000 were tertiary students. Fifty-two percent of all pupils and students of school age were of compulsory school age (that is, between 6 and 15 years old) or nearly 1.2 million people. About 1,627,500 primary and secondary students were enrolled in public schools and approximately 85,400 additional students went to private schools, which also received government subsidies for education. The total number of primary and secondary students, public and private, was therefore about 1,712,900.
The gross enrollment rate in 1995 for basic compulsory education (the first 9 grades of school) was 95 percent. In 1996 the student to teacher ratio for basic education was 14.5:1. Net enrollment rates were 86.9 percent at the primary level and 87.1 percent at the secondary level. Net enrollment rates for girls, 86.8 percent at the primary level and 88.6 percent at the secondary level, were almost the same as for boys, a tribute to efforts made during the Soviet era as well as in recent years to provide equal educational opportunities for both girls and boys. In fact, the enrollment rate at the secondary level is even a bit higher for girls than for boys.
During the 1990s the level of education of the general population increased, though by early 2001 a breakdown of the adult population in the country by educational attainment levels was not readily available. In 1990 the composition of the economically active adult population (i.e., those working, seeking jobs, or temporarily unemployed) was as follows: 18.7 percent had a primary education; 43.1 percent had a lower-secondary education, mostly through apprenticeship training and some of which had been acquired through technicaltraining programs; 27.7 percent had received higher-secondary education; and just 9.6 percent held university degrees. Through the improvements made in upper-secondary and postsecondary education and training programs by the turn of the millennium, these proportions were expected to gradually shift in favor of a more highly educated workforce.
International Influences & Foreign Languages: During the years the country belonged to the Soviet-controlled Communist satellite system where Moscow was the center of political affairs, the Czech Republic's government was structured as a centralized administrative system. For this reason the public education system in the Czech Republic at the time of independence was infused with many of the principles and structures of centralized, state-controlled socialist education systems. Since the early 1990s, however, education officials, specialists, and practitioners have taken significant steps toward molding the education system into a more responsive, democratic, decentralized system. By the year 2000 the European Union had a far more significant influence on the course of educational thought and structuring than any leftover influence from the Soviet era, atleast as far as the top-level educational officials were concerned. However, because about half of the teaching staff was middle-aged and had been trained before the 1989 break with the Soviet socialist system, Russian and socialist influence on the day-to-day practice of teaching undoubtedly was much stronger than ministry officials would have cared to admit. Nonetheless, educational reforms during the 1990s were substantial enough for the European Commission to write in an abstract of their October 1999 report on education in the Czech Republic that "the Czech Republic had achieved progress in this area by adopting legislation and participating in Community programmes." Their corresponding November 2000 report noted that the country "is continuing to make progress in implementing the legislation adopted in this field, particularly in education, training and participation in Community programmes. It has also made progress in the education of children from socially and culturally disadvantaged backgrounds, although the situation concerning the education of the children of migrant workers has not changed."
Since independence in 1993 Czech has been the only official language of the Czech Republic. However, more than a third of pupils in the primary grades learn a second language and more than half the students in the secondary grades learn second languages. Some primary and secondary students learn a third language, and some secondary students learn a fourth language as well. English and German appear to be far more commonly taught as second and/or third languages than any other non-Czech language at the primary and secondary levels.
Examinations: Students must pass an entrance exam before entering upper secondary-level education in the Czech Republic. Those who fail to pass the entrance exam are allowed to continue their studies in vocational schools where one or two years of training are provided for basic manual occupations. Students in secondary general schools and secondary technical schools are permitted to take the Maturita exam at the conclusion of their secondary studies. However, because the individual schools administering the exams determine the content of the Maturita exams, it is difficult for institutions of higher education to compare students based on their performance on the Maturita. For this reason, students who pass the Maturita must take university entrance exams before they can enter the universities.
Private Schools: Private schools are a relatively new phenomenon in the Czech Republic, considering that all schools prior to the break with the Soviet system in 1989 were state-supported and state-controlled. Between 1990 and 1994 many non-state schools were started, particularly at the upper-secondary level, due to the unwillingness of a number of teachers to make schools reliant on market forces. By the end of the 1990s, private educational institutions included both parochial and non-sectarian schools, all of them eligible for state subsidies provided on a normative (per-pupil) basis, provided that the schools were registered with the government as private companies. In addition, private schools are allowed to request financial contributions from students and their parents for capital investments, since government funding to private schools only covers teacher salaries and operational costs. Competition among private schools has been encouraged, since the amount of subsidy a private school receives is based on the number of students it attracts; this in turn has improved the quality of private educational initiatives.
In terms of training programs available to adults, private initiatives have grown exponentially. By the year 2000 about 2,000 private training organizations were teaching adults new skills or upgrading existing practical and theoretical knowledge. Private training centers need only to be registered as companies to receive government funding, although accreditation by the Ministry of Education is required if educational certificates are to be awarded. With the shift to privatization in the economy and decentralization in schooling during the 1990s, businesses lost their apprentice and training centers attached to the state-supported system as well as certain financing they once received from the state to provide vocational and technical training. Consequently, private industry largely withdrew from financing vocational and technical education. However, by the year 2000, some companies once again had started to fund training programs, particularly those designed to prepare workers with specialized skills such as those needed in the automobile industry and in mining.
Instructional Technology: By the end of the 1990s, the Czech Republic was preparing to support new educational initiatives in computer technology to prepare a workforce better equipped for jobs in the high-technology sector. Although a national policy on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in education was not yet in place by the 1997-98 school year, ICT courses were included at the lower-secondary level by that time, with ICT taught as a separate subject. ICT classes were taught as a compulsory separate subject in the first year of general upper-secondary education. At lower and upper secondary levels, specialists in ICT were employed to teach these classes. Objectives for ICT classes in secondary schools included developing programming skills in students; teaching them to use word processors, spreadsheets, and other computer software; teaching them to gather information using such tools as CDs and the Internet; and teaching students how to communicate via a network. The curriculum at the lower-secondary level also stressed the importance of information and the place of ICT in society.
Curriculum Development: Curricular innovations in the late 1990s were focused in particular on improving the quality of course offerings and training programs at the secondary level, especially in vocational education. Schools were given a certain measure of freedom to develop their own curricula in the directions they saw fit, with about 10 percent of the curriculum adaptable to local circumstances and about 30 percent of the syllabus changeable by the schools. In addition, schools could propose methods for modernizing curricula with regard to occupations and new sectors of employment. Before 1989 about 500 different curricula were developed by school initiatives and approved by the state for vocational instruction, whereas in the year 2000 over 800 different curricula developed by schools had been approved by the Ministry of Education. As private schools have entered the educational marketplace with the country's privatization efforts, competition for students has increased, resulting in competitive improvements in course offerings across the various schools providing vocational education. On the other hand, one obstacle to the smooth functioning and coordination of vocational programs that has emerged ironically is the ease with which new curricula can be approved by the Ministry, which has resulted in a proliferation of courses highly similar to existing courses and sometimes differing only in name from previous courses. The direct relevance of certain courses to specific occupations also is sometimes questionable, since the government no longer provides a generally accepted list of occupations for which training should be provided as was done in the days of socialist schooling.
Role of Education in Development: Clearly, education at all levels in the Czech Republic—for preprimary students through adults—can lead to an improved climate for economic development and democratic participation in civil society, which in turn engenders a higher quality of life and greater political stability. To this end, the World Bank, the European Union, the Soros Foundation, and other international nongovernmental organizations have provided substantial financial and technical assistance since the Czech Republic attained independence so that schools will become more responsive to the needs of children, youth, and adults in a greatly transformed society. As Peter Grootings, the author of a World Bank report on vocational education in the Czech Republic, wrote in March 2000, the educational experience of the Czech Republic presents several lessons with special relevance for transitional countries: 1) By encouraging private investment in education and limiting the labor supply through early retirements and the extension of schooling opportunities for youth, a better adjustment can be made in the national economy to a liberalized market regime; 2) Making vocational education more general and less terminal increases the appeal of vocational education institutions to students and draws more into this form of training, leading to a better-prepared workforce; 3) Maintaining low registered unemployment by tightening eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits controls public-training program budgets and prevents rampant spending from the national treasury to support workforce training initiatives; and 4) Setting favorable laws to encourage industrial growth encourages private industry to provide training opportunities for vocational students and adults without draining the public treasury.
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