The main objectives of educational reform in Latvia are to replace centralism with autonomy, to ensure international recognition of Latvian diplomas, and to introduce a Western-type structure of degrees and qualifications. Latvia has introduced twelve years of education, free choice of subjects at the upper secondary school level, and the possibility of establishing private educational institutions at all levels.
The first step in this reform was to conform the Latvian educational system to international ones. With the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) indicators applied to Latvian schools, the system looks like this:
- First level Preschool education
- Primary education (grades 1-4); First level education
- Elementary education (grades 5-9); Second level education,first stage
- Secondary education (grades 10-12); Vocational education/industrial training; Secondary specialized education
- Higher education (tertiary/professional education) Bachelor's and Master's degree courses; Third level
In 1997, the Latvian educational system consisted of 1,147 schools with 384,642 pupils and nearly 47,000 teachers. The state guarantees free secondary (high school) education, and more than 90 percent of Latvian children attend state schools. The Latvian educational system is free, and nine years of education are compulsory.
Primary schools educate pupils from ages 6 or 7 to ages 10 or 11. Elementary schools enroll children from ages 6 to 15 and secondary schools enroll those from ages 6 to 18. Enrollment in preschools is voluntary. All children are registered and, when they reach the age of six, they are required to attend school. Boys and girls study together and are treated equally. Nearly 50 percent of the schools in Latvia teach minority children. If parents and children prefer, they can choose schools where teachers speak various minority languages. These ethnic minority schools or classes are state-financed, and courses in these schools are taught in Belarusian, Estonian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. Latvian is replacing Russian as the language of instruction. In the 1997-1998 academic year, 72 percent of primary school pupils were taught in Latvian, 14 percent in Russian, and 12 percent in both. In 1997-1998 there were also six Polish schools, two Jewish schools, one Ukrainian, one Estonian, and one Lithuanian school. The academic year begins on September 1, or the first working day of September, and ends in June for secondary schools and July for higher education.
The majority of exams are oral. Universities, institutes, and some colleges have entrance exams with many candidates competing for available slots. After an individual has met established criteria and is enrolled as a student, all the exams occur only at the end of the course (semester). At the end of any school, the last exams determine the final grades. Latvia has a 10-point grading system in which 10 and 9 are rarely given (they denote knowledge and skills significantly higher than expected), 8 is excellent, 7 is good, 6 is almost good, 5 is fair, 4 is barely satisfactory (very low pass), 3 is unsatisfactory, and 2 and 1 are never used.
Approximately 90 percent of young people attend state schools, with only 10 percent in private schools. The number of private educational institutions increases every year. In 1996-1997, 39 private schools opened their doors for 2,271 pupils, including 14 preschools (314 pupils), 13 elementary schools (588 pupils), and 12 secondary schools (1,369 pupils). Two of the secondary private schools are secondary specialized schools, and 4 trade schools function as private schools.
Information technology is recognized as an absolute necessity in Latvian schools. However, in the 1997-1998 academic year, only 19 percent of schools had Internet connections, and the ratio was 39 students to 1 computer. On June 13, 1997, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Latvia and the University of Latvia signed an agreement, "On the Latvian Education Information System," which contained goals for preparing students of primary, secondary schools, and universities for life and work in the information age. Since 1999, after extensive work, schools have become computerized and many are connected to the Internet. With access to electronic mail, database information searches, and libraries, schools and students now participate in various international communication and scientific projects.
Large-scale changes in the structure of education require an enormous effort for development. New curricula, new programs, and new classes require new textbooks and new publications. Unlike the Soviet educational system, the state does not produce or distribute audiovisual materials. Most schools use old and often outdated materials. Moreover, low school budgets make it difficult for schools to purchase teaching materials from private enterprises, and foreign products are too expensive for the municipalities to afford.
With the main goal of integrating Latvia into the European system, the Ministry of Education and Science must:
- compile a list of professions available in Latvia,
- develop laws on mutual recognition of diplomas and qualifications,
- encourage universities to adjust their teaching programs to the European Union (EU) requirements, and
- insure implementation of the law in educational programs.
The Ministry of Education and Science established a special division for integration into Europe and opened the Center for Academic Information that is incorporated into the EU network to coordinate the recognition of academic and professional education diplomas.
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