(In)Accessible Education

What does access to education mean?

As philosophical as this question may sound, its answer has practical dimensions that are often different in villages, small towns, big cities and the capital. Hence the access to education is not only unequal but also inequitable.4 Practical opportunities for timely enrolment in the education system, for acquiring knowledge and skills in line with national education norms and the age of the child, for regular attendance and full participation in classes, for a welcoming learning environment that accepts/affirms each child's identities and meets his/her needs, for free use of educational resources and opportunities for learning and development that are equitably distributed are a small part of the broad sense of access to education in the 21st century.

A significant part of the factors determining access to education are interwoven only in the theoretical fabric of the Bulgarian education system. Very often, existing equitable education policies are extremely difficult or not at all implemented in practice and do not actually reach the child or family concerned.

One of the main reasons for this chronic asynchrony between regulations, policies, practices and real needs is the weak or formal cooperation between institutions and authorities at the national level as well as among their regional and local managements administrations. Usually, when talking about "access to education" everything is transferred to the Ministry of Education and Science. At the same time, however, guaranteeing access is in reality a challenge that depends to a large extent on the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, the Ministry of Transport, Information Technology and Communications, the Ministry of Health, the Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, mayors, municipal councils, and others. In addition, access to education also concerns the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court, which need to regulate what exactly access to "free compulsory education" means, includes and guarantees.

The lack of a clear definition of what measures are involved in fulfilling this fundamental right brings with it a number of other challenges related to the interpretation of the term by professionals in classrooms and in the field. Often, inadequate living conditions (running water, heating, safe housing, etc.), inaccessible infrastructure in a given neighborhood (built streets, sidewalks, lighting, etc.), no/convenient and non-/free transportation to school (sometimes walking several kilometers to a bus stop), no/availability of textbooks and school notebooks, no/ensured nutritious meals, proficiency in a minority mother tongue in the first grade (respectively, insufficient proficiency in Bulgarian - the language of instruction), living in a small town, and many other key factors in a child's educational lack of/success are not seen and perceived as unlocking or blocking his/her potential through the paradigm of access to education. Usually, the provision of free education in kindergartens and schools is perceived as a sufficient condition for ensured access to education - there is a teacher, there is a building.

The bias and perception of the stereotypical truth is universally valid in terms of socio-economic status, involvement in the educational process, status in society, community culture and values, etc. For specific social groups this also leads to limiting access to education. Institutional inaction/action is determined based on unsubstantiated claims such as "that’s what they’re like”. The rationale that we are all one, we all have civil and human rights, we are all guaranteed the same goods and responsibilities, we all have identical needs, etc. – routine clichés that are often fuelled with non-contextual quotes from the Constitution – feeds and perpetuates 'color blindness'. It is a misconception to treat all children and families the same, that ethnicity, culture, language and socio-economic status do not matter. Treating all children in the same way does not take into account individual differences and needs, nor does it contribute to overcoming the specific challenges each child faces. The state external assessment results are the end result of all these visible and invisible underlying factors and conditions, as well as children's performance in international assessments.

As a natural extension of the efforts to remove the (in)visible costs/barriers that block and/or limit children's full participation in the education process, the Trust for Social Achievement Foundation supported the carrying out of the analytical study “The (in)visible socio-economic barriers to access to compulsory schooling: regulations, policies and practices". The authors share that in Bulgaria, due to the wide scope for interpretation of the concept of "free compulsory education" by the executive, this right has rather vague and blurred boundaries, it is often, in fact, actually limited, and its compensation is left to the capacities and good intentions of parents and/or schools. Due to a lack of understanding and of financial means, students actually discontinue their studies at the secondary stage or enroll in the nearest school (usually a school where students from neighboring areas are educated together).

Despite the right to free education and the obligation of institutions and parents to ensure that every child from 4 to 16 years of age (up to grade 10, the first stage of secondary education) attends pre-school and school, the study highlights that families are forced to cover many 'hidden' educational costs themselves. Examples of this are the provision of textbooks and school supplies, feeding students, and paying for transport to and from school when they continue their education beyond grade 7. If these costs cannot be covered, children's access to and full participation in the educational process is completely blocked or limited.

High school education, as well as the choice of a school, remains strongly influenced by families' financial means. More often than not, students from small settlements continue their education in the nearest high school without having the opportunity and right to consider their personal professional and career desires.

The analysis also highlights existing territorial inequalities in access and quality of education between urban and rural schools. For example, in the capital and regional towns, a higher proportion of Roma community members obtain secondary education, while in small towns and villages their share is lower - precisely because of the remoteness of the high school, the lack of funds for clothing, food and school supplies, and often the lack of public transport to the big city.

There is also the indirect profiling of students from rural regions in agriculture and animal husbandry, and of urban students in STEM profiles (science, technology, engineering and mathematics focused education).

According to the authors, the basis of good motivation to study is personal choice, which means that both urban and rural students should have access to a variety of specializations and occupations.

Why is the ensuring of transport, food and books part of access to education?

In Bulgaria, transport connectivity between small towns and large cities/regional centres is extremely poor. Quite a few small municipalities are not well connected by infrastructure to the regional towns and many villages do not have public transport connections to and from the municipal centre. Thus, residents have to travel on foot or by available private/personal transport. This definitively blocks and hinders the regular school attendance of students from these areas. In many of the smaller municipalities, only secondary schools (SS) with specialized classes operate and those wishing to study in vocational/specialized high schools located in the district towns or in neighboring municipalities pay their own transport costs. The latter is a problem for poorer families, dooming students not to continue in secondary education.

The transport funds that students can benefit from go to the nearest vocational school after the Ministry of Education and Science has transferred the funds to the municipality. In turn, the high school must claim these funds to cover the children's expenses. The standard for covering transport costs under Article 283 of the Law on School and Pre-school Education covers only 50% of the pupils (those from vocational high schools, but not those from specialized high schools) who study at the secondary stage. Another problem is that local transport firms do not comply with the policies and standards of the state. Municipalities, for their part, do not actively negotiate to contract the service to an affordable provider. Monthly transportation passes range from 20 BGN to 150 BGN per student. In general, parents have to manage the transportation of students themselves if they have decided to send their children to school in a regional city or in a neighboring municipality. Currently, there is no accurate systematic and accessible data on how many students in Bulgaria have to travel to get to school - i.e. there is no way to measure the extent of this educational inequality. Another factor affecting access to education is the health status of children. At the time of the first school closures due to the Covid pandemic, according to various civil society organizations working in the field, a significant proportion of students in small towns were remaining hungry when they were not receiving their rightful school meals.

Poor nutrition leads to stunting growth, weight loss or overweight, low levels of knowledge, low school readiness and achievement, and insufficient earning potential later in life. Poor nutritional status among school children has significant adverse effects on their physical and mental development. There is a direct link between malnutrition and low educational achievement. Malnourished children learn more slowly, have difficulty mastering learning material and are among the first to leave the education system prematurely. Hidden hunger leads to iron deficiency, which directly affects children's ability to learn. A large proportion of children living in deprivation are exposed to acute chronic stress factors, which account for more than 50% of absenteeism and reduced attention, concentration, cognitive ability, creativity, motivation, determination, diligence, etc. All of these overall lead to cognitive delays. One of the latest projections shows that by 2025, 253,000 students in Bulgaria will be overweight due to poor and irregular nutrition. Again, there is no data on how many schoolchildren in Bulgaria do not eat nutritious basic daily meals or, due to poverty, consume uniform, mainly carbohydrate food (bread, rice, pasta) because of its low cost.

Another factor is textbooks, which give access to systematic information, develop reading and writing skills, but also encourage critical thinking, independence and creativity. For many students and their families, textbooks are the only gateway to the world of words because they have no other books in their homes. In addition, the poorest children do not have access to textbooks and other learning materials, which is why they often face the greatest learning difficulties. This is why access to textbooks is fundamental to their educational achievement. The link between educational failure and textbooks is direct. According to various studies, the lack of textbooks leads to lower school achievement, and vice versa, the availability of textbooks leads to higher school achievement. Again, there is a lack of data on how many students have/do not have access to textbooks after grade 7. Also, there is no data on how many students have school notebooks, which are key to systematic and continuous learning and development.

Why is secondary education a necessary condition for well-being?

On average, 17% of the Bulgarian population aged 25-64 have primary education or less, 54% have secondary education and 29% have tertiary education. Around 52% of high school students in the country are enrolled in vocational schools, compared to an EU average of 48% and 43% among OECD countries (2019). However, only students who chose to take a vocation-related exam at the end of their course receive a vocational diploma. Around one-third of vocational secondary graduates choose not to take this exam, which may indicate that vocational training is not their first choice of training, but rather the possible and available choice. The share of students continuing both primary and secondary education in Bulgaria has declined in recent years. The net enrolment rate in primary education has declined from near "full" net enrolment in 2010 (99%) to 85% in 2019. At the same time, the net enrolment rate in secondary education has declined from 92.5% net enrolment in 2015 to 85% in 2019. Currently, Bulgaria has one of the lowest continuation rates in secondary education. By comparison, the net enrolment rate in upper secondary school is 98% in Serbia and 97% in Hungary and Poland (2019). At the same time, Bulgaria has seen an increase in the share of enrolments in the second cycle of secondary education. Net enrolment rates have risen from 81% in 2010 to 90% by 2017. Since then, however, net enrolment in upper secondary has started to decline. With one of the suspected main reasons being the declining proportion of students completing earlier stages of education. The attainment of a high school diploma after grade 10 is also an objective prerequisite for the decline in those wishing to continue to upper secondary education.

The report puts a clear focus on access to secondary education, because secondary graduates are much more likely to do skilled (i.e. higher value-added) work later in life than primary graduates. Nearly 36% of Roma with secondary education are employed as skilled workers and over 9% own their own business. Nearly 85% of those with only primary education are employed as unskilled or low-skilled workers. Correspondingly, secondary education graduates have higher incomes. In addition, it is noted that secondary education provides not only a diploma in the process of acquiring a set of knowledge, but also a number of skills and competencies necessary for each person for his or her successful personal and professional realization, with which to support his or her own life, and also to form his or her active citizenship. According to various analysts, in many cases, especially in highly industrialized areas, the labor market needs a workforce with a secondary education.

From 2011 to the end of 2022, the Trust for Social Achievement, together with the financial support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, has provided over 4,000 scholarships through the Equal Chance - Access to High Education project for transport, textbooks, rent and other needs to over 1,500 high school students from Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma and other backgrounds, over 80% of whom live in villages or small towns. Over 95% of the students in the project successfully complete the school year. 95% is also the share of twelfth graders who have successfully completed their secondary education in the last 10 years, having passed the two compulsory state matriculation exams. 53% of those supported who have completed secondary education in the last 10 years have gone on to university. 34% work in Bulgaria with a permanent employment contract and 4% are permanently employed outside the country. Only 3% of the project students declared that they are unemployed and rely on social transfers.

External evaluations - the result of access to education or how free is education?

Whether instruction provided in school is enough is a question that usually comes up around matriculation exams in 4th, 7th, 10th and 12th grades. Without a doubt, free instruction in educational institutions is not enough for students to do reasonably well in external assessments. Every year, parents who have the opportunity pay around 100 million BGN for private tuition in Bulgaria just to prepare for the matriculation examinations after 7th and 12th grade. And those who are not able to attend private targeted lessons very often have low grades. Students with high grades after 7th grade go on to "elite" high schools, and those with low grades to less "elite" middle schools. Indeed, external assessment is an insurmountable barrier for some students who cannot afford private tuition. In school, no one prepares students for external assessments as purposefully as in private schools. It turns out that even free tuition is not enough, but rather an extra financial effort on the part of families is required to achieve the skills and knowledge that should be attained in regular free classes.

The legislator has provided for the guarantee of access to free education for all this in the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria (CRB) and the Pre-school and School Education Act, where it says that education is compulsory until the age of 16 - the first secondary school stage. Despite the categorical nature of the CRB, there is no definition of what exactly "free compulsory education" includes. There is also no interpretation by the Constitutional Court, which allows the relevant executive to interpret it as it sees fit - whether it will pursue a left, right or liberal policy on this basic human right.

In addition, many of the state's measures are aimed primarily at the educational process within institutions. There are no direct comprehensive individual measures to encourage continuation to the next educational stage. Hopes are often pinned on the national programmes of the Ministry of Education and Science being able to respond to every educational need (even in a broad socio-economic sense) by directly supporting schools, whose main role is to organise the educational process in the most appropriate way.

The targeted and necessary support to families in overcoming inequalities is not additional entitlements but equitable policy. Because these educational gaps apply to over 30% of Bulgaria's children who live at risk of poverty. They determine their educational achievement and their fulfilment in life. As Ivan Krastev concluded during the presentation of the report - "You cannot live in poverty and hunger and have education as a priority. You can't - because the priority is what and whether you put something on the table for your children."

Often, to illustrate the unequal access to education, various caricatures come to the rescue. One such cartoon reads "For fair selection, everyone must take the same exam: please, each of you climb this tree!" with different animals opposite the teacher to illustrate the different skills and knowledge of each student - an elephant, a monkey, a fish, a seal, a bird, a penguin and a dog. Often, however, this otherwise unfair task doesn't even reach all the children as instruction - simply because they are not in the classroom.