Education, Education, Education Part 2
So what’s it like for a non-Latvian speaker working in a Latvian state school, I hear you ask. Challenging to say the least. First and foremost, most of my colleagues don’t speak English so staff meeting are very interesting. Secondly all information is, as you might expect, in the Latvian language, so simple things, like finding out when I return to school in the New Year presents all kind of problems.
All the computer systems including the school management system, Windows and Office are all in Latvian. Simple jobs, that in the UK I could logically work out how to do, now take what seems a lifetime to complete. At times, I feel so useless and very isolated. Were it not for the positive feedback I get about my lessons I might be reconsidering my position. The vast majority of students are great and really seem to appreciate the opportunity of having a native English speaker as their teacher.
Before I start to describe the differences between the UK and Latvian education systems I would just like to say a few words about my students. What an amazingly talented group of young people they are, I feel privileged to teach them. I have attended two school concerts this semester and I am just amazed at the high standard of musical competence among the student population. I taught in three schools in the UK, all much bigger than the 250 (approx.) students at our school. I don’t think it would have been possible for any of the schools to match the quality the students here deliver. I suspect this high standard is repeated throughout Latvia, and is largely due to cultural differences and the Latvian passion for music, song and dance. Long may it live.
So, to the differences between the two education systems I’ve observed. Bear in mind that there is not much difference in the relative achievements of students in the UK and Latvia. I believe that according to the OECD the UK is in the top 30 countries for educational achievement and Latvia in the top 40. What should be worrying for both countries is that Estonia and Finland, with populations of 1.3m and 5.4m respectively are in the top 5 countries.
The system in Latvia, like the UK is non-selective, comprehensive and co-educational. However unlike the UK where children start school in the year in which they attain the age of 5 (far too young in my opinion), in Latvia children don’t start school until the age of 7 and complete what is termed a ‘basic education’ at the age of 16. This basic education may be extended until the age of 18, presumably if students fail to reach the required standard. Unlike the UK where GCSE certificates are issued for each subject on an A* – G basis, in Latvia students receive a Certificate of basic education (apliecība) with a transcript reflecting the grade (1 – 10) achieved for each subject. After completing their basic education there are 3 options available to students, get a job, vocational education (arodskola) or General secondary education (vidusskola – the more academic route). I have no experience of arodskola so I can make no further comments. General secondary education lasts 3 years through klases 10,11 and 12 where students follow a course similar to the IB. Students leave vidusskola at the age of 19, and then, to University.
Which is the better system? Difficult to evaluate so I’ll sit on the fence. But I do like the idea of not starting school until the age of 7. Seems to be a common idea in many Baltic, Scandinavian and East European countries.
The curriculum in Latvia is very broad and I mean very broad. Students during the 9 year basic education period can study as many as 20 subjects; no options to narrow the curriculum to 9 or 10 subjects as in the UK. When students move onto secondary education it doesn’t get much better with 15/16 subjects being studied compared with 3 or 4 in the UK. Remember that all subjects are graded. This puts a huge work load on the students and to survive they have to wisely manage their time. This is normally done by cleverly choosing which pieces of work to complete. The school management system, e-klase, is used to record grades achieved for tests and assessed homework or classwork and there must be a minimum of three grades recorded per semester. Many students will only complete work if they know that a piece of work is going to be graded and entered on e-klase. The reporting to parents is a grade for each subject which is calculated by averaging the grades on e-klase. Therefore reinforcing the need to obtain high grades for only e-klase assessed work.
I believe that the UK curriculum is too narrow but the Latvian far too broad and limits the ability of students to achieve excellence in comparison to other countries. Implementing changes to narrow the curriculum could be difficult, as it would likely result in some subjects not being chosen by students and raise the possibility of some redundancies. The other possibility would be to merge schools and create bigger schools, thus increasing the possibility of offering a wide range of subjects. Whether there is the political will to make radical changes I don’t know. What I do know is that if no changes are made then the outcomes for students will not change. I suspect there are some conspiracy theorists who probably believe that the government deliberately does nothing so that young people don’t have time to become politically active and demand changes to how the government runs the country. I tend to think that it is just a lack of political will or competency to make tough decisions.
The Typical School Day and Year
I can’t speak about all schools but where I teach lessons start at 8.20 am and all lessons last for 40 minutes, with a 10-minute gap between lessons. Lunch is from 1.15 until 1.45. There are no other breaks. The number of lessons per day depends on students age; 20 at grade one (age 7), 29 at grade five (11), 34 at grade nine (15) and 36 at grade twelve (18). Comparing the 36 lessons per week (24 hrs) at grade 12 to the 15 hrs per week for a typical ‘A’ Level student in the UK and you can see why students constantly complain about work load. For my Latvian readers, UK students typically start school at 8.45 with form time and lessons will start at 9.10. The length of lessons is decided by the school but usually there would be 5 or 6 lessons per day, each lesson 60 or 50 minutes duration. There are no official breaks between lessons but for a 6 lesson day there would be a 20 minute break between lessons 2 and 3 and then a 45 minute lunch break between lessons 4 and 5. I think I prefer the design of the UK school day as it allows more time for collaboration with colleagues, something I feel appears to be missing in the Latvian system.
There are form teachers but there is no morning or afternoon registration and no form time before lessons start. In Latvia there appears to be no concept of ‘in loco parentis’ – in place of a parent and students appear free to come and go as they please if they have no lessons.
The regular school year (excluding examination periods at grades nine and twelve) lasts 36 weeks, from the beginning of September through to the end of May; 1 week holiday in October, 2 weeks at Christmas and 1 week at Easter. Compare that to the UK where the school year starts at the same time but continues to the middle of July with 1 wk holiday in October, Feb and May and 2 weeks at Christmas and Easter. I do like the idea of having 3 months off in the summer but I’m not sure if I’m going to enjoy the next semester with only having 1 week break in 5 months. I’m also not sure if it is the students’ educational best interests to have 3 months off in the summer.
I think this post is getting too long. I’m going to stop now and save the rest for part 3.
I look forward to hearing others’ views of the Latvian educational system.