With a view to preparing for the conference at PAZU (2009), the Human Rights Ombudsman of the RS focused on (un)equal opportunities for education in the Republic of Slovenia. Since the case has not yet been concluded, I will list a few starting points for the consideration of issues related to the protection of children’s rights in the area of education.
We first addressed this issue after an article by the journalist, Ranka Ivelja, was published in the Dnevnik newspaper on Thursday, 23 July 2009, entitled “Analysis of the academic results of Slovenian pupils has shown that the level of knowledge of Pomurje pupils is considerably lower that that of Nova Gorica pupils”. The subtitle “Social distinction in knowledge, too” was the cure for the Ombudsman to start an inquiry on her own initiative, which was further endorsed in October 2009 by a personal initiative by Bernarda B. Peček, a journalist from the Vestnik newspaper.
Our investigation focused on a number of issues relating to the human rights of school-age youth and, although they may seem simple at first, these issues require thorough consideration.
First, as regards the achievements of pupils: achievements show their knowledge (providing at the same time additional information for teachers) as well as the success of the school as a whole (feed back information on the work of school). This correlation is substantiated in the Qualitative School Characteristics Study in terms of the progress made in research into knowledge of mathematics and natural sciences and reading literacy. The study was conducted by the Educational Research Institute in 2008, under the leadership of Dr Mojca Štraus. In its first part, the study reveals the following:
Although the report on the aforementioned study is available on the website www.pei.si/Sifranti/ResearchProject.aspx , the study itself, revealing differences between the regions in Slovenia (determined through postal areas), is not so easily accessible. We took the above into account for further consideration, i.e., the knowledge that pupils show during school examinations reflects the quality of school lessons, as well as pupils’ personal motivation, homework, capabilities, immediate environment, atmosphere and culture at school, etc.
Achievements can be more easily interpreted if all the above, as well as additional factors that have influenced the knowledge pupils have shown, are considered. If a school participates in the examination of pupil's performance merely for selection purposes (admission to a suitable secondary school), the analysis of the quality of work of an individual school is less appropriate, since schools (pupils and parents) are pushed into a competitive race. Such an approach does not provide equal opportunities for all pupils but encourages them to hide their weak points, i.e., their ignorance, as far as possible. It is evident that schools in the Republic of Slovenia do not operate in equal circumstances and under the same conditions, which would enable their comparison and competition to be on an equal footing. Poorer results do not necessarily reflect poor quality of work and, vice versa, better results do not indicate that the education is of better quality. A comparison of achieved results between schools does not directly lead to a conclusion about the quality of education they provide; their real value can only be based on a quality analysis which, in addition to results, also takes into account other important factors. Inadequate education can also be the result of the teacher’s actions and attitudes – inadequate lesson preparation, coming late to classes, not mastering the pedagogical process well, too-frequent absences and, consequently, falling behind the prescribed curriculum. Furthermore, inadequate education may be the consequence of actions by other school staff (counsellors, principal), who do not recognize difficulties that their pupils are facing. On the assumption that schools in a certain area fail satisfactorily to perform their educational obligation, damage can be caused to the pupils. A school is responsible for education. Failing to convey fundamental knowledge to pupils. or failing to convey it adequately, will reduce possibilities of pupils acquiring the desired profession and, as a result, possibilities of earnings.
In Slovenia, there is no case law on this issue; abroad, however, this right has already been enforced through the courts in Great Britain. A school was sued by a former pupil suffering from dyslexia. She accused the school psychologist of negligence; during an examination of the pupil the psychologist identified psychological problems rather than recognising dyslexia. She failed to provide appropriate assistance. If the school had provided the former pupil with appropriate assistance for dyslexic children, she would have achieved better results, better speaking and writing skills, which would have improved her chances of pursuing further education and a profession.
The court of first instance established that the psychologist neglected her duty of diligence and professional competence. The school was judged responsible and the court awarded the former pupil compensation in the sum of Ł 45,000. The sum included compensation for the damage in the past and for future additional pedagogical treatment, compensation for the psychological suffering of the pupil and for not achieving the desired profession, and compensation for the loss of earnings since, due to the wrong diagnosis of the psychologist, she had to pursue a less well paid profession. In 2001, this judgment was also confirmed by the higher court. In practice, lawsuits against schools are rare. This is mainly due to the extremely difficult substantiation of individual premises for damage liability.
The difficulty lies in proving a causal connection between the behaviour and damage, as well as in establishing a violation of the obligation of due diligence when providing education. One of the suits is interesting because of the reasoning. The court established that, on admission of a pupil, the school accepts responsibility for the pupil’s best psychological interests and for his/her specific educational needs. Where a school establishes that the achievements of its pupils are significantly poorer than those of pupils in other schools, it is obliged to take immediate corrective measures, since it is responsible for deficiencies in education (summarised from a book written by Barbara Novak, Šola in otrokove pravice (School and a Childs’ Rights). Cankarjeva založba. Pravna obzorja 26, Ljubljana, 2004).
In our case, because the issue concerns several schools, or even all schools in a particular region; the state should thoroughly analyze the reasons and aspects that might influence the performance of pupils: from material aspects (modern learning tools, teaching equipment and teaching aids), availability of staff in all schools in the region (type and level of education of teachers, age structure and the structure of employees by sex), the amount of funds earmarked by a school for the education of professional staff, type of staff training, to reasons on the part of pupils (their inclusion in kindergarten before being admitted to school, their social environment, encouragement from home).
Such an analysis should serve as a basis for efficient and quick measures in all areas where deficiencies are established. The measures should, for at least some years, be based on positive discrimination; schools in critical regions should be provided with a greater amount of suitable professional and material support. Assuming that this issue constitutes a violation of children’s rights to education, the question arises to what extent the state is responsible for this. This will be further investigated. By establishing schools, prescribing the same curriculum for all elementary schools and adopting rules to enable all schools to have equal conditions (in terms of staff and finance) for work, the state has fulfilled the basic conditions for equality. However, an answer is needed as to whether the state has mechanisms in place for identifying (and redressing) inequalities among schools.
The curriculum is indeed prescribed and its implementation can be compared among schools. In what way are teaching approaches and school climates monitored? If the conclusion of the research by the Educational Research Institute described above, that the school climate significantly contributes to a better performance of pupils holds true, then it is imperative to monitor it and take measures where appropriate; not least because it has been proved that better education contributes to a healthier life style and longer life span. Again, we are here referring to a matter of human rights. For some food for thought about the influence of school on pupils, I recommend you to read the book entitled “Kurja šola, mačja šola” (School for Chickens, School for Cats), by Darja Boben-Bardutzky, published by Buča, d.o.o. 2008 . It may occur to you that the similarity between the above research and the book is not mere coincidence. This text was prepared with the assistance of Brigita Urh, B.Sc., a remedial teacher–speech therapist, the Ombudsman’s Adviser, to whom I extend sincere thanks.
Dr Zdenka Čebašek-Travnik, MD
Human Rights Ombudsman