oDR: Analysis

School report: what Georgia’s missing in its education reforms

More than ten years of education reforms in Georgia have seen many improvements, but large numbers of children are still being left behind

Mikheil Svanidze
15 July 2021, 12.00am
(c) Paul Bucknall / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On leaving office in 2013, Georgia’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili,remarked that if he’d spent as much of the state budget on the country’s education system as he had on the armed forces, Georgia would be in a much stronger position today.

Eight years later, in 2021, Georgia’s education spending is double the defence budget, and indeed, the education system is in a markedly better state. Rebuilt schools, retrained and better paid teachers, and improved IT facilities have all made a difference for the majority of Georgian students. But despite these successes, education reforms are still failing large numbers of children.

My colleagues and I at the Georgian Educational Advocacy Project (funded by the US Embassy in Georgia) have combed through reams of quantitative and qualitative data and spoken to dozens of teachers and parents. In particular, we reviewed and aggregated data collected by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US foreign aid agency, from studies that looked into each of Georgia’s 2,000 public schools.

The data showed positive changes over the last 15 years, including 230 schools built from scratch or fully renovated, the doubling of teachers’ salaries between 2008 and 2016, and the fact that since 2011, all students receive brand new laptops on their first day of school.

But it also highlighted the uneven nature of Georgia’s educational reforms. We discovered that thousands of Georgian students still study in crumbling, inadequately heated schools; teaching for ethnic minority students lags far behind their Georgian counterparts; and almost 2% of children don’t attend school at all.

Infrastructure and overcrowding

The infrastructure programme, in particular, has done much to improve conditions from the worst days of the 1990s, when children – even in elite Tbilisi schools –wore their winter coats as they sat in classrooms with broken windows and sputtering kerosene stoves.

Now, almost every school in urban areas has central heating. But still, some 15 years into the reform effort, many rural schools are still in a terrible condition. Around half of all Georgian schools remain stuck in the bad old days of the 1990s, using wooden stoves for heating, which can produce harmful fumes that are dangerous for young children.

“You cannot imagine the conditions. Constant dust, students and teachers are in tears from the smoke. The wood stove is in a hazardous condition,” a teacher from Kvemo Kartli, southeastern Georgia, told us. Currently one in five kids, overwhelmingly in rural Georgia, study at schools that are still using firewood. Ten schools, all in rural villages, have no heating at all.

Millennium Challenge reports reveal that approximately 50% of the country’s schools use wood for heating, and these schools educate about 83,000 children, or 19% of all students in Georgia. This highlights another inequality in the Georgian education system: urban schools are overwhelmed with demand, while many rural schools are close to empty.

Even if plans for repurposing rural schools are a success – currently the experiment has reached just a handful of schools – overcrowding in the capital looks set to continue

Migration to urban centres is a profound demographic trend in Georgia which, along with emigration, has reshaped the country since independence. The Georgian school system, whose buildings mostly date from Soviet times when demographic patterns were very different, has not been able to respond adequately to these changing population flows. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia and main destination for in-country migration, is home to just 8% of all schools in Georgia, but must educate 34% of all students. Here, average school size is about five times that of the rest of Georgia.

This means that Tbilisi’s schools are chronically overcrowded: according to MCC data, student numbers in over half the capital’s schools exceed their maximum capacity, with eight schools over double their maximum capacity. To cope with this overcrowding, many schools use the so-called ‘two shift system’, with half the students coming in the morning and half starting their school day in the afternoon and ending early in the evening. While this strategy helps to alleviate cramped conditions, it often conflicts with families’ daily routines and hinders children’s time for extracurricular activities – it is also clearly not a sustainable solution to the problem of increased demand for school places in the capital.

Making matters even worse is the fact that the school renovation programme has barely touched Tbilisi, where the physical state of schools was originally better than in rural areas: only ten Tbilisi schools have been fully renovated, meaning the city’s students are being packed into increasingly antiquated buildings in ever larger numbers. From 2010 until 2019, just one new school has been built in Tbilisi, in spite of ever-growing demand.

Rural schools, which represent 80% of all schools but less than a third of all students, have the opposite problem. As of 2019, 249 schools had ten or fewer students, and 17 schools had only one pupil. This presents an almost insoluble problem for the educational authorities: keeping these tiny schools – which often have bad conditions –open is a huge burden on resources, but closing them could further devastate already impoverished communities and see the children that do use the schools disadvantaged further.

School consolidation, which would see under-used village schools close and pupils move to larger schools in district centres, has been discussed by experts. But it has major downsides as it would lead to teachers losing their jobs and could precipitate the further emptying of Georgia’s remote villages where schools are often the only source of formal employment. This is why keeping under-used rural schools open has often been a priority for local politicians and MPs, according to former education minister Ghia Nodia.

pjimage (17).jpg
The renovation of Gautskinari Public School, western Georgia | Source: Gautskinari Public Schoo

Indeed, the government has no plans to close or consolidate rural schools. According to Lali Kalandadze, head of reschool and general education development at the Ministry of Education, “School is often the only place for social life in many rural areas.” Hence, rather than close schools with tiny student populations, the ministry is instead planning to cluster other services in the same buildings.

“We are looking at ways of enriching schools functionally, rather than ‘optimising’ [closing]. Many schools in villages have added options for preschool, kindergarten, youth clubs and professional courses in the same building. Schools can become a service provider, not just for school-age children but kindergarteners and adults,” Kalandadze said.

The demographic forces that have changed Georgia since independence are clearly beyond the purview of the ministry, but even if plans for repurposing rural schools are a success – currently the experiment has reached just a handful of schools – overcrowding in the capital looks set to continue.

Attainment gaps

Another area where Georgia’s reforms have stalled has been in minority education. About 14% of Georgian pupils come from ethnic minority backgrounds – they are mostly Armenians and Azerbaijanis who live in the south of the country. These are places where the Georgian language is not used and which can seem almost completely cut off from mainstream Georgian society.

Despite multiple efforts since 2005, when the first textbooks to teach Georgian as a second language were created, minority students in Georgia suffer from huge educational inequalities. In 2016, 56% of Azerbaijani-language school and 44% of Armenian-language school students failed their final exams, compared to just a quarter of Georgian-language school students. A quarter of ethnic minority applicants failed their university entrance exams in 2018 compared to 13% of Georgian speakers.

Language is the main problem. Children from minority settlements often have few opportunities to practise Georgian outside the classroom, and the lack of Georgian-language knowledge among minority teachers prevents them advancing in the profession, which means there are many vacancies for teachers in minority schools.

Tamta Mikeladze of the Social Justice Center, an NGO, sees the government’s programmes in this area as “weak”.

“Almost all cycles of education reform have essentially omitted the educational needs and challenges of ethnic minorities at all times,” Mikeladze said. “The state didn’t seem to see the needs of Azerbaijani- and Armenian-speaking students and schools in the planning of these reforms, so the challenges of education policy towards ethnic minorities remain almost the same.”

She hopes for positive new developments as a result of the Ministry of Education’s current policies, but emphasises the need for them to reflect the communities they serve.

“We know that the ministry is currently strengthening bilingual education and further expanding the idea of ​​a ‘new school’ model among minority schools. Yet, I think that if this effort is not systemic in nature and is not based on research that reflects the goals and interests of the local community itself (teachers, activists, students and parents), it will not be successful,” she said.

Large pockets of underdevelopment still see many Georgian students left behind, and 15 years of reforms have failed to affect outcomes for them

Some subjects, such as Georgian history and literature, have to be taught in Georgian, while other subjects, like Armenian or Azerbaijani, are taught using imported textbooks that often don’t comply with Georgian standards. All this creates confusion, pushes standards down and makes it harder for minority schoolchildren to continue their studies in universities within Georgia. Many try to continue their education in Armenia or Azerbaijan, but because they have not been taught the national curriculum of those countries, they again find themselves at a disadvantage.

All of this often disincentivises students to continue their studies. School absenteeism is prevalent among older children – many young Azerbaijani women marry early and leave school, while boys skip class to help their families with agricultural tasks. Young Armenian men often leave the country for Russia to find work.

“The tendency is that when the children reach a certain age, mostly after the ninth grade, they pay less attention to education. Early marriage is an accepted custom, and they also go away for work,” said a teacher from Telavi municipality.

The provision of a quality education to Georgia’s minorities has long been seen as the best way of ensuring the civic integration of these communities. With a good Georgian education, children can go on to to work and study in Georgia, rather than neighbouring countries, and improved educational attainment is seen as a shortcut to improved women’s rights and broadened economic opportunities.

Outside the system

The most disadvantaged children in Georgia are those who don’t attend school at all. According to recently published government data, over 10,000 children in Georgia, or 1.7% of all school-age kids, are completely outside the education system.

Lela Gaprindashvili, an inclusion specialist from the Ministry of Education, says that these ‘out of school’ children come from the most vulnerable groups: children with special needs; from socially vulnerable families, including those displaced by conflict; and ethnic minority children.

“These are children who have never been in educational institutions. These are kids deprived of the most fundamental rights of both education and socialisation that going to school brings; therefore we see them as victims of negligence and violence.”

To counter this, Gaprindashvili runs a programme called Second Chance Education for Social Inclusion that identifies children who don’t attend school, as well as their guardians, to offer condensed curricula and opportunities in order to slowly bring them into the system. However, as Gaprindashvili notes, many of the issues that keep these children out of school can’t be solved by the Ministry of Education.

“These kids have many social problems – an unsafe or nonexistent housing environment, violence within families. This is not a weight that the education system can lift on its own. We don’t have the capacity to solve the underlying problems,” she said.

No child left behind

There is an emerging consensus that after large and sustained investment in Georgia’s education system, its schools saw a qualitative growth in physical resources and improvement in infrastructure, with better conditions for students and better results. Georgian schools are no longer the crumbling Soviet dystopia they were two decades ago. Although attainment gaps in minority education are still large, efforts have been made in that direction.

Nevertheless, large pockets of underdevelopment still see many Georgian students left behind, and 15 years of reforms have failed to affect outcomes for them.

The most pressing issues seem to be improving rural infrastructure and urban overcrowding and making better provision for minority children. But even if improvements are made, there is only so much the school authorities can do: demographic, socio-cultural and economic forces are beyond the power of the Ministry of Education to change. For 15 years of education reform to be complete, Georgia needs to take a whole-of-society approach that includes children who have been left behind.

Disclaimer: This article is written as part of the Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, which is financed by the US Embassy in Georgia. The opinions expressed here are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Government.

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