A Beginner's Guide to Latvian School Reform

A Soviet school circa 1970
Photo credit: Copper Kettle, via Wikimedia Commons
Anyone following Latvian news in the last few months has probably seen plenty of headlines regarding “school reform.” Like almost everywhere else in the world, Latvia’s education system has been struggling to adapt to rapid, major technological and social developments that have led to yesterday’s methods becoming increasingly inadequate to prepare the next generation for problems that we can hardly even imagine. Nearly everyone agrees that something has to change — the questions are always “what” and “how?”

What exactly is being “reformed” in Latvian education at the moment? Quite a few things, actually — many of them completely unrelated to one another, and some quite a bit more controversial than others. This guide is intended to help beginners to the world of Latvian education understand the current situation, and the many significant changes that have been proposed and could be implemented in the next few years.

Latvia’s school system:

Photo credit: Supafly, via Flickr

Before we get into what might change, let’s take a quick look at the current overall situation. Like most of the world, Latvia has a few different levels of education:

  1. Pirmsskola (ages 1-7) This translates directly to “before school,” and corresponds with pre-school in America and nursery school in the UK. In common language, people usually call this “bērnudārzs,” which is a direct translation of “kindergarten” from German. This is obligatory for students who are five or six years old at the beginning of a school year.
  2. Pamatskola (ages 7-16) This translates directly to “primary school,” and includes grades (or forms) 1 to 9. At the end of grade 9, students are required to take final exams. This is the last level of school which is “obligatory.”
  3. Vidusskola (ages 16-19) This translates directly into “middle school,” which creates a lot of confusion among Latvian English speakers. In the UK and America, this corresponds with “secondary school” or “high school.” Students at this level may opt for either general education which must include at least 12 different subjects or for specialized education in some specific trade (such as food preparation or construction) or skill (such as a sport or musical instrument). Regardless, all students in this level must take centralized exams at the end of 12th grade in at least Latvian, mathematics, and a foreign language (usually English).
  4. Augstsskola (for graduates from vidusskola) This translates directly into “high school,” which again creates quite a bit of confusion between Latvians and people from abroad. A less confusing English term which corresponds with this level is “higher education,” and includes both traditional bachelors, masters, and doctorate (Ph.D) degrees as well as various types of professional degrees. Most Latvian schools at this level have “univerisitāte” or “augstsskola” in their name, but there are also some prestigious “akademijas” which teach arts and sciences as well as certain schools with other types of names. The state funds certain amounts of “budget places” with either free or heavily reduced tuition for students with high exam results or winners of academic olympiads, but certain parties have been calling for a transition to a completely free higher education model. 

Aside from these four major categories of education, here are a few other terms for schools that you might have seen around the country:
  • Amatskola - This translates directly into "career school." These are similar to trade or vocational schools in the US or the UK, and offer high school students the chance to study a specific profession. Students at amatskolas still must pass their 12th grade exams.
  • Ģimnāzija - Although English speakers might immediately assume these to be some sort of sport schools, this word comes from German. A better equivalent would be prestigious “grammar schools” found in the UK or “magnet schools” found in the US, as these schools sometimes include some sort of more vigorous criteria for admission involving prior results. “Valsts” ģimnāzijas are funded directly by the state and have special responsibilities and duties that come with the higher levels of funding, while “normal” ģimnāzijas are funded by their respective municipalities. The government currently plans to phase out the municipal ģimnāzijas (and be renamed "vidusskolas") in the coming years as part of “school network optimization,” so it is likely that many of these schools will apply for “Valsts ģimnāzija” status as Jelgavas Spīdolas ģimnāzija (where I work) successfully did this summer.
  • Internatskola - No, these are not online-only schools as English speakers might immediately assume, but rather the Latvian equivalent of “boarding schools” where students both live and study.
  • Koledža - These are similar to American "colleges" in both name and form, providing higher education programs to students who have finished their secondary education.
  • Jūrskola - This translates directly to "sea school," and are the equivalent of maritime academies in the English speaking world where students prepare for boat and ship-related careers.
  • Mazākumtautību skolas - These "minority ethnicity" schools are allowed to teach a certain amount of subjects in a "minority" language (usually Russian), which gradually decreases to just 40% of study subjects by the 10th-12th grade levels. The schools have lost some degree of popularity as Latvia's ethnic minorities have increasingly opted to send their children to Latvian language schools in order to better prepare their children for the Latvian language-dominated workforce, and have long been in the crosshairs of various nationalist organizations and political parties. You will read a lot more about these schools a bit further on.
  • Sakumskola - These are a type of pamatskola where students usually study up until sixth grade and then continue at a different school.
  • Tehnikums - These are similar to amatskolas, but usually also provide professional programs to students who have already finished traditional education programs.
  • Valdorfskola - Latvia has two schools (in Rīga and Ādaži) which practice “Waldorf education,” a holistic education philosophy pioneered by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century. While most “Waldorf schools” throughout the world are privately funded, Rīgas Valdorfskola is state funded and acts somewhat like an American charter schools where teachers and administration have a higher degree of freedom in setting curriculum but students must still take centralized exams. 
This hasn't begun to cover all of the complicated ins and outs of Latvian public education, but hopefully you have enough of an idea of how things work to understand some of the big changes that are likely coming down the road:

Major proposed changes:

Picture: Nick Youngson, via Alpha Stock Images

1. Competence-based education

Talk to almost any public school teacher in Latvia, and they’ll tell you that “competences” are all that they’ve been hearing about in the last few years. The basic idea is that in order to prepare students for a future that we cannot begin to imagine, it’s more important that they learn individual skills at school rather than traditional “subjects” or content that may be outdated by the time they turn 18. According to the new planned curriculum, study content should be organized according to various “big ideas” in seven fields: languages, social and civics, art and culture, natural sciences, mathematics and engineering, technologies, and health and physical activities. Ideally, teachers will cooperate to create interdisciplinary lessons that integrate those fields together, and technology will become a more significant part of the process all the way from the beginning of students' education journey. The idea is that these new standards will be implemented at the “pirmsskola” level all the way through 12th grade, which is why the implementation project is called “Skola 2030.”

The biggest issue with the new standards is that why most teachers would probably agree that the system needs to change with the time, many teachers still feel confused as to what they exactly need to do under the new model and believe that there hasn’t been enough meaningful support in preparing them for their critical role in its implementation. While plenty of seminars and conferences on the subject have been available for teachers, many have focused on abstract concepts and goals, and there remains confusion among many teachers in terms of what they concretely must do to bring the standards to the classroom. Furthermore, many schools (especially in the countryside) lack the equipment required for the “technology” standards, although the government (with European Union support) has recently set up a fund to help improve the situation.

Photo credit: Wesley Fryer

Although there has been some degree of organized opposition among parents and teachers, and while some more conservative members of Saeima (Latvian parliament) voiced serious skepticism about the new standards, they were adopted in principal at the beginning of June and are set to officially go into effect next September, one year later than originally intended. Although the new competence-based standards are meant to be one of the largest paradigm shifts ever attempted in Latvian education, they might actually be the least controversial out of all the issues outlined in this guide.

2. Lowering the Grade 1 starting age to 6

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Coupled together with the new competence-based model was a now abandoned plan to lower the starting age of Grade 1 to six years old instead of the current seven. While this seems like quite a simple change considering that the starting age is six in many places throughout the world, this has actually been one of the most controversial aspects of the “Skola 2030” project and was struck completely from the project in an amendment by Saeima in response to a petition that gathered nearly 10,000 signatures. Even before Saeima had nixed the proposed changes, the ministry had already agreed to allow municipalities to choose whether six-year-olds study in kindergarten or first grade for an indefinite amount of time. Although opponents of six year old first grade have won for now, the issue will likely be revisited sometime in the future.

3. Elimination of minority language schools

Photo credit: Pandukht, via Wikimedia Commons

The issue of Russian as a language of instruction in Latvia’s schools is quite possibly the most emotional and divisive issue in Latvian politics, let alone education reform. This draws the same kind of heated controversy that abortion rights do in the United States or Brexit does in the UK, with people taking strong, intractable positions on one side or the other with little room for middle ground.

When Latvia suddenly regained its independence in 1990 due to the Soviet Union’s rapid collapse, more than a third of the population were native Russian speakers who had immigrated from various parts of the USSR, many of whom hadn’t learned any Latvian language at all. Although the newly restored republic immediately established Latvian as the only official state language and attempts to add Russian as a second state language have been strongly rejected outside of cities and regions heavily populated by Russian speakers, it would have been virtually impossible to have a Latvian-only education system. Now that nearly three decades have passed since Latvia was liberated, many ethnic Latvians have grown fed up with what they have seen as insufficient efforts at integration.

The current government, along with many parties currently running for Saeima, support a plan to significantly decrease the amount of studies allowed in ethnic minority languages (mostly Russian) at the pamatskola level, and allow only certain cultural study subjects to be taught in non-Latvian languages at the vidusskola level. Although all teachers in publicly funded schools (including myself) already must have at least C1 level Latvian language certificates, the reality is that there are significant concerns as to whether thousands of teachers will suddenly be able to start teaching their subjects in Latvian without affecting the quality of instruction.

Photo credit: Dimitro Sevestapol

The Russian government, Russian media, and the pro-Kremlin Latvijas Krievu savienība (Latvian-Russian Union) party have capitalized on this issue as a clear example of discrimination against Russian minorities, with Russia’s parliament going so far as to threaten sanctions against Latvia if the reforms are implemented. One of the main arguments used is that Latvian language education was allowed during Soviet times, so it’s only fair that Russian speakers are afforded the same rights today. The obvious comeback used against that point is that Latvia did not choose to be illegally occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, but that gets into the even thornier issue of history — the Russian government and certain Russian speakers in Latvia reject the idea that Latvia’s occupation was illegal, something that infuriates ethnic Latvians who had family members among the nearly 60,000 deported to Siberia in the dead of night in 1941 and 1949. Given that Russia used this concept of “protecting Russian minorities” as pretext to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine four years ago, this issue has nearly as many national security implications as it does educational ones.

4. Teacher salary reform

Amid the depths of the 2008 economic crisis, Latvia’s teachers were given no choice but to endure deep pay cuts that lowered salaries to among the lowest levels in Europe. A decade later, salaries have yet to significantly increase from those lows despite economic growth touted by the government coupled by pay raises in the private sector. Governments have been promising meaningful increases for years, but these words haven’t been enough to encourage enough of the new generation to choose the profession as the amount of graduates from pedagogical training programs has reached record lows and hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in Rīga and throughout the country.

In order to improve the situation, the Latvian teacher’s union (LIDZA) sat down with the government last year and agreed to the following timetable of gradual raises to the minimum salary for full-time teachers:

  • September 1, 2018: €710
  • September 1, 2019: €750
  • September 1, 2020: €790
  • September 1, 2021: €830
  • September 1, 2022: €900

Well, as we reported a few weeks ago, teachers received the kind of news in mid-August that they have been far too used to hearing time and again — the government simply “couldn’t find” the necessary funding to fulfill the promise. The union immediately began organizing a strike set to occur on September 18th, just weeks before the parliamentary election (though teachers’ “strikes” in Latvia are generally a far cry from those elsewhere in the world, often lasting just a day). After a series of rapid interviews on various programs by Minister of Education Kārlis Šadurskis and Prime Minister Maris Kučinskis… voila! Mr. Kučinskis announced a few days ago that they found the missing required €10 million after all. Now headlines have been filled with the good news that teachers’ salaries will be raised by €30 in just a few days, though in reality a more honest headline would be “cancelled promised salary raises no longer cancelled.” A more conspiratorial mind might suggest that this whole circus was just an attempt by the government to look good by suddenly “raising salaries” just weeks before the election, but we try not to deal in conspiracies here at Latvia Weekly.

With so much hullabaloo about the first, smallest salary increase on the timetable, serious doubts have been raised about the government’s ability to raise the monthly wages by nearly €200 in just four years. Mr. Šadurskis and Mr. Kučinskis have remained confident that the raises will in fact happen, but only if the next, controversial reform is carried out thoroughly and effectively…

5. “School network optimization” (aka closing small schools)

Photo credit: Lidingo11, via Wikipedia

Aside from the issue of Russian as a language of instruction, this is quite likely the most painful issue regarding school reform here. Latvia is a small nation that has slowly been growing smaller — the population has steadily dropped from its all-time high of 2.67 million in 1989 to a current estimate of 1.9 million. That’s a jaw dropping 29% drop in population in just three decades, the kind of loss usually associated with traumatic historic crises such as plagues or world wars. The culprits here have been much more silent and invisible — namely, mass emigration to countries with better economic situations (accelerated both by Latvia’s ascension to the “borderless” EU in 2004 and the economic crisis of 2008) on top of a generally aging population coupled with low birth rate experienced nearly everywhere else in Europe. Since 1993, there hasn’t been a single year with less than 6000 more deaths than births, and the amount of births each year has been less than the year before since 1989.

Picture credit: Oleg Yanukov, via Wikimedia Commons

Solving this issue has been identified as a top priority by virtually every political party currently running for Saeima, as there are major economic implications to this problem and fears about the Latvian culture’s long-term viability and security. In terms of education though, the problem is much more obvious and immediate — schools, quite simply need students to fill classrooms. While cities like Rīga, Daugavpils, and Liepāja have suffered significant population losses of their own, the hardest hit areas have unsurprisingly been Latvia’s rural countryside regions. Here it has not been uncommon to find class sizes in the single digits, with families opting to move to larger cities in Latvia or abroad in search of better job opportunities and the amenities that come with city life. As you can imagine, maintaining hundreds of schools with such few students has taken a massive financial toll on Latvia’s education budget.

On paper, the answer seems quite simple; close or combine small schools so that there will be more students and more financial resources in fewer schools. This is the solution that the government has opted for in recent years, and while it might seem like “problem solved” to some, there are a few major issues with this option.

Photo credit: Ernests Dinka, via Wikimedia Commons

First and foremost, Latvia’s culture emanates from the countryside. It’s easy for the opposite to seem true for people who haven’t been here long, with almost all major media outlets, businesses, organizations, and institutions based in Rīga, and with a public transit system where most major routes lead to and from the capital. However, pay a bit closer to attention to Latvia’s extremely rich folk culture, and it will become increasingly apparent that most songs, tales, and traditions are based on the countryside. Families that have moved to cities will often return to the countryside on holidays or even frequently on weekends, and many university students even return home at the end of the week. Anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows how critical a local school is to the community, and school closures are often traumatic events that can accelerate

Second, as a representative of the teacher’s union pointed out in an episode of the Latvija Radio 1 program Krustpunktā last week, results from international education research have time and again found that the best educational results are achieved in small schools with a high teacher to student ratio close to where students live. Finland has long been considered the gold standard by education reformers, with many of Latvia’s new curriculum standards supposedly based on the nordic country’s success story. What government reformers fail to mention is that a critical ingredient in Finland’s success is considered to be some of the smallest class sizes in the world, a far cry from the minimum class sizes that the government has begin to use as an indicator of whether or not a school should be shut. As of now, those minimums for the “vidusskola” level are as follows:

For the nine cities with official “city rights” (Rīga, Daugavpils, Leipāja, Jelgava, Jūrmala, Ventspils, Valmiera, Rezekne, and Jēkabpils): 138 students total, at least 25 students per grade

For the “Pierīga” (around Rīga) region: 120 total and 22 per class

For smaller municipalities: 54 total and 20 per class

For schools in which there is no school less than 25 kilometers away: 33 total and 12 per class

25 schools have already been closed over the summer due to these guidelines, and it seems unlikely that the trend will be reversed any time soon. The government, especially Minister of Education Kārlis Šadurskis, has indicated a willingness to be a bit flexible with the student numbers in the guidelines, but remains steadfast that the promised teacher salary increases outlined above will only be possible due to budgetary savings that come from this process of “school network optimization.”

6. School/teacher accountability

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Similar to reforms that have been implemented in America (especially popular during the George W. Bush administration), the basic concept is that “good” schools and teachers should be rewarded while “bad” schools and teachers should be punished (in extreme cases, closed or fired). This already exists to a certain degree in Latvia, with many municipalities and schools using motivation systems to reward teachers whose students achieve high exam or olympiad results, or who spend time extra time after school or on weekends attending certain events, with somewhat higher levels of pay. The government is now discussing plans on introducing a bit more of a dramatic plan, in which funding would be reduced or completely cut off to schools that underperform.

On one hand, school accountability sounds great — after all, why shouldn’t schools and teachers be punished or rewarded based on their results the same way businesses and employees are in the private sector? The problem is that many times, the reason behind a school’s poor results has been lack of funding, so decreasing a failing school’s funding can just make a spiral of poor results become worse. In addition, studies have found that simply closing a "bad" school doesn't necessarily translate into better results for students. And while certain schools have posted better exam results following the introduction of such measures, a study conducted in the UK this winter found that nearly 2500 teachers were caught cheating in order to improve their students' exam results. Students having artificially higher results due to loosening criteria or flat out cheating might provide data that allows reformers to celebrate, but obviously doesn't fix any of the underlying issues.

That's all that I have for now about school reform here in Latvia. If you have something to add, think that I got something wrong, or have any questions or thoughts, please feel free to comment below. Don't forget to check back tomorrow for the weekly news summary, and make sure to press "follow" or "subscribe" if you find these posts useful. Take care, and for any students or teachers who might be reading, have a calm and peaceful start to the new school year!