Decentralization of the education system in Kharkiv region: pivotal schools
Euro-reforms that have been conducting during recent years in Ukraine have also affected secondary education. One of the key aspects of its reform was the establishment of pivotal schools as centers of educational districts. This task is especially important in the context of the focus of the reform on the education system’s decentralization. Local governments (district councils and councils of united territorial communities) and school administrations have got broad powers in organizing, financing and managing the operation of pivotal schools.
The mission of pivotal schools is to make quality education accessible to all children, regardless of their place of residence and physical abilities. Among the goals are the optimization of the costs of schools’ maintaining and ensuring the specialization of education in a high school. For this purpose, educational districts are formed in the districts, which include several closely located educational institutions. One school from all other schools in the district that is the most promising and conveniently located, becomes the pivotal one, and the rest ones are its branches. In the pivotal school the financial, material and technical resources of the educational district are concentrated. Branches are primary schools, after which children continue their education in the pivotal school. Pivotal schools are mainly created in rural areas, although their opening is possible in towns. The local councils are the founders and main managers of pivotal schools.
Legislative support of pivotal schools’ and educational districts functioning was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine in 2010 in the form of Regulations on educational districts. However, only in 2015, the process of creating pivotal schools has received a substantive incentive due to the active launch of the government’s reform of power decentralization. In 2017, after the adoption of the new Law of Ukraine “On Education”, the principles of organization and operation of educational districts and pivotal schools have got a conceptual completeness. The Law “On Secondary Education” has been amended, and it has been adopted a number of normative and legal acts regulating all aspects of the functioning of pivotal schools. Accordingly, the pace of their opening has been greatly speeded up.
Dynamics of pivotal schools establishment in Kharkiv region
The process of pivotal schools creating in Kharkiv region was launched on the initiative “from above”, when the post-Maidan authorities undertook the reform of the local government system as part of the decentralization process. The change of regional and district administrations leadership that occurred in 2015-16 has driven the reform. However, the principles of relationships between state administrations and local councils have remained to be the same. In practice, this leads to the fact that district councils continue to play traditionally a subordinate role in a relation to the districts state administration, while the reform of decentralization assumes the implementation of the autonomy principle by local councils in the government process. The attitude of the majority of the local government personnel has not changed significantly. They are quite satisfied with the traditional schemes of relationships between the councils and the districts state administration, and the idea of power decentralizing is perceived as something alien. Education reform many perceive only as an attempt by the central government to shift financial responsibility for the maintenance of schools on the local communities. Most problems arise with the organization of pivotal schools in the region, because of the misalignment of the euro-reforms real goals and their perception on the local level.
In 2015, the foundations have been laid for the launch of the secondary education decentralization reform. Although no pivotal school in Kharkiv region had been opened, local authorities were informed about future changes, plans and documentation were developed, and organizational work was carried out. The functioning of pivotal schools started in 2016 concurrently with the creation of the first united territorial communities (UTCs). In 2017, the process got substantive dynamics at the regional level: the number of UTCs was doubled, and the number of pivotal schools was increased almost in five times.
12 united territorial communities were created, 22 pivotal schools were opened during two years in the region. In the context of decentralization of education, it was expected that most of pivotal schools would be opened on the UTC councils initiative and be under their control. However, that was not the case. There are only 2 such schools in the region (Starosaltovska secondary school and Chkalovskyi educational complex).
Now the general picture of pivotal schools management in the region is the following: 21 are under control of local self-government bodies – district councils and councils of united territorial communities, and 1 (Belyaevskyi educational complex) is under the administration of Pervomaiskyi district state administration from 22 existing pivotal schools.
Seemingly that it is a quite satisfactory indicator, since it demonstrates the realization of the reform’s goal that is the delegation of control over the management and financing of pivotal schools to the local self-government bodies. But we should remember that only 2 schools (Starosaltovska school and Chkalovskyi CEC) are under the control of the UTC councils from all pivotal schools belonging to local councils. The remaining 19 are under the control of district councils. Even at a quick review, this indicator is a bright marker of low activity of the UTC councils in the issue of accepting the functions of financing and managing educational institutions. If you look deeper, you would find more serious problems that signal that the real education system decentralization might not happen, and the goal of the reform would not be achieved.
The fact is that these indicators visibly denote the above-mentioned main problem of the decentralization process: the misalignment of the Euro-reforms real goals and their perception on the local level, the inconsistency of the intentions and practices of their implementation into reality.
Why are so few pivotal schools under the control of UTC councils? Not only because of their institutional failure and inexperience, although this also takes place. First of all, it is unfavourable for district state administrations. The delegation of the school to under the control of UTC is a real threat for them to let it go from the area of its administrative influence, to lose financial control over its activities. Since the UTC councils is newly created subjects of power that are not bound with the DSA by past relationships. In addition, the rapid transition of UTC to direct relationships with the state budget is expected. UTCs, in comparison with district councils, are more likely to implement the principle of autonomous government in practice.
Why are the overwhelming majority of pivotal schools under the control of district councils? This situation is more understandable and beneficial for the local authorities, and the common stereotypes do not break. The district state administrations have peculiar “traditions” of interaction with district councils: schemes of pressure and control in relation to them. Local councils have always performed secondary functions in the organization of the schools operation. And now, they have got financial and managerial powers, but they still demonstrate organizational weakness and lack of competence, and prefer to act further on the instructions of the DSA. The replication of schemes and mechanisms of management and financing, which have worked out over the previous decades, lasts with all their odious manifestations. The DSAs do not have the motivation to let scheme for managing the education system, which has been structured for decades, go and share powers with local councils, since this entails a loss of control over financial and administrative resources. Actually, pivotal schools opened at the initiative of the district councils remain under the control of the district state administrations.
Nevertheless, the described situation with the management of pivotal schools is not hopeless. At least, most of them, albeit formally, are under local self-government. In the future, this form could be filled with adequate content, and local councils would learn how to manage pivotal schools autonomously, without the participation of the DSA. It is possible to make a difference with the political will and persistence of the reform’s initiators. The second condition for the success of decentralization can be the example of the work of UTC councils, if, of course, they manage not to “go” under the full control of local state administrations and to implement the principle of autonomy in practice.
What is the situation with pivotal schools in Kharkiv region in the background of other regions of Ukraine? Representation of this is given by a diagram developed by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine as of 12.03.2018.
The indicators are ambiguous. The total number of pivotal schools in the region is at the level of the average in Ukraine. Although, if we compare with regions that have smaller number of the population, then Kharkiv region is on the lower line of the average indicators. The leaders are Kirovograd region, where 66 pivotal schools have already been established, and it is much smaller by the population than Kharkiv region. But this is an exception. The number of pivotal schools is no more than 40 in another such region. Kharkiv region looks good in the background of regions comparable in number and distribution of population. Dnipro region has 24 pivotal schools, Kyiv region – 34, Odessa region – 25, Zaporizhzhya region – 13. In general, today Kharkiv region is in middle positions by the number of established pivotal schools
At the same time, Kharkiv region is among outsiders (2 out of 22 PS in UTC) by the number of pivotal schools which are under the control of the UTC councils. According to this indicator, Kharkiv region is left far behind of most regions in Ukraine, even with a much smaller population. The leader here is the Zhytomyr region (27 out of 36 PS in UTC). In the regions that are comparable in size and distribution, the range of figures is large. Thus, in the Dnipro region there are 16 pivotal schools that are under the control of UTC, 9 are in Odessa region, 9 are in Zaporizhzhia region, and only 1 is in Kyiv region. Kharkiv region is on the second lowest position among these regions. If we consider the percentage ratio of the total number of pivotal schools to their number in the UTC in all regions, then Kharkiv region takes the third lowest position (2 out of 22 PS in UTC, which is 9%). Worse things are only in Kyiv region (only 1 out of 34 PS in UTC, which is 3%) and Transcarpathia region (there are no PS and UTC). Thus, the diagram gives a visual representation about where DSAs break up their traditional managerial roles with the greatest “creaking”.
Plans for the future: prospects and reserves
It is planned to open 19 more pivotal schools, thus their total number will be raised to 41 until the end of 2018 in Kharkiv region. Educational districts have already been formed around the planned schools, and many other have local council decisions or will be made in the coming months.
Future prospects for the creation of pivotal schools seem to be real for the region. The reserve for uniting to new educational districts is rural under-filled schools, where number of pupils is ranged from 3 to 100. 176 such schools are in region according to the Department of Science and Education of Kharkiv regional state administration. Most of them will become branches of pivotal schools, and the smallest ones will be closed.
The largest numbers of under-filled schools are in Balakleia (15), Velykoburluk (13), Kupiansk (12) districts. The issue of creating pivotal schools here is particularly high. Volchansk district also looks problematic (15 small schools). Although it has already established one UTC (Starosaltovska), where there is an educational district with a pivotal school under the control of this UTC. But this is clearly not enough for the region. Apparently, the local government understands this: it is planned to open three more pivotal schools in the current year in the region. In the comparable Chuguiiv and Shevchenko regions there are only 6 under-filled schools and it has already been created for 1 pivotal school in each this region. Moreover, in Chuguiiv district, the pivotal school is under the control of UTC (Chkalovska). In the context of the purpose of the decentralization of education, it is important to delegate pivotal schools to the control of OTG. In this respect, Chuguiiv and Volchansk districts are in leading positions in the region.
According to the Department of Science and Education of Kharkiv regional state administration, new pivotal schools will be opened in almost all districts of the region in 2018, with the exception of Kolomak and Velykoburluk districts. And if the creation of a pivotal school is not needed in Kolomak district, then in Velykoburluk district situation is the most difficult in the region. This district is one of the most remote and large in area. Infrastructure is weak. The villages are small and dispersed throughout the territory. The number of small schools is one of the largest in the region. Local authorities do not show an active interest and initiative in the establishment of pivotal schools. This year it is just planned to consider the creation of just one pivotal school on the basis of the Olkhovat educational complex. But the pace of decentralization of education for such a large district should be much higher. Delaying the solution of this issue is fraught with the fact that local graduates risk to remain behind the line of competition when entering universities for many years to come.
Pivotal schools vs. under-filled schools
Prospects for the existence of the majority of small rural schools in the future could be positive only if they become branches of pivotal schools. Otherwise, they would be liquidated. This is especially true for schools where the number of students is less than 40 (there are 32 such schools in the region).
Why are small schools not possible to keep in the existing form? Because their existence in the present form contradicts the main goal of the educational reform that is to ensure the availability of quality modern education for all children regardless of where they live. In a under-filled rural school this goal cannot be realized. Specific reasons are:
- The demographic situation in the villages is not optimistic regarding the increase in the number of pupils in these schools.
- Their personnel, training, methodological and logistical support do not give a chance for high-level education.
- The keeping of these schools is financially aggravating for local communities.
According to the Department of Science and Education of Kharkiv regional state administration, if it is spent 10 thousand UAH for the maintenance of one student per year on average in the region, then it is from 18 to 45 thousand UAH in under-filled schools. And, the state pays only 10 thousand UAH of them in the form of subventions, and local communities should allocate the remaining money from their own budgets. Ultimately, the community decides whether to save under-filled schools by itself. The only thing we can note is that it is impossible to provide modern high-level education without a significant rising in funding in small schools. And it does not make any sense to invest in them, because of the constant decline of the rural population.
Nevertheless, even taking into account the obvious financial inexpediency of maintaining small schools, they are wary of the idea of closing them or turning them into the branches of pivotal schools inside local communities. Moreover, the position of local authorities is often complementary to the opinion of the population. The authorities in the districts are not particularly enthusiastic in the decentralization of the education system, not only because of the convenience and profitability of governing under the old schemes, but also because of populist considerations. In the district and rural communities, the reform is viewed skeptically, and sometimes hostility. In their eyes, it is identified with an attack on the traditional values and habitual way of rural life. They are particularly wary of pivotal schools. If a pivotal school is opened, then it means that most schools in the district would be closed down. This is perceived as a threat.
Opponents of the closure of small schools have expressed a number of concerns about this:
- After the closure of an under-filled school, the entire rural community may cease to exist. And the village, in which the school has been closed, would die out.
- Due to the closure of rural schools, children’s right to equal access to education is violated.
- Residents of rural communities would be deprived of the cultural and social services provided by the school.
A closer look at these points can hardly be called rational arguments. Rather, these are fears fuelled by nostalgia for the past and fear of change. Thus, the first fear arises from a lack of understanding of the tendencies in the development of modern civilization. Closure of the school is not the reason for the extinction of the village or the ending of rural communities. This is simply a marker of more large-scale and deep socio-economic processes. Such as urbanization, certain demographic trends, a qualitative restructuring of agricultural production in a market economy, etc. Yurii Romanenko the founder and visionary “Ukrainian Institute for the Future” gives rational justification for the need to close small rural schools and a detailed analysis of the socio-economic prerequisites for this process in his article.
Regarding the second concern, we note that the creation of pivotal schools, along with the closure of the under-filled, is aimed at the improving of the accessibility and quality of education for rural children. Is an applicant, who graduated from an under-filled school in a remote village in which one teacher teaches 3-4 subjects, able to compete with others during the admission to the university, and where he/she can only dream about the presence of a computer, the Internet or a smart board?
In the third concern there is also no rational grain. Rather, it is a subconscious nostalgia for the past, when the school together with the village club and village council was the focus of the collective farm’s cultural life. What cultural or social services could under-funded school provide now in a remote dying village? Unless it is served as a polling station and its teaching staff are free administrative resource and the agitator among local voters during the next elections.
Thus, the conclusion suggests that in local communities they are suspicious of the idea of establishing pivotal schools not so much because they do not want quality education for their children and increase their competitiveness when entering universities, but rather because of the negative associations formed by fears and anxious expectations before face of change.
Financial aspects of the pivotal schools functioning
The regulations on educational districts presuppose the financing of pivotal schools at the expense of the founder’s funds. In Kharkiv region, the founders of the majority of pivotal schools are the district councils and councils of the UTC. All pivotal schools of the region are in communal ownership. Funds for school needs come from the local budget, and partly from the state budget (in the form of educational subventions).
The Law of Ukraine “On Education” is expected to involve other sources of funding for schools, for example, private investment, as well as income received by the school itself from various types of activities permitted by law. But this practice of financing has not become widespread yet in pivotal schools in Kharkiv region. This indicates both the inadequate and distort of normative legal acts on this issue, as well as the indecisiveness of local government bodies and school administrations in the realization of the right granted by law.
The aspect of pivotal schools functioning such as ensuring the transfer of pupils and teachers living in remote villages of the educational district is also connected with financial problems. According to the law, it should be financed at the expense of the founder’s funds, i.e. from local budgets. If the local budgets still somehow manage to provide school buses and fuel, then they cannot deal with major repairs and building of roads between the villages. The roads of local importance in the region are in a poor condition. And between the small villages are in a catastrophic. These are not roads, but directions that are impossible to pass through in the autumn-winter period. Many of them have not seen renovation since the construction in the 70-80s of the last century. And pivotal schools are not be able to realize one of the main goals of their functioning – ensuring the availability of quality education for all the children of the district without proper transport infrastructure.
Pivotal schools are an important part of the decentralization reform in the sphere of education. As a rule, they are subordinated to local self-government bodies: they are district councils and UTC councils, which finance them at the expense of local budgets with an addition from the state budget in the form of educational subvention. Pivotal schools are established as centers of educational districts. Their main mission is to make quality education accessible to all children of the district.
The pace of establishing pivotal schools in Kharkiv region is just below the average for Ukraine. The dynamics of their opening is positive. In 2018, the number of pivotal schools is planned to double. New schools will be opened in almost all districts of the region, in some – several schools. Velykoburluk district is challenging, where in 2018 there are planned to open no pivotal schools, and the number of under-filled rural schools is one of the largest in the region.
The main problem of the work of pivotal schools in the region is a formal approach to the decentralization of their governing. Most of them are under the control of district councils. And district councils, as the traditional authorities of Ukraine, tend to work on certain organizational, financial and managerial “traditions”; their activities are under full control of the DSA; it is difficult for them to restructure and realize the principle of autonomy. At the same time, UTC councils have more chances to work independently of district state administrations, since they are the result of the decentralization reform of power. Therefore, it is necessary that more pivotal schools would be created under of the UTC.
The problem of under-filled schools is the acute in the region. Their keeping is economically inappropriate. They are not able to give children the education of high-quality and on a modern level. It is such schools that serve as a reserve for uniting within the educational district and re-profiling to the branches of pivotal schools.
Residents of rural and district communities are skeptical about the establishment of pivotal schools, as well as the reform of education in general. On the local level, reform is not seen as an orientation toward improving the quality and accessibility of education, but rather as financial responsibility for keeping schools shifting on the shoulders of local communities. Opponents of the establishment of pivotal schools also associate their concerns with the closing or lowering of the educational level of under-filled rural schools. Concerns are of an irrational nature, while rational arguments of the supporters of establishing pivotal schools are justified by socio-economic trends in the development of Ukrainian society.
The financial aspect of establishing pivotal schools has several problematic aspects: the extremely unsatisfactory state of the transport infrastructure, the lack of leverage in the local councils on the authorized executive bodies to redirect funds for repair and construction roads that are necessary for educational district; coverage by the state subvention of some basic school needs only; weak activity of founders of pivotal schools in the searching for new sources of funding permitted by law, for example, transparent private investment.
Local authorities should strengthen efforts to inform the local population about education reform and pivotal schools. The distribution of information can occur through local media, Internet resources, and public discussions, roundtables with the involvement of a wide range of local communities. The main task of informing should be delivering of the positive aspects of establishing pivotal schools to the members of the community. This would minimize the suspicious and sometimes hostile attitude to the ongoing reforms, as well as to help in finding new sources of funding and material support from the local community.
The situation with a formal approach to the decentralization of the management of pivotal schools should be reversed. The task should be solved in two ways: on the one hand, gradually to take out the district councils from the traditional schemes of work at the direction of the district state administrations, on the other hand, to create as many schools as possible under the control of UTC, with which the district state administrations have not established these schemes yet. Here, regular monitoring is needed for the autonomy of the work of local government bodies with the involvement of independent public organizations and experts; coherence and persistence of the central executive in carrying out the reform; control over the activity of the executive power staff of the regional and district levels.
It is necessary to intensify and stimulate the activity of local self-government bodies in the organization of educational districts and pivotal schools in problem districts of the region where they are not established yet or there are a large number of under-filled schools. There should be a dialogue and exchange of experience on the pivotal schools establishment between authorities, on the one hand, and the teaching stuff, on the other. Department of Science and Education of the Regional State Administration and its district departments could initiate and organize it. It is advisable to involve public organizations and foundations that are interested in this work.
It is necessary to establish a solid work to inform local interested parts about the organization and experience of schools functioning in European countries. The issues of school management, cooperation of their founders with the executive power, school self-government, innovations in the educational process, influence on the creation and renovation of transport infrastructure, involvement of new sources of financing for educational institutions should become the subjects of information.
The problem of the poor state of the transport infrastructure in the educational districts requires an immediate solution, otherwise the sense of the existence of pivotal schools would be reduced to zero. Local government bodies do not have the institutional authority to resolve it. We need coordinated work of the legislative authority, the Ministry of Infrastructure, State Agency for Ukrainian Public Roads (Ukravtodor) and the local executive power. The development of transport infrastructure in educational districts should become a separate activity of Ukravtodor and the secured items of expenditure of state and local budgets. Relevant amendments to the legislation, legal and regulatory acts that are regulate construction and major repairs of roads of local importance should be made.
Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”
The paper was prepared with the support of the European Foundation for Democracy (EED). The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views of the EED and is the sole responsibility of Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”