Reforms Should Not be Campaign Fodder, Says Mazhilis Deputy Chairperson

During the Mazhilis’ (lower chamber of the Parliament’s) most recent “government hour,” which was focused on providing schoolchildren with textbooks and methodical resources, many flaws in the system were discussed. These and other questions were actualised in an interview with Dariga Nazarbayeva, deputy chair of the Mazhilis and head of the Mazhilis’s Nur Otan party.

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Dariga Nazarbayeva, deputy chair of the Mazhilis and head of the Mazhilis’s Nur Otan party.

You often raise the question of reforming the national education system. One of the most pressing issues is providing textbooks and addressing shortages. What are the causes of these failures in the supply? How, in your opinion, should the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) deal with these issues?

The timely and complete distribution of textbooks is raised every year, but it does not decrease the acuteness of the issue. When the first quarter of the school year finished, akimat (governors’ office) report give the impression that 97 percent of pupils have textbooks. That means that 90,000 children were forced to buy textbooks through their parents. It is not just about this artificially created problem, but about a violation of the constitutional right of children to free education, including the right to free textbooks.

Parents, who until the very beginning of the school year, do not know the school programme, book lists and book delivery times, turn to us. Each year in the news, we see endless queues in libraries and shops and excitement and frustration. Those who cannot afford to buy a kit for 20,000-25,000 tenge (US$110-$138), have to buy cheap, unsanitary used copies.

Therefore, MPs are actually implementing the work of the MES scrupulously and have sorted out all matters of production and distribution of textbooks.

The biggest drawback of administrative reforms is the so-called decentralisation of management, in which no one is responsible for anything. The situation with textbooks clearly demonstrates this problem.

The whole process of designing, producing and distributing is divided into the following levels of responsibility: the MES approves the list of textbooks, publishing houses develop, publish and replicate them, the monitoring and evaluation department identifies the needs of schools and then finances procurement and supplies the schools.

Failure occurs at almost all levels. The MES orders the books in May or June. The list is reviewed annually. Various bureaucratic procedures, such as state procurement, etc., require time. Competitive procedures are not worked out, the rules are blurred; those who offer the lowest price win. The pursuit of cheapness is ultimately expensive to the country. Dubious companies receive the nation’s textbook orders; they have neither the experience nor the resources to succeed.

The practice of akimats underfunding textbook orders is well established. The volumes of orders do not meet the real needs of schools. Besides, factors such as migration, population growth and the physical deterioration of textbooks are not taken into account.

There are no calculation methods for needs and school libraries are not updated consistently. There is no registration, or centralised statistics. The MES does not have general summary data. There are no clear rules and no one to ask. That’s why officials end up with a slight shock for their ugliness and parents are forced to find textbooks in long queues in shops and markets and then paying a lot of money from their modest budgets.

The volume of orders, which all the participants in the process have to manage, is very large. We have a bad practice of promoting so-called alternative textbooks, which are materials not needed because there are already similar products on the market. Efficiency in the education system is zero. But a huge amount of money from the budget is spent. Just think about the numbers: there are more than 2.6 million students in the country and on the list of mandatory literature are 1,192 textbook titles, with costs averaging 500-1,000 tenge (US$2.7-$5.5). If we take into account that the average package in different classes varies from 13 to 18 textbooks, naturally, their price also varies from 11 to 13 thousand tenge (US$61-$72). This is only publishing house costs and in a market environment, this figure doubles or triples.

MPs say that at the state minimum for the social standard, it is necessary to leave the funding from the budget for one compulsory textbook for each subject. The other, so-called alternative textbooks should be made optional to teachers and students. They should be published using extra budgetary funds and be available in libraries or specialised shops.

What competencies should the MES have regarding textbooks? Is it necessary to toughen up on those responsible who fail to get students their materials?

We see systemic failures in all stages of operations.

MPs demand that the MES take control of the industry, rather than rely to the akimats. The entire legal framework of the education system requires a review. In the shortest time, it is necessary to adopt uniform standards and methodologies for all regions and to introduce strict control over their observance on the ground, as well as establish personal liability for those in charge. Negligent officials should lose their jobs, not just be forced to listen to reprimands. There should be a mechanism for a ministry to influence the placement of personnel in the regions.

It is also necessary to revise the curriculum and timetable for the publication and delivery of textbooks. Textbooks for the new school year should be delivered to schools no later than June 1.

We should not entrust the delivery of books to local authorities. Practice shows that they cannot cope with this task. Publishers, or a single operator with an extensive delivery system such as “Kazpost” should implement delivery.

Should we trust publishers to develop textbooks?

Teachers, parents, students and scientists have many complaints about the quality of textbooks. This debate has dragged on for many years. The development of textbooks was assigned to publishers who are not willing to pay for quality. Then, their developments are examined according to the MES; then, the state finances publication and pays the publisher copyright fees annually.

There is a suspicion that the most elementary and egregious mistakes in textbooks are made deliberately to create grounds for republishing, at the expense of the state treasury, of course. … There was not even a single case where publishers were responsible for mistakes and the damage they caused the treasury.

This whole system is inefficient for the state, not transparent and corrupt. That’s why MPs for the past several years cannot achieve reform in this sphere. Prices are too high and many want to extend this celebration of life as long as possible.

We are convinced that we cannot trust the content of textbooks to a competitive market environment. We are talking about ideology, about the outlook of our citizens, about that basic knowledge obtained by Kazakhstan’s students for life. Such a task can be handled only by the state, represented by the MES. The Altynsarin Academy of Education is part of it. The academy should gather the greatest minds of the scientific and pedagogical environment and set them the task. We want a state monopoly in this area!

The publishers need to keep printing and distributing. The Mazhilis will raise these issues as needed until there is a shift for the better. Discussion on the quality of educational literature is already in our plans. We have to discuss the quality of textbooks in the system of vocational and higher education.

Lately, because of the actions of government reformers, Kazakhstan’s schools have turned into experimental sites. For example, the head of the MES, Aslan Sarinzhipov believes that children should go to school starting at age six. Are you for or against such innovations?

In the educational process, all reforms should be tested, scientifically proven and justified. Scientists, physiologists and hygienists say that 6-year-olds differ significantly from 7-year-olds. Intensive development makes a 6-year-old very sensitive to various adverse effects, often leading to changes in the body, increasing the risk of disease. Therefore, the organisation of the educational process in teaching 6-year-olds has certain peculiarities. All these factors must be taken into account and calculated. It is not necessary to amend the legislation; there is no comprehensive health, legal and economic expertise.

Reform should not become a regular campaign buzzword. Education reform will never be complete and no one has been held responsible for recklessly and inefficiently spent funds.

Recommendation is a Latin word meaning “auspicious review or council.” The government understands recommendations from MPs exactly in the Latin style. But recommendations from numerous international organisations are far from realistic. These organisations are not really rushing to get to know us better either and issue suggestions that are perceived as obligations, and indications that it is necessary to perform, no matter what. This is a big mystery to us.

Today, the attitude towards the requirements of the Bologna Convention is ambiguous. In today’s world, everything is changing pretty quickly, what was good yesterday is not working today. An aging population and labour shortages force many countries to take a fresh look at their situations regarding secondary education. We hear talks of a possible reduction in time required to graduate high school.

But we still mechanically idealise what has become irrelevant. Therefore, from our point of view, it is not necessary to hurry on this issue. The existing 11 years education is not sufficient. We still have a shortage of qualified teaching staff and a lack of seats. Bad academic materials, technical bases at schools and quality of teaching is being observed. About 40 percent of children are still sitting at their desks in small schools, receiving only a symbolic education. Access to the Internet and learning electronically is still not possible at the majority of our schools. These problems should be resolved by the MES.

Introducing a 12-year course of education means increasing the number of pupils in schools and the number of teachers, developing additional programmes, educational materials and so on. This leads to additional costs and vague results.

There is much talk about the crisis, economic problems, reduced oil prices and the possibility of reducing costs. Despite this, we believe that saving at the expense of the education and health of our citizens is unacceptable. But this does not mean that one should abuse these services and mindlessly spend the people’s money.

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