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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 12:54 GMT
Schooling in a time of change
Vaclav Havel
What did Havel achieve while in charge?
Czech student Barbara Holoubkova's time in education has coincided with the leadership of former dissident Vaclav Havel, who has just retired as president. But how much has this poet, dramatist and architect of the fall of communism changed things since 1989?

I started school when I was seven, in 1989, just as communism was crumbling all over eastern Europe.

It was only three months later, in December, that Vaclav Havel came to power, with the promise of reform.

There have been changes since then, but there's also a lot of work left to do.

My biggest memory of my nursery days was a practice in case of a nuclear attack by "the West". It seems so strange, now that the Czech Republic is in Nato.

Nuclear practice

I remember that one morning in the spring, the children and teachers went into the countryside, wearing plastic bags on our hands and feet.

Prague in 1989
Mass protests in 1989 led to political reform

The teachers got us to march around a wood for half an hour wearing gas masks. That was a very different time.

By the time I started school there were some changes in the atmosphere. The children were told not to address teachers as "comrade", but to use the pre-war titles Mr or Mrs instead.

Teaching restricted

But the textbooks took longer to update. The teachers had to explain there were no longer any "friendly Soviet soldiers" at the border and that not all non-communists were "bloody western beasts" anymore.

Foreign languages other than the formerly compulsory Russian were introduced to primary schools while I was there.

English, German and French became very popular, whereas Russian, because of its old associations, was to be scorned for years to come.

I already knew some English in 1991, when my parents arranged private lessons with an experienced teacher, who subsequently took my class at secondary school.

Her story is sad, but typical of the old regime.

The system wasn't attempting to make students think

Barbara Holoubkova, student

She studied to be a teacher of Czech and English, graduating in 1970. But when she started working, she was only allowed to teach two hours of English a week.

She was told to concentrate on physics, chemistry and family planning/chores instead.

It was only after 1989 that she could start teaching "her" subject, English, full-time.

Coming to terms

In 1994, a year after Havel became the first president of the newly independent Czech Republic, I passed entrance exams for grammar school.

While there, I witnessed the first stages of a society coming to terms with the inheritance of communism and being part of a market economy.

There was a shortage in male and young teachers.

In my time there, my class lost four of our favourites, smart men who knew how to make the lesson tough and informative but fun.

They did not want to quit but everyone understood it was inevitable. They simply couldn't live on the little money they earned as teachers.

Little money

All of them started doing business or made the most of their interests in computers. The economy was expanding, providing new opportunities.

As a result, we students were left with mainly elderly women who were willing to work for little money.

Havel with Roy Jenkins
Havel was honoured by Oxford University

But, while I was at secondary school, you could feel the strong line of authority between the teacher and student was disappearing.

At the beginning, the students stood to attention when the teacher entered the room. After that, we sat down and the teacher took the register.


Then there were a couple of tests before we sat and listened in silence.

Even in Czech and world literature class, in which, I've been told, English students discuss the actual plays and writings, we rarely worked with authentic material.

Teachers had to follow a list of how many works they had to get through every month, every year. It was more like a factory than a discussion group.

The system of secondary education, at least when I was experiencing it, still wasn't attempting to make the students actually think. Our role was passive.

Unless you were naturally inquisitive and thoughtful and brave enough to raise a discussion, you could go along with the flow of the others, and graduate with little effort.

Signs of change

But in my sixth and seventh years - 2000-2001 - there were signs of change.

Things became a little more relaxed than they had been.

The government was also preparing a major change in secondary school exams

My year feared being the guinea pigs, having to deal with completely new, state finals - the equivalent of A-levels - testing skills of independent thought. However, in the end it didn't happen.

The Ministry of Education's plan somehow fell flat. By then it was time for university, where I'm doing a five-year course.

Again, the biggest problem at this level is money. At state universities, studying is still free, although dozens of proposals have been handed to the government to make students pay, at least in part.

Waiting lists

Sooner or later we won't be able to avoid that. There is a lack of money for most things: study materials, books, decent teachers' salaries and facilities.

More than 13 years after the end of communism there are long waiting lists of students who live "too close" to the town they study university in, waiting to be assigned a place.

It's hopeless. One of my friends at university was rejected because she lived near a town which was 60 miles from the university.

She had to find a private accommodation, which was twice as expensive as the halls.

When I evaluate my 12 years of "service" in the army of students in the Czech republic, it's difficult to see how much has changed for the better.

Lack of confidence

But despite all the problems, Czech students don't seem to be any less educated than their counterparts from abroad.

There is, though, still a definite lack of confidence for Czech students to think for themselves.

Whatever he felt, I don't think Havel could have influenced that. There were so many other things to deal with, like the economy and relations with other countries.

A start has been made, but the real work on the Czech education system is yet to come.

Hopefully it will change after we join the EU.

See also:

22 Oct 00 | Europe
09 Jun 99 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Europe
02 Feb 03 | Europe
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