FCNM Advisory Committee 4th opinion on Lithuania (excerpts on language learning), 2018

Summary

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The introduction of a unified Lithuanian language curriculum and state exam in 2012 caused significant problems for students from minority language schools, despite the measures taken during the eight-year transition period. In particular, students from Polish minority language schools with little exposure to Lithuanian in their family environment and extra-curricular activities have difficulties with the Lithuanian language exam. A careful monitoring of the situation, effective participation of minority language teachers, and an evidence-based rather than deadline-driven approach in the further roll-out of the education reform are crucial to avoid the risk of excluding some parts of the country’s youth.

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I. Key findings

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General overview of the current situation

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8. The continuing population decrease notwithstanding, the Advisory Committee was impressed by the young people it met with during its visit, who generally were multilingual, well-educated and positive about their situation as citizens of Lithuania. Karaim young people, for example, often speak not only the Karaim and Lithuanian languages, but also Polish and/or Russian as well as English as a foreign language. Both young people affiliating with the Russian and with the Polish minorities gave the impression of being at ease with their multiple identities as Lithuanian citizens, members of a minority and Europeans. This impression contrasts with the political discourse around the performance of Polish minority students in the state language exam, portraying them as victims rather than empowering them to perform equally well in both Lithuanian and their minority language. The Advisory Committee considers it important to regard minority youth as an asset and to do everything possible to help them learn both the state language and their minority language well. The active involvement of minority youth in intra-Lithuanian as well as European and international exchange programmes is clearly beneficial to this effect.

Assessment of measures taken to implement the recommendations for immediate action

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10. With respect to the education reform and its implementation in minority language schools, the Advisory Committee notes that efforts by the authorities to mitigate the negative effects on minority language students of the introduction of a unified Lithuanian language curriculum and Lithuanian language state exam as of 2012 were insufficient in yielding the expected results (see Article 14). National minority language schools and in particular those with Polish as language of instruction report that they are, despite the increased student basket of an additional 20% per student and the eight-year transition period, not in a position to prepare their students adequately for the unified state exam. They reportedly lack support for extra-curricular activities in the Lithuanian language and struggle with adapting the unified Lithuanian language curriculum to the needs of children for whom Lithuanian is a second language. Graduates from minority language schools who sat the first unified Lithuanian language state exam in 2013 had received 818 fewer hours of Lithuanian language lessons during their 12 years of schooling than their peers from Lithuanian language schools.6 Consequently, the results of students from minority language schools in the final exam were lower than average. According to representatives of the Polish minority, this put them at a disadvantage when competing for the state-funded places at universities. Although the difference in hours of Lithuanian language teaching is constantly decreasing due to an increase in Lithuanian lessons in minority language schools, the Advisory Committee deems it important that the upcoming decision about the extension of the transition period be taken based on a thorough assessment of the evidence and in close consultation with minority language teachers.

6 Information submitted by the Lithuanian authorities.

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II. Article-by-article findings

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Article 14 of the Framework Convention

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Uniform state language curriculum and centralised exams

94. The 2011 Law on Education introduced a single Lithuanian language curriculum for all schools and uniform state language exam at grades 10 or 12. As noted in the Advisory Committee’s third opinion,92 a transition period of eight years was introduced in 2012, during which different evaluation criteria are applied for students from schools with minority languages as language of instruction. The first such exam took place in 2013; since then the evaluation criteria for minority language schools have gradually been adapted, but there still are lower demands on grammar, style and lexicon. In 2018, for the first time, identical criteria will be applied in the tenth grade exam. According to the Ministry of Education, the results of this exam will be the basis for the decision on whether the transition period is to be prolonged beyond the school year 2019/2020.

92 See paras. 85-88.

95. The Advisory Committee considers the organisation of a uniform exam in the state language a legitimate aim of education reform, as long as it takes into account the specific situation of children belonging to minorities and guarantees that they are not disadvantaged in their further educational career. 93 It regrets, however, that the introduction of the exam in 2013 has led to significant disadvantages for students at minority language schools. According to information from the authorities, students from minority language schools who sat this exam in 2013 had received 818 hours fewer of Lithuanian language lessons than their peers from Lithuanian language schools. Consequently, outcomes for students from minority language backgrounds in both the Lithuanian language exam and the overall final grade dropped in 2013 despite the different evaluation criteria. In the meantime, the difference in results of students from minority language and from Lithuanian schools is narrowing,94 but the Advisory Committee deeply regrets that, according to interlocutors, several cohorts of school leavers from minority language schools were clearly in a disadvantaged position when compared to their peers from Lithuanian schools, when competing for the limited number of state-funded places at universities. The Advisory Committee notes that the situation is particularly difficult for students from minority language schools which live in regions with substantial numbers of persons belonging to minorities such as Šalčininkai, Trakai and Vilnius region (Polish), Švenčionys (Polish and Russian), and Klaipeda and Visaginas (Russian). Among these, the greatest problems seem to exist in rural areas such as Šalčininkai. Students of Russian minority language background in Kaunas, a city with predominantly Lithuanianspeaking population, reported no difficulties with the unified state exam. The Advisory Committee notes that in particular teachers and other representatives from the Polish minority are convinced that the transition period will have to be extended beyond the school year 2019/2020 to compensate for the disadvantaged position of children from a minority language background.

93 See also Third Advisory Committee Opinion on Lithuania, adopted on 28 November 2013, para. 87.

94 According to information submitted by the authorities, the difference was 500 hours in 2017/2018 and will be 435 in 2018/2019 and 365 in 2019/2020.

96. Furthermore, the Advisory Committee notes that the number of hours of Lithuanian language teaching and in particular the teaching and learning methodologies and materials are not sufficiently adapted to the needs of children from families where minority languages are spoken who come to school with a very low level of Lithuanian. Teachers in Šalčininkai reported that many children entering primary school start learning Lithuanian almost as a foreign language and are overstrained by the requirements of the unified Lithuanian language curriculum. The same applies for students of higher grades, who reportedly speak and write Lithuanian correctly, but have difficulties reading literature in the Lithuanian language. Furthermore, teachers reported a lack of support for out-of school activities in the Lithuanian language and stressed the need for children to be exposed to a Lithuanian language environment in a playful and non-formal setting such as through drama groups, summer camps or sports.

97. Representatives of the Polish minority also complained that in the current system the knowledge of a minority language is not reflected at all in the final grade which decides about entrance into university. The Advisory Committee regrets that only the results in Lithuanian language, mathematics and one foreign language (usually English) count towards that final grade, while Polish or Russian language can only be taken as an optional exam. The Advisory Committee considers that the competencies of students in a minority language are to be valued.

Recommendations

98. The Advisory Committee calls on the authorities to closely consult with teachers and other experts from minority language schools on all measures of education reform affecting students in those schools. To institutionalise this dialogue, the authorities are invited to consider setting up a national board of experts on national minority language teaching, which could advise on issues such as teaching methodologies, evaluation and development of new teaching and learning materials, adaptation of curricula, and testing methods.

99. The Advisory Committee urges the authorities to carefully monitor the performance of students belonging to national minorities in the state language exam and pursue an evidencebased rather than deadline-driven policy in deciding on the extension of the transition period. As disaggregated data on university access does not seem to be available, research should be undertaken into whether national minority affiliation and schooling is an inhibiting factor in accessing higher education.

100. The Advisory Committee urges the authorities to strengthen support for out-of school activities in the Lithuanian language, to adapt teaching and learning methodologies and materials in particular in primary school to the needs of children for whom Lithuanian is a second or a third language, and consider ensuring that the exam results in minority languages are also reflected in the final grade which determines entrance into university.

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Document data: ACFC/OP/IV(2018)004 ; adopted 30.05.2018, published 08.01.2019 Link: https://rm.coe.int/4th-advisory-commitee-opinion-on-lithuania-english-language-version/1680906d97 Also available in French

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