Skopje, 1 September 2023: A child’s right to education entails the right to learn. Lack of quality education places significant obstacles in the path of children when it comes to realizing their potential as they grow older. Yet, as we celebrate the start of the new school year, we need to be mindful of the challenges that we are facing and double down on our efforts to ensure that every child receives quality education and that no one is left behind.
Even before the pandemic, North Macedonia was already facing a learning crisis. Despite slight improvements in students’ performance in recent years, still more than half of all fifteen-year-olds in the country are failing to meet basic proficiency levels in reading and math. Furthermore, education performance seems to be reproducing existing inequalities, with socio-economically advantaged students and girls performing better than boys and disadvantaged students.
The children who were already lagging behind are now young adults, entering into higher education or the workforce. This scenario will persist across all age groups until substantial measures are taken to address the issue. This is why we need to take immediate action because the consequences will be profound, affecting both current and generations to come.
In its most recent Concluding Observations of North Macedonia’s progress with the realization of children’s rights, the Committee on the Rights of the Child commends the adoption of the Law on Primary Education as a legal basis for the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education system.
Thanks to the new Law on Primary Education, from this school year onwards all children with disabilities will be enrolled in mainstream schools to learn together with their peers, which has a proven benefit for all children in the classroom. The support that the Resource centers will be giving to schools in this transition is crucial to ensure that these children are supported to learn and achieve their full potential.
However, the Committee draws attention to the need for additional measures, strategies, services, and support, to ensure children from vulnerable and underprivileged backgrounds have access to quality education. While noting the creation of a special budget line for inclusive education in the budget of the Ministry of Education and Science and two financial programmes aimed at the education of Roma children, the Committee recommends increase in budgetary allocations, with particular attention to children in vulnerable situations.
To make quality inclusive education a reality for all children, the country needs to increase public funding and investment in education at all levels, including preschool, while ensuring that the allocation of resources to municipalities and schools is efficient and equitable. Funding allocations need to be adequate to allow schools to meet national education standards and facilitate access and inclusion of the most vulnerable children, including those with disabilities, from ethnic minorities, and from poorer households.
On the first school day, as we welcome children into the classrooms, let’s remember that each day spent in school is an opportunity to provide effective, equitable and resilient education to all children and young people. For this to happen, greater focus must be placed on ensuring that resources are directed to the areas where improvements in teaching and learning outcomes can be achieved.
But quality inclusive education is not just a matter of funding. The foundations for school readiness are set in the early years, which is why increasing enrolment rates in preschool education should remain a priority. Parents should also be supported to get actively involved in their children’s education, which boosts the child’s well-being and confidence and is important for academic progression. In addition, curricular reforms need to continue to ensure that children can acquire relevant knowledge and skills that will prepare them to thrive in the modern world. Teachers and professional associates need continuous access to quality professional development opportunities, quality educational resources and data.
In recent years, North Macedonia has made a concerted effort to participate in international student assessments and it is also preparing to launch the new national student assessment model. We want to recognize and commend these efforts and highlight the importance of making better use of data obtained through such assessments for analysis, system diagnostics, improvements, and quality assurance at local and national level. Data and evidence, however, needs to drive action at the school and student level.
Finally, children have the right to be consulted on all decisions that affect their lives, and decisions in the education system certainly fit in this category. While welcoming the adoption of the Law on Primary Education providing for the creation of the student parliament and the student ombudsman, the Committee recommends promotion of participation of children and youth within families, schools, and communities, as well as implementing mechanisms for them to participate in decision making in matters that concern them.
This year when North Macedonia celebrates 30 years since it ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and 30 years since UNICEF officially established cooperation after the country became an independent state, we are committed more than ever to support partners in their efforts to provide quality and inclusive education for every child.