“Today’s school must be changed”. Interview with the Head of the Department of Education of Gagauzia, Natalia Cristeva

In Gagauzia, the elaboration of the long-term education development strategy is being completed.  How will studying of the Romanian language be deepened and how will the Gagauz language be preserved?  How are IT technologies being implemented in schools of the region? How have schools in Gagauzia coped with the pandemic and distance learning?  Natalia Cristeva, Head of the Department of Education of Gagauzia spoke about these and many other things.


“The crisis turned out to be an impetus for innovations”

We have another school year in the era of the COVID pandemic. With what and how did Gagauzia enter this academic year?

– For the second year, the system of education is in a very uncertain and difficult situation when it is necessary to respond quickly to all the changes. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the largest education system failure in history which affected almost 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries and on all continents. The crisis exacerbated the problem of inequality in the field of education which existed before, preventing the most vulnerable school children and students from continuing their studies. It has serious economic consequences which also affected financing of the educational system and brought to the forefront problems of educational facilities, qualification of teachers, a large gap between the needs of today’s schoolchildren and the opportunities that the educational system has to offer.

At the same time, it must be mentioned that the crisis served as a stimulus for innovations in the sphere of education, for planning new goals and for identification of points of growth.  Innovative approaches were actively used to ensure continuity of education and professional training and distance learning solutions have been developed. In addition, it was also an occasion to recall the critical role of teachers.

One of the main tasks of the previous and upcoming academic year is to suppress the spread of the virus and to carefully plan the work of educational institutions, while ensuring safety of each and everyone.

What have you managed to do over these two years, what innovations have you already implemented?

– During this time, we replenished the computer fleet of our educational institutions by one thousand pieces of equipment. We were able to do this with the help of the Ministry of Education and help of our partners – the Turkish Agency TIKA, UNICEF, U.S. Embassy, and private companies.

Since last year, we have allocated about 4 million MDL for equipment. We gave schools an opportunity to procure everything they needed to study in the new conditions: single seat desks, additional furniture and equipment. We made sure that by the beginning of school year 2020 –2021, all schools were connected to the internet.

Another problem is that our teachers were not ready for distance learning. It was difficult for everyone. In spring 2020, everyone had different technical capabilities and each teacher used his or her own platform for teaching. In addition, just imagine, if a family has 3 or 4 children and each of them needs their own device.

We realized that everything has to be centralized. And now for the second year all our institutions work on a single educational platform ST Studii – https://studii.md. More than two thousand teachers, students and more than eleven thousand parents are connected to it.

There are uniform electronic gradebooks and children have electronic homework diaries. Any parent can find out online about their child’s grades or changes in the schedule. A child does not have to rush anywhere. Everyone goes to the platform and then to the class of the teacher who teaches the lesson. There is a permanent link there, materials and home tasks. The child attaches answers there also, sends them to the teacher and gets grades and comments there as well. All that brought school and parents together. We had feedback from parents. Many of them noted that children’s academic performance improved, because parents see and know more.

If last year was a trial year, now work on the electronic platform is mandatory for all schools of Gagauzia. We were forced to rethink the principles of education and to speed up the transformation in teaching and learning. In a short time, teachers have done something that was previously considered difficult or impossible. In parallel with the republican training programmes, we are building up our own modules. There are 3 regional and more than 100 local formatters. More than 1,500 teachers and more than 700 educators completed additional training courses.  During a year and a half, we conducted about 800 trainings and digital literacy courses for teachers. Today, great opportunities are available to find new ways to overcome the crisis in the sphere of education and we have to continue working on self-improvement, to improve the approach to the organization of training. To enhance skills of teachers in the sphere of digital technologies.

“Multilingualism has to be part of the national policy”

The question is decades long. Now the long-term education development programme is being elaborated in the region. Why does Gagauzia need its own strategy? And what are its priorities?

– As Lewis Carroll said, “If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there”.  The sphere of education is one of the most critical ones. That means 50% of the regional budget. It is necessary to identify the needs for the development of long-term strategic vision of the autonomy in the sphere of education and to outline the closer coordination and cooperation between the autonomy and the centre. Long-term planning is important for achieving changes that would provide for sustainable long-term development of the region.

The strategy is ready and has been published for public consultations. Elaboration of it took almost two years and all stakeholders were involved. All this happened with the help of the CMI, with financial support from the Embassy of Sweden, in partnership with Eurac, with the CONTACT Centre. We are very grateful to all our partners. Together with them, we performed in-depth analysis of the educational system for past years. We held consultations with students, parents, teachers, representatives of vocational training and Comrat University. National education specialists and international consultants were involved in the work.

It was very fortunate that the ‘National Strategy in Education 2030’ is being developed in parallel. We took advantage of that and ‘synchronized watches’ with the Ministry and adjusted our tasks. We hope to be heard and hope that everything that we have proposed will also be included in the national document.

For ourselves, we identified several strategic areas for the period up to 2030:

  • To provide a comprehensive regulatory framework to manage the educational system and strengthen institutional capacity.
  • To promote multilingual education.
  • To improve the quality of education leading to relevant, equitable and effective learning outcomes.
  • To ensure equal access to qualitative education and to broaden the diversity of the adult education system.
  • To implement information and communication technologies and to provide adequate resources to the educational system in accordance with socioeconomic needs of the region.
  • To enhance human and managerial capacities.
  • To improve funding of the educational system.

Much of this is relevant for all of Moldova. And what exactly does Gagauzia need and where does it need to get support from Chisinau?

– It is necessary to improve the relevant legislation in accordance with the current Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia. We have already submitted our proposals to the Parliament to amend the Code of Education. In particular, the amendments concern articles on the principles of the language policy and on the issues of delimitation of competences between public authorities of Gagauzia.

There are also problems with support for young specialists. For example the Law on Administrative and Territorial Organization does not recognize three districts of the autonomy- Ceadir-Lunga, Vulcanesti and Comrat districts. In these districts, due to a ridiculous inconsistency in laws, young specialists do not receive the compensation they are entitled to.

One of the strategic joint areas of work with Chisinau should be promotion of multilingual education. Currently, unfortunately there is no general concept of learning and teaching in national minority languages or a programme for promotion of multilingualism in education.

It is obvious that the process of development and promotion of multilingual education requires provision of coordinated legal and regulatory frameworks. And appropriate funding mechanisms in order to integrate multilingual education at all levels of education both in the ATU Gagauzia and in other administrative-territorial units of our state in accordance with international standards and commitments of the Republic of Moldova.

At the same time, we believe that the area of multilingualism should be part of the national policy and should be duly reflected in the Strategy of Education Development ‘Education 2030’. The Executive Committee of Gagauzia asked the Ministry of Education and Research to assist with promotion of multilingual education by including this area in the National Education Development Strategy ‘Education 2030’. And by providing a series of measures for years 2021-2030 for promoting multilingual education and securing funds from the state budget for their implementation.

There is also a problem with funding of educational institutions with the Russian language of instruction. The academic load of students at educational institutions with Russian language instruction on average is 10% higher than curricula for educational institutions with the Romanian language of instruction. For example, in a school with the Romanian language of instruction, first-graders have 20 lessons a week, while our first-graders have 26 lessons. And the funding is the same.

In Gagauzia, there are three lyceums with the Romanian language of instruction and they do not experience any budget deficit. And schools with the Russian language of instruction face budget deficit already at the beginning of the fiscal year. We need a special formula for financing educational institutions with Russian language instruction.

In what aspects is the concept of multilingual education fundamentally different from what we have now?  In Gagauzia, schoolchildren already study three or four languages.

– We want to introduce a comprehensive approach to the language policy in the sphere of education in order to ensure the appropriate level of knowledge of three official languages in the region: the Gagauz language, the state language and the Russian language, and also at least one foreign language.

Selection of a model of multilingual education plays an important role in the process of implementing multilingualism. Integration of a multilingual model will require a systemic approach to studying linguistic, humanitarian and exact sciences, in conjunction with the use of educational, teaching and research components of the educational process. Experience shows that a language, in particular the second language, cannot be learned by studying it only as a subject. There are many solutions for that. One of the most logical ones is to organize studying certain subjects in the native language. It is an efficient way of mastering a language in multiple layers. In order for schoolchildren to master the state language at the level of the native language, it is not sufficient to have only a couple of language lessons per week. Lessons in other academic subjects would allow students to expand their language use environment and prepare for further study and life.

Organization of the educational process based on the multilingual education model first of all, would give an opportunity to each child to receive education in his or her native language which is extremely important for the overall development process.

But the most important benefit of this model is that children, in addition to learning different languages, encounter representatives of other language and ethnic groups in their everyday life. And that develops excellent intercultural skills and tolerance in them and contributes to development of peaceful civil society.

We already have positive experience of developing multilingualism in early education, which has to be promoted as part of the general level of education. In all kindergartens the programme of bilingual education of children in Romanian and Gagauz languages is being introduced. The programme has been gradually introduced from 2015 and last year the Executive Committee made it compulsory for all kindergartens. As a result, 70% of children graduating from kindergartens speak the Romanian and Gagauz languages with ‘good’ or ‘very good’ language skills. We see a positive result and want to continue this practice.

Gagauzia should be perceived throughout the world as a highly educated region with a population that speaks at least four languages which is the key to successful integration into the global economy. We need an educational system that corresponds to the needs of economic and social renewal. There are a lot of countries, where multilingual education has long been successfully implemented. Multilingual education is a challenge of the times and we accept this challenge.

“There is no place for children to speak Romanian outside school”

At various fora devoted to problems of minorities, every year they say that quality of teaching Romanian is low or say that there is a deficit of teachers in Gagauzia. How do you manage to cope with the situation?

– The Romanian language is taught in all schools in Gagauzia. In addition, as I have said, there is a programme of bilingual education in every kindergarten. We are coping with this. We have specialists in both the Romanian language and the Gagauz language. But the results of learning the languages are not high enough so far.

I do not think it has anything to do with qualifications of teachers. The first and main reason is near complete absence of language environment. Outside of school, there is no place for children to speak Romanian and they do not speak much of their native language either. And introduction of multilingual education is aimed, among other things, at expanding the scope of language use. Extracurricular work will also be aimed at fostering multilingualism.

When we were developing the strategy, we analysed the language environment of children in Gagauzia. It turned out that only 3.5% of children from the entire autonomy communicate at home in the Romanian language. That is, at least one parent is a native speaker and they can consolidate their knowledge.

There is another problem. We do not have enough teachers who are fluent in Romanian and who are able to teach their subject in Romanian. There are not enough such specialists in kindergartens either. In kindergartens, the concept is ‘One day – one language’. Today for example, it is the day of the Gagauz language and everyone has to speak Gagauz: the teacher, educators, nannies and technical staff. Tomorrow is the day of the Romanian language and everyone has to speak Romanian. But, except for teachers of Romanian and Gagauz, there are very few teachers who know the languages. A state programme is also needed here, support for all those who do apply the multilingual approach. In higher educational institutions, there should be a compulsory course aimed at multilingual approach in teaching.

In addition, we probably still need to revise the Romanian language curriculum for our children. It is more focused on studying literature, language subtleties, but at the expense of communications. Children should first learn how to speak well.

Do you think it would be possible to attract Romanian-speaking teachers from other regions?

– I really hope so. But it would become possible only if there is a state programme aimed at supporting teachers and if housing is provided in our region. We need specific leverage.

For its part, Gagauzia can also provide support to such teachers. We have a regional programme ‘First Home’: the Autonomy pays 25% of the mortgage loan. Over the past year and a half, 12 young families, which included teachers, took advantage of this programme and bought housing.

In addition to the compulsory curriculum, there is also extracurricular education.  What are your priorities there and in which direction will Gagauzia move in this sense?

– We are planning to modernize schools. Already now, there are various sections and courses.  And this year, we can boast that we are involved in the revolutionary project ‘Tekwill in every school’, which operates throughout the country. More than 30 schools from Gagauzia joined this project and it is more than from other districts of the country. Indeed, from September this year, the work of our sections is focused not only on cross stitching and sewing but there are also sections of graphic design, website development, С++ programming, development of mobile applications and artificial intelligence.

The next step is to ensure that such courses are available in many schools. Because it would allow children to choose the profession of the future and to become highly competitive professionals.

In extracurricular education by the way, we also want to focus on multilingual education. In a free creative environment, like nowhere else, it is also possible to foster development of languages. All the more so, since it takes place without any grades and in a relaxed atmosphere.

We also plan to develop modern sections on robotics on the basis of Creative Houses. In addition, for a long time we have been willing to create multifunctional recreation camps for children but so far, the pandemic prevented it. These camps would combine training, physical education and recreation. The camps will focus on development of culture, tourism, multilingual education and scientific technologies.

You said that with the pandemic, it became clear that many teachers lack technical skills. And how do you manage to find people who are able to teach graphic design programs?

– Let us be honest, there are difficulties. Today teachers realize that they have to be up to date, that they cannot lag behind their pupils. And a lot of teachers demonstrate interest, and not only computer science teachers. Teachers of music, elementary school teachers and teachers of the Gagauz language took part in the project ‘Tekwill in every school’. Our task is to identify this potential. We are ready to support and encourage teachers who develop and use modern technologies.

Do you want to develop multilingual education at all levels, including education for adults? What will be going on in this sector and how do you plan to change it?

– Our draft strategy contains a whole block dedicated to the vocational training development policies for adult education.

We have a Youth Training Centre, which is funded from the local budget. People of any age can take short-term training courses there to get an additional profession. We have already developed a course of the Gagauz language for those who still do not know it perfectly and a course for studying the Romanian language.

Adults, especially those aged 20 to 30 who do not yet have professional qualifications, have to be encouraged to study. We have the possibilities and potential to do this. Our objective is that by 2030, 47% of the adult population of the autonomy aged from 25 to 64 will take part in training programmes.

“Not all mayoralties today understand the importance of inclusive education”

Nowadays, everywhere there is a lot of talk about inclusive education, including that for children with special needs. In Moldova as a rule, schools are either not properly equipped and lack basic conditions for such children or there are no specially trained teachers. What is the situation in Gagauzia in this respect?

– Unfortunately, from year to year, the number of children with special educational needs increases. We try to promote inclusive education. For a long time, out of 46 schools only 20 had resource centres for such children. But last year we opened 17 more. This allows creating favourable conditions for all children with special needs. The newly opened Inclusive Education Resource Centres received additional funds from the Inclusive Education Fund.

If we talk about development of inclusive education, then it is fundamentally important to identify child development disorders early, that is, at preschool age. In this regard, it has to be noted that introduction of inclusive education in kindergartens is progressing less dynamically, since it faces a number of problems.

The Inclusive Education Fund is meant only for schools, kindergartens do not get any state support to develop these services. It is all the responsibility of local authorities. But today not all mayoralties understand the importance of this issue. No additional funding is allocated for these purposes and allowances due are not paid to educators. Positions of auxiliary teachers, psychologists, speech therapists are not introduced. They save money on this.

In addition, we have acute shortage of narrowly focused specialists: Physical therapists and speech therapists. The situation with psychologists is getting better already.

There is another problem, the solution of which depends on central authorities. In the area of the Congaz village, there was a boarding school for children with special educational needs, with severe forms of disease. This special needs school is run by the Ministry of Education.   It stopped working from September 1, 2020. Not all of these children with severe multiple disabilities were able to integrate into mainstream schools. Some of them simply do not attend school because they are not able to. Their parents constantly appeal to the authorities of the autonomy. In addition, we decided that we are ready to finance this school. But up until now, this issue has not been included in the agenda of the government.

Yes, the national policy is that all children have to integrate into the general education environment. But the parent has the right to choose for a child special education that is envisioned in the current legislation. You cannot just decide all of a sudden, that all children have to be together. This right of choice should belong to the family and the state should provide alternatives. Today we still hope that this issue will be resolved, the school will be given to us and we will develop it.

Are there enough teachers there?

– The school was fully staffed. By the way, people were out of jobs. Some of them found positions at other educational institutions, some of them failed to find a job. And the school is empty. Of course, we will give up the form of a boarding school. But in our opinion, it is still appropriate to preserve this school.

“We want to achieve tolerance”

We have talked about modern age. I would like to mention a little bit of history, Gagauzia is still a special region in this sense. In your opinion, how deep should the history of the region be studied? And to what extent is the history of Gagauzia represented in the national curriculum? In my opinion, it is practically missing there.  Many people outside of Gagauzia do not know at all what this region is all about and why.

– Yes, we have raised this problem more than once.  Except for the fact that the history textbook for the 9th grade mentions in passing the national composition and that there is a certain percentage of the Gagauz. In two sentences it is described how the conflict was resolved in a peaceful way and that is it.

History textbooks lack facts about the formation of the Gagauz autonomy, about the history of the Gagauz people, about their coming to this territory. When we were invited to review the textbooks, we always asked to include more material on the history of the Gagauz and of the entire Gagauz Autonomy.  

We teach ‘History, Culture and Traditions of the Gagauz People’ in all grades. There is something to work on here as well. There are still no textbooks for grades from 5 to 9. In a few days’ time, the textbook for the 7th grade will be ready, then the one for the 5th grade will appear.

We do all that ourselves, without any support from the centre. We have a scientific and research centre, whose specialists are dealing with these issues. Last year, they prepared and published the official history of the Gagauz people, a landmark book.

Including more information on the Gagauz and on their history in national textbooks, multilingual approach in education – All that will lead to the achievement of a more global goal: development of tolerance, mutual respect and mutual understanding. And that is exactly what we want to achieve.

What ultimate goal have you set for the next several years that you could achieve through your own efforts?

– We will develop multilingual education, it is our primary objective. In general, we will improve the quality of education. We are always very concerned about the average score of Bachelor’s Degree exam in the republic. We always have a higher pass rate than in general in Moldova. But it is true, that the average score did not reach ‘seven’, but this year we nevertheless managed to overcome this barrier.

We will continue to introduce IT technologies and to raise the level of teacher training. The partnership of teachers, students and parents remains important for us: special attention is paid to joint work, perception of a child as a holistic personality.

“We want to make school happy”!

My dream and the dream of all my colleagues is that children go to school with pleasure and that teachers go there with no less pleasure.

I have a pupil at home as well. Unfortunately, I see that he is not always willing to go to school. I want him to run there with joy and then want him to run home to do creative and interesting homework, so that it is not a punishment. There is a lot of work to do, today’s school has to be changed.

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