Low spending on education, high early school leaving rates, and high underachievement in basic skills are just some of the challenges of the local education system, according to the European Commission’s 2017 Education and Training Monitor on Romania.
Romania has the lowest general expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP in the EU, of 3.1% in 2015. By comparison, the EU average is of 4.9%. Although the education spending in 2015 increased in real terms (+5.6%), it represented just 8.6% of total government spending, below pre-crisis levels. By comparison, the EU average is 10.3%.
At the same time, the underfunding in the system translates into a large financial burden falling on Romanian households, which spend 39% of what the government spends on education. This is the highest proportion in the EU, according to the report.
High early school leaving (ESL) in Romania is concentrated in rural areas and among Roma. The proportion of early school leavers among young people aged 18-24 is the third highest in the EU, although it decreased slightly, from 19.1% in 2015 to 18.5% in 2016. The national Europe 2020 target is of 11.3%.
At the same time, the difference between ESL in rural (26.6%) and urban areas (6.2% in cities, 17.4% in towns and suburbs) is high. Annual dropout rates remain high, particularly in rural areas, suggesting that early school leaving will remain a challenge in the years to come, the report found.
The report notes that the rural-urban disparities are visible also when it comes to access to quality education, which is a challenge in rural areas, where 45% of Romania’s school population is studying.
In 2016, 37.5% of 8th grade students in rural schools had poor results (under the 5 mark level) at the national evaluation, compared to 15% in urban schools. The widespread use of private tutoring, particularly to prepare for national examinations further exacerbated the inequalities.
The report also found that challenges in the integration of Roma in education hinder their social inclusion and ability to find employment. Only 38% of Roma children attend early childhood education and care (ECEC), while 77% of Roma aged 18-24 are early school leavers, according to a survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA 2016)
The ECEC participation of Roma children has worsened since 2011, when the figure was 45%. Meanwhile, the proportion of early school leavers has decreased (from 90% in 2011), but remains very high. A total of 64% of Roma aged 16-24 are out of employment, education and training and only 33% of Roma aged 20-64 are doing paid work.
Romania also registers the lowest tertiary educational attainment rate in the EU. The report explains this through a combination of factors that limit the potential number of students: high dropout rates in pre-university education, increasing but relatively low pass rates for the baccalaureate exam and low participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. The document also warns that, when coupled with the emigration of highly skilled workers, low tertiary attainment risks creating skills shortages in knowledge-intensive sectors and ultimately limiting economic growth.
The local educational system is also confronted with high underachievement in basic skills in the PISA test.
In PISA 2015, 38.5% of Romanian 15-year-olds failed to achieve a minimum level of knowledge in science (compared to EU-28 average of 20.6%), 38.7% in reading (EU-28: 19.7%), and 39.9% in mathematics (EU-28: 22.2%). A total of 24% of students are low achievers in all three subjects tested. The proportion of top performing students– those capable of solving complex problems — is the lowest in the EU (2% in reading, 3.3% in mathematics and 0.7% in science).
Although Romania’s average performance in PISA has improved compared to 2006 (from 418 to 435 score-points), it remains by around two years of schooling below the EU average (495 score-points in 2015), the document found.
Underachievement is particularly high in the bottom socioeconomic quartile, and also relatively high across the socioeconomic spectrum. The report argues that this could suggest that the “current teaching approaches are ill-equipped to foster more complex, higher-order skills.”
The report notes that initial teacher education in Romania offers less preparation than in other European countries, especially when it comes to practical domains. Subjects related to special educational needs and working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also insufficiently covered.
The Education Law requires teachers to follow a two-year master’s in education but the requirement was not implemented.
The salaries of teachers remain another issue, and although they are increasing they are still low and salary progression is slow. Disadvantaged schools have difficulties in attracting high-quality teachers, and the current merit-based allowance system rewards teachers who achieve exceptional results in examinations and competitions, encouraging a narrow focus on preparation for tests and academic competitions.