SEATTLE — With the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement in 2001, Macedonia not only secured the future of a peaceful democracy and a road to ethnic reconciliation, but also established uniform standards for academic programs throughout the country.
However, the lack of attention and support given to ethnic groups has been the greatest challenge to providing equal access to education. Consequently, education in Macedonia has been a constant source of ethnic tensions and political controversy.
The right to free, compulsory primary and secondary education to every citizen is guaranteed by the Macedonian constitution. Higher education is partly funded by the state and partly financed by students. Though 95 percent of the Macedonian population is literate, Roma communities and females of ethnic Albanian origin have the highest secondary school drop out rates.
According to USAID, Macedonia “lags behind other transitioning countries in educational performance, work readiness, ethnic integration among youth and inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education.”
To address these challenges, USAID has been working with the Ministry of Education and Science to enhance the reading proficiency and comprehension of young students. It also promotes an inclusive learning environment for disabled students and fosters integration across ethnic lines for teachers and students.
A number of USAID projects are currently underway to improve education in Macedonia. Under the Interethnic Integration in Education Project (2012-2017), USAID has engaged different ethnic groups to promote understanding and reduce segregation. Outreach, communication, institutional capacity-strengthening, model school establishment and refurbishing schools have been a part of the education reform process.
The Readers Are Leaders Project (2013-2017) enhances early primary school student literacy and improves the systems used to assess these skills. Working with primary schools and other institutions, the Readers Are Leaders Project also helps young people develop an enthusiasm for basic learning through innovative initiatives such as a mobile library and participating in reading and math events with celebrities.
USAID has also partnered with the Lions Club International Foundation in order to implement the Children with Visual Impairments Project (2014-2019). Under this project, children suffering from visual impairments benefit from individualized support and equal access to a quality education, thus also benefiting from job opportunities. This project has been used to publish primary textbooks in Braille, equip resource centers and raise public awareness.
Finally, the Social Inclusion Through Technology project (2016 – 2018) helps students with disabilities gain soft, business and IT skills by helping them connect with mentors and access online training. After students complete their training and obtain certifications, they are eligible to apply for internships and pursue careers with companies in the information and communications technology fields.
In the past, USAID has addressed the high unemployment rates through its Youth Employability Skills Network Project, which improved the work-readiness skills of youth. USAID’s Teacher Career and Professional Development Project set the standard for the professional development and assessment of teachers in educational institutions. The Roma Education Project helped Roma communities understand the value of quality education and improved school retention rates of Roma youth. Also, in 2010, the E-Accessibility Project provided educational software and computer hardware to many primary and secondary schools and helped students with disabilities benefit from assistive technology otherwise unavailable.
The system of education in Macedonia has been described as chiefly ethnically segregated, with students of different ethnic backgrounds receiving different instruction in separate classes. One report has highlighted that “[e]ven in so-called mixed inter-ethnic schools, joint curricula and extracurricular activities are practically non-existent.”
However, ethnic divisions are but one of the many conflicts hindering the full-scale development of equitable education in Macedonia. Co-existence and ethnic reconciliation should be accompanied by acknowledging and furthering the rights of minority ethnic groups, such as in fostering a bilingual education system that allows ethnic Albanians to be integrated.
Support of the international community is also vital to improving educational capacity and school management. Work by organizations like USAID, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the EU Special Representative has led to the establishment of education units and programs that benefit everyone.
Local NGOs like the Nansen Dialogue Centre in Skopje are also involved in special projects to promote education in Macedonia in the context of a pluralistic, multi-ethnic society. With the support of international donors and local NGOs, education in Macedonia can finally advance in the aftermath of the 2001 armed conflict to a more stable and inclusive sector.
– Mohammed Khalid