As more and more small-town schools across Lithuania are facing closures, the ruling party's leader has promised a “national agreement” on education.
There are 22 secondary schools in Šiauliai District of northern Lithuania, many of them serving sparsely populated rural areas. The district's municipal authorities say that the network is highly inefficient, many of the schools have too few students and all the kids from the district could easily fit into 12 institutions.
However, maintaining or even increasing public services in Lithuania's periphery was among the key electoral promises of the ruling parties. Moreover, any suggestions about optimizing the network fuel fears among regional communities of being left behind.
Therefore, as Lithuanian regions are emptying out due to emigration and the population of school-age children is declining year after year, authorities are struggling to keep the schools open.
Vaidas Bacys, the headmaster of Aukštelkė School in Šiauliai District, says it might be cheaper to bus students to fewer schools than maintaining the current network.
Especially as maintaining a small rural school may cost up to three times more per student than a bigger institution in a nearby town. Since the central government's funding is directly proportional to the number of students, the burden mostly falls on municipal authorities.
“The state's funding is smaller, because of lower student numbers, and the municipality has to contribute to maintaining the buildings that are not always efficiently used,” says Judita Šervytienė, the head of the Education and Sport Department at Šiauliai District Municipality.
The deputy minister of education says that decisions on optimizing school networks fall within municipal authority and are not up to the central government. If the local authorities want to keep small schools open, they need to pay up from their own coffers.
“The European Commission has been criticising Lithuania for years because of its over-extensive school network, so the government's position is that municipalities themselves should contribute to maintaining schools with few students,” Deputy Minister Valdemaras Razumas says.
Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Farmers and Greens party, has promised to present a cross-party national agreement on how to reform the country's education system.
“The common goal, of the Education Ministry and school communities, is to ensure quality education,” Karbauskis says, “and unless it compromises education quality, we should keep the network of schools as close as possible to where children live.”
But looking at numbers alone is a bad approach, says Vilija Targamadzė, an education expert and professor at Vilnius University. The country must have an overarching vision for education and not leave the decision of closing down inefficient schools to municipalities.
“We cannot single out one detail without looking at the general picture,” Targamadzė says. “We must first agree on an overall vision for education. Municipalities are not always objective in their decisions, because there are political considerations. Moreover, this focus on the economic criterion is not the best approach in education.”
Deputy Minister of Education Razumas says that about 20 small schools are closed down in Lithuania each year, but these decisions get made by municipal authorities and local communities and not the Ministry of Education.