2. Developing youth skills in Bulgaria

Education is key to improving Bulgaria’s future socio-economic potential. Ensuring young people develop the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes needed to thrive in an interconnected world is important for the country's general well-being. Providing an environment where the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills is accessible to everyone also helps foster a culture of lifelong learning that will help build an adaptable and resilient society.

When leaving school, young people need to feel ready and have the opportunity to continue their studies or find jobs. Achieving higher levels of skills supports individuals not only in their transition to the labour market – by finding well-paid jobs aligned with their interests and skills – but also increases their likelihood of participating in the democratic process and community life, for example, as compared with their less-skilled peers (OECD, 2019[1]). Especially in the context of globalisation and digitalisation, and the related growth of knowledge-based economies, countries want to make sure their populations acquire the higher-order skills that drive productivity, innovation and economic growth, which can lead to higher living standards (OECD, 2016[2]).

In Bulgaria, as much as 32% of 15-year-old students are considered low performers (scoring below Level 2 in the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] in all three subjects [reading, mathematics and science]), compared with an OECD average of just 13% (OECD, 2019[3]). There are many factors which affect learning outcomes, but according to research, the most relevant ones are related to curriculum development, teaching practices, the quality of teacher training and working conditions (Darling-Hammond, 2000[4]; OECD, 2018[5]). Students' particularly low average performance in acquiring basic knowledge and competencies is a challenge for Bulgaria.

Employers face challenges in finding the skilled individuals they need, including in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) (Employment Agency, 2022[6]). The importance of young people developing a broad range of relevant skills is growing. Similar to what is happening in other parts of Europe, Bulgaria has a shrinking labour force due to population ageing and high levels of emigration. Such a scenario puts extra pressure on the country’s education system to ensure its youth develop the skills needed to ensure their smooth transition into employment and, at the same time, respond effectively to the skills needs of the labour market.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the disruption it caused in education systems across the world have highlighted the main educational challenges facing the country, deepening learning losses and increasing inequalities (Yankova, 2020[7]). Helping students recover from the impact of the pandemic and creating a more resilient education system is now a priority for Bulgaria as it is for other OECD countries. Achieving this ambition will require improving the understanding of the full impact of school closures on young people, especially the most vulnerable ones, and making sure that all students have the support they need to complete their studies. It also involves bolstering the education system's capacity to face future disruptions.

In order to address both short-term pressures and long-term ambitions, Bulgaria’s education system must respond and adapt so as to support its students in developing the knowledge and skills they need to lead successful lives. To do so requires that Bulgaria improve its curriculum, prepare the teacher workforce and ensure that young graduates acquire those competencies in highest demand and are responsive to labour market needs and students’ interests.

Various legislation, strategies and policies underpin and guide the development of young people’s skills in Bulgaria (Table 2.1). Bulgaria’s Pre-school and School Education Act (PSEA) (2016, amended in 2020) is the main legal basis for developing youth skills. It regulates the structure, functions, organisation, management and financing of the pre-school and school education system. The act made schooling compulsory from age four; required all schools to implement measures to reduce early school leaving and integrate students from vulnerable demographics; and introduced a modern curriculum. In addition, the goal of improving youth skills is present in several national strategies, including broader development strategies and strategies focused specifically on education and training.

Responsibility for developing the skills of young people in Bulgaria is shared across three levels of government – national, regional and municipal – and has been progressively decentralised in recent years (Table 2.2). Nationally, the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) is responsible for informing and implementing education strategies and legislation established by the National Assembly and the Council of Ministers. Various specialised institutions and agencies provide assistance and support to the ministry. At the subnational level, municipalities provide and fund pre-school, primary, lower and upper secondary general education, as well as teacher training, while 28 regional departments of education (REDs) support municipalities and schools in implementing national education policies. Various stakeholders, such as school heads, teachers and employers, among others, also play important roles in shaping and implementing policies for developing young people’s skills.

Compulsory education in Bulgaria starts in pre-primary education at the age of 4 (since 2020) and lasts until students are 16 years old, at the first stage of upper secondary education (Table 2.3). Education is provided free of charge until the end of upper secondary education, and most students do not change schools until upper secondary education. Students are selected into different secondary programmes after they finish Grade 7, at around 13 years old. At this point, they either follow an academic programme in a general secondary school or “gymnasium”; attend a profiled high school that specialises in areas such as foreign language or mathematics; or choose to enrol in a vocational education and training (VET) programme in a secondary vocational education school. Upon completing upper secondary education, students who sit and pass the state matriculation examination receive a diploma that allows them to apply for general or professional tertiary education (Table 2.3). Students who complete upper secondary education but do not sit or pass the state matriculation examination are still awarded a certificate of completion, with which they can progress into post-secondary VET.

Ensuring children have access to education early on in life is essential for their long-term development. Bulgaria prioritises participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC). Still, participation in pre-primary, compulsory education has been decreasing since 2014 and is low compared to the European Union (EU) average (Eurostat, 2022[16]). For example, in 2020, the net enrolment rate of young children aged 4-7 in pre-primary education was 82%, compared to the EU average of 95% (Eurostat, 2022[16]). Low enrolment rates in early childhood can undermine the learning process of students and endanger skills formation and human capital development in Bulgaria (Hristova, Tosheva and Stoykova, 2020[17]). Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that participation at this level of education is unequal, particularly for minority groups, such as Roma students. Among the barriers to entrance and completion of this education level are financial costs1 and lack of complementary services, such as limited transportation (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]). Limited ECEC infrastructure and shortage of places available, especially in urban areas, are also serious challenges for participation at this education level (World Bank, 2020[18]). Ensuring participation in education for all student groups is key to the country’s future development.

Participation and completion in school-aged education are relatively low in Bulgaria and have declined recently. Participation in primary education has decreased in recent years, from 90% in 2016 to 85% in 2020 (UIS, 2022[19]). When it comes to lower secondary education, participation is also low and decreasing, declining from 93% in 2016 to 83% in 2020 (UIS, 2022[19]). Bulgaria also has one of the highest shares of early school leavers in Europe – at 12%, compared to an EU average of 10% in 2021 (Eurostat, 2022[20]). The percentage is expected to rise even further following the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to online learning (Kovacheva and Hristozova, 2022[21]). This share is higher for students in rural areas (24%) compared to cities (7%) (2021) (Eurostat, 2021[22]). In upper secondary education, Bulgaria made progress in increasing enrolment rates from 81% of school-aged youth in 2010 to over 90% in 2017 (UIS, 2022[19]). However, as in lower education levels, enrolment has fallen in recent years (82% of students enrolled in 2020) (UIS, 2022[19]), partly reflecting the declining share of students completing earlier education levels.

Participation in VET has gradually improved in line with improving graduate labour market outcomes, but VET is still considered an unattractive pathway by many in Bulgarian society (Daskalova and Ivanova, 2018[23]). More than half of students (52% in 2019) in upper secondary education in Bulgaria are enrolled in VET (UIS, 2022[24]). Bulgaria’s education system is selective and tracks students into VET and general upper secondary programmes at the age of 13 – among OECD countries, the average age is 16 (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]). The system is designed to identify and funnel the best-performing students into elite schools. Indeed, the country has one of the highest rates of 15-year-olds who attend an academically selective school and the highest “isolation index”2 between socio-economically disadvantaged and high-achieving students, according to PISA (OECD, 2019[25]), with a high concentration of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in vocational programmes (Institute for Research in Education, 2019[26]).

Furthermore, completion rates in VET declined from 83% in 2012/13 to 77% in 2018/19 (Institute for Research in Education, 2019[26]), with higher dropout rates in small towns and villages (World Bank, 2022[27]). Non-completion rates are higher in VET schools than in general schools. Data from 2017 show that while almost 21% of students in VET have dropped out of education before the end of the education cycle, the same was true for only 8.5% of students in general secondary education (World Bank, 2022[27]). High non-completions in VET partly reflect the lower academic proficiency of VET students and the challenging curricula they face (i.e. VET students need to follow both the general curriculum and the VET curriculum). Other issues in VET include lower perceived teaching quality and limited co-operation with employers (Kovacheva and Hristozova, 2022[21]).

VET in Bulgaria remains mostly school-based, which limits students’ employability (Daskalova and Ivanova, 2018[23]; World Bank, 2022[27]). Of all students enrolled in VET, as much as 41% are enrolled in schools in small or very small towns, and 4% are in schools located in rural areas, making the involvement of employers in the provision of education a serious challenge for the country, as the local economy in these areas is mainly composed of micro and small businesses (World Bank, 2022[27]). Furthermore, the offer of post-secondary VET education is limited, with most vocational education providers being gymnasiums (World Bank, 2022[27]).

Participation in higher education is relatively low and declining. The inflow of students to tertiary education is declining, and in 2021, only 34% of 25-34 year-olds held a tertiary degree in Bulgaria, compared to an EU average of 41% (Eurostat, 2022[28]). The low level of tertiary attainment is also partly explained by the under-representation of vulnerable groups at this education level. According to the most recent data available, in 2015, less than 2% of students in higher education came from families whose parents’ level of education was below lower secondary (World Bank, 2022[29]).

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on education are still being studied, but available evidence suggests that the consequences have included falling participation and completion. The most disadvantaged students in Bulgaria were the ones most impacted by the pandemic and who struggle the most to return to education following the school closures. For example, access to remote learning was unequal among different student groups. As much as 8% of children covered by a recent survey did not participate in distance learning (or at least not regularly) due to barriers related to accessing online classes (Yankova, 2020[7]). High disengagement is also evident by increased absenteeism; even in schools with high participation rates, some 20% of students regularly skipped their online classes. Such a scenario has implications for students’ outcomes, including increasing the risks of academic failure and a prolonged period of dropouts.

Apart from ensuring participation, education systems need to ensure all students are offered high-quality learning that will allow them to leave school with the basic knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the transition to the labour market or to further studies.

Bulgaria’s students do relatively well at acquiring the knowledge taught in school curricula during initial education, although their performance is declining in some areas. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)3 and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS)4 assess how well Grade 4 and Grade 8 students have mastered the factual and procedural knowledge taught in school curricula. During the first years of primary education (Grade 4), students in Bulgaria perform well in reading tasks according to the 2016 PIRLS, with the country’s average point score for reading among one of the highest internationally (at 552) (IEA, 2017[30]). When it comes to mathematics and science as assessed by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), however, Bulgaria’s performance has decreased over time – from 524 to 515 points (in mathematics) and 536 to 521 points (in science) – although they remain above the average of participating countries.

Bulgaria’s students do less well at applying their knowledge in real-world settings, however. The OECD’s PISA5 assesses how well 15-year-old students can both reproduce and extrapolate from what they have learned in science, mathematics and reading, as well as how they apply their knowledge in unfamiliar settings. PISA 2018 results for Bulgaria show that the performance of 15-year-old students in reading (also in mathematics and science) is below the OECD average and has not significantly improved over time (Figure 2.1). A high share of students still do not achieve baseline levels of proficiency, with 32% of 15-year-old pupils considered low performers (i.e. scoring below Level 2 in all three subjects) compared to an EU average of 14% and an OECD average of 13% (OECD, 2019[31]).

Since PIRLS is a curriculum-based assessment and PISA is a skills-based assessment, the variation between the outcomes of the two assessments may be related to the prevailing instructional practices and learning culture in Bulgaria, which tends to value knowledge reproduction over the acquisition of higher-order competencies (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]).

Within Bulgaria, gaps in learning outcomes between different student populations are a major concern. For example, according to PISA 2018, students from disadvantaged backgrounds6 perform below their more advantaged peers in all PISA subjects, especially in reading, where the score point difference is at 106, compared to the OECD average of 88 (OECD, 2019[25]). Bulgaria has struggled to reduce these gaps over time. Since 2000, the share of disadvantaged Bulgarian students (proxied by parents lacking a higher education qualification) who are low performers (achieved below Level 2 proficiency in reading) has increased (OECD, 2019[3]). Learning gaps between students from different ethnic groups are also large in Bulgaria. A score point difference of 74 in reading exists between students whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian and those who are Bulgarian native speakers (OECD, 2019[3]). This is the highest gap between native and non-native speakers of any country within the European Union.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions in education systems across the globe. In Bulgaria, as in other countries, students continued their learning remotely when schools closed. According to surveys undertaken by MES, around 40% of teachers reported a deterioration in students’ knowledge, particularly in science. In terms of skills, the surveys identified an improvement in digital and autonomous learning competencies, while skills such as teamwork, critical thinking and time management have deteriorated (Hristova, Tosheva and Stoykova, 2020[17]). Results also show a considerable decrease in students' engagement, motivation, interest and overall attitude towards school, as well as teachers’ limited skills and resources to support students in this situation. This is a particular concern for Roma students, whose engagement with learning was relatively low before the pandemic (Hristova, Tosheva and Stoykova, 2020[17]).

Responsive VET and higher education make it possible for youth to attain the education level, develop the skills needed in the labour market today, and develop transversal skills for the future. It also helps alleviate skills imbalances in the labour market more broadly. The need for responsive education is becoming more acute in Bulgaria, especially as VET and higher education enrolments are declining due to population ageing and emigration. The country needs to ensure that more people are developing the skills in high demand in the labour market and support education institutions in responding to the market’s ever-changing needs. In Bulgaria, young people’s learning and labour market outcomes suggest that education and training could be more responsive to labour market demands.

VET is not currently equipping Bulgarian youth with strong transversal cognitive skills, and employment outcomes could be further improved. Although the majority of students during upper secondary education are enrolled in VET, the gap in learning outcomes between students in this track and those in general education (which more often leads to tertiary education) is one of the highest among nearby countries: 81 score points in reading according to PISA 2018 (OECD, 2019[25]). Moreover, in 2021, the employment rates of recent VET graduates aged 20-34 (72%) were below the EU average (76%) and that of recent Bulgarian higher education graduates on average (83%) (Eurostat, 2022[32]).

The supply and uptake of different VET qualifications in Bulgaria are slow to adjust to changing skills needs. As a result, VET education appears to be preparing students for some jobs and skills that are becoming outdated, partially linked to the difficulties in updating the list of professions for vocational education and training (LPVET) (World Bank, 2022[27]; CEDEFOP, 2018[33]). The LPVET establishes VET qualifications and is structured by education field, vocational area, profession and speciality (e.g. the education field can be “management and administration”, the vocational field “accountancy and taxation”, while the speciality is “operative accountancy”). The list is developed by NAVET together with ministries and employers’ representatives (CEDEFOP, 2018[33]). Although Bulgaria’s LPVET includes nearly 600 specialities in 47 professional areas, about 64% of all VET students were enrolled in the top 10 professions in 2019. Moreover, 20% of VET students were enrolled in VET areas associated with low-skilled jobs, such as the services and agricultural sectors, despite the gradual move of Bulgaria’s economy to higher value-added industries that demand higher-level skills (World Bank, 2022[27]).

The vast majority of higher education graduates find work, but there are some concerns about the relevance and quality of their skills. In 2021, employment rates among recent tertiary graduates – aged 20-34, not in education and training – were at 83%, higher than graduates with lower education attainment but slightly below the EU average (85%) (Eurostat, 2022[32]). In Bulgaria, employers are concerned about increasing difficulties in finding workers with the right set of skills and knowledge (Figure 2.2). One challenge concerning the quality of higher education programmes in Bulgaria is the tendency to rely on a theoretical approach to learning, with little space given to practice and a lack of attention given to the skills needed by employers (Kovacheva and Hristozova, 2022[21]). This is partly linked to the lack of relevant and reliable labour market information (see Chapter 5) and limited co-operation with employers.

Moreover, higher education enrolments by field of study in Bulgaria do not seem to be highly responsive to the needs of the labour market. In 2020, the shares of 25-34 year-old tertiary graduates in Bulgaria whose field of education did not match their occupation (30%) or who were overqualified (27%) were slightly above the EU averages (28% and 24%) (CEDEFOP, 2022[36]; Eurostat, n.d.[37]). There may be an over-supply of students in certain higher education courses (e.g. business and law) and an under-supply of others (e.g. STEM) (World Bank, 2022[29]). In 2020, for example, only 3% of tertiary graduates held qualifications in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics (compared to the EU average of 6%) (Eurostat, 2022[38]). In contrast, 5% had qualifications in information and communications technology (ICT) (compared to the EU average of 4%) (Eurostat, 2022[38]). Bulgaria faces skills shortages in particular knowledge areas requiring high-level skills, including in medicine, training, education and science (OECD, 2022[39]).

Another challenge for the country is its youth's low levels of digital skills. Bulgaria has one of the highest shares in the European Union of 16-24 year-olds with limited basic digital skills (7% versus 2% in the European Union, 2021) (Eurostat, 2023[40]). In a world characterised by increasing digitalisation, and in which digital technology is an increasingly important driver of innovation and economic growth, most people need strong digital skills for success in work and life.

The economic disruption caused by COVID-19 has lowered job prospects and increased unemployment, especially for young people (Kovacheva and Hristozova, 2022[21]). This makes increasing the responsiveness of VET and higher education to changing labour market needs even more crucial.

Bulgaria’s performance in equipping young people with skills for work and life reflects a range of individual, institutional and system-level factors, as well as broader economic and social conditions in the country. However, three critical opportunities for improving Bulgaria’s performance have emerged based on a review of the literature, desk research and data analysis, and input from the officials and stakeholders consulted during this Skills Strategy project (hereafter, “project participants”).

The three main opportunities for developing youth skills in Bulgaria are:

  1. 1. ensuring that curriculum reform and assessment practices improve students’ skills

  2. 2. developing a highly skilled teaching workforce

  3. 3. making vocational and higher education more responsive to labour market needs.

These opportunities for improvement are now considered in turn.

Other opportunities for improving youth skills are covered in other chapters or are out of the scope of this report. For example, providing young people with high-quality information on labour market needs and financing formal education effectively are discussed in Chapter 5 of this report. While Bulgaria also faces challenges with access to and quality of ECEC, ECEC is undergoing substantive reforms (e.g. making ECEC compulsory and free from the age of four), the outcomes of which are not yet fully known. The country has also adopted national programmes such as Together for Every Child to help ensure the coverage and inclusion of children in compulsory ECEC. As such, ECEC is not covered in this review.

Successfully designing and implementing modern school curricula are essential for equipping students with the skills needed for success in work and life. Many OECD countries seek to implement curricula that equip students with skills, knowledge, attitudes and values that allow them to navigate an increasingly interconnected, digitalised, complex and uncertain world. This has been seen in curricula reforms aimed at achieving a more competency-based approach to learning that reflects both local and global influences and allows students to cultivate key competencies (Yong-lin, 2007[41]; Gouëdard, 2020[42]; OECD, 2018[5]). Curriculum reforms have also emphasised student agency, well-being and ability to solve problems (OECD, 2018[5]; Gouëdard, 2020[42]).

Beyond curricula, effectively assessing what students know and can do is also essential for equipping them with the skills needed for success in work and life. Many OECD countries seek to develop effective assessment systems that facilitate evidence-based decision making and system improvement (OECD, 2013[43]). Aligning assessment practices with competency-based curricula is complex as it involves assessing students’ diverse competencies rather than just assessing students’ ability to reproduce knowledge. In an effective assessment framework, summative assessments aimed at grading students at the end of a learning unit should be accompanied by formative assessments or assessment for learning, aimed at facilitating student improvement.

Bulgaria initiated a major reform in 2016 to establish a competency-based curriculum to replace a traditional curriculum focused on knowledge reproduction. The competency framework (that sets out and defines each competency to be developed by students) underpinning the curriculum is aligned with the European Parliament and Council of Europe’s Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (2006, updated 2018). The framework has established nine interdependent and transversal competencies to be embedded across school education for both general and VET programmes (Education 2030 Association, 2019[44]). The competency-based curriculum was legislated in the PSEA (2016), and the 2021/22 school year marked the first time all students in Bulgarian schools should follow the new curriculum. The Directorate for the Content of Pre-school and School Education within MES has overseen the introduction of the competency-based curriculum.

The competency-based curriculum framework is complemented by educational standards, which define the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for each subject at the end of each education level. However, teachers lack guidance and support to implement competency-based curriculum in the classroom. Project participants reported that the lack of clear goals linking teaching practices to key competencies, as well as a clear plan and capacity building for their practical inclusion at the classroom level, have resulted in the ineffective implementation of the competency-based curriculum (Education 2030 Association, 2019[44]).

Changes have also started to be made to Bulgaria’s assessment framework. Ordinance 11 (2016) introduced a new student assessment framework that seeks to align with a competency-based curriculum. For example, the assessment framework focuses more on formative assessment practices (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]). The ordinance also defines the purposes and operationalisation of the country’s national student assessment system, providing data on learning outcomes (known as the national external assessments).

For these recent changes to be translated into a new approach to teaching and learning in the classroom, project participants mentioned the need to build awareness about the curriculum reform, showing how it fits a broader vision for quality education. They also mentioned the need to support and train teachers to implement the competency-based approach (see Opportunity 2). Moreover, Bulgaria needs to redesign its external student assessment system to measure learning outcomes and monitor the implementation of the competency-based curriculum.

The OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills has recently published an Evaluation and Assessment Review of Bulgaria’s Education System (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]). Opportunity 1, in particular, draws and builds on some of the findings and recommendations of this review.

One of the major difficulties countries face when introducing curriculum reform concerns implementation (Gouëdard, 2020[42]). Curriculum implementation includes translating reforms into classroom practices and accomplishing the desired objectives of the reform. In addition, a curriculum change is highly cultural and political as it determines a society's vision by deciding the skills and knowledge that are valuable to pass on (Gouëdard, 2020[42]). As such, it is important to have a clear and shared vision for curriculum reform that articulates the purpose of the reform, why it is needed, the benefits it will have and how it can be achieved.

Although the move to a competency-based curriculum is one priority of Bulgaria’s National Development Programme (Table 2.1), the country is struggling to implement curriculum reform. The competency-based approach has been translated into modifications to the normative and strategic framework of the country (Table 2.1). This included, for example, the development of an action plan for the Strategic Framework for the Development of Education, Training and Learning (2021-2030) in 2022. However, this has resulted in only limited changes to teaching and learning at the classroom level. Recent research (Education 2030 Association, 2019[44]) and project participants suggest that there are barriers to the successful implementation of the competency-based curriculum.

Several project participants stated that Bulgaria lacks a clear and shared vision of the curriculum reform and its benefits, as well as a detailed action plan to achieve its implementation (e.g. including key steps, roles and responsibilities to support schools in the different phases of curriculum implementation). One of the main barriers to successfully implementing education policy is stakeholders' lack of engagement and preparation for translating reforms into practice (Viennet, 2017[45]). For a curriculum reform to succeed, all key stakeholders need to grasp the vision for the reform and understand what it entails for them. Effective communication, awareness and capacity building, among others, are key for effective curriculum implementation, as they foster ownership and individual and collective sense making (Gouëdard, 2020[42]). Therefore, Bulgaria should strengthen efforts to raise awareness of and buy-in to the reform among policy makers, subnational authorities, principals and teachers, and student and parent representatives.

The regulations and guidance for the competency-based curriculum could more clearly define each competency and related learner outcomes. MES has issued some guiding documents for supporting stakeholders in curriculum implementation. These include the Transition from Knowledge to Skills, which is a guide on the process of reorientation from subject-oriented to result-oriented learning; the Competences and Reference Frameworks, which is a short, adapted presentation of the existing reference frameworks; and a summary table of the key competencies that the national education system aims to develop. However, the regulatory framework that introduced the competency-based curriculum does not establish the scope of each specific key competency, and the accompanying guidelines have not clarified the expected competency-related outcomes or how to assess them (World Bank, 2020[46]).

Training, support and capacity building for teachers to implement the competency-based curriculum in classrooms has been insufficient. The majority of teachers in the country are used to teaching methods that focus on developing subject-specific knowledge. The set of guiding materials prepared and distributed by MES are not perceived to have helped change teaching practices as they did not provide practical examples of how to support students in acquiring key competencies (World Bank, 2020[46]). The REDs are now responsible for providing more practical, methodological support to teachers, including on the competency-based curriculum, for example, by "organising training and sharing good practices" (Education 2030 Association, 2019[44]). However, the intensity and quality of these activities are not consistent across regions. This may reflect that not all REDs or staff have the needed skills, knowledge, experience or time to perform their new roles (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]; World Bank, 2020[46]) and may also lack financial resources for these functions.

The local-level, needs-based methodological support envisaged for REDs could bring important results as experts know the local school contexts and challenges of school networks. MES, through the work of REDs, could also support building teacher capacity and agency in the reform process by stimulating opportunities for networking and collaboration. Changes also need to be made to initial teacher training and continuing professional development (CPD) programmes, ensuring that teachers are trained to introduce this competency-based approach to teaching (see Opportunity 2 for more detailed information). This would allow teachers, once aware of their roles and responsibilities stated in the vision of the curriculum reform, to implement changes at the classroom level.

Addressing the aforementioned challenges is even more important as MES began reviewing the school curriculum again in 2022. Given concerns that the current curriculum is still too focused on subject knowledge and not enough on developing competencies and interdisciplinary skills, in 2022, MES began reviewing the framework and content of all subjects taught from Grades 1 to 10. In this context, MES should closely engage education stakeholders in order to develop and impart a shared vision for the reforms, including what the reform will look like at the classroom level. This should include clear and measurable objectives to guide the implementation of the curriculum, as well as clearly defined and well-supported roles and responsibilities for key stakeholders.

Bulgaria could build on the potential of REDs (Box 2.1) and learn from the experience of Wales (United Kingdom) in reforming curriculum (Box 2.2) in order to successfully implement its competency-based curriculum reforms. With sufficient engagement, capacity building and resourcing, REDs could provide useful methodological support to teachers and share good practices on implementing the competency-based curriculum. In addition, REDs could work with and learn from existing grade-specific and/or subject-specific teacher communities within Bulgarian schools to support teachers effectively. Furthermore, Wales’ efforts at reforming school curriculum provide various lessons for Bulgaria, especially regarding stakeholder engagement and buy-in to the reforms (Box 2.2).

Modernising assessment practices to align with the competency-based curriculum is also a necessary condition for ensuring that Bulgaria’s education reforms improve students’ skills. Assessing students’ learning outcomes and using results to enhance learning practices and guide system improvement is key for any education system. In the context of Bulgaria’s transition to a competency-based curriculum, external assessment tools need to monitor students’ acquisition of diverse and higher-order competencies. The results of assessments should also be used to monitor students’ progress against national learning standards and guide system improvement over time.

In addition to school-based assessments developed by teachers to monitor student progress, Bulgaria externally assesses students with two main tools developed by the Centre for Assessment of Pre-school and School Education (CAPSE):

  1. 1. National external assessments: All students take these assessments in Grades 4, 7 and 10. CAPSE is the agency responsible for their design and administration. Students are assessed in mathematics and Bulgarian language and literature, and some choose to take the assessment in foreign languages. The national external assessment system uses a single test instrument to serve multiple purposes, including system monitoring and selection (i.e. allocating students to different secondary education programmes and schools after Grade 7).

  2. 2. The State Matura examination: This examination is administered to students after Grade 12 (at the end of upper secondary education). This is used for education certification and entrance to higher education. It is also developed and administered by CAPSE. Students are assessed in the Bulgarian language, literature and a subject of their choice. Students also have the option to take the examination in two other additional subjects (e.g. a foreign language).

The regulatory framework and policy documentation related to the introduction of the competency-based curriculum support the update of school-based assessment practices to monitor student progress and improve learning. However, they do not provide specific guidance on how external assessments should be aligned with the competency-based curriculum. The introduction of Ordinance 11 (see above), for example, and the new assessment framework help educators understand the main types of assessments and how to organise them in the context of the new curriculum. The regulatory framework for the new curriculum establishes that assessments should monitor the implementation of the new education process. However, the regulatory framework does not specify how the national external assessments should be redesigned or how assessment results should be used.

Bulgaria has not yet aligned external student assessments with the competency-based curriculum. Currently, the national external assessments consist of multiple-choice, open-ended and essay writing tasks that can, in theory, help measure a wider range of skills, including higher-order thinking skills reflected in Bulgaria’s new curriculum. However, the content of questions and the criteria used to assess students’ responses are still predominantly focused on knowledge reproduction and memorisation rather than applying critical thinking skills aligned with the competency-based approach to teaching and learning. The results of these assessments also cannot be compared over time because the scoring system is not criterion-referenced – that is, designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards.

The national external assessments also lack most of the basic features that allow assessments to measure learning outcomes against national standards. For example, Bulgaria lacks basic psychometric resources for the assessments, such as proficiency scales linked to learning standards and calibrated test items (i.e. a technique to estimate characteristics of questions for achievement tests making sure items are on the same scale). Furthermore, assessments are not designed to inform progress on students’ acquisition of key competencies (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]; World Bank, 2020[46]; Education 2030 Association, 2019[44]). As a result, teachers may not place sufficient emphasis on developing students’ competencies when teaching and preparing students for external assessments.

Furthermore, the results of external assessments are not systematically provided to or used by schools to enable continuous improvement. While school results are presented on line, there is no reporting with a more in-depth analysis of results to inform policy making and pedagogical intervention. Moreover, since the national external assessments are not aligned to the competency-based curriculum, results cannot be used to inform and/or evaluate the implementation of the competency-based curriculum at the national or subnational level, nor generate information to help improve teaching and learning of the new curriculum. The recently published OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Bulgaria suggested, among other things, that Bulgaria create a “state of education report” that would include analysis from the national external assessments to inform policy making (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]).

Overcoming the longstanding summative assessment culture in Bulgaria’s education system, where tests are used to sort students into different schools, will be key to successfully reforming student assessments. Currently, the national external assessments have a strong selective function, especially after Grade 7, and educational stakeholders have little incentive to change this. A comprehensive, structural reform to the schooling system in Bulgaria would need to take place to address this challenge. The recent OECD review (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]) recommends, for example, decoupling the selective role of the national external assessments and introducing a new, optional and more suitable selection examination for matching students with different school types. This could be an alternative, and help overcome any resistance, to aligning national external assessments with the competency-based curriculum.

To support the alignment of the national external assessments with the competency-based curriculum, Bulgaria could build on the recent changes made to the State Matura examination after Grade 12, which included new subject specifications that allowed for some competencies to be assessed more in line with the competency-based curriculum (Box 2.3). The country could also consider insights from Australia, which introduced new assessment frameworks in 2016 to adjust its national assessment system to major curriculum reforms (Box 2.4).

What teachers know and can do is one of the strongest direct school-based influences for improving the skills of young people (Darling-Hammond, 2000[4]). A high-quality and effective learning environment can also play a major role in decreasing socio-economic gaps between students. Teachers play an important role in providing students with the tools they need to develop the knowledge and transversal skills to continue in post-secondary education and enter the job market. Investing in the quality of teachers and ensuring they have the opportunities to update their knowledge will be essential for improving the skills of young people and successfully implementing Bulgaria’s curriculum reforms. This requires high-quality and accessible initial teacher education (ITE) and CPD programmes, among other things.

Bulgaria faces an ageing teacher population, which creates risks in ensuring a sufficient quantity and quality of teachers (European Commission, 2021[53]). As a response, in recent years, the country has implemented several policies to ensure that it can replace retiring teachers. For example, it has: significantly increased teachers’ salaries; covered the tuition fees of ITE; tried to make ITE more accessible through supporting universities to open more programme places and expanding distance learning; and has also been trying to attract more high-achieving performing graduates through the provision of scholarships (World Bank, 2020[46]). These actions have contributed to a growing number of students enrolling in ITE programmes in recent years. However, they have not fully resolved shortages of ITE students in specific subject areas (such as STEM) and regions (especially regions with higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage).

Bulgaria has also introduced a range of policies to build the capacity of teachers. For example, Bulgaria’s National Strategy for the Development of Pedagogical Staff (2014-2020) and the PSEA (2016) led to several changes. These included creating core content for ITE programmes, introducing teacher standards (defining the pedagogical, managerial, social, and civic competencies that teachers are expected to possess) and creating a teacher career structure that makes teachers’ CPD mandatory. With these reforms, Bulgaria’s policies to strengthen the teaching profession have converged with what is in place in many other European countries. However, some of these policies have not yet been fully implemented or achieved their desired outcomes. For example, not all ITE programmes have yet adopted the core content foreseen by Bulgaria’s strategies and legislation.

Despite these reforms, there remain challenges to equipping the teaching workforce to improve youth skills in Bulgaria. For example, there are concerns about recent teaching graduates' quality and readiness for the profession. Evidence shows that teacher candidates’ grades are below the average of students in other higher education tracks (World Bank, 2020[46]). Despite recent increases in the number of applicants, relatively few high-achieving upper secondary students are attracted to the teaching profession. Moreover, compared to OECD and EU countries, the amount of time dedicated to teacher practicums in Bulgaria is low, and school-based practice for teachers is not a priority for ITE programmes.

Furthermore, the country also struggles with a fragmented CPD system, with many different providers and a lack of quality control for the programmes offered. Project participants have mentioned the need for a needs-based CPD system, as currently, much of the training that does occur is not closely aligned with teachers’ individual and evolving learning needs, especially those of VET teachers. It will be important that Bulgaria complements its policies to attract more teacher candidates with policies to ensure the quality of the teaching workforce. This can help ensure that Bulgaria’s increasing public investments in the teaching workforce attain their desired effect on helping develop youth skills.

Selecting and preparing high-quality teaching candidates is essential for Bulgaria’s efforts to develop a highly skilled teaching workforce that can improve youth skills. As noted above, Bulgaria has put in place several policies in recent years to improve the performance of its teaching workforce. Much of these efforts have focused on updating ITE core content and attracting more teachers to the profession. However, project participants voiced that teacher candidates' quality and readiness to enter the profession have been persistent concerns for the country’s education system.

Like other European countries, Bulgaria has both concurrent and consecutive (one year) models7 of initial teacher preparation that lead to either a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Around 13 (12 public and 1 private) of Bulgaria’s 54 universities offer ITE programmes. In 2019, public universities offered 5 616 places to ITE, of which 94% were filled (World Bank, 2020[46]). According to the latest OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), 29% of teachers in Bulgaria have received a comprehensive ITE, lower than the OECD average of 39%. A comprehensive ITE includes subject content, pedagogy, classroom practices, cross-curricular skills, teaching in a mixed-ability setting and classroom management (OECD, 2019[54]). Indeed, many ITE applicants do not go on to become teachers and are relatively low-skilled. Project participants raised concerns about the limited share of students graduating from ITE. The percentage of graduates of ITE that actually enter the profession has been low, with between 40% and 65% of graduates of pedagogical programmes not entering the teaching profession (OECD, 2019[54]). The low transition rate between ITE and teaching is particularly concerning considering the amount of financial resources and incentives put into attracting new teachers (e.g. elimination of tuition fees and provision of scholarships) in recent years. The lack of specific entrance tests and interviews to evaluate teacher candidates' motivation and strengths could explain the low transition rates from ITE to teaching. In addition, candidates applying for ITE programmes perform below the average (based on students’ grade point average) of the overall population entering higher education (World Bank, 2020[46]).

ITE admission processes in Bulgaria do not set minimum academic requirements (apart from students’ successfully passing the Matura examination) or necessarily assess students’ broader competencies and motivations. An important feature of the world’s best-performing education systems is that ITE places are offered to the most able and suitable candidates (Barber, 2007[55]). Implementing varied mechanisms to assess teacher candidates’ suitability beyond their academic grades (e.g. assessing soft skills, such as motivation, commitment, interpersonal skills, etc.) can help get the best students into the teaching profession. Evidence shows that teachers’ socio-emotional skills are particularly important for supporting low-skilled students, while teachers’ cognitive skills mainly benefit high-skilled students (Grönqvist and Vlachos, 2016[56]). Students in Bulgaria enter ITE based on their academic performance (e.g. passing the Matura examination and, depending on the university, on further entrance examinations and previous grades from school education). However, currently, there are no minimum requirements for admission into ITE. Also, it is not common for all ITE providers in Bulgaria to assess applicants’ broader competencies, such as motivation, commitment, interpersonal skills, etc., via interviews or other means as part of admission processes. This is also a missed opportunity to improve equity, for example, by allowing suitable candidates who have not completed the Matura from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter ITE studies.

Bulgaria could benefit from an admission process for ITE that is more selective and more comprehensively assesses applicants’ competencies. It is unlikely that more selective admission requirements for ITE in Bulgaria would lead to a shortage of entrants or teachers. The number of students entering ITE has increased very recently. For example, the proportion of new pedagogical studies entrants increased from 2019 to 2020 by around 7.6% (European Commission, 2021[53]). This at least partly reflects policies to increase teacher salaries and attract more students to the profession. More selective admission requirements in isolation may deter some applicants and reduce the number of ITE entrants. However, this would be at least partially offset by more comprehensive admission requirements that allow students without high academic grades, but with strong motivation and socio-emotional skills, for example, to enter ITE. Any changes to ITE admission requirements should be accompanied by systematic forecasting of teacher demand (see Chapter 5) and continued incentives to fill shortages in specific subjects and geographic areas.

As highlighted by project participants, Bulgaria could also boost the quality and readiness of teachers by increasing practical learning and exposure to different teaching practices during ITE. The core content framework for ITE was updated in 2021 to increase the amount of study time in areas like pedagogy, competency-based teaching approaches and inclusive education. However, the minimum practicum time (i.e. in-school placement) remains low and has not changed. ITE students in Bulgaria have a minimum of 10 European Credits Transfer System (ECTS) credits8 for practicum time, compared to 60 in Iceland, 50 in Hungary, 39 in Latvia and 30 in Lithuania – all countries with the same length of ITE programmes as Bulgaria (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021[57]).

School-based practicum is not highly prioritised in Bulgarian ITE programmes. For example, the pool of schools that offer teacher practicum is limited, as universities tend to rely on establishing partnerships with schools close to their campus, which are usually the best-performing urban schools (World Bank, 2020[46]). Theoretical knowledge is still also prioritised over practical knowledge in Bulgarian ITE. Teaching practices in Bulgarian ITE programmes could be more closely connected to what is required in schools. Furthermore, most ITE programmes in Bulgarian universities still rely on traditional teaching methodologies, such as seminars and lectures (World Bank, 2020[46]). As ITE graduates tend to replicate the teaching practices of their university professors (World Bank, 2020[46]), ITE programmes should allow students to experience a variety of modern teaching methods, especially those effective for competency-based curricula.

Bulgaria could better prepare teachers through ITE by involving current teachers in ITE and strengthening teacher mentoring. For example, MES could support the participation of current teachers in delivering course content during ITE. Furthermore, while mentoring exists for novice teachers during practicum, teacher mentors do not always receive enough training and support for this role. There also seems to be a lack of incentive for teachers to become mentors, who currently receive a minimum remuneration of BGN 60 (Bulgarian lev) per month for a duration of up to one year (World Bank, 2020[46]).

Bulgaria could build on the experience it acquired through its national programme – Motivated Teachers and Qualification – to recruit and prepare motivated professionals or graduates to become successful teachers (Box 2.5). This experience could also serve as an example of how ITE providers might make their admission processes more comprehensive. Bulgaria can also look to the examples of Albania and Finland, which have stricter admission requirements for students interested in ITE programmes (Box 2.6).

Ensuring relevant and high-quality CPD opportunities for teachers is also critical for Bulgaria’s efforts to develop a highly skilled teaching workforce that can improve youth skills. A crucial component of professionalism among teachers and school leaders is their participation in CPD. Achieving professional-level mastery of complex skills and knowledge is a prolonged and continuous process. Professionals must continually update their skills as technology, skills and knowledge advance (OECD, 2019[54]).

Like most OECD and European countries, Bulgaria has made CPD mandatory for teachers. In 2016, Ordinance 12 established that teachers are required to update their competencies and knowledge continuously, and the country’s teacher standards are expected to guide and serve as a reference point for professional development programmes. Teachers and school principals are expected to take two types of formal, regulated CPD: 1) compulsory training for continuing qualification credits;9 and 2) programmes that lead to one of five successive professional qualification degrees.

External CPD is provided by specialised units, universities and scientific organisations and training organisations. These training providers are the only ones offering CPD programmes approved by the Minister of Education. Planning, co-ordination, governance and monitoring of CPD activities are shared between MES, regional education management units, municipalities and school principals. The government subsidises CPD programmes leading to qualification credits, and school principals are expected to use part of the school budget to cover CPD.

Every 4 years (the official period for appraisals), teachers must undertake at least 48 hours of external CPD programmes that issue credit points. Teachers are also required to participate in job-embedded team learning in the form of 16 hours of participation in an “internal institutional qualification”.

Mandating CPD for teachers in 2016 led to almost universal participation by 2017. According to the TALIS 2018, 96% of lower secondary teachers in Bulgaria attended at least one professional development activity in the year prior to the survey (OECD, 2019[54]). This had increased from around 85% in the 2013 TALIS.

However, the quality and relevance of teachers’ CPD in Bulgaria do not appear to be strong. A high share of Bulgarian teachers report that their CPD does not teach skills considered crucial for 21st-century teaching (e.g. identifying and addressing student disengagement, dealing with absenteeism and low motivation, etc.) (OECD, 2019[54]). A survey by Sofia University in 2019 found that while a large share of teachers was formally engaged in CPD in 2014-19, one in four had never participated in qualifications aimed at enhancing core competencies defined in the teacher standards (Gospodinov and Peicheva-Forsyght, 2019[60]). These results could reflect several factors, including the process for selecting priority areas of CPD by government and schools, as well as quality assurance arrangements for CPD.

Despite high participation, the CPD system in Bulgaria is not based on a robust assessment of teachers’ training needs (Institute for Research in Education, 2019[26]). At the national level, MES determines priority topics for CPD provision by developing an annual list, the National Programme for Qualifications. At the school level, principals must spend at least half of their CPD training funds on internal or inter-institutional qualifications (e.g. discussion forums, open lessons, etc.) but otherwise have the autonomy to decide on their schools’ annual CPD plan. However, decisions on the content of CPD are largely top-down, based on expert judgement rather than evaluations of teaching and learning gaps (World Bank, 2020[46]).

In particular, the results of teacher appraisals are not systematically feeding into CPD planning at the school or system levels. Every four years, teachers and school principals are assessed by a commission made up of school principals, RED experts and pedagogical council representatives. However, the current appraisal process is mainly used for career progression and does not provide clear or regular feedback on teachers’ development needs. In contrast, formative, regular appraisals commonly involve appraisers within a school directly observing and assessing teaching practices in the classroom (Guthrie et al., 2022[13]).

Ex ante (pre-training) quality assurance of CPD programmes and providers could be strengthened. MES has made important progress in setting a framework with accreditation criteria for assessing the quality of training organisations and programmes. Training institutions providing professional development credits to teachers must be approved by MES, and their programmes must be registered in the Information Register of the Approved Qualification Programmes (IRAQP). Registration requires providers to demonstrate that their programmes are practical and theoretical and that their objectives and methods align with the knowledge, skills and attitudes defined in teacher standards. However, some providers of teachers’ CPD are not required to have their programmes approved and registered in this system, namely specialised service units (i.e. the National Centre for Raising the Qualification of Pedagogues, operating under MES) and universities. Some universities providing CPD do not even have accredited pedagogy programmes. Having a diverse set of CPD providers without rigorous quality assurance and monitoring procedures makes it difficult to ensure that programmes align with the professional needs of teachers.

Bulgaria also lacks a systematic approach for ex post (post-training) quality assurance of CPD to ensure the desired outcomes of CPD are achieved. Bulgaria has taken steps to collect feedback on training programmes by allowing teachers to provide feedback on a purpose-built website (Box 2.6). Beyond this, however, Bulgaria does not assess whether mandatory and/or publicly subsidised and registered CPD is achieving key outcomes, such as improving teachers’ skills, pedagogy and assessment, or whether it is improving students’ performance.

Bulgaria could build upon its recent mechanism to collect feedback from teachers on CPD training (Box 2.6). This is an important initiative taken by the government and could be included as part of a more formal, outcomes-based framework of CPD quality assurance. The country can also learn from Norway and its experience in creating a quality assurance system that emphasises the local analysis of teachers’ training needs, collective forms of professional learning and ongoing monitoring of the outcomes of CPD (Box 2.7).

The need for responsive education is becoming more acute in Bulgaria, especially as the country faces a large population decline related to population ageing and high emigration rates. Moreover, megatrends such as globalisation, technological change and digitalisation are transforming workplaces and the skill requirements of jobs in the process, with the result that many jobs require different and/or higher levels of skills than in the past. Such developments highlight the need to ensure that vocational and higher education in Bulgaria is responsive to evolving labour market needs.

Bulgarian employers are concerned about increasing difficulties in finding workers with the right set of skills. Young people’s learning and labour market outcomes suggest that education and training could be more responsive to labour market needs (see the section above on Bulgaria’s performance in youth skills). Key Bulgarian education strategies prioritise responsive VET and higher education. They focus on, among other things, making initial vocational education a more attractive learning opportunity; providing flexible access to training and acquisition of qualification; and strengthening the co-operation between VET, higher education, social partners and government officials on curricula and programmes, practical training and career guidance to students.

Multiple factors may contribute to the limited responsiveness of Bulgaria’s education system. Institutionalised co-operation between educational institutions and employers in VET exists at the national level but is not systematic at the local level. VET institutions have some mechanisms for engaging employers (e.g. the National Council for Tripartite Cooperation), but their role is mainly advisory, and they do not generate information on regional and local skills needs. Project participants highlighted that in both VET and higher education, social partners lack incentives and labour market information to be effectively involved in curriculum design and other types of co-operation with institutions. Work-based learning opportunities also remain insufficient for students in VET, especially outside big cities. As for higher education, the government has introduced financial and other measures to incentivise students to pursue qualifications in high demand in the labour market. However, there is evidence of mismatches between the supply and demand for graduates in certain fields, and some groups of youth remain under-represented in higher education. Addressing these challenges will require a comprehensive response, including strengthening the role of local stakeholders in VET and strengthening the capacity and incentives of higher education institutions to respond to labour market needs.

Many aspects of Bulgaria’s VET system are highly centralised. In recent years, the Government of Bulgaria has sought to make VET more responsive to local labour market needs by increasing the autonomy of municipalities and regions in delivering VET and by increasing the participation of social partners. Municipalities have a growing role in setting staff salaries and maintaining VET institutions (e.g. equipment), for example. Each year, schools determine which VET programmes they will provide and how many applicants they will enrol. However, the majority of VET schools are state-controlled, and considerable decision making relevant to their day-to-day running is still being made at the national level. For example, MES and NAVET retain responsibility for updating VET curricula, while MES and the Ministry of Finance determine the amount of public funding available per student in VET.

The process for updating VET curricula is particularly centralised and bureaucratic. VET is offered only in professions and specialities included in the national LPVET. The list is developed and updated by NAVET and is approved by MES in consultation with the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, relevant sectoral ministers and representatives of employers and employees (OECD, 2019[63]). Each profession and specialty on the LPVET then needs to be translated into occupational standards that provide clear information on the necessary professional knowledge, skills and competencies for each profession. NAVET then uses occupational standards to develop state educational standards (setting national learning goals for each subject at the end of each stage of schooling). Only then can VET curricula be designed or updated. MES develops the compulsory part of curricula at the national level in consultation with VET teachers and employers. Schools have the autonomy to decide on subjects of “extended training” in VET, but MES sets the hours for such training.

Centralised and bureaucratic decision making in VET limits the sector’s ability to respond to labour market needs, especially at the local level. There are often delays in updating the LPVET because it is so resource-intensive. In addition, it can be hard for authorities to find social partners with the time and competencies to participate in the process of reviewing the list (OECD, 2019[63]; World Bank, 2022[27]). The standards associated with professions on the list are also developed without robust labour market information and skills anticipation tools (OECD, 2019[63]) (see Chapter 5).

While there are potential benefits to decentralising and simplifying decision making in VET, especially for updating curricula, this would need to come with capacity building at the subnational level. The monitoring and controlling tasks of MES and NAVET in the VET system likely limit their capacity to undertake other key tasks, such as updating curricula (OECD, 2019[63]). As such, there could be benefits in giving subnational authorities greater flexibility to develop curricula and/or adapt VET to local needs. However, schools already have the autonomy to design the elective part of the curriculum to reflect local labour market needs and student interests. Yet, project participants highlighted that some VET schools and municipalities currently lack the capacity and labour market information to adequately adapt VET to local needs. Schools’ decisions regarding VET provision are often based on existing capacity, the availability of teachers and school infrastructure, rather than employers and labour market needs (OECD, 2019[63]). Building capacity at the local level would be a necessary part of efforts to increase the flexibility and responsiveness of VET.

Stakeholder engagement in the VET system is also highly centralised and formal. Bulgaria has a National Council for Tripartite Co-operation, a consultative body for labour, social insurance and living standard issues. It comprises senior government, trade union and employer representatives and discusses and gives advice on draft legislation related to vocational qualifications. It has become more involved in VET and can propose changes to the list of VET qualifications. Bulgaria also has a VET Consultative Council in place to advise on VET policy and implementation, bringing together representatives from trade unions, employers, universities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), national and local government representatives and schools. NAVET is primarily responsible for co-ordinating formal and regulated co-operation between social partners and the government (Table 2.2).

However, stakeholder engagement in VET is not systematic or effective at the subnational level. Project participants stated that co-operation between local authorities, VET schools and employers at the subnational level is generally weak. Although skills needs vary significantly across regions in Bulgaria (OECD, 2019[63]), the VET system is not meeting these needs effectively. Social partners play a consulting role at the regional and local level, such as in the 28 District Development Councils. However, these formal subnational fora are not VET-specific (OECD, 2019[63]). Some municipalities lack resources and require additional support to engage in durable co-operation with social partners and VET schools (CEDEFOP, 2020[64]). Local actors often also lack adequate data and tools to help forecast the skills needed for local and regional economies (see Chapter 5). Bulgaria is introducing sectoral skills councils to improve stakeholder engagement in VET. Sectoral skills councils will analyse and forecast labour market needs at sectoral and regional levels, help update the LPVET and state educational standards and support partnerships between vocational schools and employers, among other things (see Chapter 5). Sectoral skills councils will strengthen stakeholder engagement in VET if implemented and resourced effectively. However, it is uncertain what the role of subnational actors will be in the councils and how the councils will help address local skills needs.

Bulgaria has also sought to involve employers in VET by prescribing work-based learning (WBL) and supporting apprenticeships in initial VET. WBL, including apprenticeships, complements the learning in the classroom by enabling students to develop work-relevant technical and professional skills using up-to-date equipment and work practices, as well as transversal skills, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation (OECD, 2012[65]). High-quality WBL also allows VET graduates to find relevant employment more easily. In Bulgaria, practical learning is compulsory in every initial VET programme. Dual VET (apprenticeships), in particular, has been a focus of recent reforms by the Bulgarian government to increase WBL in initial VET. The PSEA introduced the dual training model, alternating between practical training in a real working environment and school-based learning. Apprentices start their in-company apprenticeship during Grade 11 and continue in Grade 12 (two days per week in-company placement in Grade 11 and three days per week in-company placement in Grade 12) (Hristova, 2020[66]). The Bulgaria 2030 strategy and recent national programmes include expanding dual training in VET as a priority.

However, relatively few VET students and employers in Bulgaria engage in WBL and apprenticeships. As such, Bulgaria is not realising the potential benefits of involving employers in VET, especially for making VET more responsive to skills needs. Currently, VET in Bulgaria is still mainly school-based. Although practical learning is compulsory, it often occurs in simulated rather than real workplaces. In Bulgaria, 56% of VET respondents10 to an EU opinion survey on VET said their education took place entirely at school, compared to just over 40% of respondents across the European Union on average (Daskalova and Ivanova, 2018[23]). In the 2021/22 school year, around 10 000 students were enrolled in dual VET, representing just under 7% of all initial VET students (MES, 2022[67]). WBL opportunities are particularly limited for students in rural areas facing distance and transport limitations. Transportation for secondary VET students in these areas is subsidised at a maximum of 60%. Furthermore, fewer than 10% of Bulgarian enterprises are involved in providing WBL in VET (World Bank, 2022[27]). This is lower than in most EU countries (European Commission, 2019[68]; Hristova, 2020[66]).

The financial and non-financial costs of offering WBL and apprenticeships appear to be a barrier for many employers. Financial incentives to firms engaging apprentices, such as tax breaks or subsidies, can reduce cost barriers. However, they are most effective in conjunction with non-financial support (e.g. information and guidance) (OECD, 2022[69]). Non-financial measures can include capacity building for employers to make better use of apprentices and regulatory measures that legally require employers to hire apprentices (Kuczera, 2017[70]). Although the dual learning apprenticeship model involves a cost-sharing arrangement, the state budget only covers apprentices’ health insurance contributions. Employers are obliged to pay apprentices’ salaries and related social security contributions. They must also pay for training apprentice mentors in full or in part with schools, as the law requires one mentor for every five apprentices. Students’ wage levels are fixed below workers’ wages, but employers are also free to establish higher remuneration. Some VET schools struggle to find employers willing to hire apprentices, with a key reason being the lack of financial support for employers (European Commission, 2019[68]; Hristova, 2020[66]). Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in particular, which account for around three-quarters of total employment in Bulgaria, likely lack the capacity to engage in WBL, including apprenticeships. A project initiated in 2020 and funded by the European Union – Support of Dual Learning System – aims to, among other things, offer support to train apprentice mentors in enterprises (e.g. assisting them to obtain relevant pedagogical and methodological skills) (MES, 2020[71]). In general, however, the expansion of dual VET is hindered by high implementation costs, among other factors (World Bank, 2022[27]), and will likely require greater financial and non-financial support for employers.

Bulgaria could potentially strengthen the role of employers and local actors in VET in a variety of ways. First, the country could strengthen the involvement of local employers and stakeholders in the development of VET by expanding their role and representation within the soon-to-be-established sectoral skills councils. This could build on Bulgaria’s experiences with the Northwest Regional Board (Box 2.8) and Poland’s Partnership for Lifelong Learning (Box 2.9). Second, Bulgaria could utilise its District Development Councils to support the link between local employers, authorities and schools, similar to what has been done in Denmark (Box 2.9). Third, the country could seek to help SMEs share the responsibility and spread the costs of hiring apprentices, as is done by Switzerland’s vocational training associations (Box 2.9). Finally, MES and the MLSP should consider directly subsidising the costs of apprenticeships for employers, following the example of Norway (Box 2.9).

Project participants expressed concerns about the relevance of higher education to labour market needs in Bulgaria. For example, the latest draft of the higher education assessment carried out by MES in 2021 shows imbalances between the demand and supply of education. Only 53% of all university places at the national level are filled, and in 29 professional fields, student enrolment is less than half of the places available (European Commission, 2021[53]). The least attractive programmes – based on the number of enrolments – include several areas considered priorities at the national level, such as those in STEM (World Bank, 2022[29]). The Strategy for the Development of Higher Education (2021-2030) also identifies a mismatch between the knowledge and skills required by the labour market and those provided in higher education as a challenge. The country faces difficulties in steering youth into higher education fields that develop skills in high demand in the labour market (e.g. engineering, technical education or middle management). On the other hand, programmes associated with occupations for which demand is low (including lawyers, psychologists, social and political scientists and others) tend to attract an overabundance of applicants.

Bulgaria’s system for determining the number of state-funded places in higher education takes into account the fields facing skills shortages or that are of strategic importance for the country, among other factors. Each year, the Council of Ministers determines the number of available places in higher education institutions and approves the update of the National Map of Higher Education in the Republic of Bulgaria, as recommended by MES. The map provides decision-makers with a range of information to help them determine the number of higher education places by region, institution, professional field and speciality to meet socio-economic development goals and the needs of the labour market. For example, for a given region, the map provides information about the current number of universities, professional areas offered, the number of professors and students by professional area and specialty, how many state-funded places are unfilled, etc. In addition, MES proposes to the Council of Ministers a list of priority professional fields and protected specialities based on labour market information collected by MES and the MLSP. The current list adopted in 2021 defines 8 professional fields (religion and theology; mathematics; physical sciences; chemical sciences; chemical technologies; energy; materials and materials science) and 18 protected specialities with the highest expected future shortage in the labour market. In these fields and specialities, institutions are authorised to accept a higher number of students; the state provides additional funding per student; tuition fees can be lowered or removed; and students can receive scholarships (Eurydice, 2022[78]; World Bank, 2022[29]). However, Bulgaria’s capacity to define labour market demand for skills and professions in the map is limited by the quality of existing skills assessment and anticipation activities (see Chapter 5).

The subsidy rate for individual higher education programmes also takes into account the fields facing skills shortages or are of strategic importance for the country, but to a limited extent. In addition to a basic rate per student, the state subsidy for higher education is based on differentiated rates for each professional field, as well as an assessment of the quality and labour market relevance of programmes. MES undertakes a “complex assessment” of the quality of education and labour market relevance based on the Bulgarian University Ranking System (BURS), which publishes information about the characteristics and quality of higher education institutions and labour market information associated with different courses (Box 2.10). The complex assessment utilises a formula containing: indicators on the educational process (institutional and programme accreditation, the exclusiveness of academic staff); research (citations in Scopus and Web of Science, PhD programmes); and labour market relevance (insurable earnings, unemployment rate, contribution to the social insurance system, etc.). The higher an institution and programme score in this complex assessment, the higher the state subsidy for a programme. However, because labour market relevance is only one of many factors used in funding determination, it has a relatively limited impact on institutions’ overall funding.

Bulgaria has made efforts to improve information on the responsiveness of higher education providers and programmes to labour market needs so as to direct places, funding and student choices. BURS seeks to guide prospective students in their academic choices. MES also uses it to allocate public funding to universities to incentivise research and, to a lesser extent, improve graduates’ employment outcomes, as described above. Furthermore, MES has recently announced an agreement with the European Commission on the Eurograduate project, which aims to create a European-wide graduate survey (MES, 2022[81]). Bulgaria was approved for participation in the project's second phase and, based on the results, is expected to establish a national tracking system for higher education graduates in the country.

However, tracking student outcomes remains limited, and the success of planned programmes will depend on their precise design and successful implementation. Currently, no component of BURS tracks students’ outcomes regarding, for example, the time between graduation and first employment or the relevance of acquired skills to the workplace (European Commission, 2020[82]). There is also no longitudinal data provided on graduates (e.g. to better understand and compare short-term and mid-term transitions from higher education to the labour market). Furthermore, it is still unclear if and how Bulgaria’s participation in the Eurograduate project will lead to lasting improvements with BURS. In order to support higher education institutions in responding to labour market needs, MES could compile information already available under the BURS system with the results from the upcoming national graduates’ tracking survey and make this available to higher education institutions.

Career guidance for higher education students could be expanded further and enriched with better labour market information. Currently, 49 out of 52 higher education institutions in Bulgaria have career guidance centres, and students can utilise regional career guidance centres. Among other roles, the guidance centres provide students with job information, assist in developing CVs, support interview preparation, etc. They also support students and employers in developing internship agreements, for example. However, project participants mentioned the need to improve guidance to students to access and navigate information on labour market needs and available professions. Indeed, there is insufficient labour market information to guide students (Fair Guidance Project, 2015[83]), including via career guides.

In addition, youth from disadvantaged backgrounds have relatively limited access to and success in higher education in Bulgaria. This inhibits the capacity of higher education institutions to meet labour market demand for tertiary-educated workers, including in areas of skills shortages. Students from poor socio-economic backgrounds are very under-represented in higher education (World Bank, 2022[29]). This is especially concerning given the overall decrease in students entering higher education due to Bulgaria’s declining population trends (see the section on Responsiveness and graduate outcomes). In Bulgaria, passing the State Matura examination is required to access higher education. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have poor grades and are less likely to enter their chosen and/or more competitive programmes (World Bank, 2022[29]). Improving the access of socio-economically disadvantaged populations to higher education can help address shortages for graduates generally and lead to a more highly skilled workforce, contributing to the relevance of higher education to the labour market and increasing the competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy. On the positive side, one of the most recent measures implemented to support vulnerable individuals’ access to higher education has been the provision of scholarships to students in public higher education institutions at BGN 150 per month in 2020 (World Bank, 2022[29]).

Even when admitted to higher education, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often less equipped to succeed than their more advantaged peers. MES should ensure students are offered guidance and academic support to address possible disadvantages derived from low quality in pre-university education that may affect students from vulnerable backgrounds the most. Bulgaria could strengthen the incentives to support disadvantaged students to enter and remain in higher education by providing support beyond financial aid. For example, the country could introduce state-funded programmes for targeted remedial classes for students during their higher education courses and consider stepping up study guidance for prospective students.

Other challenges limit the responsiveness of higher education to labour market needs, such as capacity constraints within universities. According to the National Evaluation and Accreditation Agency (NEAA), higher education institutions struggle with collecting information regarding graduate outcomes (NEAA, 2016[84]), which would allow them to better assess the quality and relevance of their programmes and update curriculum content, for example. Limited labour market information, the lack of incentives and limited higher education institutions’ capacity to analyse the available information make it hard for programmes to respond to changing needs in the labour market. Challenged by a lack of resources and a common methodology, higher education institutions seem to rely on alumni associations and faculty-specific links with employers to gather information on graduates’ outcomes (NEAA, 2016[84]). The data collected remain largely unused to align programmes with labour market needs.

Bulgaria could improve and better utilise information and financing to make higher education more responsive to labour market needs. It should utilise the data under its BURS system and its future national graduate tracer survey results to further assess higher education responsiveness to labour market needs. This improved information could be used to strengthen performance-based funding in higher education, whereby a share of institutions’ funding is dependent on the labour market outcomes of their graduates.

Bulgaria should also work to improve access to labour market information and higher education institutions’ capacity to use this information to update and review their programmes. Austria’s ATRACK graduate tracking project can serve as a helpful model (Box 2.11) in this regard. The relevance of higher education institutions to students and labour market needs can also be strengthened if Bulgaria improves the types of guidance and support for its students, especially for groups with limited access to higher education, with measures taken to increase their chances of accessing and completing education. Australia’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program may inspire Bulgaria (Box 2.11).


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← 1. . Since April 2022, tuition fees for public nurseries and kindergartens have been abolished for all children.

← 2. . The isolation index provides an indication of whether school systems create “clusters” of students based on their academic performance. Higher values in the indices mean that low achievers are more often isolated in certain schools with students of similar ability; lower values in the indices correspond to a more varied distribution of student abilities within schools (OECD, 2019[25]).

← 3. . There were 61 participants in the PIRLS 2016 assessments, including 50 countries and 11 benchmarking entities.

← 4. . TIMSS 2019 was conducted at Grades 4 and 8 in 64 countries and 8 benchmarking systems.

← 5. . Some 600 000 students completed the PISA assessment in 2018, representing about 32 million 15-year-olds in the schools of the 79 participating countries and economies.

← 6. . Socio-economically advantaged (disadvantaged) students are students in the top (bottom) quarter of PISA’s index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in their own country/economy.

← 7. Concurrent ITE programmes are dedicated to teaching profession from their start, with general academic subjects provided alongside professional subjects. As for consecutive models, they cover programmes where students, who have undertaken higher education in particular fields, move on to professional teacher training in a separate successive phase (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021[57]).

← 8. . Through the framework of the Bologna process and European co-operation programmes, such as Erasmus+, European education systems have developed ECTS as a key instrument for transparent curriculum design as well as to facilitate credit transfer between programmes and institutions. It enables the learning outcomes and workload of ITE programmes to be expressed in study credits (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021[57]).

← 9. . One credit is awarded for 16 academic hours of CPD, 8 of which are in the classroom. This credit system guarantees opportunities for the accumulation, recognition and transfer of credits in formal CPD.

← 10. . The survey covers the 28 member states of the European Union, with 35 646 respondents from different social and demographic groups, aged 15 and over. The survey was carried out on behalf of CEDEFOP by Kantar Public on 1-29 June 2016.

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