Chapter 3. Primary and lower secondary education in Latvia

This chapter reviews primary and lower secondary education. Here spending is relatively low as a share of GDP, mainly due to the low teacher salaries. Student performance is below average by international standards, with rural schools performing particularly poorly. Latvia has also struggled to offer a truly inclusive education to students with special education needs or disadvantaged backgrounds.

The ageing teaching workforce and falling student numbers offer an opportunity to make the teaching profession more respected and competitive. This requires higher salaries and better training and career-long development. Latvia should focus on improving the quality of rural schools, freeing up resources by consolidating smaller schools and promoting greater collaboration between them, and on improving teachers’ ability to identify and support children at risk of exclusion. Finally, Latvia needs a comprehensive system of assessment at all levels and needs to improve the effectiveness of municipalises at supporting their schools.

  

Introduction

In Latvia, primary and lower secondary education is expected to provide students with the foundation for acquiring the basic knowledge and skills for life and further education, and developing their value orientations (MoES, 2015). The primary and lower secondary levels are organised in a single structure and often referred to in Latvia as “basic education”. Basic education consists of nine years of compulsory schooling: 6 years of primary education (Grades 1 to 6) and 3 years of lower secondary education (Grades 7 to 9). Children start Grade 1 at the age of 7 and are expected to complete compulsory school by the age of 16, and most succeed in this. In 2013/14, 97.5% of Grade 9 students obtained their certificate of basic education (MoES, 2015).

Enrolment in basic education is close to universal and has been for many years. In 2013, the total net enrolment rate was 98.5% at primary level and 97.0% at lower secondary level (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015). Although Latvia performed below average in reading and mathematics in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012, it has made considerable progress since it first participated in 2000 and has managed to raise its students’ performance in science to the PISA average.

Equity in education is one of Latvia’s main policy concerns. It faces large differences in performance between students in rural and urban schools, and students at risk of social exclusion and those with special education needs are not benefitting from the same quality of learning opportunities as their peers. Latvia cannot afford – socially or economically – to leave large numbers of students behind so in recent years it has put greater emphasis on monitoring education quality. In addition, Latvia has a relatively large and ageing teaching workforce, many of whom will retire in the next decade. This has put further pressure on the need to invest in a high-quality teaching profession at a time when low salaries mean teaching is not regarded as an attractive career choice; an issue that has dominated much of the policy debate in recent years. Another fiercely debated issue is the need to make the school system more efficient. The size of the school network and the teaching workforce are becoming increasingly disproportionate as student populations fall.

This chapter starts by providing an overview of basic education in Latvia. It continues with an in-depth discussion of a selection of key policy issues for basic education and provides concrete policy recommendations for Latvia to consider.

Context and main features

Governance and financing

In Latvia the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) is the leading government institution in the field of education and science. The main responsibility of MoES is to define national regulations, policy documents and goals on behalf of the government; supervise their implementation; and evaluate the results of the system. MoES is supported in these functions by several specialised agencies (see Chapter 1). These include the National Centre for Education, which develops proposals for the regulation of basic school curricula and subject standards, administers national exams, and co-ordinates teachers’ professional development, and the State Education Quality Service which accredits and evaluates education programmes and schools and reports on the quality of basic education.

Municipalities are responsible for providing children living in their area with a place at the nearest basic education institution to their home. Municipal Boards of Education are responsible for the provision of education in their territory from early childhood education and care (ECEC) to upper secondary education. Municipalities are also responsible for organising non-formal education for children and adults.

The vast majority of schools in Latvia are public municipal schools. They are relatively independent in developing and implementing education programmes, hiring staff, and school management. PISA 2012 found the level of autonomy of Latvian schools, as reported by school principals, was similar to the OECD average overall, but much higher in certain areas. For example, Latvian schools enjoy considerable freedom in the area of teacher recruitment: 92% of school principals reported that they (and/or teachers) had the authority to hire teachers, which is similar to countries like the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, but considerably above the OECD average of 49% (OECD, 2013a). Moreover, schools define their own goals, the organisation of the education process, internal regulations, and programmes to be implemented within the framework of the General Education Law. Within the National Standards for Basic Education, teachers have discretion in developing or selecting the subjects of study or course programmes in agreement with the school principal.

Schools should also establish a school board that includes staff, parents, students and representatives from the municipality or the school founder in the case of a private school. The board is consulted over the drafting of the school development plan, organises school social activities, manages donations and decides on the use of these funds.

Latvia’s expenditure on basic education as a share of GDP is relatively low compared with many OECD countries. In 2011, Latvia spent 2.1% of its GDP on basic education, a similar share to its neighbour Estonia (2.0%), but lower than Poland (2.4%), the Netherlands (2.7%) and the OECD average (2.5%). Annual expenditure per student on basic education is also considerably below the OECD average. For example, in 2011 the expenditure per primary student was USD 4 982 in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, compared with an OECD average of USD 8 296 (OECD, 2014a). These differences in expenditure partly result from the low salaries Latvian teachers and school leaders receive by national and international standards. A recent report by the OECD (2014b) noted the importance of raising teacher salaries to nationally and – in time – internationally comparable levels. The same report also highlighted the need for further efficiency gains for school education in Latvia with clear challenges ahead over the size of the school network and its relatively large teacher workforce in the context of a shrinking student population.

Compulsory basic education is free in Latvia. School funding is shared between the national government and municipalities. Central funds are transferred to municipalities and private schools through a grant to pay for the salaries of teachers and other education staff. The national government also provides free school meals to all students in Grades 1 to 4 in all schools including special education schools and private schools (Table 3.1).

Table 3.1. Overview funding of costs items, basic education, by source of funding

Provision of basic education in municipal schools

Provision of basic education in private schools

Provision of special education programmes

State grant

  • Salaries of teachers

  • Lunch for Grade 1-4 students

  • Study materials

  • Salaries of teachers

  • Lunch for Grade 1-3 students

  • Study materials (scope stated by Education Law)

  • Salaries of teachers

  • Lunch for Grade 1-3 students

  • Maintenance of buildings and utilities

  • Study materials

Municipal budget

  • Supplement for teachers’ salaries

  • Maintenance and utilities cost

  • Study materials (scope stated by Education Law)

  • Study materials (scope stated by Education Law)

EU structural funds

  • Infrastructure, study aids

  • Teacher training, and individual support measures for student talent development

  • Career education and individual support measures for students with special education needs (2014-20)

  • Infrastructure

  • Teacher training

Source: MoES (2015), “Country background report Latvia”, unpublished, Ministry of Education and Science, Riga.

Municipalities finance the salaries of non-teaching staff and capital investments, maintenance and utility costs from their own revenue. They may also opt to increase teacher salaries and provide students with greater financial support, for example school meals, subsidised transport and additional allowances for education materials.1 Municipalities and schools are also able to apply for EU structural funds. Many of Latvia’s schools have been refurbished in recent years using this funding option. The majority of schools also participate in the School Fruit Scheme and School Milk Scheme co-financed by EU structural funds and schools. These schemes provide children with fruit, vegetables and dairy products to encourage good eating habits and promote healthy lifestyles.

The current funding system for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education in Latvia was implemented in 2009/10. It is based on a per-student school funding model, often referred to as “money follows the student” (see Box 1.3 in Chapter 1). The aim of the funding model was to bring about greater efficiency while enhancing student achievement (Cabinet of Ministers, 2009). Implementation of the model was managed by the 119 newly created municipalities as a result of the Territorial Reform in 2009 (World Bank, 2010). Municipalities can decide how to distribute resources among schools and can also supplement them with other funds.

While Latvia’s intergovernmental fiscal arrangements are outside the scope of this review, it is important to note that the financial autonomy of municipalities has been questioned due to their limited capacity for revenue-raising and the limited impact of financial equalisation arrangements (OECD, 2015a). The public administration reform meant that those responsible for implementing the new school funding model at the local level were often inexperienced. Some have questioned whether some municipalities, in particular the smaller ones, have the capacity to effectively manage their local education systems (OECD, 2014b).

Characteristics of schools and the school network

Parents have the right to enrol their children in a public or private school of their choice as long as places are available. Schools cannot apply selective admission criteria, although those who live near the school are prioritised when demand exceeds the places available. Gymnasia2 providing lower secondary education (Grades 7 to 9) are allowed to use entrance tests, however.

A distinctive feature of the Latvian school system is the variety of combinations of education levels and grades provided in schools. In the 2013/14 school year, there were 832 schools offering basic education, with 169 485 students in total (Table 3.2). These included primary schools (sākumskolas) offering Grades 1 to 6, or in some cases only Grades 1 to 4, basic education schools (pamatskolas) offering Grades 1 to 9, and schools offering basic education and upper secondary education (vidusskola), i.e. Grades 1 to 12.

Table 3.2. Students, staff and school numbers in Latvian basic education (2005/06 and 2013/14)

2005/06

2013/14

Total

Total

Primary and secondary schools (Grades 1-12)

Basic schools (Grades 1-9)

Primary schools (Grades 1-6 or 1-4)

Special education schools

Evening schools (Grades 7-9)

Students

229 016

169 485

111 733

39 019

10 480

5 783

1 421

Teachers

21 661

18 207

13 965

5 786

897

1 773

131

School leaders

3 002

1 692

848

137

230

95

Support staff

13 074

6 662

3 880

620

1 789

123

Schools

1 074

832

358

334

54

61

25

Sources: Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia (2015), Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 2014, Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Riga, www.csb.gov.lv/sites/default/files/nr_01_latvijas_statistikas_gadagramata_2014_statistical_yearbook_of_latvia_14_00_lv_en_0.pdf; MoES (2015), “Country background report Latvia”, unpublished, Ministry of Education and Science, Riga.

The 832 schools include state gymnasia (valsts ģimnāzija) of which there were 26 in 2013/14 catering for 4 726 students in Grades 7 to 9 and 6 451 students in Grades 10 to 12. In addition, there were over 72 boarding schools, some of which were special education schools. There are also home schooling arrangements available.

Students have to stay in school until they complete lower secondary or turn 18, but those who fail to complete lower secondary education can move to evening and vocational education schools. Students with special needs who do not attend mainstream schools are catered for in 61 special education schools. A very small proportion of students (1%) attend one of the 48 private schools, mostly located in the capital city, which can set tuition fees and can receive public funding to cover the costs of teaching staff (OECD, 2014a; MoES, 2015).

As discussed earlier a considerable proportion of Latvian public schools teach in languages other than Latvian in order to cater for the country’s minority language communities. Latvia’s bilingual education model ensures publicly funded education in seven minority languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Estonian, and Lithuanian. In 2014/15, 99 primary to upper secondary schools used Russian as language of instruction – alongside the Latvian language, 4 used Polish, 1 Ukrainian, 1 Belarusian, 1 Latvian and Lithuanian, and 1 Latvian and Estonian. In addition, 75 schools had both Latvian and minority language programmes (MoES, 2015).

During the last decade considerable investments have been made in the modernisation of school infrastructure, equipment and the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) into the learning process in Latvia (MoES, 2015). PISA 2012 found that only 3.5% of 15-year-old students were in schools whose principals reported that instruction was hindered by inadequate buildings or grounds, 2.4% by heating or lighting problems, and 1.6% by shortage of instructional space (OECD, 2013a). Likewise, according to their principals, few schools in 2012 suffered from a shortage of laboratory equipment, instructional materials, computers and software or library materials.

The size of the school system

Latvia is committed to ensuring access to quality basic education throughout the country and as close as possible to children’s homes. Population dispersion and decline make this challenging and expensive. Like Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Poland, Latvia has many small schools catering to small rural communities (OECD, 2014c). In 2013/14, 313 primary and secondary schools had 100 or fewer students and 122 had 50 or fewer students. As the majority of the students go to school in urban areas, school sizes vary significantly according to location, ranging from an average size of 657 students in Riga to 115 students in schools in rural parts of the country (OECD, 2014b).

Between 2003 and 2012, the number of students in basic education fell by about 35%, while the number of schools and teachers only fell by about 12% each (Figure 3.1). By 2020, it is expected that the number of 0-4 year-olds will fall by 11.3% and the number of 5-9 year-olds by 2.8%, while the number of 10-14 year-olds will increase by 19.4% compared to 2012 (MoES, 2014). This latter is only a temporary upswing in student numbers, however. The decline in numbers, coupled with the economic recession, led to a minor reorganisation of the school network and placed efficiency and staffing issues at the forefront of the educational debate (Grīviņš, 2012). The Education Development Guidelines 2014-2020 note that primary education should be provided as close as possible to the place of residence and near local motor roads for easy access. Upper secondary schools should be provided at the regional level, whilst lower secondary schools should fit in around the existing network of primary and upper secondary schools (MoES, 2014).

Figure 3.1. Changes in student and teacher numbers in basic education (2003-12)
picture

Note: The number of teachers refers to the number of full-time equivalent positions.

Sources: Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia (2015), Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 2014, Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Riga, www.csb.gov.lv/sites/default/files/nr_01_latvijas_statistikas_gadagramata_2014_statistical_yearbook_of_latvia_14_00_lv_en_0.pdf; Eurostat (2015), “Teachers (ISCED 0-4) and academic staff (ISCED 5-6) by employment status (full-time, part-time, full-time equivalence) and sex”, Eurostat database, Eurostat, http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=educ_pers1t&lang=en (accessed 9 September 2015).

The school funding model plays an important role in promoting the reorganisation of the school network. As discussed in Chapter 1, the model implemented in 2009 has succeeded in reducing state expenditure as intended, and contributed to reducing the size of the school network from 858 institutions in 2010/11. It has struggled to improve efficiency further, however, with some municipalities reallocating scarce resources to very small schools that are no longer viable. This seems to be a particular issue for small lower secondary schools (Grades 7 to 9); in the 3 years following the school year 2010/11, their number fell by only 9 to 358 in 2013/14 (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2015). These schools are seemingly protected from closure or consolidation. This issue has been the subject of repeated political debate in Latvia (OECD, 2014b).

At the time of writing, Latvia is piloting a revised school funding model that aims to further enhance educational quality for all students, while striving for efficiency gains. Low teacher salaries, as well as the need to make school financing more transparent and efficient, have served as key drivers for the revision of the funding model.

Classes and student-teacher ratios

Classes are generally made up of students of the same age, except if a student has repeated a year or if a school has to group students together because of low enrolment. Central regulations on the minimum and maximum number of students in a class were abolished in 2009, and responsibility for this now rests with schools and municipalities. As discussed in Chapter 1, class sizes and student-teacher ratios are too small to be either financially sustainable or desirable. The likely retirement of many teachers in the near future may provide an opportunity to tackle the difficult trade-off between the quantity and quality of staff.

Organisation of learning in schools

The current basic education curriculum was implemented in 2005 and is defined through national standards which determine the aims, content and time allocated to each subject. The basic education curriculum aims to develop students’ academic knowledge, provide a base for further learning, and foster social skills and personality development. Every student is supposed to acquire an understanding of language and mathematics; the ability to use ICT; an understanding of nature, society and history; ethical values; and communication skills (MoES, 2015).

Each school prepares its own curriculum taking into consideration the standard requirements, teachers’ qualifications and students’ interests. It can also offer subjects not included in the curriculum for which it establishes its own quality standards (UNESCO International Bureau of Education, 2011). Teachers and schools have discretion over the textbooks used and some develop their own. Although there were some concerns about the quality of textbooks in the initial years after independence, notable improvements in quality have been reported since the start of the millennium (Geske and Geske, 2010).

As the curriculum was nearing its 10th anniversary it was felt it needed updating. The reform currently underway will replace the largely knowledge-based curriculum with a competency-based one. The new curriculum is expected to be gradually piloted from the academic year 2015/16 onwards and introduced in 2018/19, starting in Grades 1-6. It is to include a focus on student-centred teaching, foreign language acquisition from Grade 1 onwards, and competences such as entrepreneurial spirit, a healthy lifestyle, financial literacy and civic education (MoES, 2015).

Latvian students in basic education have fewer hours of instruction than many of their peers in OECD countries. The compulsory instruction time for students in municipal schools is 592 hours per year in primary and 794 hours in lower secondary, considerably below the OECD averages for similar public schools of 794 and 905 hours respectively (OECD, 2014a). Instruction time in basic education varies by grade but in general students are taught 170 days a year with the exception of Grade 1 (165 days) and Grade 9 (180 days). Days are divided into 40 or 45 minute lessons, depending on the decisions of the school head. Lessons can be combined in order to have more uninterrupted time for a subject.

Official instruction time is usually complemented by after-school activities. PISA 2012 showed that 44% of 15-year-old students spent time at school for after-school lessons in mathematics, 27% for lessons in the language of instruction, 18% for science and 51% for other subjects, compared with OECD averages of 38%, 27%, 26% and 37% respectively (OECD, 2013a). In addition to after-school curricular activities Latvian schools also place great importance on extracurricular activities such as dance, music, art, theatre, folklore, environmental or technical activities and sports (MoES, 2015).

A growing body of international research points towards the potential benefits of participating in well-structured extracurricular activities such as higher grades, student engagement with school and learning, and a decrease in disciplinary and truancy issues. In contrast, poorly structured or too many extracurricular activities can have no or even negative effects (Fredericks and Eccles, 2006, 2010; Bohnert et al., 2010). Though it is assumed that Latvian students benefit from their extracurricular activities, there is no strong evidence to support this. MoES should investigate this issue, considering it finances these activities through payment of the salaries of the teachers involved.

Support for students with additional and special education needs

Specific types of education are offered to students with additional and special education needs. Schools can offer “pedagogical correction” classes to those children who need additional support in their learning. In addition, many municipalities and schools in Latvia have multidimensional teams consisting of speech therapists, psychologists and social pedagogues to respond to students with additional learning needs.

Students with special education needs due to mental or physical disabilities can attend special schools (which often specialise in certain types of disabilities), special classes in a mainstream school, or mainstream classes. They can take part in separate study programmes or be fully integrated in mainstream education programmes.

In addition, in recent years the national government has taken a range of measures to improve the situation of students with special education needs and other students at risk of social exclusion and is committed to continuing these efforts (MoES, 2014). For example, during 2007-13 it has adapted the infrastructure of a total of 36 general education institutions and 61 special education institutions for children with special needs (MoES, 2015).

The government plans further measures for the period 2014-20, including the provision of additional support for the inclusion of students with special education needs in regular schools. It also aims to identify children with special education needs earlier at all levels of the system (excluding higher education), develop teaching and methodological tools, and invest in the skills of teachers to better respond to students’ special education needs (MoES, 2014; Table 3.3.).

Table 3.3. Selection of targets regarding children with special needs

Performance indicators

Base year

2017

2020

Proportion of children and youth with special needs (including with disabilities) who continue education after having obtained compulsory education.

- (2012)

+ 0.1%

+ 0.2%

Proportion of special needs and learning difficulties diagnosed early enough to make timely prevention and adjustment work.

10% (2012)

20%

20%

Source: MoES (2014), Education Development Guidelines 2014-2020, Ministry of Education and Science, Riga, http://m.likumi.lv/doc.php?id=266406.

The evidence suggests these efforts are much needed. In 2013/14 only 35% of students with special education needs were integrated into regular schools, with the majority attending one of the 61 special education schools (MoES, 2015). These proportions contrast with OECD countries like Sweden and Finland where the majority of children with special education needs are in mainstream schools. In Finland, for example, only about 13% of students with special education needs were in segregated special education schools in 2010/11 (EADSNE, 2012).

Financing of special education has been a factor: the current school funding model doesn’t provide municipalities and private providers with additional resources to cover the extra costs of integrating a child with special education needs in mainstream schools.

Assessment of student learning

The National Standards of Compulsory Education (Cabinet of Ministers, 2014) state that “to evaluate student achievement in a manner that is both comprehensive and provides maximum objectivity, assessment tools must specify the scope of knowledge and skills acquired, students’ attitudes towards learning, as well as the dynamics of development that characterise each individual”. They prescribe assessment procedures including self- and peer-evaluation, teacher evaluation, and national examinations (Table 3.4). Continuous assessment of student progress is carried out by teachers. Continuous assessment, tests and state examinations (with the exception of those that are centrally marked) are reported on a ten-point scale ranging from 1 (fail) to 10 (outstanding).

Table 3.4. Assessment and centralised examinations in basic education

Stage of education

Assessments and examinations required

End of Grade 3

Diagnostic assessment in “combined learning content” (i.e. multi-subject) taken in the student’s first language.

Diagnostic assessment in Latvian language for students in schools implementing national minority education programmes.

End of Grade 6

Diagnostic assessment in the student’s first language and mathematics.

Diagnostic assessment in Latvian language for students in schools implementing national minority education programmes.

Diagnostic assessment in natural sciences.

End of Grade 9 (certificate of basic education)

An examination in the student’s first language (set centrally, but marked locally).

An examination in mathematics (set centrally but marked locally).

An examination in Latvian language for students in schools implementing national minority education programmes (centrally marked).

An examination in Latvian history (set centrally, but marked locally).

An examination in first foreign language (set centrally, but marked locally).

Sources: Bethell, G. and G. Kaufmane (2005), “Assessment and centralized examinations in Latvia”, Assessment in Education, Vol. 12/3, pp. 301–314, www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09695940500337272; MoES (2015), “Country background report Latvia”, unpublished, Ministry of Education and Science, Riga.

A certificate of basic education is awarded to all students who have received a positive assessment in all subjects and national examinations, providing them the right to continue education in any higher-level education programme. If the student does not receive an assessment in one of the subjects or in one of the final national examinations, or has received a mark below 4 in more than two of them, he or she receives a school report instead. In order to acquire the certificate of basic education, these students may repeat the grade at the same or another education institution, or may complete a pedagogical correction programme, repeating only the subjects they had failed (Eurypedia, 2015).

The proportion of students who repeat a grade has more than halved in the last decade. PISA 2012 found that 8.5% of 15-year-old students reported having repeated a grade at least once, which although considerably below the OECD average of 12.4% may be considered high when compared with other countries with comprehensive school systems like Estonia (3.5%), Sweden (4.0%) or Norway (0.0%) (OECD, 2013a). According to national statistics, 1.7% of the 168 970 students in basic education (i.e. Grades 1 to 9) were repeating a year in 2012/13, down from 2.5% the year before. This decrease can be explained by the introduction in 2012 of a requirement for schools to take measures to support students with learning difficulties (MoES, 2015).

International student assessments

Since it regained independence, Latvia has participated in a number of international student assessments, including PISA3 (all cycles since 2000); the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2001 and 2006, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. Overall, these studies confirm the improvement of Latvian students’ performance (OECD, 2014b). In PISA, Latvian students’ results in 2000 were below the OECD average, but later editions suggest that learning outcomes are coming closer to the average. Latvia made significant progress between 2000 and 2003, but only slight improvements more recently (see Chapter 1).

Although average performance provides useful comparisons it sometimes hides large variations in learning outcomes. PISA 2012 showed that Latvia has a smaller proportion of students who lack basic skills, i.e. those who are below the PISA proficiency level 2, than the OECD average. This still leaves 17% of students in Latvia without basic reading skills, almost 20% without basic skills in mathematics and around 12% without basic science skills (OECD, 2014a). The share of top-performing students is also smaller in Latvia than the OECD average. In PISA 2012, a mere 8% of Latvian 15-year-olds demonstrated mathematics skills at the highest proficiency levels (level 5 or above), compared to the OECD average of 12.6%. In reading and science the shares of top-performing students were 4.2% and 4.3% respectively, about half the OECD averages (8.5% and 8.4% respectively).

In response, the government has set ambitious targets to reduce the proportion of low performers in reading, mathematics and science to 13%, 15% and 10% respectively by 2020 and to increase the proportion of top performers to 7% in reading, 8% in mathematics, and 8% in science (MoES, 2014). This latter target has already been met for mathematics but further improvement in the quality of teaching and learning will be needed if Latvia is to achieve the targets for reading and science (OECD, 2014b).

PISA 2012 further shows that student socio-economic background explains around 14.7% of the overall variation in mathematics performance, about the same as the OECD average (14.8%). This modest relationship suggests that while there are visible differences among students from different socio-economic backgrounds, the school system at least does not exacerbate them (OECD, 2013b, 2014b). As outlined in Chapter 1, however, the performance gap between rural and urban areas is much larger in Latvia than most OECD countries.

School evaluation

The effective monitoring and evaluation of schools is central to the continuous improvement of student learning. Schools need feedback on their performance to help them identify how to improve their practices, and to allow them to be held accountable for their performance (OECD, 2013c).

In Latvia the State Education Quality Service (SEQS) is responsible for both the legal accreditation and external evaluation of schools (every six years) and their programmes (every two or six years). The accreditation decision is based on an expert commission typically composed of three representatives of the sector (i.e. national government, municipalities and other schools). The expert commission considers multiple sources of evidence such as the school’s self-evaluation report, classroom observations, documentation, and surveys against 19 quality criteria that are grouped in the following 7 key areas:

  1. curriculum

  2. teaching and learning

  3. attainment

  4. support for students

  5. ethos

  6. resources

  7. management, leadership and quality assurance

Among the 19 quality criteria, 16 are evaluated according to 4 evaluation levels: Level 1 – unsatisfactory, Level 2 – satisfactory, Level 3 – good, and Level 4 – very good. Only a descriptive assessment is provided for the other three quality criteria.

The budget cuts of 2009/10 resulted in a one-off evaluation based on schools’ self-evaluation report and student outcomes alone. About 80% of eligible institutions were evaluated based on these self-assessment reports, while the remaining 20% received a visit from an expert commission. Only a small proportion of schools and programmes (4% in 2013) were not accredited (SEQS, 2014).

From 2015 onwards, schools will be expected to undertake a self-evaluation every year resulting in an annual internal evaluation report that is to inform about the school’s development. The internal school evaluation results are expected to be made public by the school. The SEQS publishes partial external school evaluation reports on its website, including the names of the experts, the evaluation grading, strengths and recommendations. Evaluation findings may also be consulted on request by parents, students and other stakeholders. In addition, the SEQS aggregates the results of its external evaluations in an annual report that is made publicly available.

System-level monitoring of education quality

Latvia has in recent years aimed to improve its system-level monitoring of the education system. Since 2009 the State Education Information System (SEIS) has collected, stored and generated data and information regarding education institutions and programmes and the staff working in them from ECEC up to upper secondary education.

There are some concerns about the quality and usability of the national-level data in the SEIS. For example the exact number of school leaders, teachers and other educators (e.g. teachers’ assistants, speech therapists, psychologists, methodologists) is unknown and there is limited information about them (E-Klase, 2015). Our own experiences with the data provided to us by MoES in support of our school visits corroborate these concerns about data quality. MoES has recognised the need to improve its systematic monitoring of education quality, including the strengthening of the SEIS and better use of research for evidence-based policy making (MoES, 2014).

Teachers and school leaders

Profiles and qualifications

In 2013/14, there were 17 907 teachers working in basic education and a total of 3 002 school leaders – headmasters and vice-headmasters – in basic education and secondary education schools. Latvia has relatively few teacher shortages: PISA 2012 reported only 3% of students were in schools where instruction was hindered by a lack of qualified mathematics teachers, compared with 17% on average across OECD countries. For science and literacy the figures were 6% and 5% respectively, also smaller than the OECD averages of 17% and 9% (OECD, 2013a).

Latvia has an experienced but ageing teaching workforce. With 22 years of working experience on average, TALIS 2013 found Latvian lower secondary teachers were the most experienced and had worked in a single school the longest (16 years on average) of all the participating countries (OECD, 2014c). Similarly, TALIS found Latvian school principals were the most experienced, with 13 years of experience on average; 69% of them were more than 50 years old (OECD, 2014c).

Latvia also has very low proportions of young teachers. Only 8% of teachers in primary education and 6% in lower secondary education were less than 30 years old in 2012, compared to the OECD averages of 13% and 11% respectively. More than one-third of primary teachers (35%) and 42% of lower secondary teachers were 50 years or older, while the OECD averages were 31% and 34% respectively (Eurostat, 2014; OECD, 2014a). Despite this ageing workforce, the pressure to recruit new teachers will be diminished as a result of the demographic decline among students.

Teaching is also a highly feminised profession. Only 6.5% of Latvian teachers in primary education and 16% in lower secondary were men in 2012, which is lower than the OECD average of 18% and 33% respectively (OECD, 2014a).

Teacher qualifications in Latvia are comparable to those of OECD countries as teachers at all levels are required to have a tertiary degree to be able to teach. Qualifications have improved in recent years. PISA 2012 however showed that across Latvia the average 15-year-old student was in a school where 81% of teachers were certified, compared with an OECD average of 87%. This suggests that a considerable proportion of lower secondary teachers do not have the required qualifications to teach. The review team however was informed that many secondary education teachers have recently taken up professional development courses to provide them with a second specialisation.

Initial preparation and entry into the profession

In 2013/14, there were 5 435 students enrolled in teacher training programmes for all levels, in one of the 6 national teacher training institutions (and one music academy). Most prospective teachers pay for their education: in 2013/14, for instance, 915 out of the 1 379 students admitted to bachelor-level programmes paid fees (MoES, 2015).

Two training routes can be taken. The most common is a professional bachelor’s degree programme lasting four years which provides a teaching qualification for a specific level of education (pre-school, primary or secondary) and, for secondary school teachers, a specific subject area. ECEC and primary school teachers are qualified to teach all subjects. The second route requires two stages – a bachelor’s degree (three years) in Education Sciences, plus an additional two years of study in a second-level professional programme of studies to qualify as a teacher in a specific level of education and/or subject area. Vocational school teachers generally have a professional diploma in a vocational area with an additional qualification in vocational teaching.

In Latvia most student teachers are enrolled into a programme with at least four years of pedagogical and subject-specific content (Kangro and Kangro, 2012). Universities have considerable autonomy to design their own programmes. In 2000, MoES established that 26 credits out of 160 had to be devoted to field experience, although programmes vary over the extent to which the credits are spent in schools and whether students have access to certified mentors (Odina, 2008; Kangro and Kangro, 2012).

In an effort to draw the best graduates into the profession, some OECD countries including Estonia, Finland, Korea and Norway have established selective criteria for those wanting to enter initial teacher education. Some also have additional requirements for those who have completed initial teacher education before they can enter the profession. For example France, Japan and Korea have competitive exams for those wishing to start primary and secondary teaching while some countries require the passing of a teaching practicum or the successful completion of a probation period or formal induction programme before becoming a fully qualified teacher (OECD, 2013a). Aspiring teachers face no such barriers in Latvia.

Principals are appointed by municipalities upon succeeding at a nationwide competition, and in turn appoint their deputies. No additional qualification is needed to become a school leader but principals can take additional management-related training. Two teacher training institutions in Riga also offer specific master’s programmes for future school leaders. School leaders are allowed to combine their leadership responsibilities with up to nine hours per week of teaching or other school activities.

Professional development

No matter how good initial teacher education is, it cannot be expected to prepare teachers for all the challenges they will face throughout their career. Effective induction and mentoring programmes can help new teachers deal with these challenges and avoid some of the problems that may emerge (European Commission, 2010). Participation in such induction and mentoring programmes is not common in Latvia, however. Latvian lower secondary teachers reported limited support mechanisms for new teachers, with low levels of participation in induction and mentoring programmes in 2013. For example only 36% of Latvian lower secondary teachers reported having participated in a formal induction programme in their first regular employment as a teacher, compared to a TALIS average of 49%. Among teachers with 5 years experience or less, the figure was only 26%, compared to 52% on average in TALIS countries. Only 4% of Latvian teachers reported that they had an assigned mentor to support them, and 7% that they had served as one. These shares are smaller than the averages of 13% and 14% respectively for TALIS countries (OECD, 2014c).

Teachers and school leaders in Latvia are required to undergo at least 36 hours of professional development training every 3 years, which is low compared with many OECD countries. For example, in Estonia lower secondary teachers are required to have a minimum of 160 hours of professional development over 5 years (OECD, 2014a). In Sweden teachers are entitled to 104 hours of professional development during regular working hours every year (OECD, 2015c).

In Latvia, professional development courses are offered in the form of “A” and “B” programmes. The shorter courses, nationally referred to as “A programme” courses, are designed to cover specific training needs (e.g. pedagogical knowledge, use of new technologies) and are offered by various state and non-state providers, in co-ordination with the local government and often also with the teachers’ methodological associations.

The government is also attempting to broaden teachers’ specialisations through longer university-based professional development programmes, the so-called “B programmes”, leading to qualifications in a second subject or education level. Professionals and graduates of other programmes may join the profession through participating in a competitive programme (“Mission Possible”) or by acquiring the necessary pedagogical knowledge (MoES, 2015).

Self-reported data from the TALIS 2013 survey shows that almost all lower secondary teachers in Latvia (96%) had undertaken some professional development activities in the 12 months prior to the survey, which was higher than the average of 88% across TALIS countries (OECD, 2014c). Lower secondary teachers most frequently reported participating in courses or workshops: 89% reported that they participated in these activities, compared with 71% on average across TALIS countries. Teachers in Latvia reported spending 8 days on courses and workshops during the 12 months prior to the survey, the same as the average across TALIS countries.

Teachers’ professional associations could play an important role in fostering instructional improvement and teacher collaboration within and across schools. Although the review team was informed that many teachers join professional associations where subject teachers come together to share information between themselves, TALIS found that Latvian teachers participate less frequently in collaborative professional development, joint activities and classroom observations within schools than their peers on average in countries participating in TALIS (OECD, 2014c).

There are no specific requirements for school leaders to attend development training before or after taking up their duties and 27% of Latvian lower secondary school principals said they had never participated in a school administration or principal training programme, much more than the TALIS average of 15%. Some higher education institutions have in recent years established specific school leadership programmes, such as the Riga Teacher Training and Education Management Academy or the University of Latvia in Riga.

Further, research shows that professional development needs to go hand in hand with appraisal and feedback practices (OECD, 2005; Schleicher, 2011, 2014). In Latvia this connection seems underdeveloped. Over four out of ten teachers (44%) report that appraisal and feedback has little impact on their teaching in the classroom. This finding may partially result from the Assessment System of Teacher Performance implemented in 2009 which is primarily designed as a performance-based pay system, rather than being geared towards supporting the development of teachers (Box 3.1). In addition, the apparently limited capacity of school leaders to conduct appraisals may be further challenged by the absence of a formal framework of professional standards spelling out what is considered effective teaching and leadership in Latvia.

Box 3.1. The Assessment System of Teacher Performance in Latvia

In 2009 MoES implemented a new teacher appraisal system, the Assessment System of Teacher Performance, a performance-based pay system, in the framework of the European Social Fund project Promotion of Educators’ Competitiveness within the Optimisation of Educational System. Participation in this scheme is voluntary but most teachers (27 592 by 31 May 2015) from ECEC to upper secondary education have participated in it so far.

Teachers are assessed on five key areas weighted according to their relative importance: 1) teaching and educational work (e.g. planning, student performance), 36%; 2) individual work with students, 17%; 3) contribution to the development of the educational institution, 28%; 4) accumulation and transfer of experience and knowledge, 15%; 5) self-reflection and participation in activities to improve pedagogy, 4%.

Teachers receive a grade ranging from 1 to 5, with 5 being highest. Grades 1 to 3 are assessed at the school level, with the decision taken by the principal based on the commission’s proposal according to defined criteria within the five key areas. If a teacher performs very well and is judged suitable for grade 4, the case is presented to municipal officials who evaluate the assessment and the salary premium that goes with it. If a teacher performs exceptionally well (grade 5) the case for the award of this grade is brought to MoES. The qualification level is valid for five years, but teachers may ask for their performance to be re-evaluated after three years in order to receive a higher level certification. The different performance levels, evaluating bodies and their financial implications are summarised in the table below.

Performance level

Decision level

Financial reward as percentage of monthly min salary

Amount of monthly bonus as of August 2014 (EUR)

Number of teachers awarded this level between 2009 and 31 May 2015

Percentage of teachers awarded this level between 2009 and 31 May 2015

1

School

---

---

578

2%

2

School

---

---

6 071

22%

3

School

8%

31.87

18 096

66%

4

Municipality

20%

79.68

2 533

9%

5

MoES

25%

99.60

314

1%

Sources: OECD (2014a), Teacher Remuneration in Latvia: An OECD Perspective, OECD Publishing, Paris, www.oecd.org/edu/OECD%20Review%20of%20Teacher%20Remuneration%20in%20Latvia_OPS_FINAL.pdf.

Remuneration and status of the profession

PISA shows a clear link between student performance and teacher status, with students doing better in school systems that spend more on salaries to attract quality teachers (OECD, 2013a). Being a teacher and working in education in general is not considered an attractive career option in Latvia. Although the vast majority of teachers are permanently employed and are highly experienced by OECD standards, salaries are low in comparison to national and international benchmarks and the salary structure is flat (OECD, 2014a, 2014b). For example, in OECD countries, lower secondary teachers with 15 years of experience are paid on average 124% of GDP per capita (corrected for differences in purchasing power parities). In Latvia, the salary for such a teacher would amount to just 52% of GDP per capita.

Teacher remuneration is a contentious issue in many countries but particularly so in Latvia. Teacher salaries were halved in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis, and teachers were substantially underpaid even before then (World Bank, 2010; Hazans, 2010). Salaries have recovered but are still lower than those for other public-sector professionals in Latvia, preventing the teaching profession from becoming an attractive career choice (OECD, 2014b). The low minimum statutory salary (EUR 420 per month in 2013/14) is based on a workload equivalent to 21 hours of teaching per week with up to 40% more for what are considered “additional duties” (e.g. marking of tests, preparation) (see Box 1.3, Chapter 1).

The current school funding model provides the basis for calculating and allocating salaries of teachers and other education staff, but does not take into account teachers’ seniority. The difference between the minimum and the maximum annual gross statutory salaries in Latvia is only 4%, the lowest increase among all EU countries (EACEA/Eurydice, 2013). This is despite the fact that Latvia has three grades of seniority – less than five years, five to ten years and more than ten years, and one of the most experienced cohorts of teachers among EU and OECD countries.

Low salary often implies low status, and this is the case for Latvia. Many Latvian teachers do not feel their profession is highly valued; 77.2% of teachers were negative about the value that society accords to the teaching profession. Moreover, 32.4% would not choose to work as a teacher if they could decide again, considerably more than the TALIS average of 22.4% (OECD, 2014c).

These findings stand at odds with the government’s objective “to raise the motivation and professional capacity of teachers and academic personnel” (MoES, 2014). The Latvian government has recognised the urgency of the situation and has taken several steps to improve the attractiveness of the education profession.

In this context the OECD was invited in 2014 to conduct a review on teacher remuneration in Latvia. The review report noted various weaknesses but also strengths of the current school funding model and provided recommendations for improvement (OECD, 2014b). One of its key recommendations was to raise salaries, but it also noted that raising salaries while maintaining Latvia’s low class sizes and teacher-student ratios is simply not sustainable.

Partly in response to the report’s recommendations, MoES is currently piloting a revised school funding and teacher remuneration model based on a 36-hour week, in which between 67% and 77% of work time is to be devoted to teaching and the rest to other activities such as lesson preparation and the grading of tests. To support this effort, MoES established a working group on teacher remuneration, made up of a wide range of stakeholders including Latvia’s largest teacher union (Latvian Trade Union of Education and Science Employees), the school leaders’ association and representatives from universities.

Key policy issues

Policy issue 1: The need to improve teacher and leadership quality

Research on human and social capital in education shows that in some of the best-performing school systems such as Canada, Finland, Japan and Korea, teachers and school leaders enjoy high status in society and are paid well enough to draw in, or at the very least not deter, academically able people (Schleicher, 2012; OECD, 2014e; Tucker, 2011; Mourshed, Chijioke and Barber, 2010). These countries have built their human resource systems by focusing on attracting, training and supporting good teachers and school leaders throughout their professional lifecycle (Asia Society, 2011; Schleicher, 2011; OECD, 2015c).

Our overarching conclusion is that at present many of the conditions needed to develop an excellent education profession in Latvia are not in place. The Latvian government has recognised the situation and in recent years has taken several important measures to improve the quality of the education profession, many of which we agree are the right ones. However, more will need to be done, and in a more coherent way, if working in education is to be an attractive career option and ultimately to bring about the desired changes in teaching and learning across Latvia’s schools.

Low remuneration and low status of the education profession

The current low salaries, flat career structure and other characteristics of the current remuneration system for Latvian teachers and school leaders are at odds with the government’s ambition to raise the motivation and professional capacity of teachers and academic personnel (OECD, 2014b). The recent step to pilot a new school funding and teacher remuneration model is a positive development that recognises more fairly their actual work, is likely to increase motivation and is hoped will contribute to improving performance.

A positive feature of the revised model is that, as mentioned above, it is based on a 36-hour weekly workload. The previous understanding of a full-time workload consisted of just 21 teaching hours with additional duties worth up to 40% more in salary allocated by their school leader – or not. This has contributed to a lack of transparency and a growing feeling of discontent among some teachers. Two teachers with the same workload, including a similar package of additional duties, could very well end up with quite different wages (OECD, 2014b; MoES, 2015). This practice is at odds with those in OECD countries and, apart from risking unfair treatment of teachers, fails to recognise that they need time to prepare lessons, grade tests, talk to parents and so on if they are to provide their students with a quality learning experience.

The existing system has also come under increasing pressure through the implementation of the Assessment System of Teacher Performance, which offers a broader and more holistic view of the teaching profession than is reflected in the current remuneration system. Under this system, a teacher’s contribution to the development of the institution (Key Area 3) is considered an important part of a teacher’s work, but under the current remuneration system this would be considered an additional duty. Some teachers would not have the opportunity to show their competence in the area, simply because they were not allocated the relevant duty by the school leader.

The 36-hour workload that is currently piloted as part of the revised school funding and teacher remuneration model is more transparent and fairer, and recognises that being a teacher is much more than merely teaching. This development is also timely in view of the planned introduction of the new competency-based curriculum. This reform is likely to require considerable additional effort and time from teachers to prepare lessons, develop tests, co-ordinate among teachers and participate in training which, under the piloted model, would be considered part of the regular duties of all teachers.

The revised workload and formal recognition of the full range of tasks good teachers have to perform can also be considered a step towards raising the prestige of the profession in society and making it a more attractive career choice. For this to really happen, however, basic salaries will need to increase in real terms, at least to nationally comparable standards. This could happen as a gradual process but may call for a more ambitious approach. Poland, one of the world’s most rapidly improving education systems according to PISA 2012, increased salaries at all levels by 50% on average between 2006 and 2012. The largest increase was for the youngest teachers, to prevent new graduates being put off joining the profession (Jakubowski, 2015).

But retaining effective teachers and school leaders and raising their status goes beyond pay alone (OECD, 2005; Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008; Schleicher, 2011). Teachers should benefit from both salary increases and diversified career structures. The revised funding model does not yet tackle this issue, but may do so in time. The review team strongly suggests Latvia considers bringing greater differentiation in the salaries and functions of education professionals to help better meet school staffing needs and offer teachers more opportunity and recognition for their work. Promotion and new responsibilities may enable jobs to be better matched to individuals’ expertise and interest, as well as motivate teachers and encourage further professional growth. This is particularly relevant for those in the middle stages of their careers. Latvia could look to Australia, Estonia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore, which have developed human resource models with sufficiently attractive salaries and well-designed career structures, including career paths from teaching into school leadership (OECD, 2005, 2014e; Schleicher, 2011) (Box 3.2).

Box 3.2. Providing greater career diversity in Estonia, New Zealand and Singapore

In 2013 Estonia embarked on an effort to modernise its general education system. A multi-actor working group developed a new continuous professional development system for teachers, driven by teachers’ needs for professional development. The new system is based on the Lifelong Learning Strategy 2014-2020 which has as one of its objectives to raise the status of the teaching profession. The new system is expected to start in 2015.

Professional teacher standards, conforming to European Qualifications Framework (EQF) levels, were developed in co-operation with teachers, leaders of educational institutions, employers and government representatives to serve as the basis for a new career model. Staff can progress from teacher (Levels 6, 7.1) to senior teacher (Level 7.2) and master teacher (Level 8). Teachers could apply to obtain these standards from April 2014.

In 2015, New Zealand will introduce three new roles within schools with the aim of improving achievement for all students: Community of Schools Leadership Role, Community of Schools Teacher (across community) Role, and Community of Schools Teacher (within school) Role.

  • Principals in the community of schools leadership role will work with the principals, boards of trustees and others in their Community of Schools to agree shared student achievement objectives and a plan to meet those objectives, and perform a guiding role in implementing projects in the plan including offering pedagogical leadership. They remain the principals of their own schools, employed solely by the schools’ boards of trustees.

  • Teachers in the across-community teacher role will work collaboratively across schools with teachers and others to improve teaching practice and student achievement, and work with the Community of Schools Leader role to meet the shared achievement objectives of the Community of Schools.

  • Teachers in the within-school teacher role will work within their own schools with other teachers from across the Community of Schools by promoting best teaching practice within schools and strengthening the use of the teaching as inquiry approach to teaching and learning.

Singapore is known as one of the best performing countries in the field of education. The high quality of Singapore’s teachers is seen as one of the main drivers of this success. The quality of the teacher workforce in Singapore relies on three pillars: 1) recruiting talented students to teacher training; 2) high-quality teachers; and 3) sustained professional development of teachers. This last is encouraged by giving teachers the opportunity to grow throughout their careers. There are three inter-related tracks to promotion and higher pay: a teaching track, a leadership track and a specialist track. Each route has multiple, ascending, positions, with corresponding salaries.

picture

Teachers changing track or position get corresponding training and mentoring support from the National Institute of Education. This usually involves shorter programmes from several weeks to months, after which teachers apply their new knowledge and skills in their school. This training is explicitly linked to positions on the career ladder.

These roles will give teachers opportunities for advancement within the classroom and embed a system-wide means of sharing expertise across schools. Each role runs for a fixed term, apart from the within-school teacher role, which is a mix of permanent and fixed-term positions. It attracts significant additional remuneration to help recognise the most effective teachers and principals. The roles are to be underpinned by professional standards. In addition to these new roles, all schools will be given additional funding to provide classroom release time for teachers to work with expert and lead teachers on professional practice.

Sources: Elffers, L. (2015), De Loopbaanladder van Leraren in Singapore [The Career Ladder of Teachers in Singapore], www.academischewerkplaatsonderwijs.nl/files/2414/2121/7890/De_loopbaanladder_van_leraren_in_Singapore.pdf; Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (2014), Õpetaja uued kutsestandardid ja nende rakendamine, arengutest õpetaja täienduskoolitussüsteemi [New Professional Teacher Standards and their Implementation], Ministry of Education and Research, www.tallinn.ee/haridusasutused/Kaspar-Kreegimae; OECD (2015b), Education Policy Outlook: Making Reforms Happen, OECD Publishing, Paris; New Zealand Ministry of Education (2014), Investing in Educational Success: Working Group Report, New Zealand Ministry of Education, Wellington, www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Ministry/Investing-in-Educational-Success/Investing-in-Educational-Success-Working-Group-Report-3-June-2014.pdf.

The need to make entry into the teaching profession more selective

Teachers in high-performing education systems not only enjoy high status in society, matched by attractive salaries, they have also made it into a highly selective profession (Barber and Mourshed, 2007; OECD, 2014c). In contrast, apart from a probation period of up to three months, specified in the labour laws that schools may decide to include in their internal regulations, Latvia has no selective mechanisms in place to further test the quality and motivation of aspiring teachers (OECD, 2014b).

Latvia’s ageing teaching workforce, and continuing decline in student numbers, provides Latvia with an unique opportunity to shape teaching into a highly selective profession. Latvia can be much more selective of its aspiring teachers, for example adopting criteria for those wanting to enter initial teacher education, or establishing additional requirements, or a formal induction programme before they can become fully qualified teachers.

Finland is frequently mentioned as an example to follow. One of the factors used to explain the Finnish success in education is the quality of its teachers. A reform at the end of the 1970s strengthened teacher education and made it highly selective. Teacher education moved from teachers’ colleges into universities, and primary school teachers were required to have a master’s degree. At present, teacher education is provided by nine universities, of which eight have teacher training schools. According to some evidence, only about 10% of candidates who apply for primary teaching courses are accepted (OECD, 2013d).

The Netherlands is another example to consider. Since 2010, student teachers are required to take a language and a numeracy test in the first year of initial teacher education. The results inform the binding study advice students receive at the end of the first year. They have three chances to pass the tests and cannot continue initial teacher education without them. The preparation and quality of new teachers is perceived to have improved in recent years partly due to this measure (Education Inspectorate, 2015).

Taking a lifecycle approach to professional development

In many countries, the role and function of schools are changing – and so is what is expected of teachers. Schools and the people working in them are now urged to learn faster than ever before in order to deal effectively with these growing pressures. Teachers and school leaders have to become high-level knowledge workers who constantly advance their own professional knowledge as well as that of their profession (Schleicher, 2011, 2012; OECD, 2015c). Professional development and training of teachers and school leaders is most effective when it is embedded in and connected to core practices in teaching and learning, and happens continuously rather than episodically (OECD, 2014e).

In Latvia teachers’ and school leaders’ professional development is in general not systematic and is not shaped as a continuous endeavour. To start with, despite research evidence showing the positive impact of well-designed induction and mentoring programmes for new teachers (Ingersoll and Strong, 2011; OECD, 2014c) such programmes are not common in Latvia. With a considerable proportion of the profession retiring in the next decade, if the skills and expertise of the older generation of teachers are to be transferred to their younger colleagues, then urgent action will be needed.

Mentoring should not be limited to those new to the profession, but should be considered throughout a teacher’s career because of its positive effect on both morale and practice (Thompson et al., 2004). The planned development of the competency-based curriculum, for example, will require teachers to engage in extended learning over a longer period of time. These efforts could benefit from close collaboration with other teachers who have had prior training and/or are particularly skilled in the design of competency-based assessments.

Also, the transition to a competency-based curriculum is a complex exercise (Priestley and Biesta, 2013) but may be particularly challenging when half the teaching force left initial teacher training 20 years ago and has always worked with a largely knowledge-based curriculum. Though more than 95% of teachers feel well or very well prepared to teach (OECD, 2014c) one can question whether 36 hours of professional development every 3 years is adequate for such a challenging exercise and to achieve the government’s objectives to reduce the proportion of low achievers and to increase the proportions of top performers by 2020 (MoES, 2014).

The Latvian government has implemented several EU-funded, large-scale capacity-building projects in recent years. These include the Comprehensive Education Teachers Further Education Project (2010 to 2013) to improve the professional competence of general education teachers and increase teachers’ competitiveness in the context of the optimisation of education system. A total of 3 503 teachers have benefited from this project. Such projects are important for building teachers’ and school leaders’ skills and expertise in certain areas but last a relatively short time and may not fully meet their learning needs.

The review team was further informed that access to and participation in professional development varies considerably across schools and municipalities. For instance, PISA 2012 found only 24% of mathematics teachers in socio-economically disadvantaged schools had participated in professional development courses in mathematics teaching in the three months prior to the survey, significantly less than those in socio-economically average (43.5%) or advantaged schools (33.1%) (OECD, 2013b).

In short, Latvia lacks a lifecycle view of professional development that acknowledges that teachers and school leaders have different needs over the course of their careers. Though participation in professional development is relatively high, there is scope to enhance collaborative learning and working within schools, with mentoring being a case in point. Investment in human resources seems relatively low and varies according to the resource levels and dispositions of schools and municipalities. This may have contributed to the considerable performance differences, particularly between rural and urban areas. This policy issue deserves immediate attention and Latvia should look towards systematically increasing its investment in the quality of its teachers and school leaders, as one of the main drivers of improvement.

Absence of professional teaching and leadership standards

To improve the quality of the education workforce, education systems like those in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore have used clearly stated, widely distributed and highly publicised national standards for teaching and leadership practice as their point of departure. These standards are typically integrated with national curricula and assessment practices, and are not only used to provide guidance to teacher education programmes, but also to design induction programmes, mentoring and continuing professional development over the whole of teachers’ careers (OECD, 2005, 2015c). They can ensure professionals at the beginning, intermediate and advanced stages of their careers are recognised and sufficiently challenged to continue to give their best.

At the time of writing, Latvia is in the process of developing such professional standards for teachers, with work on standards for school leaders planned to start in 2016/17. These are positive developments that can provide additional support and guidance to Latvia’s teachers in their daily practice, and inform their professional development by using these standards as the basis for appraisals and informing a new career structure.

It is important that the professional standards are integrated into initial training and continuing development programmes for teacher and school leaders (OECD, 2005, 2015c). Research evidence has already pointed to the need to modernise the teacher education curricula in Latvia (Webster et al., 2011; Silova et al., 2010). The development of the new standards, combined with the implementation of the competency-based curriculum, makes it even more crucial to review the content, pedagogy and delivery of initial training and continuing professional development. One consideration may be whether there is scope to promote more school-based and/or collaborative learning in networks at the local level.

One critical note is that there are insufficient links between the work on developing the teacher standards and the work on the new curriculum. Latvia’s vision and practical understanding of what being a “good” or “excellent” teacher means at various career stages, should be closely linked to its expectations of its youth that the new curriculum should capture.

This seems part of a larger issue that the review team noticed: the lack of a clearly articulated systematic approach to reform. The success of the various measures intended to improve the quality and attractiveness of the education profession depend on adequate sequencing and coherence of reforms. For example, Latvia should consider combining the work on developing leadership standards with the work developing teacher standards, for two reasons. First, developing two sets of standards at different times may not facilitate the development of a comprehensive and diversified career structure that facilitates the transition from teaching into leadership. Second, having strong leadership is essential to the success of reforms as they will depend on school leaders’ capacity to create the learning cultures within their schools that are necessary for continuous improvements in teaching and learning.

Policy issue 2: Disparities in equity across the Latvian school system

The highest-performing education systems across OECD countries are those that combine excellence with equity. A thriving education system means that the level of skills and knowledge students attain depends on their ability and drive, not their social background (OECD, 2012). Latvia is committed to an education system that provides all its citizens with a “quality and inclusive education for personal development, human welfare and sustainable development of the country” (MoES, 2014). The government realises that it cannot afford – socially or economically – to leave large numbers of students behind.

It also recognises that it needs to make further efforts to realise its ambition of truly inclusive education. There are marked differences in student performance between rural and urban schools in Latvia, while students with special education needs and/or at risk of social exclusion do not equally benefit from quality learning opportunities. These complex policy issues may require additional or refined policies and more targeted policy responses than those currently in place. Holding municipalities more accountable for the quality and efficiency of their local school systems would seem key to moving the school system forward.

Large differences in performance between rural and urban schools

The education debate on the school system in Latvia has often focused on the size of the school network and in particular on what to do with small rural schools that are increasingly less viable due to falling student numbers. In contrast, the formidable performance differences between urban and rural schools, which require urgent policy attention, have tended to be largely ignored.

Compared with the OECD average, many more students attend schools in rural areas than in urban ones. Of the 169 485 students in basic education in 2013/14, 44 370 (26%) attended schools in rural areas. As mentioned in Chapter 1, international student assessments have found that students in rural areas lag behind their urban peers. For PISA 2012 the performance gap in mathematics was equivalent to more than one year of schooling, half a year more than the average in OECD countries.4 Latvian students in towns (3 000 to 100 000 people) or cities (over 100 000 people) have much higher socio-economic status but even after taking students’ background into account a substantial performance gap remains, with rural students performing more than 20 points lower than their colleagues in city schools (OECD, 2013b). The gap is 16 points lower in town schools.

The evidence suggests that differences in teaching quality may be one of the main causes behind these differences (OECD, 2013b, 2014a). Small school sizes and class sizes and low student-teacher ratios crowd out investments in other areas, such as the professional development of staff, which in time may have weakened their capacity to respond to the changing demands of their profession. PISA 2012 found that teachers in socio-economically disadvantaged schools, which are mostly found in rural areas, were less likely to participate in mathematics professional development courses than their peers in socio-economically average and advantaged schools. PISA also showed that the proportion of teachers with a university degree is higher in advantaged schools (55.8%) than in disadvantaged schools (47.5%) (OECD, 2013b).

In addition, the lack of capacity of some municipalities, particularly the smaller ones, to adequately support their local school systems (OECD, 2014b) may have aggravated the situation which raises further questions about the current governance and financing arrangements of the Latvian school system.

There seems ample room to increase class sizes in Latvia without hampering student performance. Research shows that higher teaching quality has a greater impact on student performance than smaller class sizes (Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain, 2005), although smaller sizes might improve outcomes in early grades and for specific groups (e.g. lower-income, disadvantaged or top–performing students). Class sizes are so small in Latvia, however, that there would seem ample scope for change even in the early grades. Country-specific studies in Poland (Jakubowski and Sakowski, 2006), Romania (Porta, 2011) and Ukraine (Coupe et al., 2015), which, like Latvia, have oversized school networks, corroborate the idea that school size and class size do not have a large (positive or negative) effect on student performance.

The school funding model implemented in 2009 has had some effect in reducing the size of the school network but has struggled to bring about further efficiency gains, with municipalities unwilling to close small secondary schools (OECD, 2014b). The new school funding model currently being piloted adjusts the base salary of teachers according to a new scale based on five average class sizes. This is a positive development that, once implemented nationally, will likely trigger further consolidation of the school network and efficiency gains. The Latvian government should continue to monitor the implementation of the new model and make adjustments where necessary, for example by further increasing the class size ranges.

The Latvian government can look to countries like Portugal and Wales (the United Kingdom) who have pro-actively engaged with municipalities to rationalise the school network, defining clear criteria for the closure of schools (Box 3.3). Closure does not have to be the only option considered, however. Approaches to deal with small rural schools can include school collaborations, consolidation and the enhanced use of ICT for remote teaching and learning (Ares Abalde, 2014). Such approaches could be actively promoted by the Latvian government in close collaboration with municipalities.

Box 3.3. Different approaches to consolidation of small schools – examples from Wales and Portugal

Wales is a small country with a geographically dispersed population. It has many small schools catering to populations in small communities, with over 400 primary schools with fewer than 100 students.

In recent years, the Welsh government has put increasing pressure on local authorities to address surplus school places in their area which local authorities claimed has led them to develop a policy of school closures. The Welsh Assembly government has emphasised school efficiency and “best value” policies. Local authorities are required to pay particular attention to primary schools with fewer than four teachers, year groups regularly containing less than eight to ten students, head teachers with substantial teaching loads, mixed age classes containing more than two year groups, and schools with more than 25% surplus places.

In recent years local authorities have closed some of the smallest schools that were no longer viable. In 2011/12 there were 29 fewer schools with 100 pupils or less than the year before. Ongoing changes in the age structure, ethnic make-up and mobility of the Welsh population will further challenge the provision of education services and likely lead to further closures of small schools by local authorities in the years to come.

Portugal is an example of a country that went through a thorough process of school restructuring and articulation of school clusters. During the mid-20th century the government increased the number of primary schools, especially in rural areas, and as a result, almost every village in the country had its own school. However, by the late 1980s, these, frequently isolated, schools were badly funded and performing poorly. As a result the government in 1988 decided to close schools with 10 students or fewer.

Further measures were then taken to consolidate the extremely dispersed network of schools. Many of them had higher student repetition rates than the national average. In 2005/06 the first cycle of school reorganisation began, which also entailed the closure of many underperforming schools. In co-ordination with the local government and the school executive boards, the schools to be closed were selected between October 2005 and March 2006. Simultaneously, financial support was provided for local governments to build new school centres and receive students from the closed schools. This reform was intended to rationalise the provision of education in a context of administrative decentralisation, and to eradicate local and regional inequalities.

Following these measures, in 2010 a new resolution prescribed the closure of schools with fewer than 21 students on the grounds that they limit students’ academic success” and “present rates of school failure above the national average.” It also stated that in these schools, “students and teachers are less likely to succeed and develop; they also offer few opportunities to interact”. As a result of these successive policies, the number of primary schools in Portugal fell from 10 800 in 1988 to approximately 5 710 in 2011.

Sources: OECD (2014e), Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective, OECD Publishing, Paris, www.oecd.org/edu/Improving-schools-in-Wales.pdf; Ares Abalde, M. (2014), “School size policies: A literature review”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 106, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jxt472ddkjl-en; Godinho, A.S. (2012), “School closures and community revitalisation: the case of Óbidos, Portugal”, CELE Exchange 2012/3, OECD Publishing, www.oecd.org/education/Portugal.pdf.

Larger schools and classes do not bring automatic benefits, however. Improvements seem to be linked to instructional practices and the quality of interactions they bring rather than the sizes themselves (OECD, 2012). It is therefore essential that any resources freed up by efficiency gains are invested in improving the quality of teaching, including substantial investments in the professional development of teachers throughout their careers.

Research evidence also shows the benefits of teachers and school leaders engaging in networks or school-to-school collaborations (Paletta, 2011; Senge et al., 2012; OECD, 2013e, 2014e). These can supplement school-based professional development and learning through formal education programmes, and importantly can also help reduce the isolation of largely independently functioning schools. Powerful ICT can provide an additional dimension to these networks, allowing the easy sharing of information and resources, and easy communication at any time (OECD, 2013e).

Teachers’ professional associations provide an existing mechanism to encourage such collaborative practices among professionals. Although the evidence suggests these associations are less developed in some parts of the country and for some subject areas, with adequate investment to build their capacity and support their operations, they could serve as a platform to promote networking and school-to-school collaborations among small schools in rural Latvia.

In addition, the Latvian government could consider supporting underperforming schools more directly. Rather than supporting school improvement efforts through the national grants provided to schools – which under the current conditions do not guarantee the actual allocation of funds as planned – or through the professional associations alone, the government could also consider providing more targeted support to underperforming schools in rural areas. The Netherlands and Ontario provide examples of targeted interventions providing additional support to poorly performing schools, with good results (Box 3.4).

Box 3.4. Targeted support to weak schools – examples from Ontario (Canada) and the Netherlands

In Ontario (Canada), the Focused Intervention Program (OFIP, since 2006/07) provides targeted support to primary schools that have “experienced particular difficulties in achieving continuous improvement”, measured through results in provincial assessments of reading, writing and mathematics at Grades 3 and 6. OFIP funds are used for professional development, additional student and professional learning resources, literacy and numeracy coaches, and teacher-release time for collaboration and additional training. In 2006/07, schools qualified for OFIP support if less than 34% of students reached provincial standard in Grade 3 reading. In addition, since 2009/10, resources from the OFIP program were extended to over 1 100 schools in which less than 75% of students met provincial standards in the Grades 3 and 6 assessments. From 2002/03 to2010/11, the number of schools with fewer than 34% of students achieving at provincial standard in Grade 3 reading was reduced by two-thirds from 19% to 6%, showing significant success in reducing the number of primary schools in which students fail.

The Netherlands has put in place an innovative system to support the improvement of weak and very weak schools as quickly as possible. The Education Inspectorate plays a key role in identifying weak schools based on a number of (output) indicators. Schools that are identified as weak or very weak receive a more intense follow-up inspection and those labelled very weak must improve or be closed down within two years. During these two years, the Inspectorate engages with school boards and monitors the implementation of its recommendations. The role of the Inspectorate during this time is one of supervision as well as advice. Alongside this top-down intervention, which is unique in an otherwise highly decentralised education system, weak schools are given specialised advice and assistance, mostly subsidised by the ministry and carried out by a range of organisations in the field. This system yielded promising results: from 2006 to 2010, the number of very weak schools has been reduced more quickly than the objectives originally set out.

Sources: OECD (2011), Lessons from PISA for the United States, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris; van Twist, M. et al. (2013), “Coping with very weak primary schools: Towards smart interventions in Dutch education policy”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 98, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k3txnpnhld7-en.

The challenge of putting “inclusive education” into practice

In Latvia, as in many OECD countries, the provision of equal access to the same “one size fits all” education is no longer seen as adequate. The focus is increasingly shifting towards providing education that promotes equity by recognising and meeting different educational needs (OECD, 2012). The Latvian government is committed to implementing the principle of “inclusive education” and focuses its efforts on two main target groups: 1) children and youth at risk of exclusion due to their development, abilities or health condition; and 2) youth at risk of exclusion due to social conditions (MoES, 2014). We agree that the concept of inclusive education is of particular relevance for Latvia considering its socio-economic and regional disparities within the country, and that child poverty and youth at risk of social exclusion provide formidable challenges to the country’s inclusive education ambitions.

One example of Latvia’s efforts to support youth at risk of social exclusion is the “Roma Teachers’ Assistants” project started in 2007. Through this project, 20 teachers’ assistants of Roma background were trained, as were 30 teachers in schools Roma children attended, to improve their capacity to work in a multicultural environment and apply the principle of inclusive education in practice. Evaluation of the project showed that the teacher assistants contributed to increasing the educational achievement of Roma children and helped change the attitudes of Roma parents towards education (MoES, 2015).

Another example is the creation of eight inclusive education centres that were established throughout the country during 2007-13, six of which still offer assistance to students with functional disorders and train educators.

Despite these and other efforts to promote the integration of students with special education needs, only 35% of students with special education needs were in regular schools, although this proportion is about 20 percentage points higher than five years earlier, which is a considerable improvement (Table 3.5). Latvia realises it needs to do more and has set itself several targets (see Table 3.3), including one to increase the proportion of students with special needs that are integrated into mainstream education. To achieve these targets the government will, among other measures, invest in improving the early identification of children with special education needs at all levels of the system (excluding higher education) which we agree is an important policy measure.

Table 3.5. Integrating children with special needs in regular schools and classes (Grades 1-12)

Students with special needs integrated in mainstream schools and taught by:

Year

Total number of students with special needs

Mainstream education programme in regular classes

Special education programme in regular classes

Special education programme in special classes

Students in special education schools

Share of students with special needs integrated in regular classes

2013/14

10 865

356

3 421

1 283

5 805

35%

2012/13

11 135

328

2 891

1 179

6 737

29%

2011/12

10 466

187

2 308

1 072

6 899

24%

2010/11

10 026

117

1 474

1 244

7 191

16%

2009/10

9 481

113

462

1 357

7 549

6%

2008/09

10 350

769

821

1 202

7 558

15%

Source: MoES (2015), “Country background report Latvia”, unpublished, Ministry of Education and Science, Riga.

TALIS 2013 found just 12.1% of teachers reported needing further training on teaching students with special needs (OECD, 2014c), but several national studies paint a different picture. They point to teachers’ attitudes and lack of skills in working with students with special education needs as the main obstacles for implementing inclusive education in practice (Austers, Golubeva and Strode, 2008; Nimante, 2008; Nimante and Tubele, 2010). They suggest that teacher education programmes in Latvia are not preparing teachers sufficiently to work with special education needs. This message resonates with the call for action by the participants of the “Inclusive Society Starts with Inclusive Education” conference held in Riga on 2 April 2015 who asked for the review of “initial education and continuous education programmes for teachers to ensure the necessary knowledge about inclusive education, to broaden teachers’ knowledge about children with special needs, establish an accessible specialist support to consult teachers in order to improve the understanding of children’s needs and thus ensure an effective learning process that suits the abilities of the student” (Inclusive Society Starts with Inclusive Education, 2015).

Perhaps in agreement, MoES will use EU funding during 2014-20 to invest in building teachers’ capacity to respond to the learning needs of students with special education needs (MoES, 2014). The Education Development Guidelines 2014-2020 (MoES, 2014) state that the government aims to develop and implement continuing professional development programmes for specialists (social workers, physiotherapists, etc.), but are less explicit about how initial and continuing teacher education programmes could build teachers’ capacity. Once again, the important work currently going on to develop teacher standards should be used to inform and help (re-)shape development programmes. Among other things, these standards should highlight the importance of teachers being able to identify and work with students with special education needs. This is of particular relevance as larger proportions of special education students are integrated into regular classes in the years to come.

The Education Development Guidelines also note that further changes at the community and policy level will be needed to make Latvia’s schools and society at large more inclusive. An earlier OECD report (OECD, 2014a) already noted that Latvia’s school funding model is not sufficiently sensitive to students’ special education needs. The model includes coefficients for students in special educational institutions, special educational classes in mainstream schools and social correction educational programmes. It however fails to adequately integrate the educational and other needs of individual students. Research evidence shows achieving equity in education requires funding strategies responsive to student and school needs. Students and schools have different socio-economic profiles and varying needs, and funding schemes should reflect these (OECD, 2012).

Many countries include needs-based variables in their school funding calculations to account for the additional resource needs of teaching students with learning disabilities or who come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds (Fazekas, 2012). The revised school funding model that Latvia is currently piloting does ensure that additional funds are allocated for students with special needs. The formula includes a coefficient of 1.8 for students in a special education school and 2.0 for students integrated into a mainstream classroom. This differentiation is a positive development as it provides additional incentives for integrating children with special needs into regular classes. Careful monitoring will be needed to show whether this difference in coefficient is enough.

The piloted funding formula does not currently take into account students’ socio-economic backgrounds but may do so in time. Latvia could look towards countries like the Netherlands and the French Community of Belgium for examples (Box 3.5). Latvia is also considering providing separate grants to students at risk of social exclusion and may look towards the examples of England (the United Kingdom) or Wales, where a range of funding grants target specific students or schools. The experiences from these countries also show the need to prevent procedures from becoming administratively cumbersome (OECD, 2014e).

Box 3.5. Different approaches to funding and supporting disadvantaged students and/or those with special education needs

In Wales a range of funding grants target specific students or schools. Special grants are allocated to schools to implement interventions that aim to improve the performance of these different groups of students, particularly low achievers. Among the different grants that local authorities and schools can access are:

  • The free school meal entitlement that children and young people attending school on a full-time basis may receive if their parents/guardians receive certain benefits or support payments.

  • The Pupil Deprivation Grant (GBP 918 per student in 2014/15, GBP 450 in 2015/16) provides schools with targeted resources to improve achievement of disadvantaged students, i.e. those students that are eligible for free school meals and looked-after children.

  • The School Effectiveness Grant, which is linked to the Pupil Deprivation Grant, supports the three main education objectives of the Welsh government i.e. improving student performance in literacy and numeracy, and reducing the impact of deprivation on student performance.

  • The Communities First Student Deprivation Grant Match Fund aims to encourage schools in areas of high poverty to form closer links with their communities through grants ranging between GBP 10 000 and GBP 75 000 a year for each Communities First Cluster.

The Flemish Community of Belgium allocates a portion of total funding on the basis of four socio-economic indicators: the mother’s level of education, the student’s qualification for a school allowance, the language spoken at home and the living environment of the student.

In the Netherlands, schools receive equal public funding based on the number of students (except for schools fully funded from private sources), as long as they meet certain requirements. Targeted funding provides additional resources to schools. The allocation of budgets varies depending on the level of education but often has a fixed part and a larger variable part. At the primary school level the allocated budget has a relatively small fixed component (5-10%) for school management and a large component based on the number of students, adjusted for the share of students from low-income households and students with disabilities. Schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students effectively have on average about 58% more teachers per student and also more support staff.

Sources: Ladd, H. F. and E.B. Fiske (2011), “Weighted student funding in the Netherlands: A model for the U.S.?”, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 30/3, pp. 470-498, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pam.20589; OECD (2015c), Improving Schools in Sweden: An OECD Perspective, OECD Publishing, Paris, www.oecd.org/edu/school/Improving-Schools-in-Sweden.pdf; OECD (2014e), Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective, OECD Publishing, Paris, www.oecd.org/edu/Improving-schools-in-Wales.pdf.

Although research has shown the effectiveness of using needs-based variables and/or specific grants to distribute resources where they are most needed, it also points towards the importance of allocating funding in accordance with actual policies in order to reach the designated recipients (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2014; Levačić, 2006). However, in practice this does not always happen, including in Latvia. As already described, some municipalities reallocate funds to small schools that are no longer viable, for instance, and there are considerable spending differences between municipalities. These suggest municipalities should be held more accountable for the efficiency and quality of education they provide.

Partly in response to this issue, the revised funding model will transfer funds directly to schools, in principle preventing municipalities from reallocating funds. This feature of the revised model will very likely limit funding differences between schools and enhance the transparency of how funding is allocated to schools in Latvia.

Policy issue 3: Underdeveloped assessment and evaluation arrangements

Governments and education policy makers in OECD countries increasingly see evaluation and assessment as playing a central strategic role in education. They are indispensable tools for improvement, accountability, educational planning and policy development. Evaluation and assessment are seen as essential for establishing how well students are learning; providing information to parents and society at large about educational performance; and informing the improvement of schools, school leadership and teaching practices. To achieve their full potential, the various assessment and evaluation arrangements should form a coherent whole and serve to advance educational goals and student learning objectives (OECD, 2013c).

In recent years Latvia has taken steps to establish and strengthen each of the key components that make up a comprehensive assessment and evaluation system: assessments of students, teachers and school leaders, schools, and the system. However, they are not equally well developed and lack synergy. There are also concerns about the quality of some of the data collected, and clear challenges over the assessment and evaluation capacity at all levels of the system. These challenges limit Latvia’s effective monitoring of educational progress.

The challenge of moving towards competency-based student assessments

Assessment of students is essential to measure their individual progress and performance and plan further steps to improve teaching and learning (OECD, 2013c). High-performing education systems balance the use of formative student assessments (assessment for learning) and summative student assessment (assessment of learning) (OECD, 2012). When the pendulum swings too much towards summative assessments there is a risk that tests are perceived to be high stakes. This can lead to negative effects such as summative scores undermining effective formative assessment in the classroom or “teaching to the test” (OECD, 2013c).

There is little evidence to suggest such an imbalance in the Latvian school system. The National Standards of Compulsory Education prescribe the use of various assessment procedures including self- and peer-evaluation, teacher evaluation, and state examinations. They also highlight the importance of continuous assessment of students by teachers through formative and summative assessments. Various recent projects, such as to improve ICT skills (digital competence), foreign language skills (communication in foreign languages) and entrepreneurial skills (sense of initiative and entrepreneurship) have specifically highlighted the importance of using both types of assessments to support the learning of students, providing training for teachers and supporting materials to do so (MoES, 2015).

In Latvia the national student assessment for the certificate of basic education is taken at the end of Grade 9. The exams taken by students in schools which implement minority language programmes are marked centrally while the others are marked in the school by teachers who did not teach the students and in some cases by the class teacher too (EACEA, 2009; MoES, 2015). The National Centre for Education informed us that they have found some evidence of variable marking of these exams by teachers, which reduces their reliability and usefulness for monitoring purposes.

This may be an issue for MoES to investigate further, considering it is about to start the implementation of a new curriculum. The move from a largely knowledge-based curriculum to a competency-based one will be challenging for those teachers not sufficiently familiar with and/or confident about teaching towards and assessing against competency-based learning objectives. Though much training has been provided to promote competency-based teaching approaches in recent years, Latvia has many long-serving teachers, many of whom will have worked for over two decades with a curriculum based on knowledge requirements, and may therefore find the transition challenging.

MoES should not underestimate the complexity of implementing a new curriculum. It should ensure adequate capacity-building support and provide supporting materials to help teachers align their teaching and assessments of student learning to the new competency-based learning outcomes. Latvia could look to the examples of Finland or Scotland (the United Kingdom) in this area. In Finland, for example, “learning to learn” skills are considered to be central to each student’s development. To evaluate and promote the importance of such skills, national sample-based assessments were developed by the Centre of Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki to evaluate the “learning to learn” skills of students in Grade 3, 6 and 9 of compulsory education (OECD, 2013c).

Scotland’s implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence is another example Latvia could learn from. This curriculum typifies many international trends in curricular policy, through its emphasis on generic skills and competences, its focus on pedagogy and its apparent extension of autonomy to teachers as agents of change (Priestley and Minty, 2013). Scotland’s approach is often considered to be good practice in how to design and implement a contemporary curriculum (OECD, 2015, forthcoming; Priestley and Minty, 2013), it however expects a great deal of teachers, including its assessment demands (Box 3.6).

Box 3.6. The design and implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence

The implementation of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) for 3-18 year-olds started in 2004 and has been introduced in various forms over the period since then. It has also been adopted as a holistic approach to school improvement, steering the values and dispositions that can motivate students to excel. While specific subjects are an essential feature of the curriculum, particularly in secondary school, the curriculum is more outcome oriented than subject oriented, promoting a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach.

Since the start of the CfE various stakeholders, such as students, parents and local authorities, have been encouraged to contribute to the curriculum. For example, writing teams were formed for each curriculum area, brought in from the classroom and other posts in education to develop the “experiences and outcomes” that define specific goals of the curriculum. The draft experiences and outcomes were published online and were accompanied by an online questionnaire so that anyone with an interest in education could be part of the feedback and revision process.

The CfE allows schools and local authorities to review and redesign their curriculum through a collaborative process “Building your Curriculum” that involve partners in the school community. Materials have been developed to engage students, parents and school staff in the process, including workshop toolkits, a template for curriculum planning and sample curriculum plans. Also, teachers were provided with numerous exemplars, particularly to support their evaluation and assessment practices. The framework for assessment was developed to provide detailed guidance for practitioners. As a key component of the framework, the National Assessment Resource, an online resource, was launched in 2011 to support assessment approaches by providing assessment materials and examples.

On the other hand, research suggests that teachers have different understandings of the purposes and philosophy of the CfE. Many teachers expressed anxiety as they tried to move from the prior prescriptive curriculum to one with greater teacher autonomy, particularly in relation to assessment. These findings point to the importance of raising the capacity of individual teachers through continuing professional development as well as changing the cultural and structural conditions.

Sources: OECD (forthcoming), Policy Review of Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, OECD Publishing, Paris; Priestley, M. and S. Minty (2013), “Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but…’”, Scottish Educational Review, Vol. 45/1, pp. 39-52; Education Scotland (2010), “What is Curriculum for Excellence?”, www.educationscotland.gov.uk/learningandteaching/thecurriculum/whatiscurriculumforexcellence/.

Strengthening teacher and school leader appraisal to foster improvement

The introduction of the Assessment System for Teacher Performance in 2009 can be considered a positive development as it recognises the performance of effective teachers, which may have a positive impact on motivation (a key objective of MoES). Research evidence also shows that education systems benefit from clear and concise profiles of what teachers are expected to know and be able to do in specific subject areas (Schleicher, 2012; OECD, 2013f; Randi and Zeichner, 2004).

The assessment system does go some way to communicate the ministry’s expectations of key competences necessary for the development of an effective teacher. Its five key areas (see Box 1.1, Chapter 1) may not sufficiently recognise the complexity of good teaching, however, limiting their usefulness for supporting teachers’ career-long quest for better practice. The limited impact of teacher appraisals and feedback on teaching practices, and the fact that less than half (48%) of teachers reported having personal development plans to improve their work (OECD, 2014c), are worrying and suggests there is much scope to strengthen school leaders’ capacity to conduct appraisals and use them to inform teachers’ professional development.

One positive development is the work that Latvia has started to develop teacher standards. These can form the basis for developing a more comprehensive teacher appraisal system characterised by formal and informal discussions between teachers and school leaders and others. These should take place several times a year to facilitate a continuous cycle of professional growth.

One example Latvia could follow is Ontario (Canada) where each teacher must develop or review and update a professional development plan each year. This plan includes the teacher’s professional growth objectives, proposed action plan and timelines for achieving those objectives. It is teacher-authored and directed and is developed in a consultative and collaborative manner with the principal. Teachers who move from the new to the experienced teacher appraisal process must develop an annual learning plan in their first year as an experienced teacher. Each year thereafter, teachers, in consultation with their principal, must review and update their learning plan as needed from the previous year. They must take into account their learning plan from the previous year, their learning and growth over the year, and the summative report of their most recent performance appraisal. In an evaluation year, the teacher and principal must meet to review and update the teacher’s plan as part of the performance appraisal (OECD, 2009).

Latvian school leaders are currently assessed at least once every six years as part of the school accreditation process. A recent amendment to the Law on Education introduced a requirement for the external evaluation of school heads conducted by an institution nominated by MoES. It is planned that the SEQS will be the delegated institution. The school leadership standards to be developed in 2016/17 will form the basis for this revised system. Appraisal results will be used to inform decisions on school heads’ performance and salary allowance (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2015), and should also be used to inform their continuous professional development. This is a positive development that should not be delayed.

Further improving school evaluations

The Latvian school evaluation has drawn on international best practice and was inspired by the Scottish school evaluation system. It is well aligned with several good practices in school evaluation highlighted by a recent OECD Review on Evaluation and Assessment (OECD, 2013c). School evaluation is shaped by mutually reinforcing annual internal assessments and six-yearly external ones. Latvia has also defined national quality criteria that are used for both internal and external evaluations. These ensure alignment between the two which has the advantage of keeping schools systematically focused on core quality criteria, and not just in relation to cycles of external school evaluation.

External school evaluations draw on a broad set of evidence, including the school self-evaluation report, classroom observation and surveys of key stakeholders (e.g. students, teachers and parents). This practice encourages the acceptance of the evaluation results by schools and other stakeholders.

The external evaluation is carried out by trained evaluators who represent key stakeholders, including experienced and recognised educational experts and leaders from other schools. This can have multiple benefits: broadening the expertise of the expert commission doing the evaluation, enhancing its credibility through the explicit involvement of current practitioners, and building capacity among the educational experts and leaders themselves. They can then use their experience to support their colleagues to better understand external evaluations, and share knowledge on good practices they have seen (OECD, 2013c, 2015c).

Despite these strengths there are also some areas for improvement. First, a lack of funding has without a doubt limited the potential of school evaluation to support school improvements. The 2009/10 budget cuts resulted in a one-off evaluation based on schools’ self-evaluation reports and student outcomes alone, with only the 20% of schools considered most at risk receiving a visit from an expert commission in the six years that followed. Latvia now plans to continue this risk-based approach, leaving 80% of schools without the opportunity to benefit from the constructive criticism of the expert commission. Importantly, it also prevents the identification of higher-performing schools and dissemination of good practices. Neither will it challenge any complacency among schools which fall outside the risk-based sample (OECD, 2015c).

In addition, the review team formed the impression that internal and external evaluation processes are not yet really seen as opportunities for improvement. The evidence from our school visits suggest that yearly self-evaluations are not that well established. Moreover, the extent to which other local stakeholders are involved in self-evaluation processes varied according to those interviewed by the review team.

The evidence also suggests the follow-up requirements for external evaluations are rather thin once accreditation is obtained. Schools are simply expected to submit a progress report every year until all recommendations are implemented. Responsibility for this lies with the founding body, usually the municipality. However, as pointed out earlier, some municipalities may not have the capacity to adequately support their schools’ improvement efforts. MoES should therefore consider further strengthening its follow-up support to schools. As mentioned earlier, it could look towards the example of the Education Inspectorate of the Netherlands which plays a key role in the identification and intense follow up support provided to weak performing schools (see Box 3.3).

In addition, the current school evaluation system pays insufficient attention to the performance of municipalities, despite concerns about their variable capacity. Therefore, Latvia may consider following the example of a country like Wales dealing with similar capacity challenges at the local level (OECD, 2014e) and provide SEQS with the mandate to more explicitly report on the effectiveness of municipalities at improving the quality of education in their schools.

The need for stronger system-level monitoring

Evaluation at the system level provides the opportunity for education systems to monitor the extent to which progress is being made on their goals. The evidence used typically brings together qualitative and quantitative data from different levels of the system, particularly those related to student outcomes and school evaluations, as well as data from international surveys such as PISA (Campbell and Levin, 2009; Hopkins et al., 2008). However, as outlined in Chapter 1, there are a number of weaknesses in Latvia’s system-level monitoring of educational progress and the SEIS and MoES lacks the capacity – and perhaps the “culture” – of using data and research for policy-making purposes.

In sum, although in recent years Latvia has aimed to strengthen the evaluation and assessment of its school system, the individual arrangements are not equally well developed and do not form one coherent whole. In particular the there is scope to strengthen the improvement functions of teacher, school and system-level evaluations. MoES is very much aware of these weaknesses and, with EU financial support, intends to use the coming years to strengthen its assessment and evaluation capacity which we agree is an essential step for moving the system forward.

Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Establish the conditions for a high-quality teaching and leadership profession

Latvia’s relatively large and ageing teaching workforce combined with a shrinking student population provide a historical opportunity to reshape and invest in the quality of its education workforce. Although the government has taken several steps to improve “the attractiveness and motivation of teachers and academic personnel” (MoES, 2014), there is a lack of coherence between the various initiatives.

Latvia should consider adopting a more systematic approach to reform with a comprehensive medium- to long-term human resource strategy for the education system that is adequately resourced, ensures coherence and adequately sequences various reform initiatives. This strategy should include raising salaries at least to nationally comparative levels as part of a well-designed career structure that offers teachers a variety of career paths, recognising and challenging them throughout their careers. This will need to go hand in hand with the consolidation of the school network to free up funds for higher salaries and investment in the quality of teaching, particularly in rural schools.

Professional standards for teachers and school leaders provide the foundation of a well-designed career structure, and should inform appraisals and the professional development of staff. The working group on the development of teacher standards should expand its work to include the development of school leadership standards. This work should be seen as a single effort to develop a diversified career structure that facilitates the transition from teaching into leadership positions.

Further, entry into initial teacher education and the profession should be more selective. This will allow for the quality and motivation of aspiring teachers and leaders to be tested, and may help draw the best graduates into the profession and raise the status of the profession in society. Professional development should follow a lifecycle approach based on a solid assessment of developmental needs through regular appraisals. Collaborative learning and working within schools should be enhanced, with induction and mentoring as good starting points. Finally, in light of the demands of the new curriculum, and the development of teaching and leadership standards, Latvia should consider reviewing its initial education and continuing professional development capacity.

Recommendation 2: Promote equity and excellence in education, with a focus on rural schools

Though Latvia has made good progress in expanding access and improving learning outcomes, the data suggest there are marked differences in student performance between rural and urban schools in Latvia, while students with special education needs and/or at risk of social exclusion do not equally benefit from quality learning opportunities. The Latvian government should therefore continue its efforts to ensure that its school system is effective in meeting the learning needs of all its students. It should consider complementary strategies to meet these challenges.

Latvia should continue its efforts to make the school system more efficient and ensure that the freed-up resources are invested in the quality of teaching, in particular in rural schools. MoES and the municipalities could promote different ways of rationalising the school network more directly, including school closures, collaborations, consolidation and the enhanced use of ICT for remote teaching and learning. For example it could consider defining clear criteria for initiating the closing or consolidation of schools, and incentives to promote these processes.

MoES and municipalities should also enhance their efforts to promote networking and school-to-school collaborations to help reduce the isolation of schools and build social capital within and across Latvia’s rural schools. Professional associations could be strengthened to enable them to play a role in facilitating these activities. In addition, MoES should consider providing more targeted support (programmes) to underperforming schools.

Making Latvia’s schools more inclusive will require changes at the community and policy level, but also depends on the ability and motivation of teachers and school leaders to identify and work with children with special needs. The proposed review of initial education and continuing professional development should therefore ensure this area is sufficiently covered. The planned professional standards should also reflect the central importance of special education.

The school funding model currently being piloted allocates additional funds for students with special education needs and creates incentives for their integration into mainstream classrooms but does not take students’ socio-economic backgrounds into account. In time, Latvia should consider further refining the school funding model to include socio-economic backgrounds. Any use of special grants to support students at risk of social exclusion should be designed to be simple to administer.

Recommendation 3: Develop a coherent assessment and evaluation framework for informing policy and educational practice

In recent years Latvia has taken steps to establish and strengthen each of the key components that make up a comprehensive assessment and evaluation system. It has only partially succeeded with this, however, as the elements are not equally well developed and lack synergy. MoES recognises the situation and plans to strengthen the system’s monitoring and evaluation capacity in future years. The review team recommends it adopts a strategic approach rather than focusing on the individual assessment arrangements one by one. It should start by developing a coherent assessment and evaluation framework built around educational goals and improving student learning.

Latvia should invest in teachers’ capacity to assess the new curriculum’s competency-based learning objectives. MoES should not underestimate the complexity of this transition, which may prove particularly challenging given the teaching workforce’s long experience with a largely knowledge-driven curriculum.

The current teacher assessment system should be further developed into one geared towards supporting the professional development of teachers, and expanded to include school leaders. Such a system should be founded on the professional standards currently being developed. These should state the expectations for effective teachers and school leaders at various stages of their careers and inform them in their professional development.

The improvement function of school evaluations should be strengthened. The resources should be found to enable external school evaluations and follow-up support to cover more schools so that they do not miss out on the benefits that can arise from a critical but constructive external evaluation. This will also support the identification of higher-performing schools and dissemination of good practices. Latvia should continue to promote the establishment of strong school self-evaluations, which are not yet fully embedded in schools. A possible way forward might be to hold school leaders more responsible for self-evaluations and for school leadership courses to include a significant element on school evaluation. The SEQS should further strengthen its follow-up support to schools and Latvia should consider expanding its mandate to more explicitly report on the effectiveness of municipalities in supporting their schools. In addition, school leaders should be externally evaluated to support their professional development and school improvements.

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Notes

← 1. As of 2014, out of 96 municipalities with available data, 35 covered lunches for all grades of basic education. Municipalities may also decide to fund meals for specific groups of children like those from large or low-income families and orphans.

← 2. A gymnasium (ģimnāzija) is an institution offering three years of full-time general upper secondary education to students aged 16 to 19. The institution may also offer the last three years of basic education to students aged 13 to 15, thus enabling them to complete basic education (Eurydice, 2014).

← 3. PISA results are normalised to a mean of 500 for OECD countries. While this average changes slightly across years, it can serve as a useful benchmark.

← 4. The mean performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics in PISA 2012 was 513 score points in cities in Latvia (over 100 000 people), 493 in towns (between 3 000 and 100 000 people) and 461 in villages (fewer than 3 000 people), compared to the OECD averages of 504, 493, and 468 respectively (OECD, 2013d).