2. Delivering effective and equitable schooling

Schools are at the heart of education systems. How they deliver teaching and learning opportunities can contribute to the achievement of not only educational goals, but also broader development goals, such as participatory citizenship, social cohesion and economic competitiveness. Western Balkan economies have enacted important school-level policies to improve the excellence and equity of schooling. These efforts include the introduction of modern, competence-based curricula, the development of comprehensive school evaluation systems, and a shift towards more needs-based resourcing of schools.

Nevertheless, data from PISA and OECD-UNICEF country reviews suggest that several challenges remain in terms of school effectiveness. An important overarching issue is that schooling in the region, in addition to demonstrating relatively lower performance, is not equitable. At the upper-secondary level, students are rigidly tracked and selection into these tracks reflects – and risks exacerbating – inequities at lower educational levels. These inequities develop partly because overall spending in the education sector is low and inefficient compared to international benchmarks, and because schools with more disadvantaged students often receive fewer resources. Against this backdrop, rapid urbanisation is shrinking schools in rural areas creating pressures for more efficient and equitable resource allocation.

This chapter uses PISA data to analyse how schooling in the Western Balkans is both similar to and different from international benchmarks. It focuses strongly on examining how different levels of school inputs, from their student intake to their infrastructure, might be leading to different types of outcomes. Based on these findings, it suggests potential reforms that might help education systems in the region improve learning for all students.

Similar to many OECD countries, Western Balkan education systems track students into general and vocational programmes at the upper-secondary level. However, what distinguishes student tracking in the Western Balkans is the size of vocational sectors and the lack of permeability between educational tracks. As a student’s track strongly affects his/her academic and professional opportunities, policy makers must carefully consider how to place students into different tracks and how to help students along their different trajectories. Sorting mechanisms must be reliable and equitable and all students, regardless of what educational track they enter, should be supported to succeed in future learning, work and life.

Compared to international benchmarks, Western Balkan systems are much more academically selective when allocating students into educational tracks. For example, some 45% of upper-secondary students from OECD countries attend a school where admission is contingent upon academic performance, compared to 69% of students in the Western Balkans (Table 2.1). In fact, at the upper-secondary level, Western Balkan education systems are some of the most academically selective in the world (Figure 2.1), which increases the need for selection mechanisms to be fair and reliable.

For highly selective education systems to be equitable, the determinations of student ability that place them into tracks must be valid and reliable. However, data from PISA suggest that assessments of student ability in the Western Balkans might not be accurate and might be largely reflecting student demographics (e.g. their gender and socio-economic background) instead of student capability. This disconnect can then impact the equity of tracking decisions.

For example, on average across Western Balkan systems, students who attend vocational programmes are over twice as likely to be male and almost three times as likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged than students in general education programmes (Figure 2.2). While these results are consistent with the OECD average, there are considerable differences at the system level. In Serbia, socio-economically disadvantaged students are more than five times as likely to attend a vocational upper-secondary school. In Albania, on the other hand, advantaged and disadvantaged students are equally likely to attend vocational upper-secondary school.

These findings help explain some of the disparities in learning outcomes between tracks that were illustrated in Chapter 1. Since boys and disadvantaged students are also more likely to attend vocational programmes, performance differences between educational tracks expectedly decrease after accounting for these variables (Figure 2.3). The extent to which these variables account for performance differences can indicate how much tracking decisions reflect differences in student ability or student background. In the Western Balkans, this measure differs considerably across systems, suggesting that some tracking mechanisms might be strongly reflecting student background. In Serbia, for example, the average performance difference between tracks drops 64 score points after accounting for gender and socio-economic status, a considerably larger change than the average change across the OECD (40 score points). In North Macedonia, accounting for these variables shrinks performance differences between general and vocational tracks to 17 points, the lowest performance gap in the region and considerably lower than the OECD, EU and CEEC averages.

Education systems have a responsibility to ensure that all students, regardless of their educational track, receive quality instruction. Results from PISA indicate that many Western Balkan systems are struggling to equip a large share of students, especially those in vocational programmes, with basic literacy and numeracy skills (see Chapter 1). This disparity is partly because vocational students may face equity challenges in lower level schooling that contribute to weaker foundational skills. However, if vocational programmes do not effectively help students strengthen these important skills, disparities in learning outcomes can actually widen after students are tracked.

Using PISA data, OECD analysts examined the difference in performance between students in different grades in upper-secondary education in vocational programmes compared to general education programmes (i.e. the change observed in one year of schooling in both programmes). In EU countries for which data are available, such as Italy and Hungary, the increase in achievement across grades is actually greater in vocational tracks, revealing the potential of vocational programmes to address critical learning gaps. In Western Balkan systems with available data, however, students in vocational programmes demonstrate less increased achievement across grades compared to students in general education tracks (Figure 2.4). This widening learning gap is especially problematic in the Western Balkans since students cannot switch programmes or take courses from other tracks once they are selected into their upper-secondary pathways. Unless vocational programmes can effectively develop the competences that students need to be economically competitive, students might not take vocational education seriously, which could further widen learning disparities between tracks and contribute to social and economic issues (Box 2.1).

Tracking students equitably requires having a shared understanding of what students should know and be able to do at a certain point in their education, and reliably assessing them against that shared understanding. To better communicate learning expectations, many Western Balkan economies have introduced modern, system-wide learning standards. However, there is generally limited understanding about how to assess student performance against these standards and how to support students to achieve them (Maghnouj, S., 2020[2]; Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]; OECD, 2019[4]). As a result, judgements about student performance (and potential) are sometimes subject to bias and inconsistencies, which can compound inequities that often start in earlier years of schooling and contribute to inequitable tracking outcomes.

Several Western Balkan economies have undertaken efforts to develop teachers’ assessment capacity. North Macedonia, for example, introduced a Formative Assessment Manual. In Serbia, teachers administer mandatory diagnostic tests at the beginning of each school year to develop a baseline for evaluating individual student progress (OECD, 2019[4]; Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]). These types of formative assessments, or assessments for learning, can help teachers identify more reliably and support struggling students (OECD, 2013[5]). Another way that many education systems, including a growing number in the Western Balkans, support teachers’ assessment literacy is through the use of national assessments. These are centrally developed, standardised tests that do not have consequences for students but can serve as models for teachers to develop their own standards-based assessments and help teachers moderate their classroom grading.

To improve the fairness of the tracking decision itself, most Western Balkan economies administer examinations to inform selection into upper-secondary schools. Unlike national assessments, exams do carry consequences for students but, if reliable, can provide a less subjective, external measure of student learning so tracking decisions are not determined solely by teacher judgements. North Macedonia, which has very narrow performance gaps between general education and vocational students when student background is accounted for (and large disparities when background is unaccounted for) is the only system in the region with neither a national assessment nor a lower-secondary examination (Table 2.2). This example highlights the risk that tracking decisions made solely based on teacher judgement without external moderation might reflect student background more than ability.

While vocational curricula preparation should focus on occupational skills, research shows that core academic skills, such as functional literacy and numeracy, are also important for students to succeed in the workplace and adjust to accelerated changes in the world of work. Successful vocational programmes, therefore, develop students’ core cognitive skills alongside occupational skills. Findings from OECD-UNICEF policy reviews in the Western Balkans, however, indicate that vocational curricula might focus too much on foundational skills from a theoretical perspective as opposed to a practical one (Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]; OECD, 2019[4]). Data from PISA further highlight the considerable need for vocational programmes to help students develop fundamental competences, especially in the Western Balkans where large shares of students have not achieved basic literacy and numeracy skills by age 15.

Ensuring that all upper-secondary students, including those in vocational tracks, develop foundational skills requires a range of policy measures that motivate students to learn, from introducing flexibility between pathways to providing career guidance and access to tertiary education (OECD, 2010[6]). Another policy area that requires particular attention is examinations, which can help drive teaching and learning, signal skills to employers through certification and create diverse opportunities so students do not perceive vocational education to be a “dead end” (Figure 2.6) (OECD, 2013[5]).

Most Western Balkan economies already have well-established upper-secondary exams, commonly known as maturas, which include a set of mandatory subjects that are taken by both general education and vocational students (Table 2.2). By allowing all students to enter tertiary education, maturas help raise the value of vocational programmes. More can be done, however, especially regarding recognising students’ vocational abilities in addition to their academic ones (Box 2.2).

On average across the Western Balkans, education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is much smaller than that of OECD and EU countries (Table 2.3). As a result, education systems in the region face a range of resource concerns from school buildings in need of major repairs (maintenance) to deficient technological infrastructure that impedes computer-based assessment (OECD, 2019[4]; World Bank, 2019[7]). Within this context, it is even more important for education systems to allocate resources in ways that best support high quality teaching and learning for all students.

PISA 2018 asks education systems to provide system-level data about educational expenditure. On average across the four Western Balkan economies for which data were available, spending on the education of a single student through age 15 was roughly 26 000 USD, considerably less than the OECD average of around 89 000 per student.

Figure 2.7 shows the relationship between cumulative per student spending through age 15 vis-à-vis mean performance on the PISA reading test. The picture for the Western Balkans is mixed. Serbia and Montenegro perform higher than would be expected, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia perform lower than would be expected given their level of spending. These findings suggest that while the overall level of funding of an education system matters, the design of its education policies (i.e. the efficiency of spending) can also affect learning outcomes.

To better understand school resourcing, PISA 2018 asked school principals to indicate whether a shortage or inadequacy of key educational resources hindered instruction at their schools. These key resources are defined here as:

  • physical infrastructure (e.g. school buildings, heating and cooling systems, and instructional space)

  • educational materials (e.g. textbooks, laboratory equipment, instructional material and computers)

  • human resources (i.e. teachers and teaching assistants).

Table 2.4 shows how principals in the Western Balkans responded to questions about these resources compared to principals from other education systems. On average, principals from the Western Balkans are slightly more likely to report that inadequate material resources (defined by PISA as both educational materials and physical infrastructure) hinders instruction at their schools. Principals from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are considerably more likely to report issues with material resources.

In terms of human resources, there is very little variation across Western Balkan economies. This finding is in line with other PISA data showing that distributions of certified teachers and those with master’s degrees (proxies for teacher quality) in the Western Balkans are similar across schools, regardless of differences in curricula programmes or student populations. While these results suggest that the allocation of educational staff is not a major concern for the region at the systems level, there are noticeable disparities in instructional practices among different types of schools, highlighting a need for policies to go beyond focusing on teacher certification and qualification levels to more closely examine differences in teaching practices across schools. Chapter 3 studies these issues in greater detail.

In addition to the overall level of resource provision, it is important to consider whether resources are going to where they are most needed. Across OECD countries, material resources are not allocated equitably across schools. In general, advantaged schools are likely to be better resourced than disadvantaged schools1, as are general education schools compared to vocational schools. Figure 2.8 and Figure 2.9 show that these trends are also true in Western Balkan education systems; however, there are large differences at the system level. For example, principals of disadvantaged schools in Albania are much more likely to report shortages in material resources than principals who work in similar schools located in other Western Balkan economies. In terms of disparities across educational programmes, principals of vocational schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina are much more likely than vocational principals in other regional economies to report concerns about material resources.

Similar to other types of material resources, technological infrastructure, and perceptions of its adequacy, is not allocated equitably across Western Balkan schools. The availability of technological infrastructure is crucial to modern education systems as it indicates the quality and relevance of educational provision in the digital age. Technology also enables distance learning when schools are not able to operate normally, such as recently during the school closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the PISA 2018 school questionnaire on educational materials, principals were asked a series of questions about their schools’ technological infrastructure. Figure 2.10 and Table 2.5 show that schools in the region tend to have poorer technological infrastructure and, when these resources are available, they are often perceived as less sufficient. Figure 2.11 and Table 2.6 show that available technological resources are not distributed equitably. Advantaged schools tend to have more computers, a larger share of computers connected to the internet, and principals from advantaged schools are more likely to report having sufficient technological resources compared to principals from disadvantaged schools.

Concerns about inadequate resourcing are typically connected with the belief that greater resourcing can produce stronger student outcomes. However, while schools and teachers undoubtedly need proper resources to educate students, simply providing resources is not enough to improve student learning. Those resources also need to be relevant to schools’ needs and school staff need to have the capacity to use those resources. If these conditions are not met, then more resources will not necessarily lead to better outcomes and countries risk inefficiently investing limited educational funds.

According to data from PISA 2018, the relationship between more resourcing and better outcomes is not conclusive. This trend is true internationally and across Western Balkan economies. For instance, North Macedonia has the highest computer-to-student ratio in the region, likely owing to a recent initiative to provide one laptop per child (OECD, 2019[4]). However, there is no relationship in North Macedonia between the number of computers and student outcomes (Table 2.7). These findings further suggest that it is how resources are used, not just their availability, that helps determine whether they support student learning.

In order to direct resources to where they can make the greatest difference, many OECD and EU countries use a combination of allocation mechanisms that aim to address the needs of schools with the most marginalised population groups (e.g. students with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds). These mechanisms typically take the form of additional funding provided to particular schools (e.g. by including weights based upon student characteristics in a funding formula) or through targeted programmes (e.g. grants), which are provided for specific purposes but are separate from main allocations (OECD, 2017[11]). In the Western Balkans, some education systems have already started exploring similar approaches. Serbia, for example, has tried to develop a per-capita funding formula; however, implementation remains a challenge (Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]). Albania is providing grants to certain groups of students to cover costs of transportation to school and textbooks (UNICEF, 2017[12]). These types of re-distributive policies can help Western Balkan economies use their limited educational resources more equitably and efficiently.

Ensuring effective resourcing requires first accurately identifying the strengths and weaknesses of schools. In this regard, school evaluation frameworks are crucial because they generate data about school needs that can help direct necessary resources and support. Similar to most OECD and EU countries, several Western Balkan economies have already developed school evaluation frameworks. Traditionally, these frameworks typically evaluated schools according to their compliance with rules and procedures but increasingly focus on how schools help students learn (OECD, 2013[5]). Serbia, for instance, has created a school evaluation framework with a set of school quality standards that emphasise teaching and learning practices and outcomes (Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]).

Successfully conducting school evaluations is difficult. An important aspect is whether the assessment of a school’s needs is accurate and focuses on effective practice. Regional systems have adopted several strategies to improve their assessment of school needs. For example, Serbia introduced new school quality standards in 2012, which were further revised in 2018 following initial testing to focus more on effective practice. North Macedonia is overhauling its school evaluation framework so it focuses less on compliance, more on student learning, and strengthens the importance of self-evaluation so principals can exercise more instructional leadership (OECD, 2019[4]). Education systems can use this information to design more effective school improvement policies. In Serbia, school evaluation results have been used to facilitate peer-learning across high and low performing schools.

Adequate resourcing will not necessarily produce the desired outcomes if school staff do not have the capacity to use those resources to help students learn. Central in this effort are school leaders, who are responsible for directing teaching and learning at their schools and overseeing how resources are used (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008[13]). To ensure that principals are prepared to fulfil their important functions, many countries select principals based on their ability to help schools improve student learning, as opposed to their political affiliations or experience in other professions, and require that they undergo extensive training.

Most school principals in the Western Balkans were former teachers, which is positive because it ensures principals are familiar with the school environment. However, OECD-UNICEF policy reviews have found that school principals in the region tend to view their role as administrative rather than as instructional leaders responsible for planning and driving school improvement. Moreover, the profession is often characterised by political interference in hiring processes and limited training opportunities. These factors contribute to creating cadres of school leaders that are not always well equipped to improve teaching and learning at their schools.

Several Western Balkan economies have started addressing these issues by making principal appointments more transparent and offering more substantial and relevant preparation for principals. For example, in 2017 Albania established a School of Directors as a centre for educational leadership (Maghnouj, S., 2020[2]); and in North Macedonia, prospective principals must pass a certification and licensing examination that assesses computer skills, theoretical knowledge and includes a presentation of a seminar paper (OECD, 2019[4]). These initiatives offer promising examples for how other systems in the region can strengthen the instructional and managerial capacity needed for school leaders to manage schools and use resources effectively and efficiently.

Many OECD and European school systems are experiencing significant demographic shifts, which, along with other social and economic changes, is altering the landscape of school networks2. Specifically, birth rates are declining and rural communities are shrinking while urban populations grow. Western Balkan economies are grappling with similar challenges. Birth rates have declined since 2000, especially in Kosovo and Albania. There has also been extensive migration outflows and internal mobility from rural to more urban areas as families and individuals search for better work and educational opportunities (Table 2.8). These factors create challenges for regional development and the provision of public services, especially in the education sector. In particular, the overall number of students is decreasing in rural schools, creating unsustainable excess capacity, while schools located in cities are becoming overcrowded and struggling to accommodate increased demand (OECD, 2018[14]; Maghnouj, S., 2020[2]; Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]; OECD, 2019[4]).

Demographic pressures are even more consequential in Western Balkan education systems because several economies in the region already have extended networks of small schools catering to students with different linguistic backgrounds (see Chapter 1). Governance arrangements in some parts of the region also lead to significant issues in terms of the jurisdiction, responsibility and co-ordination of education policy. These circumstances can make it difficult for education authorities in the Western Balkans to provide high quality and equitable teaching and learning opportunities across territorial spaces and linguistic groups.

Overall, data from PISA reveal that 15 year-old students in the Western Balkans attend schools that are similar in size to schools internationally. However, large deviations are observed at the system level (Figure 2.12). Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, have especially large numbers of very small schools. The smallest 10% of upper-secondary schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina have fewer than 84 students, much lower than the smallest upper-secondary schools across the OECD, which have fewer than 339 students. On the other hand, the largest 10% of upper-secondary schools in Kosovo have over 1 750 students, substantially larger than the largest schools across EU countries (1281). Nevertheless, the smallest 10% of schools in Kosovo are similar in size to the smallest schools in the EU, suggesting that Kosovo has a very wide range of school sizes.

The disparity in school size implies diverse challenges for school networks. Small schools are often under resourced and less cost effective, but may stay open in order to provide access to compulsory education for students living in remote areas or, in some cases, to ensure that different linguistic have access to instruction in their mother tongues. On the other hand, while larger urban schools can benefit from economies of scale, staff in these schools may have less time to dedicate to each student and schools in these contexts often serve students from heterogeneous backgrounds, presenting challenges for individualised instruction and classroom management.

Partly owing to the large number of small schools, data from PISA reveals that student-teacher ratios in the Western Balkans have a much wider range than international averages. The difference between schools with the highest 10% and lowest 10% of student-teacher ratios in the Western Balkans is 12 students, compared with roughly eight students across EU countries. There are also notable variations within individual economies. Schools with the lowest 10% of student-teacher ratios in Bosnia and Herzegovina have fewer than three students per teacher, while the lowest 10% of schools in North Macedonia have fewer than five students per teacher. Both figures are substantially lower than the lowest 10% of OECD schools, which have fewer than nine students per teacher. When considering non-teaching staff, some of these schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia could actually have more staff than students.

Data from PISA, however, suggest that neither smaller school sizes nor lower student-teacher ratios are related to improvements in learning outcomes. In fact, they are sometimes associated with lower student outcomes, which is likely related to the fact that small schools are more likely to be located in more rural areas, which tend to be poorer and face other disadvantages (Figure 2.13). Considering the high fixed costs of teacher salaries and the inconclusive evidence about staff size and student performance, maintaining large numbers of teachers in shrinking schools represents a major concern in the region. This situation is especially problematic given that Western Balkan education systems already face low levels of overall funding.

A critical consideration for education authorities in the Western Balkans is how to provide quality teaching and learning opportunities across geographic areas and sub-sectors (e.g. schools that instruct in different languages) of the system. There are several ways to enhance the efficiency of school networks and a common approach used by several OECD and EU economies is consolidation. This method involves closing some schools and transferring their students to another site, which can increase school size but make education provision more efficient and effective (OECD, 2018[14]). Since some Western Balkan education systems allocate funding based on structural inputs (e.g. the number of classes within a school), there are limited financial incentives for schools to consolidate, as schools with larger classes would not necessarily receive additional funding. Devising school funding formulas based upon student enrolment, and in consideration of different student needs, which is occurring in Serbia and Albania, can help encourage consolidation where it is possible. Also helpful is demonstrating to parents and communities the benefits for students in accessing larger, better resourced schools.

In some rural communities and ethnic communities consolidation will be difficult to implement because students would then live too far away from a suitable school. In these and other situations, Western Balkan education systems have devised different means to increase the cost effectiveness of school systems. For example, Serbia and Albania operate satellite schools, whereby a central school runs a cluster of other schools to pool administrative and staff costs (Maghnouj, S., 2020[2]; Maghnouj, S., 2020[3]). In Bosnia and Herzegovina - which has some of the smallest schools in the region – some education authorities make use of multi-grade schooling. This practice involves students from different grade levels sharing the same classroom and teacher at the same time, which eliminates the need to have two teachers teaching very small classes. While similar practices can be found in other developing education systems and even OECD and EU countries, the effects of such approaches are highly dependent on the preparation and support teachers receive when working in these challenging circumstances (OECD, 2018[14]).

In the case of larger schools located in urban areas with high population density, schools sometimes operate in double or even triple shifts to accommodate a greater number of students. Kosovo and North Macedonia, which have some of the largest schools in the region, make use of multi-shift schedules. While this approach allows for highly efficient use of school facilities, it is important to consider the effects multi-shift schooling can have on the quality and time of instruction, as it could lead to more stressful learning environments, shorter break periods and increases in out-of-school class work (OECD, 2018[14]).


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← 1. A socio-economically disadvantaged (advantaged) school is a school in the bottom (top) quarter of the index of ESCS in the relevant country/economy.

← 2. School networks refer to the location, size and offer of educational facilities in an education system.

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