Croatian educational system 101
Taking a look at the Croatian educational system is useful not only for those of you who need to figure out how to educate your children (in Croatian: djeca) in Croatia. It also reveals a lot about our values, political system, and both shared and conflicting worldviews. Considering that a vast majority of Croatian children go to public elementary schools and high schools, it’s an important and common issue.
How is education in Croatia structured?
Let’s first examine how education in Croatia is organized. Children start elementary school around the age of six or seven. Before that, they can attend pre-school and nurseries (both public and private), but it’s not obligatory.
Pre-school in Zagreb / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCro teacher
However, all children are required by law to attend elementary school for eight years – i.e. eight grades. Both elementary and high schools in Croatia are mostly public and free. There are some differences in how well equipped they are, based on how affluent the county is, but the only prerequisite for getting into ‘’better’’ elementary schools (in Croatian: osnovne škole) is your home address – each town or part of the city has one school that all children living in that area are supposed to attend.
Nikola Tesla Elementary school / photo taken by Mapiranje Trešnjevke (Vanja Radovanović)
What are a typical school day and a school year like?
In both Croatian elementary schools and high schools (in Croatian: srednje škole), classes are 45 minutes long, and (with some exceptions) students attend school from Monday to Friday. Between the classes, students have a 5-minute break, and in the middle of the day longer, 15 or 20-minute lunch break. Since there aren’t enough schools in Croatia, students mostly attend school in two shifts – one week they start in the morning (around 8 a.m.) and another week in the afternoon (around 1 p.m.).
In both high school and elementary school in Croatia, the school year is divided into two terms – winter term, which usually starts in the second week of September and ends with Christmas holidays and summer term that starts after three weeks of winter holidays and ends in the middle of June. Children also have Easter holiday for 10 days.
How are children assessed?
Children in Croatia are assessed numerically, with marks from 1 to 5. Five is the highest mark (excellent knowledge), while 1 is the lowest (insufficient knowledge). Children are graded in all subjects (in Croatian: predmeti) continuously throughout the year, by doing written exams, oral examinations, homework, assignments and class participation. These grades and teacher’s additional observations are noted in a grade book (imenik). Some schools still use a physical, paper version, but many have switched to electronic ones, which parents can also access at all times.
At the end of a school year, the teacher needs to set a final mark for the subject they teach. It’s often based on the average mark calculated on the basis of the marks the student was given during the year, but it can be adjusted according to other factors as well (e.g. student’s effort).
How to get into the next grade in Croatia?
Based on the final marks (in Croatian: ocjene) of all subjects, the arithmetic mean is calculated and a student is given one cumulative score, for that year. As you will see further in the text, both final subject marks and year marks are crucial for a student’s educational future – they determine which high school and colleges they will be able to enroll.
If a student doesn’t get at least mark 2 (sufficient) in one or two subjects, they attend extended classes at the end of June, during which they can prove that their knowledge is now sufficient. If they don’t manage that, they get one more opportunity to take the exam again at the end of August.
If at the end of a school year (June) a student has final mark 1 in three or more subjects (insufficient), they are held back, so they have to repeat the whole grade the next year.
What are some good sides and often mentioned issues of the Croatian educational system?
After this general overview, let’s see what are some main advantage and problems of the Croatian educational system.
It’s free for everyone!
The first huge positive is the fact that Croatian elementary schools and high schools are vastly public and therefore free. Although there are some private ones, the highest-ranking ones (based on students’ success at standardized national assessment exams and competitions) are still public – financed by the national government and local authorities. The governing idea is that all public schools in Croatia follow the same curriculum, have the same system of evaluation and use textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education. This should make transitions between schools all over Croatia (e.g. in the case of a relocation) smooth and the marks that a student gets in one school should be equally representative in the whole country.
But is the quality same for everyone?
However, due to local authorities’ part of responsibility in financing schools, there are some striking differences in the quality of education in different counties and municipalities in Croatia. For example, you can attend a wonderful public elementary school that offers hot meals, lockers, digital boards, Chinese as a selective and has a big, safe schoolyard and sports hall. On the other hand, there are schools with no sports hall, bad heating system, old ruined school boards, lack of educational materials and similar problems that arise due to lack of funding. Even when funding isn’t an issue, smaller towns and villages tend to have problems with finding qualified teachers.
August Šenoa Elementary School, built in 1931 in Zagreb / source Mapiranje Trešnjevke (Konstantina Kralj)
An often discussed issue (among those informed and also uninformed, but loud) is the question of teachers’ salary. Average monthly salary of an elementary and high school teachers in Croatia is 5500 kuna (730 euros, or about 900 American dollars). Teachers of all schools, both richer and poorer have the same basic salary due to agreements with the Union. It can be higher or lower due to universal standards of years of service and some professional development, but 5500 kuna is the average.
However, when Croatian teachers raise this question or go on a strike, the general public is usually against them, which shows their status in society as well. Croatians complain that teachers work only half-time (they have 4 hours of classes a day), that based on their abilities and effort they don’t deserve more, they have long holidays, that they should have a second job if they want to earn more money. The contempt that the general public shows influences students’ attitude towards teachers. While a few decades ago parents were always critical of their children’s complaints, and teachers had more authority, today it is not uncommon for parents to undermine teacher’s authority openly (even when teachers are doing their job well).
On one hand, these complaints reflect that the general public often is not aware how much time outside of actual classes many teachers spend on pedagogical issues, preparation, assessment etc. On the other hand, it is also a result of an unfortunate fact that Croatian teachers are not really assessed, ranked or paid for the additional work they do.
For example, there are teachers who haven’t changed their (not very good) lessons for 10 or more years, avoid any extra-curricular activities and don’t really put much time or effort into grading and giving feedback to students. Since the salary grows mainly on the basis of years in service, there is nothing to motivate or force these teachers to put in real effort. It becomes a never-ending circle: teachers feel undervalued due to their salary, additional efforts being unrecognized and the public’s contempt. As a result, after a few years of trying, some simply decide that it is better to invest time and energy into profitable private tutoring or their own families and interests.
On the positive note…
Nevertheless, there are many Croatian teachers and principals selfless enough to persist and do their best, even if they won’t be rewarded financially or with a higher status in society. They organize extra-curricular activities, adjust their lessons to individual students, try their best to motivate students to learn, care about their situation at home and talk about their behavioral issues. Luckily, since Croatia entered the European Union, ambitious Croatian teachers and principals have been able to apply projects and therefore get funding for their school activities. This has resulted in many wonderful initiatives and partnership with foreign schools. Our pupils have made some remarkable results in the world!
For example, in 2018 five of Croatian high school students have won medals in International Mathematical Olympiad (four silver medals and one bronze). Our students also achieved great results in the International Young Naturalists’ Tournament – Croatian team won the bronze medal!
Although to Croats it might seem that there are more drawbacks than good sides of our system, I would say that it is partly because we are used to the fact that even Croatian best elementary and high schools are public and therefore free. In the next two installments, we will present how Croatian elementary schools and high schools function. If you are interested in learning more about good sides and potential problems of Croatian educational system, in those two following installments we will tackle issues and topics more closely related to each of these two main stages of Croatian education. If you want to be notified by email once those topics are written, please add your email address here.
Do you have any experience of your own with the Croatian schools?
If you have any questions about how Croatian schools work or any other question about Croatian educational system, please feel free to ask in comments below, we’ll give our best to give all the information that we can give.
Featured image (on top): Ivan Ranger Elementary School, Kamenica / the photo is owned by the school