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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 Obidos, 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).

 
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