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Kids head back to school with new focus on languages

The 2014/15 school year kicked off Monday according to tradition on September 1st in Latvia, as children paraded in their Sunday - or Monday - best to opening ceremonies and new experiences, many carrying flowers as gifts to their teachers.

This year the state-approved curriculum has added mandatory foreign-language study from the 1st grade, as well as centralized exams in chemistry and physics to the programs designed for Latvia’s schoolchildren. Also dominating policy discussion are various changes to models of remunerating teachers.

Parents and teachers alike support the move to require the start of foreign language studies, in most cases preferred to be English, from the first-grade on. The previous model caused an interruption by introducing it in kindergarten, but allowing for a lapse in the requirement until third-grade.

Many schools have already anticipated implementation of the new requirement ahead of time.

Headmistress Daiga Birkenfelde of Jūrkalne primary school explained that her small western Kurzeme beach community primary school introduced English classes two years ago because "we needed to offer something to attract children from our surrounding parishes."

The Education and Science Ministry also pointed out that increasing Latvian-language learning programs would also be the focus in minority-language schools, in addition to newly-introduced supplemental Latvian-language programs in history and the social sciences for children whose families have returned to Latvia after several years abroad in foreign school systems where their Latvian skills have atrophied or disappeared.

Another much-discussed change this year is the introduction of centralized exams in chemistry and physics, which some teachers have objected to because of the lack of proper material-technical facilities and younger teachers with updated qualifications at many schools. Indeed, many schools are still staffed by retirees, Physics Teachers’ Association head Biruta Šķēle told Latvian Radio (LR) Monday.

"First of all, we want to hit the 12th-graders with this test right off the bat, without helping them get any preparation," she warned.

"The situation is close to catastrophical (as regards physics teachers)," Šķēle said. "We're talking teachers in their seventies, maybe pushing octogenarians."

Teachers’ minds also continue to be preoccupied with wage issues. October is when talks on a new model of salary remuneration that is supposed to go into effect in September 2015 will be held, one of the proposals being a 'funding follows pupil' principle, the other being a transition to more full-time from widespread piecemeal part-time employment arrangements.

Education and Science Workers’ Association head Ingrīda Mikiško told LR there are still many unanswered questions to be resolved before a workable model is arrived at, but urged all stakeholders to work toward realizing better quality education for Latvia's children by next year.

"Yes, this will be strictly a virtual model at first, as school administrations try out various schemes just on their computers as they move teachers into full-time curricular and salary schedules on a trial basis this year," Mikiško explained. "But the goal is eventually to get everyone involved to make sure we reach the best practice," she told LR.

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