Interview with Dr. Valery Perry : A Look Into the Divided School System in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dear Friends of Bosnia,

Recently, BAACBH conducted an interview with Dr. Valery Perry, an expert on Bosnia's divided education system. Since then, Dr. Perry has left the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and accepted a job with the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG). She will be staying in Sarajevo. 

We hope you find the interview informative and eye opening. 


Ajla Delkic
Executive Director, BAACBH

Interview with Dr. Valery Perry : A Look Into the Divided School System in Bosnia and Herzegovina

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from, what is your background, where did you go to school and what do you currently do?

I am originally from Buffalo, NY; I received my bachelor's degree in political science and Russian Studies from the University of Rochester, my Master's degree from Indiana University and my PhD from the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. My dissertation focused on democratization strategies used in post Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and my first trip to BiH was in 1997 where I was involved in election monitoring and supervision.

I had the opportunity to come to BiH twice in 1997 to monitor elections – an experience that was useful and eye-opening, especially just two years after the war. It was very interesting to see how reconstruction was going, and it helped me to make the decision to focus on BiH and explore the lessons we could learn about post-war and divided societies.

When I returned to BiH in 1999 to do research, I ended up staying and have been here ever since. Currently, I am working with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission as the BiH Deputy Director of Programs within the Human Dimension Department which works in a number of areas including: human rights, governance, the rule of law and education. I have been in this position for over one year and prior to this I worked for 5 years on other issues, including education reform in BiH.

2. Please give us a background of the two-schools under one roof issue and tell our readers what work you have done in regards to BiH's two schools under one roof system. Lastly, how many schools in BiH operate under the two-schools under one roof system?

It is unfortunate that there are still around 50 – 60 "two in one" schools in BiH; it is even more unfortunate that the situation with two-in-ones has not changed or improved since 2005 even though several schools in the cities of Zenica, Doboj and (Mostar Gymnasium earlier on) were administratively and legally unified. However, taking the broader view, these schools represent a very small number of the total number of schools in the country. Around 1,000 schools in BiH have some sort of discrimination and segregation. As disturbing as they are, I believe that the two-in-ones are just a symptom of a broader problem. 

For example, where there is minority return, there tends to be a Main School which serves as a school for the students that are in the majority; however, the Branch schools, which often do not have adequate facilities, tend to be the ones that serve the returnee population. Thus, returnee children do not always have the same access to libraries or technical equipment or other main school resources. 

With the exception of schools in the Brcko District, each of BiH's schools has a distinct ethnic "flavor" within its curriculum and school environment. For example, different curricula are used in the Republika Srpska (RS), Bosniak majority areas of the Federation of BiH, and Croat majority areas. What this means is that if you are not in the "majority" in most of these schools, the school symbols, textbooks and activities are aimed at someone else other than you. The education system in BiH is therefore not equipped to serve all students – all young citizens – in an equal and accessible way. 

As a result there is a situation in which a student who is of a "minority" group may go to a main school, quietly learning as an "other" as opposed to being and feeling included. Or, in many instances, a student may live very close to a school but take the bus every day in order to attend a school where he or she will not be in the minority population. It is only in Brcko that systematically integrated Brcko District curriculum is used and where there are more integrated schools. For example, Brcko students have schools that fly the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina and display notices in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. This is very hard to find in the rest of the country – especially in Republika Srpska (RS) and in Croat majority areas. However, though the Brcko system is better, it is not perfect. A weakness of the Brcko model is that there are three sets of textbooks being used: Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, according to a student's choice, and this can be challenging for teachers when creating lessons for the students. However, the District represents a genuine attempt to make at least the constituent peoples feel included and integrated, and there are initiatives for developing a harmonized textbook published in three languages, which would be another interesting effort to meet the needs of all students in an inclusive and open-minded way. 

Once again, these are all just symptoms of a broader issue. For example, when two schools under one roof were formed, before and in 2000, the original concept was of providing free access to education for all students in some very difficult return areas. For example, in certain communities that had returnee students, the children were being physically prevented from using the existing school facilities, and had to resort to attended classes in private houses and inadequate premises. Therefore, at the beginning it was important to bring all students together as the first of a number of incremental steps forward. The two-in-one approach was meant to be an interim measure only. I suspect that few people expected that this specific type and other forms of division in the school system – including the construction of separate buildings to separate children on the basis of ethnicity – would still exist across the country in 2011. 

The OSCE Mission to BiH has been implementing a number of activities at the school level in order to bring students and school communities closer. Our Mission is constantly working in accordance with the fundamental principle underlying the OSCE's Helsinki Final Act; that there can be no true security without a commitment to democracy and human rights. Addressing the root causes of discrimination and segregation is therefore essential for preventing future conflict and for promoting co-existence and sustainable peace, and the value of rights within society. However we do not have an executive mandate, which means that we cannot force solutions; we can work for civil society and provide support, we advocate and remind responsible authorities about their commitments, but we cannot impose anything.

3. What do you think are the dangers of the two-schools under one roof system? What have you experienced on the ground when it comes to this issue?

The two schools under one roof is a symbol of the broader dangers of the country as a whole. In my opinion, the problems of having schools countrywide that cater to one constituent people only are many. For example, young people are not growing up with a sense of a shared vision of the future, and instead are inundated with explicit and implicit messages that division is necessary and normal.

Ultimately, a system based on ethnically-oriented schools will have a negative impact on economic mobility. There are going to be more multinational companies opening up in BiH, giving young professionals more opportunities. For example, a bank manager that is working in the city of Banja Luka which is in the RS may receive an opportunity to transfer to a better paying job in Mostar which is in the Federation – this is a normal way of doing business and investing in and cultivating talent. However, will that person have to consider the opportunity in light of whether or not he or she would feel comfortable taking their children along to the new location? Will they feel comfortable having their kids go to a different school, where they might exist as a minority or second class citizen? The country will eventually have to come to terms with this. 

Finally, the quality of education for all citizens is a difficult agenda item to move forward. As long as ethno-national concerns dominate the agenda, only few seem to be looking at the quality of education, in spite of the fact that when you speak to parents they repeatedly note that the economy and education are the most important issues in BiH. A recent World Bank Report suggests that illiteracy rates are now higher in BiH than in Albania. 

4. Are different schools teaching different subjects depending on the ethnicity of the students? For example, do the different ethnic groups have different history books?

The BiH education system has what is called a National Group of Subjects which are most related to identity such as history, language, music, geography and religion. These subjects tend to emphasize difference rather than cohesion, and the benefits of differences. In terms of history books, the curricula are different. There is the Croatian language curriculum, the RS curriculum in the Serbian language, and the Federation curriculum. In other words, all three constituent peoples have their own sets of textbooks, including their own history, geography and other subjects. OSCE findings show that things have gotten better for the history textbooks, but there is still much room for improvement. For example, the new improved textbooks are not used as broadly as would be needed to create positive change and OSCE staff is analyzing a number of interesting expert studies that will look at language, literature, nature and society textbooks and examine how they differ from one constituent people to another.

Diversity is something that should be embraced rather than feared and avoided – especially in a society that wants to join an increasingly diverse Europe. Unfortunately textbooks are created along monoethnic lines that tend to divide students. Moreover, while there is a moratorium that has been placed on teaching students about the recent war and the curricula reflect that moratorium, many schools do take kids to visit battle sites and or cemeteries, and organize specific history lessons within the school. This is against an agreement made by the country's Ministries of Education, and unfortunately tends to be done in a way that is one-sided and provides little to no context. The concept of multiperspectivity in studying history can help to dispel the notion that history consists of any one "truth." Instead critical analysis and understanding of the materials and multiple sources can foster a deeper understanding of the arc of history. For example, in the case of the United States, one can look at the history of U.S. from the perspective of pilgrims, the Native Americans or another group of settlers, however there is no one single truth, and the curriculum is devised in a way that provides different perspectives and forces students to think. History is more than memorizing a lot of facts; it takes a lot of critical thinking and questioning. 

As an additional complication, parents and students have the right to religious instruction in public schools. However, an alternative subject for those opting out of such instruction is not always satisfactory, and there is often social pressure on children to take religious classes. Alarmingly, such a situation creates an "us" versus "them", or an "in" and "out" group mentality which further alienates the minority students. On a positive note, all secondary schools and some primary schools in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Gorazde and Brcko offer history/culture of religions courses that give the students an opportunity to learn about other religions so that they don't grow up fearing something that is different than them. In the RS this culture of religions approach is integrated in the human rights and democracy curriculum in secondary schools. 

How else could the situation improve? One suggestion is to have a state level framework of outcome-based standards and competencies that could be implemented at the local level – thereby ensuring that young people are leaving various stages of schooling with a more cohesive set of educational skills and abilities that will help them function in the 21st century. 

Another challenge that the BiH educational system faces is that teacher training institutions are underfunded and (as is the case in many countries), teaching as a profession is not always properly recognized within the society; therefore quite often the best students do not want to become teachers. 

Lastly, one positive example is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in Mostar, Sarajevo and Banja Luka which is described as a "rigorous, off-the-shelf curriculum recognized by universities around the world", and some lucky parents can send their children to these schools. Unfortunately, most parents who do not live in those areas do not have that option.

5. What major differences do you see between the students who attend all inclusive schools as opposed to students who attend the divided schools?

One of the biggest differences that our staff has noticed is that administratively unified two-in-one schools, that share institutions such as a school director, and certain facilities such as gymnasiums, seem to create a much more open environment where students were able to break down some of these barriers and misconceptions about one another.

I have visited a number of schools as a part of Mission-sponsored workshops aimed at both teaching cultural tolerance, and an appreciation for diversity, as well as providing students with practical skills, such as project management and leadership. The Mission also organizes workshops where we bring two or three schools together from different areas. For example, we conducted training in the town of Gornji Vakuf/Uskoplje where both Bosniak and Croat students participated. By the end of the training it was difficult if not impossible to tell which students went to which schools. During some of the exercises, rather than seeing simple ethno-national divides, the students parted on various other issues such as sports or gay rights or women's equality. Similarly, in a workshop bringing together youth from Srebrenik and Orasje, most students defined themselves by talking about their hobbies, experiences and hopes for the future instead of focusing on immutable ethno-national identities. All in all, the students were more open minded than the leading political elites, and open to learning and learning together.

6. What reforms are needed in order to eliminate this kind of a school system, and do you feel that the citizens of BiH want this system reformed?

Even if two schools under one roof disappeared tomorrow a lot of challenges would remain. The Mission supports reforms that will progressively reduce the differences that separate students and create a feeling of divided citizenship. Ideally, schools should be progressively integrated so that they are accessible to all of the country's citizens, and make everyone feel welcome. There is a need for political will to implement such reforms, and a strong outcome-based curriculum and standards at the state level so that people can move more freely, get an education, feel welcome, and have the necessary means to graduate. Some people might say that you need constitutional reform to do it, but this is not necessarily the case. The Ministries of Education could simply implement commitments they have already undertaken, and make sure that schools become inclusive and integrated so that no one feels left out.

Brcko is a great example, and the constituents of Brcko are surprised to see how divided the school systems are in the RS and the Federation. 

7. What can the international community do to help?

The international community can facilitate change by reminding decision makers that segregated communities in BiH are a catalyst for future instability. The Mission and its partners can bring in experts and good practice example to show how teaching history is done in the rest of Europe. We can bring teachers together so they can learn more modern teaching methods that put an emphasis on critical thinking and move away from memorization. For example, our Mission supports the Campaign for Righteous Education that has been spearheaded by Save the Children, UNICEF and Open Society Fund, pushing for a more progressive, fair, citizen-focused quality education that would be in the best interest for all citizens of the country. 

A lot of organizations are providing support to parent and student councils in order to 
help them effectively work, organize meetings, and fundraise. Furthermore, at the school and community level the OSCE supports an initiative called "the Index for Inclusion" – a tool which helps schools to identify the extent to which their policies, culture and practice, are inclusive for and of all members of the school community, and to plan their further reform. What is truly necessary is the recommitment of political will ensuring that schools exist for all young citizens and not just one group.