1. Background Information
a. Post-Liberation Period (1879 – 1944)
The first law on education in post-liberation Bulgaria (Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule from 1396 to 1878) was passed in 1891 following the example of the French education system. A relatively modern system of citizenship education was introduced, compared to established Western European traditions. The compulsory subject of citizenship education was integrated into secondary education. Students were introduced to topics such as democracy and its principles, the Constitution, citizens’ rights and obligations, and relations between the individual, society, and governmental institutions. An interdisciplinary nexus was formed between citizenship education and other subjects. In addition, citizenship education was reinforced through extracurricular activities. The Public Education Act was amended in 1948 by the Communist Regime.
b. Communist Rule (1944 – 1989)
Education became a powerful tool for the communist regime, which came to power in Bulgaria after the end of World War II. By August 1949, all spheres of the political, economic, social and cultural life in the country (including education) were practically controlled directly by the Communist Party.
According to the Law for National Enlightenment of 1948
The strong ideological emphasis placed on education was observed both in the educational process and in the extracurricular activities. Every student was involved in recreational organisations - the governmental patriotic organisation ‘Septemvriitche’ (also known as ‘Young Septemberist’) and the Dimitrov Union of National Youth (DUNY) - where socialist discipline was taught and enhanced. Its main components were collectivism and comradeship, love of labour, renunciation of individualism and love of the party and the motherland, as well as of the Soviet Union and its leadership. All these postulations were reinforced in the minds of students through multiple forms of extracurricular activities, commemorations, celebrations, processions, the jovial tying of Pioneer and Tchavdarcheta scarfs, the execution of Pioneer errands, sermons on disparate international issues, agricultural campaigns for students, brigades, and so on. The communist ideology persisted throughout the entire school syllabus.
c. Democratic Transition (after 1989)
There is hardly any evidence of legal or public undertakings concerning citizenship education between 1989, when the communist regime in Bulgaria fell and 1995, when Bulgaria signed the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU and began to prepare for its membership and to synchronise its legislation with international and EU practices. Nevertheless, in 1991 a new National Education Act was passed, which erased the remnants of propaganda from the communist education.
Two main international treaties, to which Bulgaria became а party, expected the introduction of citizenship education into the educational system; the first is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the second - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this basis, in 1999 the National Assembly adopted the Level of Schooling, General Educational Minimum and Curriculum Act
Only in 2015, The Level of Schooling, General Educational Minimum and Curriculum Act was replaced by a new Law on School and Preschool Education
2. Definition of Citizenship Education
In 2015, with the adoption of the new integrated Law on School and Preschool Education, steps were taken towards a new concept of citizenship education in Bulgaria. The introduction of the subject became a fact with Ordinance № 5 of 2015, approving the State Standard for General Education.
3. Ecosystem of non-formal Citizenship Education
In Bulgaria there are different target groups and stakeholders active in the field of citizenship education. It should be mentioned that at the time of writing this review citizenship education is becoming a topic of interest for more and more stakeholders but it has not been too prominent in the past nor is there a societal consensus about what it is, what its underlying principles are and what its goal might be (i.e. in Germany there is the so called Beutelsbacher consensus that lists a number of principles that guide citizenship education).
However, the school curricula refer to civic competences like those from the Council of Europe mentioned above, which sets a framework at least in the formal citizenship education, despite the absence of broad understanding and debate in the society.
In the past few years, the voices of those who call for a so-called patriotic education, focused less on European and more on the so-called traditional values, have gained in popularity. This has not yet had an impact on the curricula, but pressure to translate these calls into action grows, as long as such voices have legislative power. The negative sentiments against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, as well as against the EU as quasi their proponent, are on the rise, while teachers often lack the knowledge and skills to hold controversial discussions in class and to convincingly make a case for democracy and, in this specific example, its commitment to protect minority groups. The formal educational sector is introducing citizenship education for the first time in 2020/2021, targeting students in the 11th and 12th grade. Project-based learning and work with institutions and civil society is encouraged in the curricula, with the expectation of bringing the formal and the non-formal citizenship education sectors closer together. However, experts agree upon the need to introduce the subject at an earlier stage, already in primary school. Such an amendment can be made after a couple of years of experience in teaching the curricula that was approved in 2020/2021.
Outside the formal educational sector, the target groups of citizenship education are primarily young people.
Non-formal education in Bulgaria is regarded as the education received from institutions or organisations that are not part of the formal educational process. Non-formal citizenship education activities focusing on youth usually evolve around topical issues like fake news and media literacy, the EU, volunteering, activism, online and offline campaigns related to minorities rights or climate change, environmental protection, animal homelessness; non-formal citizenship education evolves less around topics related to the institutional aspects of democracy like elections, parties, political institutions or rule of law. The activities are usually initiated and organized by civil society actors and take place as project-based learning, sometimes in cross-border cooperation with other countries. This is taking place against the background of deficient civic competencies and low levels of youth engagement and a discrepancy between civic realities in large cities and the smaller ones that have fewer opportunities for young people to engage.
According to ICCS, an international study which examines how young people prepare for their role as citizens and which includes students from 24 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, Bulgaria ranks – in the civic competence of its eighth-graders – before Chile and Colombia, followed only by Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic. Students in eight of the countries surveyed, including Bulgaria, showed an average score in building civic competences significantly lower than the average for the study. For example, when asked whether it is beneficial or not for democracy that police authorities have the right to imprison, without trial, people suspected of endangering national security, 41% of the students answered in the affirmative, 36% could not determine and only 23% said it was harmful to democracy.
A 2019 study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Gallup International on youth attitudes shows a threefold decline in interest in politics between 2014 and 2018. The interest of young people between the ages of 14 and 29 in domestic politics has dropped from 40 % to 14 %, and from 31 % to 11 % in European politics. According to the survey, no more than a tenth of young people surveyed by 2018 would support a petition; participate in a demonstration; boycott goods for environmental reasons or take part in other forms of political engagement.
As for non-formal citizenship education activities targeting adults, these usually have to do with continuous professional education and the use of the life-long learning programmes of the EU and they increasingly focus on volunteering, public discussions and participation in the decision-making process on the community level, as well as locally rooted cultural/ patriotic activities. A growing number of debates, both on- and offline, tackling topics such as legal environment, voter behaviour, accountability of the political class, judicial reform, environmental issues, and so on, speak in favour of that trend.
Several stakeholders from civil society and academia have contributed to the current debates and state of play in citizenship education, both in the formal and non-formal sector. These are often academics who are part of the Ministry of Education-led school contest dedicated to civics for more than 10 years now, who have authored some of the textbooks, or civil-society actors like Foundation Paideia and the late Maria Donkova active in the intersection between citizenship education and the humanities at school, youth umbrella organizations, volunteering organizations as well as the local branches of international organizations and institutions like the EU.
Despite the bias, we cannot not mention Sofia Platform, which the author of this review is representing, as a systematic factor in the field of both formal and non-formal citizenship education. The approach of Sofia Platform to civics is holistic and interdisciplinary. In 2019, Sofia Platform initiated, as the only organization, a public discussion on the citizenship education curriculum before its introduction and in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, recognizing the value-added of cooperating with this institution. It has submitted a report to the Ministry pointing at amendments to the curriculum, some of which have been adopted. An approbation of the curriculum has been undertaken in a total of 15 high school classes in 12 districts in the country, aiming to test the content of the curricula and their teaching through informal methods that encourage participation and focus on the development of civic competencies. Simultaneously, Sofia Platform Foundation has organized a certified training for some of the pedagogical specialists (350 teachers) who will teach the subject citizenship education. Moreover, in cooperation with the Representation of the European Commission and the most popular online educational platform Externer Link: Ucha.se, a series of videos connected with each chapter in the civics school books will be made available online free of charge.
4. Legal Environment
With the promulgation of the new Law on Preschool and School Education, the imposition of ideological and religious doctrines is prohibited, as the law points to social and civic competences among the key competences to be acquired in the process of general education. Subsequently, on 30 November 2015, citizenship education as a subject was introduced with Ordinance № 5 on General Education in the final two years of secondary education – 11th and 12th grade. On 21 September 2016 Ordinance № 13 on Civic, Health, Environmental and Intercultural education
According to Ordinance № 13, part of the goals of citizenship education is to build an autonomous and active person who understands and upholds universal values, the values of democracy and human rights; who participates in civic, political and social life in a responsible, creative and effective way; who knows the institutions, structure and procedures of a democratic society, the economic and political realities of a globalized world and who expresses their civil position reasonably and critically.
Citizenship education is the area of interest for a variety of stakeholders as listed above, including local, national and EU-based political entities and foundations, public institutions such as research institutes, ministries of education and youth, agencies for youth, university research centres, schools, teachers syndicates and professional organisations, CSOs, the national network of cultural centres called ‘tchitalishte’, libraries, public media, students, etc. The level of involvement and quality of outreach depends very much on their target group as well as capacities, funding and nature of the topics tackled.
6. Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations
Thinking formal Citizenship Education systematically.
Teaching a subject at school does not only mean putting forward a good curriculum. What is a good curriculum is anyway a question that is often answered in a national way, rather than in an EU-wide one. It means having a supportive ecosystem around teaching that is open to adjustment but sticks to standards of civic competences, caters to the needs of students and teachers, is placed in an interdisciplinary, transnational network and relates to qualitative and quantitative data and evaluation of the impact of civics on civic health. That also means university degrees and continuous teacher-trainings that relate to real world events and that support teachers in turning the everyday reality of civic life into teachable moments. It means an infrastructure of research, practice and exchange with other disciplines, practitioners from civil society and other stakeholders, nationally and globally.
Creating a support network for civic educators, especially for those outside the big urban centres.
Teachers have a crucial role in this process, hence energy and resources ought to be dedicated to supporting them in teaching a subject that can spark as much controversy as do contested historical periods for instance. That means CSOs and states institutions offering a variety of life-long learning activities and materials for teachers, tailored to their needs. In a country where teachers’ trainings do not have a good reputation and where there are not many resources available for such a network of support, offering them becomes a challenge. Civic educators residing outside the big urban centres face more challenges in teaching civics because the capital and politics seem quite far away, hence physically but also civically detached from the local realities. There ought to be different programmes for teachers in small towns to encourage mobility and their proactivity. Similar challenges are plaguing their students, respectively.
Involving young people.
Often curricula and classes are designed in a way that is very detached from what motivates young people. Designing classes in which informal methods of teaching are combined with methods that encourage participation and inclusion of everyone, while tackling topics close to the realities of students would improve their engagement and their learning curve. Unfortunately, the didactical way of teaching is still very prominent among teachers and it almost automatically excludes students from the process.
Responding to real-world challenges.
The quest for citizenship education is getting bigger amidst eroding trust in democracy with its institutions, powers, and elites. To understand the problem and how to address it, one needs a solid infrastructure around citizenship education that supports both the research and the piloting of methods and approaches that match best the ever-evolving challenges to democracy and citizenship.
Focusing on a democratic environment at school and working with civil society.
One can hardly teach democracy in a school environment that is not democratic and participatory. Improving the school environment means working with the whole school staff and making decision-making at some levels open to students, avoiding including only those who are already active. At the same time, actively seeking or opening up to cooperation and project-based learning using the competences and the programmes of civil society actors, states institutions and media is crucial.
Building coalitions to resist the pressure of introducing a so-called patriotic education.
As mentioned above, the pressure is growing for a so-called patriotic education, focused less on European and more so on the so-called traditional values. While this has not been translated into change in the curricula, this could easily happen, especially if those who call for it have legislative power. While loving one’s country is not wrong, there is a consensus that it is wrong to think about it in terms of superiority vis a vis others. Against the background of growing negative sentiments against ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, as well as against the EU as quasi their proponent, it is important to focus on the variety of aspects in the subject citizenship education that tackle the role of a democracy in protecting minorities, but of course not only on this aspect.
Focusing on non-formal Citizenship Education for both young people and adults.
The scope of non-formal and informal citizenship education is big, so big that one could almost ask the question what citizenship education is not. In the variety and diversity there are the potential and capacities to experiment, adjust, fail, and pilot successfully, and the absence of the limitations of the formal sector, makes civil society a space of more flexibility and risk-taking. Working with adults is equally important, especially in times of the rising prominence of conspiracy theories and of the growing number of challenges and challengers to democracy.
The role of national government and of the EU
When it comes to national governments, the impact they have on the formal civics sector very much depends on the state of the educational sector in general, the quality of democracy in the respective country, as well as on the government in power and its commitment to democratic citizenship. In times of democracy deconsolidation, relying on the civic work in the non-formal sector can create a greater impact on civic health.
When it comes to the role of the EU, it should live up to both enabling the transdisciplinary, pan-European exchange of knowledge and practice, and also to providing support for citizenship education work in the civil society sector with all the lessons learned from funding the programmes of the past decades, i.e. less bureaucratic, taking into account the reality on the ground of small-town organizations in all corners of Europe. Because European cohesion is growing bottom-up, from the local level to the national and then the European. The rising prominence of citizenship education and the lifting of it to the level of its potential should be mirrored in various EU policies, institutions and instruments, as civic cohesion is just as important as the other types of cohesion the EU is already actively invested in.
The author would like to give special thanks to Yordanka Todorova, who assisted with extensive background research and editing of the brief.
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