The Government of the Republic of Slovenia took urgent steps to slow down the spread of the Covid-19 virus. On 12 March 2020 an epidemic was declared bringing the Slovenian society to a standstill. This included suspension of all educational activities from 16 to 29 March 2020 as announced in the first circular of the Ministry of Education (MIZŠ) sent to all upper secondary schools on 12 March. Schools were also advised to organise distance learning, on the legal basis of a Parliament Act passed on 2 April. The act regulated the work obligations of teachers and the financing of schools during a pandemic and determined the way of completion of practical training in companies for final-year students and apprentices. Subsequent circulars described distance education and student assessment in upper secondary schools in detail, including decisions on training obligations, assessment of apprentices and selection criteria regarding restriction of enrolment in upper secondary programmes. The schools reported that after four weeks, distance learning participation in elementary schools was at 99.5% and a little lower in upper secondary education.
In the first week of the Covid-19 pandemic, MIZŠ organised an expert group composed of representatives from the Ministry of Health, the National Institute of Public Health, the National Education Institute (NEI), the National Examination Centre (NEC), Institute of the RS for Vocational Education and Training (CPI), associations of headmasters, trade unions, parents’ associations, and the chambers regarding vocational education and training (VET). All ministry circulars and decisions, especially those regarding practical training in companies and apprenticeship, were coordinated with both chambers and supported by the CPI.
Support for teaching and learning processes
The NEI and ARNES provided professional and technical assistance, while the Slovenian educational network webpage became a single-entry reference point for headmasters and teachers. Schools, the NEI and donors provided equipment for students in need, and the Chamber of Commerce for apprentices. Competent public institutes prepared recommendations on organisation of remote learning, and organised special teams for school and teacher support. Distance seminars for teachers were also organised. The CPI prepared a series of recommendations for VET schools with special instructions and useful links on distance education, on practical training in companies for students and apprentices, and on final exams and vocational matura exams. A special TV programme was set up for students up to grade 5 of primary school with curriculum-related educational, informative and entertaining content.
Work-based learning (WBL) and apprentices
During the lockdown, VET schools were asked to apply distance education for apprentices as well. The CPI prepared instructions for VET schools on organising distance education. Teachers could collaborate with in-company trainers, wherever possible, and prepare instructions and materials for remote training. Students and apprentices received individual or group assignments, and prepared demonstration videos and presentations for classmates. Students finalised their practical training reports and included chapters on theory.
The Covid Act determined that for final-year students and apprentices unable to realise practical training in companies due to the pandemic, the training was considered completed if they had obtained passing grades in professional subjects. The MIZŠ adopted a decision on fulfilment of practical training obligation, stating that the headmasters may adapt the duration of the practical training during the school year to reflect the actual circumstances.
Schools reorganised student assessment plans by adapting the methods, the number of assignments and the grades. Teachers also considered the acquired knowledge and skills from the period of regular classes, and limited the number of grades acquired by distance assessment. The assessment assignments were based on the material covered by distance education and could also include participation in distance education. Final exams and vocational matura were conducted according to the regular calendar, except for the postponed start of vocational matura exams on 30 May 2020. Final exams followed the regular school calendar, from 1 June onwards. The CPI prepared special instructions for final and vocational matura examination of students of VET programmes. In cooperation with schools, the chambers invested efforts in finding solutions for every apprentice to continue their training in companies. In some cases, due to a decrease in companies’ business, apprentices continued their training in school workshops for the rest of the school year.
Kindergartens, elementary schools, upper secondary schools and adult education institutions were opened gradually. Kindergartens, primary schools (the first triad), upper secondary schools (for final-year students, including apprentices) reopened on 18 May, while the rest of the primary school students returned on 3 June. Most upper secondary students continued with distance education until the end of the school year. Wherever possible, students and apprentices restarted WBL in companies.
The last part of the school year in upper secondary schools was dedicated to finalising assessment, as well as preparing for, and undertaking final and matura exams. Schools paid special attention to weak students, assisting them with additional distance teaching or inviting them to classes.
Reflection on the main challenges
Distance education during the Covid-19 pandemic was an emergency response to the physical closure of education institutions. The main goal of no interruption to education was achieved and students completed the school year. Delivery of practical training for apprentices and other VET students was one of the biggest challenges. Special attention should be paid to supplementing and upgrading knowledge in the next school year, including by paying more attention to solutions for practical training, assessment and equal opportunities for all students. The debate on how to be prepared for the next school year in case of a similar situation has already started. Several areas of action have been identified:
- a flexible but centralised approach should be developed;
- provision of technical equipment;
- organisation of systematic training for all teachers;
- organisation of e-materials by subject and professional field;
- preparation of didactic guidelines for e-teaching and e-assessment;
- provision of solutions for pandemics in acts and regulations.
Recommendations of the Institute of the RS for VET regarding distance education