The vision for a quality, inclusive education system in Montenegro

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Juan Santander
Juan Santander

UNICEF Representative to Montenegro

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that almost half of 15-year-old Montenegrin students did not achieve basic literacy level in one of the PISA domains of reading, mathematics or sciences, thus lagging behind their peers in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries by nearly 1.5 academic years, according to a 2020 OECD/UNICEF report. The recent Education Sector Analysis (ESA) report completed by Montenegro to develop an education sector plan highlights structural challenges in the country’s education system, coupled with poor learning outcomes and high levels of inequity. Students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups are far outperformed by their peers, pointing to the devastating effects of poverty on children’s achievements, health, well-being, and future educational and employment prospects.

School enrolment and attendance is a major factor at play. According to the 2018 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 96% of children from the general Montenegrin population and 77% of Roma children attended primary education. However, while upper secondary education attendance stood at 88% for the general population, it was as low as 7% for the Roma. Although children with disabilities have increasingly enrolled in primary schools since 2009, the lack of data on the number of enrolled children with disabilities at the national level makes it hard to assess progress and scale. In addition, the number of Roma children with disabilities in preschools and secondary education is almost ten times lower than primary education.

Despite the swift establishment of a system for distance learning at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis brought to light a lack of quality digital content, as well as insufficient digital infrastructure and teachers’ capacities to use digital tools. In Montenegrin schools, there is on average only 1 computer for every 16 students, as reported by the country’s education ministry. During school closures, 1 in 5 children aged 6 to 18 did not have a laptop or computer at home to follow online instruction, according to the 2020 United Nations ‘Report on the Rapid Social Impact Assessment of the COVID-19 outbreak in Montenegro’; these are mostly disadvantaged children living in poverty.

The relative importance of education decreased between 2015 and 2019

The COVID-19 crisis also emphasised the insufficiency and inadequacy of school infrastructure, as well as the lack of safe conditions for all students to return to schools. Currently, as many as 68% of primary education students are enrolled in only 13% of all primary schools. While the average class size has been kept below or at maximum capacity as prescribed by law, with the notable exception of kindergarten classrooms where capacity is often breached, overcrowded schools in certain municipalities have dealt with the lack of space by creating multiple attendance shifts in one school building. While the stopgap system grants more children access to schools, it presents multiple challenges to students, parents and teachers, and ultimately, may have a negative impact on the quality and inclusiveness of instruction.

As noted in the ESA report, the relative importance of education – measured as a share of GDP allocated to public education – decreased between 2015 and 2019. According to the latest calculations, public spending on education in 2021 was 7.18% of the GDP, which is far from the international benchmarks of 15% to 20%. This points to the need for increased investment to address the inefficiencies within the existing education system.

The ESA report highlights important opportunities to accelerate reforms that address these complex and multi-faceted challenges. Recommendations were formulated through the broad participation of all key stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, central educational institutions, the national parliament, the Council for Children’s Rights, the business sector, and international and regional organisations.

The time is now to seize this opportunity to invest in children

Montenegro is committed to using the ESA’s findings and recommendations as a basis for developing a comprehensive and multi-year education development strategy, which would define a clear vision of the education system and provide a roadmap of long-term, coordinated, budgeted and sustainable actions. The goal of the reform strategy is to make Montenegro’s education system equally accessible to all children and offer the highest standards of quality, gender and culturally-sensitive, and relevant education to all pupils.

The time is now to seize this opportunity to invest in children, from early childhood to adolescence. Education investment in Montenegro’s human capital is essential to the country’s recovery and inclusive economic growth in line with its ambitions for EU accession and achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It will enable every child in Montenegro to achieve their full potential to the benefit of themselves and the whole of society. It is their right and our responsibility.


This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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