Education is often presented as the ultimate force for good in the world, and there is no doubt that it can be a powerful tool for peace, progress and reconciliation, but just as it can bring people together, it can also be used to push them further apart.

Following a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, education writer James McEnaney provides an overview of some of the country’s pressing educational problems.

Most people would be aware that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a difficult and complicated history – what they may not know is that the present political landscape is also fraught.

The country is effectively divided into two parts: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) in the centre and west, and Republika Srpska (RS) in the north, east and south. In addition to this, a self-governing zone called the Brčko District divides RS into two distinct parts. FBiH is mostly Bosniak and Croat, while RS is mostly Serb.

In FBiH, individual regions known as cantons control most education policy, while in RS decision-making is more centralised. But in all areas, it seems, the approach to educating young people may have become, at least in some aspects, a part of Bosnia’s problems rather than one of the solutions. One example of this is a system known known as ‘two schools under one roof’. Developed in the aftermath of the war, this shared-campus model was established to give some young people an appropriate place to go to school, but the reality has been something else entirely.

Although such institutions represent a minority of schools across the country as a whole, they are emblematic of the enormous educational challenge facing Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There is no single definition of the policy, but the outcome is education that is segregated along ethnic lines. In some cases pupils use different entrances to the same building, and remain physically divided once inside, while in others they occupy different buildings within the same larger campus area. In some of the most extreme examples, children attend school in separate shifts. Many of these supposedly shared schools have completely distinct teaching staff, and according to a 2018 report, only a tiny minority organise joint curricular or extra-curricular activities.

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This segregation has a serious impact on reconciliation and stability, engraining ethnic divisions and mutual suspicion by teaching children “that there is something different about their peers.”

It also harms the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms. The ‘two schools under one roof’ system diverts money that could otherwise be spent on teacher training programmes, enhanced classroom materials or expanded extra-curricular activities. What’s more, barriers to integration undermine attempts at teacher collaboration, which is one of the most powerful tools for improving young people’s educational experiences.

The Herald: Sarajevo

A system that was supposed to be temporary, and a “first step towards full integration of schools”, has now persisted for so long that it looks permanent: there have been attempts to open new segregated schools – one of which was successfully opposed by the very students who would have been separated – and moves to construct mono-ethnic facilities that would undermine existing shared spaces.

This is all despite a ruling from the BiH Supreme Court that branded the organisation of public schools along ethnic lines as discriminatory. The law may be clear but, on the ground, no steps have

yet been taken to actually implement and enforce this decision and there is, according to the OSCE, “little incentive or political will to find a solution” to this increasingly intractable problem.

But it’s not just school structures that attract criticism – the history curriculum is also an issue. In a recent report for the OSCE, Dr Heike Karge has called for “a fundamental change in the approach to teaching the subject of history in BiH, especially in relation to the period 1992-1995”.

Although BiH has an overall national framework both for textbook content and student learning outcomes, history is one of the subjects that is also taught differently in each of the country’s three recognised languages (Bosnian, Croat and Serbian).

The Herald:

Dr Karge found that current materials typically provide three separate and “mutually exclusive narratives” about the conflict. Children are taught to view the crimes committed during this period from a perspective where their particular group were only victims while the others were only perpetrators, with the result being the strengthening rather than weakening of divisions between ethnic groups.

The report also makes specific reference to teaching about the genocide at Srebrenica. This is especially problematic in Republika Srpska, where the President, Milorad Dodik, has rejected the use of materials teaching that “the Serbs have committed genocide and kept Sarajevo under siege.” This even applies to schools catering for Bosniak children and means that some descendants of the victims face the denial of their own history as a formal part of their schooling.

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The OSCE reports frames the refusal to teach about Srebrenica as “keeping silent about the most controversial and sensitive issue in the Serb-Bosniak relations” and identifies RS genocide denial as “one of the main obstacles to mutual understanding and reconciliation”.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country still wracked by division and distrust, and where many feel that relations between different groups are as bad as they have ever been since the war. If it is true that things are getting worse instead of better, and that true peace is moving further out of reach, then the weaponisation of schooling must be regarded as part of the reason.