Challenges in the Czech Education System: Preparatory Courses and Entrance Exams

The Czech education system is increasingly dominated by a spiral of preparatory courses and exams, creating challenges for less privileged students. Preparatory courses for entrance exams are no longer just about tutoring; in some cases, they have become a prerequisite for admission to high school. Parents are under pressure to pay for these courses, fueling a cycle that raises the bar for acceptance.

State entrance exams hold significant power as they determine which high school a child will attend, ultimately affecting their educational opportunities. However, primary schools are supposed to equip children with critical competencies outlined in the approved curriculum, such as logical thinking, practical communication skills, and a motivation for lifelong learning. The focus should not solely be on preparing them for one specific test, albeit an important one.

Some parents have discovered that specific test material was not covered in school, prompting them to invest in preparatory courses that cost around 10,000 Czech korunas. While organizations offering these courses provide a service that assists students in coping with tests and managing stress, they also help fill educational gaps.

It is important not to view these preparatory course agencies with bias, as they merely respond to parental demand. If society desires something, a corresponding supply will emerge, explains Miroslav Hřebecký, the educational information center EDUin program director.

However, this trend unintentionally exacerbates the inequality within the Czech education system, which is already significantly more potent than in comparable European countries. Children whose parents are actively involved in their education and willing to invest financially have a more significant advantage than students from less ambitious families. These students may be equally intelligent and motivated, but those with better support from home inevitably fare better. Hřebecký adds that high-stakes tests, such as entrance exams, are systemically problematic as they restrict the curriculum and impact the functioning of primary schools, regardless of their quality.

In Prague, preparatory courses have become almost obligatory for parents. Thousands of children attend such classes or receive private tutoring, which raises the bar for success. Parents feel compelled to enroll their children in these courses due to the widespread participation of their peers. The pressure becomes difficult to resist, as Markéta explains, even though she initially disagreed with the idea. Eventually, she paid tens of thousands of korunas for yearly tutoring.

As more students prepare for the exams, the number of successful candidates also increases. Consequently, higher scores are required for admission. This endless spiral primarily affects Prague, parts of Central Bohemia, and Brno, while children from outside these areas may be equally capable but lack the same preparation opportunities.

Scio, an educational company, observed that although this year’s ninth-grade cohort was robust, it did not significantly translate into increased demand for exam preparation. The interest followed the previous year’s pattern, with minimal interest before Christmas and a rapid increase after New Year’s. However, many parents and students left the preparation until the last moment.

State tests need to be predictable and comparable, referring to the requirements derived from the general educational framework for primary education. Therefore, each year’s exam evaluates similar knowledge and skills based on a clearly defined curriculum. While it is impossible to study directly for the test, targeted preparation helps individuals become familiar with the format of the questions and enhances their understanding of the expected approach.

Certain types of tasks can be effectively prepared for. For instance, assessing information from texts follows a consistent principle, but each job is different. On the other hand, tasks involving word association, which are consistently presented by Cermat (the exam authority), can be better prepared for as they follow a fixed pattern. Jarmil Vepřek, a Czech language teacher who prepares students for entrance exams, acknowledges that while preparing for specific exam components is possible, it is crucial to avoid reducing the curriculum and teaching solely to the tests.

Some argue that the uniformity of the exams is beneficial, as it provides predictability and allows students to prepare using open resources. It avoids a situation where exams differ significantly from school to school or region to region. This uniformity also ensures equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

However, the emphasis on entrance exams poses challenges for primary schools. The pressure to achieve high scores may lead to a narrowed focus on exam-related topics, potentially overshadowing the broader curriculum goals of fostering critical thinking, creativity, and personal development.