Written by: Caroline Hornstein-Tomić, PhD and Maja Kurilić, Znanje na djelu
Civic education in Croatia: Discourse, challenges and opportunities
Since the beginning of the 1990s, when Croatia became an independent state, the education system has repeatedly undergone reforms. Also, there have been numerous initiatives to introduce civic education in formal education.
The first National Human Rights Education Program, with sub-programmes for preschool, primary and secondary school age, as well as for adults and the media, was drafted in 1998. In 1999, parts of that national programme were introduced in schools. Education for human rights and democratic citizenship has since become an integral part of the primary school curriculum, as an optional cross-curricular topic. As part of Croatia’s preparations for membership in the European Union, which included promoting active citizenship, formal preconditions were created for the introduction of education on human rights and democratic citizenship.
Educational and curricular reform remained a matter of profound political controversy and was accompanied by public protests in the years following Croatia’s EU accession and with changes of governments. Finally, in 2018, reforms in education and training were formalized under the programme Škola za život. The reform programme was launched first as a pilot project in the school year 2018/2019 to address key concerns about the quality and relevance of primary and secondary education. Along with it, civic education was introduced as an obligatory cross-curricular topic taught nationwide throughout all grades of elementary and high school (both in gymnasiums and vocational schools). Previous attempts to introduce civic education on a national level as a separate subject had failed, and instead it was implemented experimentally in selected pilot schools (Official Gazette, 2019).
These are some of the main contextual conditions and challenges to be taken into account for a better understanding of the conflicts around educational reform and the introduction of civic education in Croatia’s formal educational system:
- Croatia is a young state with a short democratic tradition;
- Public opinion reflects the political polarization;
- Croatia’s complex history is subject to contested historical narratives;
- The varying and conflicting understandings of the content and purpose of civic education have not been reconciled throughout the years;
- Quality training of educators in dealing with controversy and debating controversial issues is lacking. Instead, educators avoid tackling such issues.
All of the above have contributed to continuously opposing stances on how to enhance and safeguard a democratic political culture through civic education: what sort of knowledge is required, what the subject should be called, and what exactly should be taught in formal education.
Research indicates that despite the low amount of time devoted to civic education and teacher preparation/training, Croatia’s pupils generally show a solid level of civic competencies (EC, 2018). A study conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) examining students’ civic knowledge determined that 40% of Croatian students reached level B, above the average for the countries taking part in the study. Nevertheless, in areas such as community volunteering or campaigning for a goal, Croatian students scored below the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) average. Furthermore, students from Croatia showed a lower level of trust in public institutions, the government, parliament and political parties and the media in comparison to other countries (IEA, 2017). It also was pointed out that almost half of high school students soon eligible for voting do not know the definitions of dictatorship or constitution, and less than half can correctly name the prime minister of their country, who the opposition is or how ministers are brought into office. The average number of correct answers was only 9 out of 19, and only 6 when it comes to students from three-year vocational high schools.
Other research depicts the gap in civic literacy and civic competencies between high school pupils depending on the type of school they attend – in the area of knowledge as well as in the area of democratic attitudes and values. For example, gymnasium graduates show less inclination towards authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, homophobia or traditionalism in seeing gender roles, compared to respondents attending vocational schools. The difference is slightly larger between respondents attending gymnasiums and respondents attending three-year vocational schools, and between graduates of gymnasiums and graduates of four-year (and five-year) vocational schools (Bovan, Širinić, 2016).
Formal civic education overview
Currently, on the national level, civic education is taught as a mandatory cross-curricular topic in five cycles, throughout elementary and high school, both in gymnasiums and vocational schools. The first and second educational cycles are aimed at creating belonging to the class and school democratic community, learning about children’s and human rights and developing a responsible attitude towards property and finances. The third, fourth and fifth cycles focus on the active application of acquired knowledge, skills and advocacy for human rights, involvement in solving social problems in the community and responsible behaviour for personal and social well-being. Cross-curricular topics are not graded.
The implementation of the civic education programme has been criticized by some teachers for the small amount of time available to teach cross-curricular topics, of which there exist too many. In addition, the implementation of the programme is largely depending on the engagement of individual teachers or schools. Combined with the lack of teacher training (croatian teachers have significantly fewer opportunities to participate in citizenship education trainings, either in initial or ongoing training, as was measured in the 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study), regional disparities in the implementation of the programme, which is mostly taught in a sporadic and non-obligatory way, are evident. What is positively noted is that the programme attempts to encourage the civic participation of pupils and that it is enhancing problem-solving skills and learning by experience. Progressive examples can be observed on the local level, where in some cities and counties the non-formal and formal sector cooperate in developing teaching materials.
One such example is the programme School and Community (ŠIZ) created by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Rijeka and Rijeka’s First Gymnasium, where it is piloted. In the school year 2022/2023, ŠIZ has been introduced in schools in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and multiple other counties. The elective course is intended for 2nd- and 3rd-grade students at high schools. In ŠIZ, students become active participants in the learning process by identifying and acting upon the problems that surround them in the community. A specific problem, for example, poverty, is examined from different aspects, and those in public office, i.e. local government, are held accountable for how the problem is tackled. It is an opportunity for the voice of the youth to be heard in the community. In Zagreb, high interest was shown by schools to participate in this elective module, with more than 84% of schools applying for participation.
Civic education is not taught as part of the formal curricula in higher education institutions.
Non-formal and informal civic education
Non-formal and informal civic education is implemented by a plethora of organizations, initiatives and platforms all across Croatia through a variety of tools and formats. While some approach civic education in the narrower sense by focusing on political institutions, democratic competences and civic participation, others lay out civic education in a broader sense and encompass youth empowerment, employability, equality and human rights, climate literacy, financial responsibility, etc.).
The primary source of financial support is public funding, which can be traced via calls for proposals on local, national and/or European levels. In recent years, companies in the private sector have increasingly supported projects of societal interest as part of their corporate social responsibility policy. Civil society organizations, no matter the topic they tackle, are required to publish annual reports. Information on their activities and projects is widely accessible via web pages and social media activity.
Funding poses one of the greatest challenges to organizations and individuals working in the sector: fundraising is time-consuming, while project funding, once awarded, significantly increases the administrative workload and requires respective capacity. Other key challenges are ensuring new collaborations beyond the already established partnerships and engaging in meaningful discussion between ideologically opposing actors.
Careful analysis and evaluation on the national level of existing projects/initiatives in the realm of civic education are lacking in the Croatian context. If such an approach were implemented, long-term coherence and impact could be improved.
Bovan, K., & Širinić, D. 2016. “(Non)democratic Attitudes of Croatian High School Seniors: presence and determinants.”
European Commission. 2018. “Education and Training MONITOR 2018 Croatia.” Available here.
International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IAE). 2017. “International Civic and Citizenship Education Study.” Available here.