A quick guide from preschool to university
Written by Maya Stoyanova Warner from Teach for Bulgaria, edited by Lindsay Martin, photo from Unsplash.
If you are planning to educate your children in Bulgaria, thinking about pursuing higher education here, or simply curious about the way our school system works, this article is for you! We are going to cover the basics of Bulgarian education from preschool to university, so grab a drink, make yourself comfortable and read on.
Kindergartens in Bulgaria accept students as young as 3 or 4 years old. Kindergarten programs typically take 3 to 4 years to complete and then children progress to first grade. Since maternity leave in Bulgaria is only paid during the first two years, most mothers go back to work when their children are 1 or 2 years old. In this case, they rely on pre-kindergarten child care. There are both state funded pre-K and kindergarten services in Bulgaria, as well as private ones.
Private pre-K and kindergarten services have gained popularity in Sofia and other big cities in Bulgaria like Plovdiv and Varna because as young families pursue better opportunities in the big cities, public preschool education cannot meet the high demand, so there usually aren’t enough places in state-funded preschools and kindergartens. Some companies in Sofia such as Progress and VMware provide workplace daycare.
Many parents also rely on part-time childcare services. A good option in Sofia is GoodKnight. Another option is for several families with young children and toddlers to join forces and start a co-op. However, this requires more work and resources since they may have to hire teaching staff or rent venues.
If you are currently located in Sofia and are interested in English-speaking preschool services, you might consider some of the following options:
- St. George International Kindergarten
- The Anglo-American School of Sofia – Pre-K program;
- Little Steps – English language kindergarten
- ABC KinderCare Center
- International Children’s Creativity Center
- Montessori Children’s House
Primary and Secondary School
School education in Bulgaria takes 12 years to complete – 1st through 12th grade. Children usually start 1st grade at the age of 6 or 7 and are about 18 when they finish high school. There are several types of schools in Bulgaria: 1st to 4th grade, 1st to 8th grade, 1st to 10th grade, 5th to 12th grade, and 8th to 12th grade. However, the most common types of schools are primary (grades 1 through 8) and secondary (grades 8 through 12).
Usually, the most unnerving period for most Bulgarian parents is when their child is in middle school. There are many reasons for that, puberty being one of them, but from an educational standpoint, this time is crucial as it pretty much seals our children’s fate. There are national exams in Bulgarian language and mathematics at the end of 7th grade. The results from these national exams combined with students’ GPA determine whether they will go to a “good school”. The so-called “good schools” are foreign language (typically English) or mathematical high schools. There is at least one foreign language and one mathematical high school in every regional capital of Bulgaria. This is where the cream of the crop goes to study and where the best teachers work. Since there’s so much at stake at the end of 7th grade, most parents invest a hefty percentage of their family budget in private lessons for their offspring as early as 5th or even 4th grade. Whether it makes sense to apply to an English language high school with a test in Bulgarian and mathematics is a completely different story. Perhaps this is why many “good schools” in Bulgaria have their own entry exams.
Driven by the rising number of foreigners who come to live in Bulgaria long-term, Sofia and some of the bigger cities in the country provide a little more variety in this respect. There’s an array of private primary and secondary schools which are quite adequate rivals to even the most desirable public schools. A popular choice in Sofia is Kindergarten and Primary School “Balgarsko Shkolo”. Private Secondary School “Tzar Simeon the Great” is another well-liked option.
However, perhaps the most suitable alternatives for children of foreigners living in Sofia are the American College of Sofia, the American English Academy, St. George International School and Preschool, and the Anglo-American School of Sofia.
If you are wondering whether to pick a Bulgarian public school or a private international school, keep in mind the following information:
- Bulgarian public schools issue a Bulgarian diploma. In order for it to be recognized by an official institution outside of Bulgaria, you might have to get it translated and potentially your children might need to have additional exams. However, if you’re planning to stay in Bulgaria permanently, or at least for the foreseeable decade or so, this might not be an issue for you.
- As you might have guessed, the official language in all public schools in Bulgaria is Bulgarian. So, if you enroll your children in a Bulgarian public school, they will be expected to do their tests, write their essays, ect. In Bulgarian, except for English class, of course. Unfortunately, there currently aren’t programs for learning Bulgarian as a second language, so many bilingual and multilingual children from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in Bulgaria struggle. However, two organizations, Teach For Bulgaria and EducArt are working to change that. Find out more about their work in support of multilingual children here.
- With all the above being said, Bulgarian public education is free. So, if you’re looking to avoid the steep tuition fees of international private schools, public schools might be a viable option for your family.
Educational inequality and what we do about it
You may be wondering what happens to all Bulgarian children who don’t get accepted into the “good schools,” or who don’t apply at all because it’s not even an option for them. The harsh reality is that many children in Bulgaria live in poor, vulnerable communities and don’t have access to development opportunities, resources, and quality education. The good news is that there are organizations whose mission is to help these children. Some of these organizations are the Trust for Social Achievement, Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance “Amalipe”, and Teach For Bulgaria. Teach For Bulgaria’s mission, for example, is to train and support new teachers and schools and to build strategic partnerships in order to introduce a variety of best practices into the education system. Their vision is that some day all children in Bulgaria will have access to excellent education. Teach For Bulgaria recruits capable and motivated professionals who are committed to work long-term towards positive change in education in Bulgaria. Their teachers work in underperforming schools located in disadvantaged communities for a period of at least two years and then move on to starting their own initiatives to support Bulgarian education. Teach For Bulgaria alumni work as teachers or administrators at all of the above-mentioned private and international schools in Sofia.
There are quite a few international students who choose to pursue their higher education in Bulgaria. Undoubtedly, the American University in Bulgaria is the most popular among foreign students. But many international students go to medical school or graduate school in Bulgaria for example. Since Bulgaria is in the EU we have many Erasmus+ exchange students every year. Some of the most well-known local universities are Sofia University, New Bulgarian University, the Technical University in Sofia, Plovdiv University, Veliko Tarnovo University, the University of Economics in Varna.