The Dayton Peace Accords, while acknowledging that education is a basic human right, left its oversight to BiH's two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS).
Although the RS has kept education centralized in one ministry, responsibility in the FBiH is further delegated to each of the ten cantons. Today, there are no less than thirteen education ministries of varying degrees of competence for an estimated 3.8 million people in BiH.
This decentralized system limits the effective functioning of state institutions and partly explains the continued existence of mono-ethnic education systems and schools. At the same time, however, state-level politicians have signed on to numerous international education treaties promoting the principles of equal access, availability, non-discrimination and non-segregation.
"Today, the political legacies of Dayton are used and abused to stymie any real educational reform," says Falk Pingel, a former Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH's Education Department who is now Deputy Director at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig, Germany.
Education reforms immediately after the war focused on removing offensive and hate-inducing passages from school textbooks, but such reviews were cumbersome and rife with arguments and ill-feeling. Nonetheless, some long-term ideas did emerge from the process, including the creation of guidelines that would set a standard for future school textbooks.
"It's a pity that in the 21st century, we still have textbooks that contain nationalism and hatred towards other groups and religions," says Ismet Krnic of the FBiH Ministry of Education. "The guidelines for future textbooks should allow them to be modernized and adapted to Western European standards."
The OSCE Mission to BiH, along with the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Eckert Institute, took the lead in establishing the guidelines, contacting all education ministries about the new initiative.
A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was circulated on setting up commissions to develop guidelines for history and geography textbooks, which received the stamp of approval from all the country's education ministries.
By early 2004, the two commissions - one for each subject - had been established, consisting of one Serb, one Bosniac and one Croat from both the FBiH and the RS, as well as one representative for national minorities.
The first meeting, however, did not go as well as planned, with some members complaining that they had not been properly informed by their respective ministries of education about the nature or responsibilities of the work involved.
"It was a rocky start," admits the Chair of the History Commission, Slavica Kupresanin, with a wry smile, "but ultimately we became one big and committed family. We were a group of experts free from political pressure who could focus on the task at hand."
The Chair of the Geography Commission, Muris Spahic, adds: "There was a high rate of consensus among commission members that made joint results possible."
The starting point for both commissions was the principles outlined in the MoU, which stated that:
On the technical side, the guidelines also aimed to introduce new and improved teaching and methodological approaches.
Together with the CoE and the Eckert Institute, the OSCE Mission also helped to organize commission meetings and travel to Germany, where members took part in workshops on textbook writing in other European countries. Case studies from Ireland, Serbia and Montenegro, and Croatia put the BiH situation into a wider context and gave participants ideas on how to develop the guidelines further.
"The process of writing the guidelines allowed pedagogical experts to think in a new, creative and long-term way about education," says the Mission's Education Advisor, Azra Junuzovic. "The end result was the best the participants could achieve."
The Eckert Institute's Pingel agrees, adding: "It was great to see commission members working together in a way that you could no longer determine who was a Serb, Croat or Bosniac. The impact on them alone constituted real progress."
The future of the guidelines is still under debate. The document has yet to be signed by the education minister of the RS, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which co-ordinates affairs among education ministers, will have to redouble its efforts in the RS following the removal by High Representative Paddy Ashdown of education minister Milovan Pecelj.
Junuzovic puts the future process into perspective: "It took four months to write the MoU and a couple more months to write the guidelines and have them signed by the education ministers, so I expect the implementation process will take time too, especially given the political and technical challenges today."
Pingel concurs, pointing out: "Countries from the former Socialist bloc, like Poland and the Czech Republic, knew very early on that they would gain access to the European Union, which thereby accelerated education reform despite initial moves towards nationalizing history. That catalyst is missing from countries like BiH."
Despite the political obstacles that remain to be overcome in the RS, the FBiH is willing to proceed to the next stage: implementing the guidelines by autumn 2006. The struggle is an uphill one, however, as there is still no single state-level education agency that can enforce a uniform standard throughout the country.
It must be remembered that the wounds of war in BiH have not yet healed. Many children attending mono-ethnic schools lost loved ones during the conflict.
What the children of BiH are taught today will undoubtedly shape the way they grow up. It is this reality that, in the end, makes education reform in the country so vital.