The public debate and squabbling of the last two weeks sparked by the blunder in the teachers’ exams highlighted two things. Cyprus has a totally dysfunctional public education system that has been short-changing children for years and, worse still, none of the politicians has the desire to do anything about it. The presidential candidates, that have answers for everything and promise to right all the wrongs of our society, have steered well clear of the matter for fear of saying anything that will upset public school teachers – a group that represents tens of thousands of votes and whom public education is designed to serve.
So while debate was raging for two weeks over a minor incident – the posting of exam questions on the education ministry website before the exam was due to start – the obvious connection between the criminally irresponsible teacher recruitment system, which has been in place for over 30 years, and poor public education standards was barely touched. This is because all the political parties are guilty of supporting it, despite being fully aware of the great harm it was causing to generations of schoolchildren. Poorly educated children seemed a small price to pay for the politicians as long as the powerful teaching unions were kept happy.
When the Anastasiades government decided to tackle the matter and introduce a merit-based recruitment system it met the strong resistance of the political parties and the unions. In the end to get the reform passed through parliament it had to agree to keep the discredited recruitment system in place for another 10 years. The compromise reached was that 50 per cent of new teachers would be recruited in a meritocratic way, by sitting exams, while the other 50 per cent would be recruited indiscriminately from the waiting list system. While it was recognised that the waiting list system was the main reason for underperforming schools because it allowed graduates incapable of teaching into the classroom it would be kept going for another 10 years for the sake of industrial peace!
There is no business in the world that operates such an irrational recruitment system – hiring people from a waiting list, on which they may have been for 20 years, without even talking to them, giving them classes to teach without providing the most basic teacher training and making them permanent staff after two years without ever evaluating their job performance. In fact, there is no evaluation system for public school teachers, all of them receiving top marks for performance and being promoted on years of service; some primary schools now have two head teachers to satisfy promotion needs. Meanwhile after a certain number of years of service teachers have the right to teach fewer hours, a violation of public service employment terms according to a recent report by the auditor-general, about which nothing has been done because it creates the need for more teachers to be hired.
A few days ago we were reminded of another education scandal when the House education committee was discussing the regulation of private institutes that offer afternoon tuition to children to complement their school education. This costs parents, on average, €50 million a year, but does not take into account private lessons offered by public school teachers. Although this is illegal – another violation of the terms of employment – and morally wrong, as it gives public school teachers a financial incentive to perform their morning job inadequately so as to create demand for afternoon private lessons nothing has been done about it. An attempt by the Papadopoulos government to clamp down on the illegality was short-lived because of the angry reaction by parents. Another reason for the demand for afternoon lessons is because the school day is too short to cover the curriculum but teachers would not hear of making it longer.
State expenditure on education is over a billion euro a year although a part of this goes to universities. A survey carried out a few years ago found that Cyprus had the second highest paid teachers in the EU. And what do we get for taking such good care of our teachers? Our 15-year-old public school children were the worst performing in the EU in the latest education survey carried out by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment which tests standards in science, literacy and maths. Test scores had fallen since the previous survey. We are getting no value for money from public schools, which exist almost exclusively to offer secure, highly paid, undemanding work for anyone with a degree even if they have no aptitude for or interest in teaching and only a basic knowledge of their subject.
Everyone knows that schools are failing the children but nobody is willing to change anything because teachers are very happy with the dysfunctional education system their unions created with the full backing of spineless and irresponsible politicians.