Cyprus Mail

The sorry state of public education

By Constantinos Psillides

WHENEVER someone mentions educational reform or educational overhaul, a vivid memory comes to mind. Back in 2004, a year into the presidency of Tassos Papadopoulos, I was sent to report on a delegation visit to then minister of education Pefkios Georgiadis.

When the trite statements to the media were done and cameras left the room, a delegation member asked the late Georgiadis (he died in 2007) how education reform was going. Without realising that a reporter was still in the room, Georgiadis stood up, walked to his office, picked up a bulky tome titled “Educational Reform”, returned to the table and slammed it down. “There’s your educational reform”, he had said angrily, “but they are never going to let me to go through with it. Never”.

Ten years passed and the reform is still stuck in the mud.

The ‘they’ that Georgiades was referring of course are all the stakeholders in education, the political parties who openly support candidates for key positions in the unions, the two largest teachers unions POED – elementary teachers – and OELMEK -secondary teachers – parents associations and the Church.

Archbishop Chrysostomos said on more than one occasion that he wants a “Greek-Orthodox centered” education; oftentimes with current minister Kyriakos Kenevezos sitting by his side.

A school season usually kicks off with an official meeting of the Archbishop and the current minister while the worst kept secret in Cypriot politics is that the president cannot appoint an education minister without the silent approval of the head of the church.

Decades of feeble attempts at adjusting our antiquated education system in a rapidly evolving world, have finally taken their toll. A study conducted by OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Programme for International Student Assessment found that Cypriot 15-year-olds were the worst performing among EU member states, achieving the worst results in sciences, second worst in math and third worst in reading skills.

But if the study results were saddening, the official response was down-right depressing. Themis Poliviou, head of OELMEK, challenged the study’s methodology arguing that students in other countries were carefully selected and coached, while Kenevezos said that the level of standards was ‘everyone’s fault’.

Androulla Vassiliou: saddened
Androulla Vassiliou: saddened

Androulla Vassiliou, the Cypriot  EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth told the Sunday Mail that she was very saddened with the reports findings for Cyprus. “Measures must be taken. The authorities must analyse the report in depth, study what other countries did and proceed with educational reform”, the commissioner said, Vassiliou said Cyprus’ problem was not a matter of funding. “There is a lot of money spent on education,” she said.

The commissioner urged the government to proceed immediately with reforms, pointing out that not every government should have its own, special reform. “There was a lot of work done in previous years. The new government must build on that and continue with the reform,” the commissioner added.

Education’s main areas of concern are modernisation of teaching methods, teachers’ salaries and working conditions, revamping the syllabus and the abolishment of the ‘teachers list. Educators add their names to a list and are appointed on a first-come first-served basis, which could take anything from ten to 25 years. At last count there were over 30,000 names on the list. The education ministry proposed recently the substitution of the list with appointments based on –among other things- a written exam. The two unions are strongly against it and have gathered enough political support to almost guarantee that the proposal will fail.

Although some progress is being made in modernising teaching methods and revamping the syllabus, unions and state are far apart regarding salary reduction and changing working conditions. OELMEK and POED have repeatedly opposed any reform that meant lower wages and introduce longer hours.

The OECD study results might came as a shock to the rest of us, but it was certainly no news for the teachers in the trenches of public education.

Nikolas, 31, a physics teacher says that he is not surprised at all by the report findings. “It’s to be expected. I have been teaching physics at a lyceum for a number of years and the report sounds about accurate”, Nikolas said, adding that in his opinion the wording of exam questions is a major factor.

“The majority of students don’t understand the questions. They get confused on simple wording and fumble the answer. More often than not their answers have nothing to do with the questions,” the physics teacher notes, adding that as a teacher he tries to give emphasis on keywords so the students can understand what is asked of them.

When asked what needs to be done to better science education, Nikolas answer was immediate. “Smaller study groups and more time for physics classes. For example, four group of six can be more effectively taught than a class of twenty-four and if we had more time allotted we could do much better,” he said.

Although there are a lot of factors affecting the optimal teacher-student ratio, the US National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that in most cases the best fit is ten students per teacher. OECD reports that on average globally the ratio is twenty-one students per teacher. In Cyprus, classes of twenty-five to thirty students are not an uncommon sight.

The number of students is an issue in elementary schools too. Maro, 28, an elementary teacher laments that there is simply not enough time to teach her pupils effectively. “I have a class of almost thirty kids. It’s next to impossible to help all of them. I teach kids outside my teaching hours but I still can’t help them as much as I want to. Smaller classes would be so much better”, says Maro.

She added that there was also a lack of supplies, like markers, stationery and teaching aids. “If a teacher wants to do a better job, he buys those things on his own”, she says.

Maro has a different take on the subject of the teachers’ waiting list. “I agree with the proposal. It’s not right for someone capable to wait years for an appointment. Besides that, everyone nowadays can get a degree in education and be put on the list. The proposed system of evaluation is a good way to determine who is better suited to be a teacher. Provided that meritocracy will apply,” she said.

The possible faults of the proposed change are also of concern for Dr Christiana Karousiou, an expert on educational reform.

“The proposed plan is riddled with vagueness, omissions, possible injustices and rife with sketchiness. It victimises experienced educators in the name of hope and modernisation and leaves a wide open door for nepotism”, argues Karousiou, adding that it was time for properly structured solutions, not experimentations.

Asked to identify the reasons behind the decline, Karousiou points out educators training, job evaluation and an educational system that is conservative, bureaucratic and promotes low expectations.

“The educational system in Cyprus needs to overcome the deficiency of the current training provision. Teachers’ In-Service training is mainly informal and voluntary, and has been criticised for ignoring the central principles of adult education problem-solving, such as building on experience, promoting interaction with colleagues and enabling in-depth reflection,” she said.

Karousiou said teachers should participate in an effective training scheme, which is inclusive and accessible, considers teachers as professionals and adult learners, promotes school-based and teacher initiatives and it is focused on students’ learning.

In these training courses, it is important for teachers to work collaboratively with academics in problem-solving activities, constructing and applying a specific practice skill and monitoring the success of their efforts, she added.

Referring to teacher’s evaluation process, Karousiou characterises it as highly problematic due to the fact that teaching experience in Cyprus is drawn from age, which she says is also the principle factor for promotions.

“Therefore, the need for a new evaluation system which will be based on more objective and rational criteria, such as teacher’s professionalism and ability to provide quality education, is more than apparent,” she said.

“The centralised structure automatically restricts teachers’ and schools’ autonomy, thus limiting any chance for having teachers’ voice being heard outside of the micro level of the organisation and more specifically at the operational level of the education system. The educational system in Cyprus needs to escape from conservatism and bureaucracy.”

Karousiou said any new system should have in mind the significance of student involvement.

“Students should be given the opportunity to make a difference to their school by investigating a problematic area of their interest, sharing their views about teaching, learning and schooling, in order to create a feasible working collaboration with their educators and influence school procedure”, she noted.

Cyprus Mail tried to get a comment from deputy head of secondary education Savvas Antoniou. Through his secretary, Antoniou refused to comment saying that “report findings are presently not a concern of the secondary education department”.

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