By Angelos Anastasiou
IN WHAT could prove a political manoeuvre to misdirect teaching unions, Education Minister Costas Kadis has declared the World Bank’s damning report on education non-binding while at the same time declaring changes are already afoot.
The World Bank report on the education system of Cyprus released this week was highly critical and described a highly centralised structure that does very little to incentivise, evaluate and reward performing teachers and neither cares, nor asks, about student learning progress. Legislation adopted way back in 1976 continues to govern all levels of the education sector. The report focused on a high level of government spending on education compared to other EU countries but said this fails to translate into learning achievement.
“We note that the World Bank’s proposals are not binding,” Kadis told reporters on Friday, but added that working groups have already been set up to deal with some of the most important points raised in the report.
In comments to the Sunday Mail he went further, saying that the ministry-organised groups are working on ways to reform the way teachers are appointed, one of the main criticisms of the World Bank report.
“The groups will touch on issues relating to the introduction of teachers to the education system, meaning their placement, evaluation and promotion, as well as their continuous education,” he said, adding that changes would be a result of a “structured dialogue” with parties involved.
“Therefore, the purpose of these measures is to have the best teachers in our system, those excellent educators who will be ready to offer our children the best possible education.”
The appointment, evaluation and career advancement prospects of teachers are at present driven by seniority alone, translating into a system that values and rewards the ability of having been around the longest over all others, regardless of performance, commitment or qualification. Coupled with the attractive working conditions prevalent in the profession – including remuneration, working hours and the job’s societal status – this system has created an oversupply of qualified teachers, and a beast of a waiting line for appointment.
The list is so long, the report said, that “based on rough estimates, it is unlikely that a school candidate who submitted his or her application during the past couple of years will be appointed as a school teacher.”
Teachers say the truth is even bleaker. “It’s more like those who got their teaching qualification over the last four or five years, not a couple,” said one teacher.
The problem is that, because the current system isn’t a meritocracy, good teachers might lose the chance to be appointed to others with less talent but more waiting time under their belt. The World Bank suggested overhauling the recruitment system to one that takes into account objective measures of merit, gradually phasing out the current practice of hiring those graduates who have been on the waiting list the longest.
According to the report, Cyprus spends 7.8 per cent of GDP on public education, which is high by international and European standards. Annual public and private expenditure, it said, is €9,145 per pupil, compared to an EU average of €6,900. Yet the results of international-standard testing on student learning achievements in Cyprus are hardly encouraging.
This would suggest that the problem is not scarce resources but waste and inefficiency. In terms of discretionary budgets, the purse-strings in public schools are not held by the school’s management, but by locally elected school boards.
“The air-conditioner broke in the teachers’ lounge, where we work when we’re not in class teaching,” one Nicosia-based primary school teacher told the Sunday Mail. “The school said it couldn’t afford to have it fixed or replaced, and teachers were asked to chip in. Most refused, and it’s still broken.”
More autonomy to school leaders – principals – on discretionary spending, so that they can respond more flexibly to the needs of running the school properly, was one of the proposals in the World Bank report.
But in the contrasting context of the proposed decentralisation, reorganising the education ministry’s structure into several directorates in order to lighten the minister’s workload, give him time to focus on strategic decision-making, and enhance clarity in lines of accountability, was also at the forefront of the report’s conclusions.
The ministry is mostly staffed by seconded teachers, who may or may not be best qualified to deal with the various planning, budgeting and administrative functions they are assigned. Instead, the report proposed capping secondments in terms of time, qualification and number of teachers selected, and replacing them with professionals specialised in each relevant area.
“We will also introduce a series of measures relating to the decentralisation and effective functioning of the ministry itself because its current structure is too vertical,” Kadis told the newspaper.
But, when asked to comment on the possibility of further wage cuts for teachers, he was adamant that it is not on the table. However, he did say that the new evaluation and assessment schemes would aim at linking performance to rewards, so an indirect form of remuneration adjustment may result.
While many of the report’s findings and proposals have already been identified and suggested in several earlier attempts to modernise the cumbersome and ineffective system, the continued strength of powerful vested interests will badger Kadis’ attempts at reform.
For nearly 40 years, politics have quashed any and all serious attempts to reform public education, regardless of how well-documented and sensible the benefit of proposals may have appeared.
AKEL made quite clear its opposition to sweeping educational reform along the lines suggested by the World Bank back in February when the government announced that the organisation had been commissioned to study the Cypriot education system
“Engaging the World Bank, an organisation with a given philosophy and views, in Cypriot education, could trigger negative developments,” AKEL’s education office said at the time.
“From discussions on how to reorganise the education ministry we have come to the World Bank weighing in on the role of inspectors, how evaluations should be carried out, and how many hours teachers should work.”