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Our View: Teachers have declared war. The government must win

File photo: Teachers' protest

THE INTENTION of teaching unions to stage an indefinite strike from the start of the new school year is a declaration of war. This can no longer be classed as an ordinary industrial dispute because the stakes are high, the warring sides fighting for ultimate control of public education.

For decades, teaching unions held complete sway with successive governments embarrassingly pandering to their every demand for fear of losing the votes of teachers or parents if there were strikes that disrupted their children’s education. Needless to say, all political parties supported this regime for the same reasons as the government.

As a consequence, teaching unions had ownership of public education, which they tailored to serving the interests of their members. This was socialism put into practice – the workers ran the show in the way that suited them with little regard for the interests of those they were supposed to be serving – their students. The results are there for all to see. Students of Cyprus’ public schools consistently rank close to the bottom in international surveys measuring educational standards in different countries. The big industry of afternoon private lessons, worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of euro, is also testament to the failure of public schools.

Teaching unions have never expressed the slightest bit of concern for steadily deteriorating education standards, their only interest being the safeguarding of their members’ undemanding working life and the hiring of as many new teachers as possible. They are now up in arms and threatening an indefinite strike because the education ministry has decided to put an end to the unorthodox practice of reducing teaching hours according to years of service or for carrying out extra-curricular activities. It is a disproportionate reaction, but union bosses understood this as an attempt by the education ministry reclaim ownership of public education and take control. The decision was taken by the Council of Ministers without consulting the unions.

What appeared as a minor dispute has escalated into a full-blown industrial war and the unions are also resorting to endless propaganda. Individual teachers are using social media to intimidate and heap abuse on their critics, while their union bosses claim at every opportunity that the government’s objective is to destroy public education. Will public education be destroyed by abolishing the practice of reducing weekly teaching periods after eight years of service? Will public education suffer because teaching union officials will no longer be completely exempt from teaching and have to conduct their union work outside school hours? Will students be better off if the taxpayer carried on paying union bosses to do union work?

The truth is that public education has been destroyed by union control and the anti-education practices imposed over the years. The criminal waiting-list appointment system, which ensured graduates were indiscriminately given teaching jobs, regardless of ability, will be in place for another eight years at union insistence. Unions have also imposed the suspension of teacher training seminars. Through an array of procedural pretexts unions have been blocking education ministry attempts to introduce an evaluation system, presumably to protect bad teachers from losing their jobs; it is unheard of for an inadequate teacher to lose their job.

A failing public school system, in fact, benefits many teachers financially because it creates demand for afternoon private lessons, which they are happy to provide. Many have an interest in underperforming during school hours, short-changing students, as this could boost demand for afternoon private lessons. There have been complaints that the curriculum, for the senior classes of secondary school is too broad to cover, but the idea of extending the school day, which is the obvious answer to the problem, has never been considered because the unions would not hear of it. There would be no benefit for teachers unless pay was upped, and it might affect their after-school earnings.

The audacious claim that the government will destroy public education is a classic example of misinformation by the unions’ propaganda machinery. It has been destroyed by union ownership and the government has an obligation to the country to take back control. So far, President Anastasiades has stood firm, giving his full backing to the education minister who has shown commendable resolve in his dealings with the union bosses. What he should do now is to get the parents’ associations on side, explaining that defeating the teaching unions would best serve public education and, therefore, is in their children’s interests. He should also present them with a government plan for covering the days lost to a possible strike.

The government cannot back down now. It must let the teachers go for an indefinite strike because they will eventually return to work on the government’s terms. This will be the first step in the government wresting control of public education from the teaching unions, and not before time.

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