By Evie Andreou
The education ministry said on Friday in a letter to teachers’ unions that it had been warned last year by the public service commission, that unless it took measures, the bulk of its budget for the next five years would go only on salaries.
In addition, the government’s decisions on the streamlining of the use of teachers in state schools, which has led to threats of strike by unions, involved only 13 per cent of the overall exemptions from teaching time, the ministry said.
The information was included in a 30-page memo the education ministry sent on Friday to teaching unions along with a letter inviting them to continue the dialogue that was halted last week due to disagreements as to how to streamline public education.
In the memo, published by daily Politis, the ministry said that it had been warned last year by the public service commission, that unless it took measures, the bulk of its budget for the next five years would go only on salaries, without being able to cover any other expenses such as new programmes and projects, buildings and other infrastructure. It also warned that “any delay in the implementation of substantive measures would cause a greater crisis than the one that could arise from the implementation of the measures.”
The ministry – citing results of international and European studies- reiterates in the memo that, in Cyprus, despite the fact there is greater funding in state education “both the educational staff and schools fare worse than EU and OECD countries.”
Cyprus is one of the states that spend comparatively a bigger chunk of its overall budget on public education, it said, ranking sixth worldwide in terms of the share of education expenditure in its gross domestic product (GDP). With 5.7 per cent GDP public expenditure on education, it said, Cyprus was significantly higher than the EU average in 2016 which was 4.9 per cent.
It also said that Cypriot educators had fewer teaching hours and fewer pupils per teacher compared with other EU countries.
Therefore, it said, although the Cypriot state is spending relatively more than the other European states, “and despite the favourable conditions of the school system for the number of pupils per class or per teacher, the results are inferior.”
The memo also said that a relatively large proportion of the total annual expenditure of the education ministry – eight per cent – is spent on covering exemptions from teaching hours, either for extracurricular activities or due to seniority exemptions. In total, it said, the cost is €52.7m per year, which is eight per cent of the total budget.
In addition, it said, these exemptions mean that some hundreds of additional teachers are required at the beginning of each school year, even if education needs have not increased.
It also referred to a letter from the attorney-general and a number of reports by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission’s Eyridice programme, and Education at a Glance OECD Indicators on exemptions from teaching hours, and that salaries and teaching hours of Cypriot educators are more favourable than their European counterparts.
Currently, primary education teachers see their 29 teaching hours per week reduced by two after 15 years of service and two more after 21 years, or after they reach 50.
In secondary education the 24 teaching periods are reduced by two after eight years of service, by another two between 16 and 19 years of service and drop to 18 after 20 years.
The education ministry also commissioned in 2016 a study by Ernst & Young, on the streamlining as regards reduction of teaching time for seniority reasons and exemptions from teaching.
The cabinet, it said, applying slightly amended suggestions, decided to increase the teaching time and reduced the need for additional temporary teachers to 159 (compared with 373 initially).
Amongst the 60 categories of exemptions from teaching time that apply at all levels of public education, it said, the Cabinet’s decision of July 4, affects only four.
This concerns reduction by one teaching hour instead of two as regards exemption for seniority and abolition of the practice for new entrants.
Abolishing the reduction of teaching time according to years of service for deputy head teachers in some educational levels, was another measure.
The cabinet also decided on the exemption by one instead of two teaching hours for form-teacher duties, and abolition of exemptions granted to officials of teaching unions.
“In total, these measures increase the teaching time in the equivalent 214.7 teachers,” the letter said.
The measures in effect concern only 13 per cent of the overall exemptions that apply in state schools.
The general philosophy of the government, it said, was for extracurricular activities to be replaced by a merit system within a general system for the evaluation of the educational work and the teacher, which may be combined with the creation of additional promotion positions that will bring benefits in terms of payment without being accompanied by a reduction in teaching time.
Additionally, it said, certain special allowances may be introduced for additional duties teachers are likely to undertake.
The savings that will result from this, it said, will be given to specific actions / sectors, which are a priority for the ministry and are related with the well-being and support of pupils but also the professional support and development of teachers.
Teaching unions will respond to minister’s new invitation to talk ‘when they’re ready’
Teaching unions will respond “when they’re ready” to the letter sent to them by the education minister urging them to continue the dialogue on the streamlining of state schools, the head of Poed primary education union, Fylios Fylaktou said on Friday.
Education Minister, Costas Hambiaouris, on Friday sent all teaching unions – primary education’s Poed and secondary education’s Oelmek and Oltek – a letter inviting them to a continuation of the dialogue. The letter also includes the positions of the education ministry on the need for streamlining.
The head of Poed, Fylios Fylaktou told the Cyprus News Agency that the boards of the unions will convene on Monday to assess the content of the letter before responding.
The three unions, Fylaktou said, will coordinate, and they will most likely give a joint response to the ministry, when they are ready to do so as the documents are very long.
“They must be thoroughly studied and assessed by our collective bodies,” he said.
On Monday, officials of the education ministry are to have separate meetings with each of the three unions, but also with organised parents. A joint meeting with all unions and the ministry is to take place on Tuesday.
The dispute between the two sides is a government decision to abolish reductions of hours according to the length of service as well as exemptions from teaching time for extra-curricular activities. Thousands of teachers took to the streets in July to protest and are expected to do so again at the end of this month if the issue is not resolved.
The intensive dialogue between the ministry and the teaching unions – launched earlier in the month on the initiative of President Nicos Anastasiades – ended last week with unions announcing they would strike in September after not being satisfied by the response of Hambiaouris to their counter-proposals as regards streamlining of state schools.
Unions had said that the new measures will lead 300 contract teachers to unemployment, but the ministry said that this year the total number of teachers set to be appointed to permanent positions will be 159 more than last year. The total for the 2018-2019 school year is set to be 844, while last year only 685 new teachers were appointed, it said.
The teaching unions had proposed, among other things, that the ministry could instead reduce teacher secondments to the ministry, suspend teacher training programmes, transfer permanent teachers who have become superfluous due to lack of interest by pupils in their subjects to other posts, and offer incentives for early retirement.