Teachers on Monday said they were willing to continue the dialogue with the government on streamlining education but refused to budge from their positions, leaving open the possibility of measures although schools would open as planned, they said.
A planned march from public service union Pasydy’s office to the presidential palace on Tuesday evening is also going ahead, the teachers’ unions said.
At the same time on Monday, a broad meeting was convened, chaired by President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss legal measures the government could take if any teachers refused to perform their duties when the school year begins.
The meeting was attended by the finance minister, representatives of the educational service committee and the legal service. Reportedly, measures would target individual teachers who refuse to perform their duties and could include disciplinary proceedings, cutting wages for lost hours, or imposing additional hours in lieu.
“The government calls on the unions for the last time to realise that the best interests of the country’s education, students, teachers and society is not achieved through dogmatic attitudes and conflicts,” an announcement from the presidential palace said.
“Instead, through an intensive and constructive dialogue we need to tackle together any problems, which will lead to streamlining and improving the education system.”
At the centre of the ongoing dispute are class exemptions granted to teachers to pursue extra-curricular activities including on occasion union tasks, plus reductions in teaching periods according to age and/or years of service. The cabinet recently decided to reduce some of these perks such as cutting exemption hours from two to one per week in some cases, which resulted in the current dispute.
The education ministry says only 13 per cent of such exemptions would be affected by the changes. It also said that exemptions cost the state €52m a year and the hiring of substitute teachers to cover those being exempted from class, money which could be better spent.
The ministry had been warned by experts that if changes were not made, that within five years, the bulk of the education budget would only cover salaries with little or nothing left over for education programmes.
Last Friday unions were offered a deal by the state that included incentives for extra pay or early retirement in lieu of axing some of the exemptions, but the deal was rejected.
During a news conference on Monday the unions sought to explained their reasons.
“From the start, our struggle was about public education, but because labour issues are also involved, some tried to take advantage of this and focus on the labour issues, drawing attention away from other very important matters such as departmental responsibilities which have everything to do with the students,” said secondary school union Oelmek president Yiannos Socratous.
Socratous said unions’ positions had been misinterpreted. “What sort of exemption is it, when I have two hours a week to deal with children who bring to school a mountain of issues from home and the teacher responsible for dealing with these issues, who had until now two hours to in effect step in as the child’s parent, now only has one. Instead, everyone is focusing on this as a labour issue… of whether we will work one hour more or one hour less, as if that is what all this is about.”
He said the issues that should be discussed were how to improve the teacher’s role in the classroom, how they can be empowered and evaluated, and other issues.
“These are the big issues that we should be discussing if we truly wish to improve the quality of education,” Socratous said.
“We requested measures that would bring a true streamlining of education, and not an apparent streamlining with measures that are mere formalities. We are nevertheless ready to continue engaging in dialogue in order to deal with all of these matters,” Socratous said.
In response to these positions the presidency issued a six-point announcement later on Monday, appealing to the unions to realise that the interests of education, teachers, students and society as a whole were not achieved by dogmatic positions and conflict.
It urged “the overwhelming majority of conscientious teachers not to remain oblivious to the government’s invitation for dialogue aimed at the recognition of their own value and the value of the education system.”
It repeated its willingness to offer incentives – even exemptions for union time – as long as the school year was not disrupted and as long as an intensive dialogue took place with a specific timeline to resolve all issues.
On Tuesday the House labour committee, in the presence of the education minister and representatives of the three teachers’ unions, will hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss the crisis while on Wednesday unions will meet again to discuss their next moves.