Education Minister Dr Athina Michaelidou could not turn down an invitation to attend a concert to mark the 70th anniversary of the secondary teachers’ union Oelmek. Nor could she have avoided making a brief speech, being the highest-ranking member of the government at the event. She was not obliged, however, to sing the praises of a union that has turned public education into something that, first and foremost, serves teachers, while relegating the interests of students to secondary importance.

Dr Michaelidou, nevertheless, congratulated Oelmek for 70 years’ contribution to the teaching world and education in Cyprus, saying “the new government promotes the best possible cooperation with teaching organisations (unions) in the best interest of students.” The cooperation of the education ministry with Oelmek was “important”, which was why she looked to its continuation for the good of education, she added. Cooperation with the teaching unions has rarely been for the good of education, and the minister hinted at what the real agenda was.

“Oelmek succeeded in strengthening its members and managed through struggles to upgrade the status of teachers in our country,” she said. Nobody could disagree with this assertion. Cyprus’ teachers are among the best paid in the EU – in the last comparison of teachers’ pay, a few years ago, only Luxembourg paid higher wages. Shame that the standard of public education has been steadily moving in the opposite direction of the status of teachers over the years with our students usually coming at the bottom of international exams. So poor are the standards of schools that all students that want to go to university spend most of their free time in afternoon private lessons.

In fact, Oelmek, in defending the interests of its members, has become the biggest obstacle to improvement in education. For some 30 years it prevented the scrapping of the criminal ‘waiting list’ system, which ensured any graduate could become a teacher, without being interviewed, assessed or undergoing teacher training; it also ensured they were not sacked even if they were incapable of teaching. This was another important contribution to education by Oelmek, which also champions rote learning, because it would be too much like hard work for its members to adopt modern teaching techniques or encourage critical thinking. Should we also mention how, for years, the union has blocked the assessment of teachers?

For the last few years, the union has been doing everything it could – enlisting the support of parents’ associations and students – to have the twice-yearly exams introduced by the education ministry abolished, for no other reason than because it means more work for teachers. And it appears the new government will give in, as it was an election pledge of the president.

“As a society, we need teachers that operate as a model for the new generation, to sculpt souls and hearts,” said Dr Michaelidou on Tuesday evening. Sadly she was not being ironic.