By Armen Zakarian and Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
Secondary schools in Armenia began their new academic year on Monday after shedding thousands of teachers in a massive cost-cutting which the government says will streamline the cash-strapped education sector.
Some 520,000 students across the country aged between 6 and 16 flocked to the first post-holiday classes that that were preceded by opening ceremonies featuring customary speeches, music and flowers on what is officially marked as Day of Knowledge. About 50,000 of them, still too young to go leave home without parents, did so for the first time. They were the main addressees of official statements issued on the occasion.
“September 1 is a holiday especially for those who pass the school threshold for the first time,” President Robert Kocharian said in a written address. “So I congratulate them with particular warmth.”
“For our people, educating and bringing up a new generation has always been a vital issue,” he added. “The future and development of our country is contingent on the human factor.”
These assurances will probably ring hollow to many of those teachers who have lost their jobs as a result of what the Armenian government calls a “school optimization.” The Ministry of Science and Education puts their number at 4,000, or 7.5 percent of the nationwide school personnel. “According to our preliminary calculations, 4,000 teachers will not go to school on September 1,” Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian told RFE/RL at the weekend.
According to some unofficial estimates, the real number of redundancies may be twice as higher. But those can not be independently confirmed for the moment.
Education Ministry officials say the school staffs have long been bloated and required a major restructuring. They argue that the budgetary funds saved by the lay-offs will be used for increasing the remaining 50,000 teachers’ modest salaries which currently average 20,000 drams ($35). The government plans to gradually raise them to 65,000 drams by 2007.
Officials also claim that most of the dismissed teachers have reached retirement age or do not have appropriate higher education. “Good teachers will not be left out of the schools,” Deputy Minister of Education Aida Topuzian told education officials in Gyumri on Saturday. “Not all teachers meet contemporary requirements.”
But school principals, who have the authority to decide whom to lay off, complain that they have trouble assessing the teachers’ skills and efficiency. Armenian newspapers have carried reports alleging nepotism and bribery in the selection of teachers subject to dismissal.
“I have not been given any objective criteria for evaluating my employees,” said Nadya Arakelian, headmistress of a secondary school in Garnut, a village near Gyumri. “I have four teachers of Armenian language and three of them have to go. I don’t know whom to pick.”
Incidentally, Armenia’s second largest city has seen the most vocal protest yet staged by the fired school staff. About 60 of them rallied there on August 15, demanding that the government reconsider its plans. They pledged to hold more such protests this month.