By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian government confirmed on Friday a freeze on massive staff cuts in public schools in an apparent reaction to the public uproar over the first wave of teacher lay-offs launched last summer.
Ministers said they will assess the impact of the hugely unpopular measure on school performance before launching the second phase of the ongoing reform of the system of secondary education which is financed by the World Bank.
The lay-offs, which have already affected 4,600 teachers across the country, were a key condition for the release of a $19 million World Bank loan last January. The funds will be used for the introduction of new curricula, school computerization and teacher retraining.
“We are negotiating the possibility of making some changes in the program,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said.
According to Science and Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian, the reform review will take “one or two months.” “There is a lull [in the process] at the moment,” he told RFE/RL. “We are using that lull to make calculations for a final decision on this issue.”
Yeritsian said that the government will try to make sure that no more teachers lose their jobs as a result of what officials describe as an “optimization” of bloated school staffs. Its initial version called for the dismissal of as many as 9,000 teachers or 15 percent of the nationwide workforce. The Education Ministry says the sweeping cost-cutting will allow it to triple the average teacher wage to 65,000 drams ($115) within the next three years.
However, the mounting social cost of the reform has led to calls for a halt to the lay-offs. They have been endorsed by some leaders of the ruling coalition, including parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian who heads Yeritsian’s Orinats Yerkir Party. There have also been complaints about the fairness of the process. Yeritsian said his ministry is now examining them and has already reinstated about a hundred teachers “arbitrarily dismissed” by school principals.
Markarian denied that the process has been suspended in response to the criticism. “People are always unhappy with government actions,” he said.
But Yeritsian admitted that the negative public opinion did play a role. “The concerns voiced by the chairman of the National Assembly too give us grounds to hold discussions inside the ministry and hopefully the government.”