Anger Over New School Rules in Georgia
Georgia’s education ministry has tightened up on state schools, even installing hidden cameras in classrooms as part of a reform it says will drive up standards.
Critics say the moves will politicise education in the country at a time when the government is already bringing in lessons in patriotism.
The new policy comes from Education Minister Dmitri Shashkin, who previously headed Georgia’s prison system. Since he was appointed a year ago, he has restricted the autonomy of school governors and educational resource centres, and increased the powers of his ministry.
Shashkin has been critical of the old system, arguing that it was too liberal. At a conference on December 8 discussing the progress made this year, he said, “A teacher told me once that school is like a jungle. Happily, we’ve managed to get out of the jungle.”
The tighter rules being introduced mean pupils who miss classes will have to clean playgrounds, while repeat offenders will be sent to a special boarding school in the west of the country.
From September 2011, patriotism classes will be introduced in certain classes, while compulsory dancing lessons will start in January for some schools.
To ensure rules are being followed, schools in Tbilisi and elsewhere will be monitored by hidden cameras, and also by teams of observers deployed to watch how things are being run.
The education ministry has barred teachers from talking to journalists without special permission. Education experts, however, have spoken out against the changes, which have been followed closely by the media.
The most recent scandal involved the dismissal of eight school principals after pupils protested against a decision to make them take eight leaving exams instead of four. The pupils said they would not have time to prepare for extra exams in their one remaining year.
The ministry’s response was to call in the head teachers and sack them.
“We were summoned to the general inspectorate,” Maia Giorgadze, one of the head teachers involved, told IWPR. “Statements containing identical texts had already been prepared for all the principals. These stated that we were requesting to be relieved of our positions, with no reasons given. We just had to sign the statements.”
The same day, an anonymous official told news outlets, “The education minister issued clear instructions to the directors and teachers… that if such actions continued… the schools would lose their licenses within 12 hours”.
Minister Shashkin denied pressuring the teachers to quit.
“The ministry did not interfere in this process. The governing councils took the decisions that the directors of these schools should be sacked,” he said.
President Mikhail Saakashvili dismissed the student protests as a “revolution of dunces”.
It was Saakashvili who created the decentralised system of autonomous schools and appointments after coming to power in 2003. The policy reversal seems to have been sparked by massive protests in November 2007, after the president called early elections to head off challenges to his rule.
Ahead of the election, Saakashvili courted teachers with promises to abolish compulsory testing for staff, to change the system for appointing principals, and better pay, holidays and social benefits for teachers. These proved popular measures, although not all were delivered.
With Shashkin’s appointment, however, Georgia’s leadership seems to have decided that the stick might be more effective than the carrot.
Sopho Bukia is editor of the Liberali magazine in Georgia.