Armenia to Tackle Education Shortcomings

Officials want to raise Armenia’s education system to European standards but some parents and educators wonder if they can deliver.

Armenia to Tackle Education Shortcomings

Officials want to raise Armenia’s education system to European standards but some parents and educators wonder if they can deliver.

Armenia’s soviet-era schools are playing catch-up.

Armenians currently attend school for ten years, in contrast with the 12 years common throughout Europe and North America. Children begin their primary education at seven years of age, one year later than their western counterparts, and complete it one year earlier.

As a result, officials say, Armenian education lags far behind other developed countries and means that youngsters frequently face serious problems if they want to go on to become undergraduates.

To get into university, students invariably have to take private lessons to pass the entrance exam because what they learn in school is not enough to get them through.

Sometimes they take off the entire final year of secondary education to prepare, but non-attendance means they don’t qualify for a high school graduation certificate. Since the latter is necessary to be considered for university, parents will often bribe teachers to issue their children with one.

Susanna, who asked that her last name not be used, had to send her son to special classes to get him up to the required level for the Yerevan Fine Arts and Theatre Institute.

She said she had to “reach an agreement” with staff at her son’s school to ensure that he received a graduation certificate. "In order to get my son's diploma, I had to bribe the teachers,” she said. “The teachers and headmaster hinted that if I didn’t my son would be expelled from school. So I took care of the problem as other parents do."

Armenian officials, however, now say that such educational dilemmas are a thing of the past. The government is expected to introduce a 12-year system at the beginning school year.

The change is part of a wide-ranging bill currently being considered by the National Assembly, the country’s parliament

Deputies say that they do not know when the draft law will be debated, but are confident it will be passed before the start of the school year on September 1.

"We should march in step with the world," said Narine Hovhannisian, head of the general education department at the country’s education and science ministry. "Our educational system does not correspond to international standards.”

The reforms are required by the Bologna Declaration, signed by education ministers from 29 European countries in Italy in June 1999, with the aim of unifying education standards across the continent.

Armenia, as a signatory in 2005 - and the last ex-Soviet republic to commit itself - promised to raise its education standards to the declaration’s requirements by 2010.

To this end, the World Bank has allocated 19 million US dollars to help Armenia overhaul its methods of instruction, test students, introduce new equipment and raise teacher qualifications.

Officials say that the reforms will be their “salvation”.

“We think that 12 years of schooling will make it possible to learn in a calmer situation than what has been possible to learn up to now," said Hovhannisian.

But many parents and educators are not as enthusiastic. Although they are not against the reforms per se, they question whether any significant changes will actually take place or whether the schools possess adequate infrastructure to carry out the changes.

Opposition is particularly strong among those parents with pre-school aged children. They say that six is too tender an age to begin school. Moreover, the country’s run-down school system, which suffered greatly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, lacks facilities and equipment to provide for such young students.

The hallways of School No. 4 in Echmiadzin, for example, are the same sub-freezing temperature as the street outside. In the classrooms, despite a kerosene stove, only a handful of students work without heavy winter coats. If someone opens the classroom door to enter, the group shouts in chorus to close it quickly to preserve the meagre warmth.

The smell of kerosene chokes the classroom, but it is impossible to open the window since more heat would escape. In the hallways a foul odour from the school’s one toilet nauseates. No one can remember when it was broken.

David Lulukian, 6, from Echmiadzin is supposed to enrol in School No. 4 this September, but his mother, Sona, says she is still debating whether to send him. "I do not know what decision I will make," she said. "These are no conditions for a six-year-old.

“Either I will have to deprive my child of his toys, sacrifice his health and nerves, and put him behind a desk, or I will have to violate the new law."

Ashot Bleian, former education and science minister, says he does not expect instruction to improve once the reforms are implemented.

"How can we know that new materials will be mastered better than the current ones?” he asked. “What do we count on? The new testing system?

“What will the public gain if 12-year schools, just like 10-year schools, are unable to create an open and creative atmosphere?"

Some fear that confusion will result when the new system is introduced. Students already studying under the old system will continue to do so; entrants in 2006 will study for 11 years; and those who start in subsequent years will be in school for 12 years.

Hovhannisian of the education ministry holds that all will work smoothly, “I don’t think there will be confusion. Everything will settle down as time passes."

The ministry has likewise assured that all teachers will receive refresher courses during the summer months before the start of the school year. However, it is still unclear what the new curriculum exactly will contain and what changes there will be.

"I cannot speak yet of any specific changes in the curriculum except the fact that by September first- graders will have materials for…a 12-year course of study," said Hovhannisian.

Students are pleased about the reforms but aren’t convinced that they will be pushed through.

"I want to become an artist," said Emma Grigorian, 13. "If the 12-year education could help me to achieve my goal, all this will perhaps be justified. But I don’t know, will it really be this way?"

Marianna Grigorian is a correspondent for ArmeniaNow in Yerevan.
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