Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Teacher Cull Under Scrutiny

Doubts are being raised about how a wholesale lay-off of teachers in Armenia is being carried out.
By Naira Melkumyan

A shake-up of the school system, in which nearly 5,000 Armenian teachers have lost their jobs, has come under criticism from international officials.


World Bank representatives say there have been cases where the authorities have adopted an arbitrary approach to the redundancies. Many teachers have complained that they were sacked merely because their headmaster did not like them.


The lay-offs are part of a school “optimisation” programme under which Armenia has been given a long-term loan of 19 million US dollars by the World Bank as part of its Educational Quality and Relevance Project.


In the first stage of the rationalisation programme, which ended in January this year, 4,600 out of 56,000 teachers were made redundant. The second wave of job-cuts will cull another thousand in the period from May to September 2004. Out of the country’s 1,428 schools, thirty-five have been closed so far.


The reforms have left those still in jobs uncertain over their future and those sacked feeling bitter.


“We are all up in the air, not knowing whether they will make us redundant by the start of the next school year or not,” said French language teacher at Yerevan school No. 158 Viktoria Ohanesian. “They have already laid off 15 people.”


“Who needs these reforms?” said sacked Russian language and literature teacher Naira Dashian. “It’d be better if teachers were getting their low wage, but then at least we in Abovian, [a town near Yerevan], would have 150 less unemployed than we do now, and people would’ve been doing the job they love. Where am I supposed to go now? Become a waitress?”


Results of an opinion poll conducted by the Armenian Sociological Society among teachers shows that most believe the reforms are unjust and divisive, “[They] are seriously concerned about the fairness of the reforms which creates an atmosphere of mistrust,” said head of the society Gevork Pogosian.


Armenia’s education ministry says the teachers’ discontent is to be expected. “No matter what is being done in any society, no matter what the reform is all about, if someone loses his job he cannot have a positive view of the process,” head of the general education department at the education ministry Norair Gukasian told IWPR. “But I think the teachers who remain have a different opinion.”


Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian suggested that one of the reasons for the redundancies was that falling pupil numbers have reduced the hours many teachers work, “We had to resolve this discrepancy even if by such unpopular means.”


Yeritsian said that those who criticise the changes do not understand their benefits, “I find it hard to understand how when people are working less than half time, getting three to five thousand drams [about 10 US dollars], they can consider it an important and good job.”


The ministry says that 27 per cent of those who lost their jobs did not have proper training and 24 per cent were not working in their specialised field.


Teachers complain the lay-offs are being conducted in an arbitrary manner, with headmasters sacking staff they disapprove of.


“There is complete anarchy in schools, and everything depends on the whim of a headmaster,” said Ohanesian. “If a headmaster is a decent person, he will follow the law, otherwise he will just get rid of the people he doesn’t like.”


Gukasian said the education ministry had received 700 complaints from teachers and has already dealt with 350 of them, with sacked staff being reinstated.


World Bank officials conceded that the redundancies are not being carried out evenly across Armenia. “We know that there are cases of arbitrary approach and we regret that because the task we have before us is more important than the whims of one person,” said Vigen Sarkisian, public relations officer at the bank’s Yerevan office.


Susanna Hayrapetian, who is responsible for the bank’s social programmes, added that during negotiations with the government they said, “We are assisting you, but job-cuts must be done in a ‘humane fashion’, and logical standards must be developed.”


Yeritsian admitted that the reform process may not have been adequately prepared. “Perhaps, this is a result of poor preparation,” he told IWPR.


But officials point up what they say are the positive sides of the changes. From the start of this year teachers’ salaries have grown by 60 per cent, reaching on average 30 thousand drams, or about 54 dollars. Within the next three years, the government plans to pay wages of up to three times as much.


Those losing their jobs are being provided with a special assistance programme with a budget of up to 2.5 million dollars to give them pay-offs and help them find new jobs.


Armenia’s education reforms date back to 1998, but it proved difficult to find anyone who claimed to be their author. “Who will take responsibility for yet another experiment if it fails?” asked a Yerevan resident Nina Sarkisian, reflecting the feelings of many.


Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan.