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GUEST COLUMN

Crisis and discrimination in Slovak schools

Slovak teachers and school employees - all 150,000 of them - are falling into increasing poverty. The promises of current political leaders when they were in opposition about the dignity of pedagogy are unravelling without end. More than three quarters of students and recent graduates of teaching colleges do not intend to work in schools: They know they wouldn't be able to start a family on the salaries they would make. The exception to this rule are those who have rich husbands.
The result of this state of affairs is the rapid ageing of teaching faculties at all schools. Hand in hand with this goes a return of the conservatism of past generations of Slovak society. Women teachers - because this trend is mostly concerned with women - are beginning to protest more visibly, but even so, the theme of the relationship between Slovak society and schools has more or less died out.

Slovak teachers and school employees - all 150,000 of them - are falling into increasing poverty. The promises of current political leaders when they were in opposition about the dignity of pedagogy are unravelling without end. More than three quarters of students and recent graduates of teaching colleges do not intend to work in schools: They know they wouldn't be able to start a family on the salaries they would make. The exception to this rule are those who have rich husbands.

The result of this state of affairs is the rapid ageing of teaching faculties at all schools. Hand in hand with this goes a return of the conservatism of past generations of Slovak society. Women teachers - because this trend is mostly concerned with women - are beginning to protest more visibly, but even so, the theme of the relationship between Slovak society and schools has more or less died out.

Our entire society, and the political elite which stands at its forefront, is bravely pretending that instead of raising lasting educational standards for coming generations, it has some hotter issues to contend with. Which ones, I ask.

If this country is to have a future, it faces no imperative more important than that of investing in schools and teachers, even if it has to borrow money to do it. The politicians of this country did not shrink from amassing astronomic debts for improving the business results of a few construction firms and creating jobs for a few thousand construction workers. The result is that we have a foreign debt of $12 billion, a couple of Russian nuclear power stations, a bunch of useless concrete dams and somewhere on the periphery of Slovak territory a few dozen kilometres of freeway for the use of rich people of the future.

On the other side of the coin, we have impoverished teachers, faculties that every year are becoming older and more dominated by women, and school buildings that are falling apart. And what's more, we have ever weaker and less well-educated young people who are not ready to find a place on the job market. Indeed, this leads to a kind of age discrimination - young people are experiencing an unemplyment rate that is twice as high as the 17% national average, largely as a reults of their poor educational preparation.

Every observer is fascinated by the question of how one of the most educated professional groups could have fallen to one of the lowest salary rungs in the economy, and then to have settled at that level. Another interesting question is whether more women teachers are entering the teaching profession - 'feminising' teaching - because of the low wages, or whether teacher's salaries are low because they are being paid mostly to women?

Wage discrimination against women in Slovakia's patriarchal society has become an accepted norm, in the same way that all hierachies impose 'glass ceilings' on women to prevent them from gaining higher positions. In Slovakia it is regarded as normal that a woman with the same education and professional qualifications as a male colleague receives only 75-80% as much money for the same work. Is this mechanism behind the decline in the salaries of teachers? Or is it 'only' that teachers are poorly organised, and cannot come in crowds of tens of thousands to protest in front of the Office of the Government?

To be sure, the time is not ripe for intelligent people to start protesting. This government needs time. On the other hand, the government and the parties that created it must abandon their industrial mindsets - the kind of thinking whereby the state, admittedly under the pressure of corruption, the industrial lobby and the industrious proletariat, take loans for investing into concrete at the expense of the shrinking intellectual potential of the entire country...

Two weeks ago, Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová reported that the European Investment Bank was going to lend Slovakia 200 million euros. She also said that this money - once again - is to flow into concrete and asphalt. The newly-approved state budget sets aside around seven billion crowns for building new highways in 1999.

OK, fine. But I would ask why Education Minister Ľubomír Ftáčnik didn't insist more strongly that at least part of this inefficiently spent money went to the school system, maybe even through construction companies. Why not use the cash to improve the insulation in schools, to improve heating facilities or the electricity and water systems that schools are fitted with? Hundreds of millions of crowns are lost through these defects every year, money that could otherwise be used to improve the quality of teaching and the level of the students.

As long as the political elite is unable to grasp the full depth of the crisis in education, teachers and above all women are left with only one tool to protect themselves from social and wage discrimination. And that is not to vote for political parties which don't take action against the ruination of the school system. Not to elect parties which don't treat wage discrimination against women and the school crisis as one and the same thing.

Juraj Mesík works in the non-governmental sector. This piece first appeared in the daily paper Sme, March 31, 1999.

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