THE DOCTOR, teacher and priest are masters of the village according to a Slovak folk saying. But in Slovakia in 2011 practitioners of two of these three professions believe they are poorly paid and suffer from waning status in society. While physicians and other health-care employees are signing notices to terminate their employment contracts, Slovakia’s teachers have taken to the streets in front of the government building demanding more funding for schools and better salaries. It is right for the teachers to raise their voices, an education expert told The Slovak Spectator, but the timing of their protest might not be ideal and their demands might be unrealistic.
More than 9,000 teachers from every part of Slovakia gathered in front of the Government Office on September 13 to express their discontent with what they call inadequate funding for schools. The trade unions representing teachers and other school employees stated that if the government fails to hear their demands and respond appropriately by the end of September they will go on strike.
“Strike it is then; the schools will close,” said Jozef Lužák, the chairman of the teachers’ trade union, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
“It will be announced either as a one-day warning strike or as an unlimited strike.”
The participants at the September 13 rally demanded that the government systematically increase funding for the education sector so that its share of GDP becomes comparable with other EU countries by 2014, the end of the current government’s term, according to an official statement released at the protest.
“The findings of the European Commission in March  rank Slovakia last, in 27th position among European Union countries, with its share of GDP going into education at only 3.8 percent, while the status of the education sector is similar to its share in drawing public finances,” the statement noted.
The teachers’ demands are legitimate but it is questionable whether the amount of government funding they are pursuing is realistic and achievable, Ctibor Košťál, director of the Slovak Governance Institute and an expert on education, told The Slovak Spectator.
The teachers’ unions are asking that the salaries of teachers be increased to a level ranging from 1.2 to 1.6 times Slovakia's average monthly salary, which would translate into teachers having salaries from €915 to €1,220. The Sme daily reported that teachers currently have an average monthly salary of €772.
The protesting teachers’ statement said “the education system is seriously underfunded and thus cannot properly fulfil its role in society” and demanded that growth in their real wages be secured in the future as well.
Education Minister Eugen Jurzyca responded that the state does not have more money for the schools at this time.
“The increases the unions are asking for are currently unrealistic if we do not want to walk the Greek path and if we do not want to get seriously indebted,” said Jurzyca, as quoted by SITA.
The government must base its decisions on reasonable arguments supported by analysis, the minister added.
“In countries that have the ambition to be successful, decisions cannot be made based on what is written on billboards,” Jurzyca stated. “Because teachers come, then soldiers and police officers [will come], and also the nurses, and it is not possible to administer the country in a way that the government reads the slogans and then carries them out.”
Jurzyca said that if the draft law on pedagogical employees, now in its second reading in parliament, is passed the salaries of teachers will increase by an average of 2 percent as of January 2012 at the expense of some other benefits, adding that he was surprised by the September 13 protest because the teachers know about the draft legislation and he argued that it provides for a “decent increase” in teachers’ salaries.
Košťál admitted he too does not think all the demands of the teachers are achievable at this time.
“I do not think that the goal of the protests is to reach the fulfilment of all their demands, but rather to point out the problem and to gain some compromises from the government,” Košťál told The Slovak Spectator.
It is generally recognised that education has not been a priority of any of the previous Slovak governments, which has been reflected in feeble reform efforts, not having the education ministry run by a nominee from the most powerful political party in the government, and generally low state funding for the sector, Košťál added.
In the current environment, according to Košťál, it is important primarily to secure stabilisation of various areas of the education sector, such as in personnel, which he said could be accomplished through implementation of a well-tuned career-growth scheme and motivational levels of remuneration based on clear criteria. Košťál said he believes stabilisation is also required in teachers’ professional skills, noting that educational outcomes in Slovakia do not sufficiently respond to the needs of the labour market or to generally-required skills, noting Slovak students’ documented low achievement in understanding text that they read.
Tools and educational infrastructure is another area Košťál believes is in need of improvement, specifying that schools need to secure good textbooks, the textbook market needs to be opened up, and some schools’ accessibility needs to be improved.
Regarding the teachers’ demand for a change in the age at which teachers can retire, Košťál believes that teachers should not have a different standard than other employees and suggested other kinds of employee benefits for the sector.
“The profession of a teacher should be linked with other benefits such as working time, holidays, career growth and paid sabbaticals in case of burn-out, for example one school year outside the education sector,” Košťál said.
There has been a lengthy discussion within Slovakia about the status of teachers in society and Košťál believes that low salaries are a significant source of teachers’ dissatisfaction but not the only reason.
“The status of teachers reflects society’s views about education and the value of education,” Košťál told The Slovak Spectator. “If the opinion prevails, even among the elites, that highways are more important than education then the status of teachers will not change.”
When assessing the success of countries that are similar to Slovakia, for example Finland in terms of population, limited raw materials and an open economy, or Korea, which also lacks raw materials and has an open economy, then investments in education are of key importance to Slovakia to generate sustainable growth in the economy, Košťál said.
The outflow of skilled people can be restricted by various tools such as a quality system of career development in which people will know what to expect regarding professional growth and future income, Košťál added. He also stated that giving teachers more freedom to use innovative approaches and making their work more satisfying is important, a process that he said is gradually happening in Slovakia.
19. Sep 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová