Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Romanian Education System (2)

OK, part 2 of my searing expose of the problems in the Romanian education system.

This one is the really BIG one. Money.

Romania doesn't have much money to go round. The government has recently signed up to an IMF loan with all the conditions that this usually implies (cuts, cuts, cuts). However, rather than making some sensible economic decisions like having a progressive tax and actually collecting taxes from rich people (and really doing something about corruption and tracking down the billions that vanish every year into personal bank accounts and expensive cars) it has launched into what can only be described as a war on the poor. That sounds melodramatic, perhaps, but take a look at the things proposed so far: Close half the hospitals, cut public sector pay by 25%, cut pensions by 15%, make it easier for employers to sack workers, raise the retirement age by 5 years (women) and 2 years (men), cutting quarter of a million public sector jobs, raise VAT by 5% points to 24%. Not all of these things can or will happen, but it's pretty clear which sector of the population that the Basescu / Boc government wants to attack to get the money from to pay the IMF. And it's not the well-off.

Anyway, inevitably the education system is another victim of these attacks. Not only are teachers salaries being slashed, but it seems that there is basically no money for anything else either. Basescu made a speech last year in which he praised Romania's vast diaspora, mostly working as agricultural labourers and construction workers in Spain and Italy for(a) leaving the country and not burdening the Romanian state with their needs; and (b) sending money back to bolster the Romanian economy. So possibly his plan here is to make this some kind of semi-compulsory national service, sending every able bodied young adult between 20 and 30 abroad to pick strawberries and send their earnings home. In such a scenario educating the population is really just a waste of money, since you don't need to know much to be an indentured peasant.

To give some examples of the lack of money in state education, it has become the norm for us (as parents) to be tapped up for money to support the school at every opportunity. I thought that's what our taxes were for, but I was obviously mistaken. At the beginning of the year, we're asked for money to buy books, or furnish the classrooms, or replace the one computer in the classroom or various other things. (At Paula's kindergarten, also part of the state education system, all parents are asked at the beginning of the year to donate 10 rolls of toilet paper, 4 of kitchen paper, two bars of soap and a packet of serviettes).

Now that they're 11 (apparently) Bogi's class gets various responsibilities thrust upon them. They have a class president and a treasurer and I don't know, possibly a witchfinder general to boot. Anyway, Bogi got elected (meaning nominated and appointed before she know what was happening) as the treasurer. This means that basically all the kids contribute some money (from their parents obviously) at the beginning of the semester and she takes care of it and has to buy things when the need arises (this as you can imagine is a shit job - you have to account for every bani, you have to chase your classmates up for their contributions, you have to keep very accurate records, and you have to do all the shopping and carrying stuff to school).

Now you may imagine that this is money that gets used for parties or excursions, or some special events for the kids. No, it's money that is seemingly used to top up the various classroom needs that ought to be covered by education funding. At christmas for example, Bogi was charged with going to buy coloured cardboard so the kids could make cards.

This reached its nadir a few weeks ago, when Bogi mentioned that she needed to go out and buy a battery. A single AA battery. I asked why, and she said it was because the clock in the classroom had stopped and needed a new battery. I lost it. Thankfully not at Bogi herself or not in any way that made her think I had lost it at her. But at the system, the school, the teacher, the whole bloody ridiculous, messed up, collapsing, desperate, stupid, backward, crappy system that valued education so little that when the battery in the classroom clock ran out the kids had to replace it. It was an epic rant, which I cannot possibly do justice to here, but if it had been videoed I feel quite sure could have been a YouTube hit.

How the hell is this country going to move forward if there is so little money for education that people are scrapping around to buy paper and batteries and soap to keep their child's school from falling apart?

And rich people pay 16% tax. It's absolutely scandalous.


Maria Pakucs said...

I understand your rage. We are only in first year of gradinita (Samuel calls it rather fancily playschool) so not much pressure yet. The teacher asked for "medium quality" toilet paper so we offered that without much comment. The school system is heart-wrenching indeed, and in a small provincial town you do not even have a choice really. It is more sad that the bright and hard-working children take this pressure most seriously.

ioana said...

Hello, Andy,

I have a story to share: it all started from buying a battery for the clock in the classroom. My daughter, Ana, 11, is in the 5th grade, in what is “intensive English” class, in a normal state school in Bucuresti.
Few weeks ago she asked me that we go and buy a battery; I wanted to pay but she insisted to use her money (from her alocatie). I was convinced it’s for her TV remote and forgot about this, until – at the next meeting with parents, Doamna Diriginta said that there are big plans ongoing about our classroom and my daughter created a big stir.
What happened: the clock stopped working; nobody seemed bothered except Ana; she waited a couple of days, allowing adults to deal with it and then decided she will take care of this – and not only! She brought the battery at school and convinced a taller boy from 7th grade to replace it. Then she made a list with all things in the class that were not so great: the old blackboard, a spot on the floor, boring empty walls. It seems then she browsed on net and found a company selling “magnetic boards” and asked them for price estimate; she added a sticker found on the street about “raschetat parchet” and initiated a creative contest for what to put on the walls. Apparently she sent all these info on mail to Doamna Diriginta and then asked Domnul Director to organize a contest in all school, about which classroom looks best. Domnul Director happily agreed.
Can’t explain the way all parents looked at me; many of them clearly bothered that their children will be involved into something else than homework.
Because, guess what: the children were very enthusiastic and they organized themselves in teams for doing different stuff. And nobody told parents about this.
Back home, I asked Ana why she never asked my advice or help or not even tell me about it and anyway, how come she came up with such an intricate plan.
She left me speechless, saying: “but you would have done the same; you always say not to wait for things to be done by others, but move you ass and do it yourself; and we can do this without adults help; you’re always so busy anyway”.
I have to mention that at home, her room is a huge mess.
Right: it’s not children job to take care of their class; it’s not parents’ job to pay for all basics a school needs to function normally.
And my daughter is right: I gave up long ago to the hope that somebody will help me or even encourage me to do something. But I’ve noticed that if you really want something to happen, you focus your energy on it and soon people will gravitate around you, doing what you ask them to do and bringing their contribution. Or maybe I was just very lucky.