Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A story

This is an entirely fictional post about a made up country which is not in any way based on reality, no sirree.

Let's imagine there is a country. We'll call it Morania. This country has a number of ethnic minority groups living in it, but the vast majority of the population are Moranian. One of these ethnic minorities is particularly sizeable, making up well over 5% of the total population of Morania. We'll call this group Gamars.

One of the Moranian majority's complaints about the Gamar minority is that they never really see themselves as Moranian and cling very tightly to their sense of ethnic identity (as Gamars). This is a not unreasonable observation in many ways, and while the Gamars are more or less integrated into society they keep a certain amount of separation from the Moranian majority. One good example of this would be that Gamars have been very involved politically in Morania, but always within the context of their own ethnic Gamar party.

One way in which there really does seem to be a clear integration is in sport. Many Gamar athletes have represented Morania at their chosen sport, and this is never seen as odd (by either group). Indeed, a number of Moranian national sporting heroes are from various different ethnic groups (including the Gamars).

So, to get to our story, there was this Gamar sportsman, who was really beginning to make a name for himself, and he became an integral member of the Moranian national team for his age group. There was no conflict in his mind in being part of the Moranian team, even though he regarded himself as Gamar. So successful was he that it would be no great exaggeration to suggest that this athlete was possibly the best in the particular Moranian national side he played for. Recently there was an international tournament in which Morania participated. The National side did extremely well, and finished better than anyone expected before the tournament began. Our hero performed out of his skin and did remarkably well, in one or two games carrying the team to victory, and always being the best player in the squad. Everybody around the team was congratulating him and remarking on what a great player he had become. It was clear to everyone at the tournament (both in the Moranian squad and in the other squads) that he was one of the best players at the tournament, and certainly the best Moranian player.

However at the end of the tournament the top player on each team was given an award. For the Moranian squad this award (to everyone's surprise, even the recipient's) was given to another player - of Moranian ethnicity. Afterwards, members of the team's management and those responsible for making the award approached our hero and said (effectively) "Sorry son, that's just the way it's got to be". It was made very clear to him and others around that he had deserved the award but that the people responsible felt that the award needed to go to a Moranian player.

It would be (if this story were in any way true of course) be a very upsetting tale, which would really go to show how even in areas of better integration between Moranians and Gamars, there are still a number of problems. And also would show how this barrier between the two communities is not merely something which the Gamars have erected. Luckily however, I have just come up with this story off the top of my head.

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.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Romanian Education System (1)

I have three major things I want to say about the Romanian education system, of which this post is the first. Up until this year I have been only partially aware of some of the problems that exist within the system, because until this year my daughter Bogi was in the first 4 grades. You see there are 3 major and clearly separate bits in the system. Grades 1-4, which are essentially the equivalent to primary school in the UK, where you basically have one teacher (or in some cases, Bogi's included, a team of 2) for more or less every subject with one or two exceptions. Then grades 5-8, in which you start doing more subjects and having specialised teachers. Finally there's grades 9-12, in which you are studying towards your school leaving exams and so on, and preparing (in some cases) for university. [Switching schools at either one - or both - of the two milestone points above is fairly normal, and often unavoidable]

Now, there might be a few problems in grades 1-4, but like primary school it's sort of not desperately important in the grand scheme of things. School at this age, in a sense, is about learning how to read and write and to be part of a class, and a few other basic skills. It seems to work pretty well in my experience.

But now Bogi is in Grade 5, some of the real problems with the Romanian education system have become increasingly apparent. The first of these is this:

Pretty much everything you do in these 4 years garners you a grade. This is a score out of 10. All these marks get tallied up and they count towards the final grade that you end up with at the end of the 8th grade. This grade is extremely important as it basically selects which high school you end up going to. Good grade -> good high school, Low grade -> not such a good high school. There is an exam at the end of the 8th grade which goes towards this too, but the whole system is terrible.
  1. It means that kids are under constant pressure from the age of 11 onwards. Pressure comes from teachers, parents, and of course the students themselves. They are constantly being reminded about how important these grades are. Getting a 7 one day, for example, is seen as a disaster
  2. The (effective) streaming of kids at the age of 15, is counter to everything I believe about good education practice
  3. The whole thing makes school about competition. There are a limited number of places available in the "best" high schools, so not only are you striving to get one of those places, but you are also on some level trying to squeeze out your classmates. (Not consciously I am sure, however)
  4. It means that everything is geared towards grades and marks, and not necessarily towards learning stuff
  5. All the evidence is pointing towards the idea that grading and testing does not aid learning (in general), and certainly not in the case where everything is graded
Just to add another layer of idiocy to this, not only do you get these marks in the academic subjects but you even get them in things like "gym" (or what we used to call PE). Now, I am fully in favour of kids doing PE and that being part of the curriculum, but grading them on it? It's absolutely mental.

Just to be clear, when I say that these are failings of the Romanian education system, I am not comparing this with other education systems. To my knowledge the UK education system also has major problems these days with an obsession with grades, and standardised tests, and for all I know has a very similar system. I'm just saying that this (as the first of my major complaints) is a huge problem in Romania. [I'm pretty sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen in Finland - the gold standard of global education systems[1]]

I want to be able to tell my daughter that if she gets a bad mark it doesn't matter. I want her to learn from the experience of turning in something that doesn't meet her own standards (as opposed to the state's). I want her to learn stuff at school, and to be aware that this is the purpose of it. And I want her to have fun, and enjoy her childhood. But the system is telling her something different. The system is making her beat herself up, and cry when she doesn't get a 10, and ask to stay up until 10pm or beyond, or ask me to wake her up at 6 so she can do more homework before she goes to school. And while we try and protect her from the system, and make sure she understands that it is not the most important thing in the world, and while she is bright and pretty good at all her school subjects, so it's not like she's being penalised in terms of her future by the system, I do feel like it is a really really bad way of educating kids.

Footnote (I know, look at me and my mad & fancy HTML skillz)
Some links for stuff on Finland's education system 1 2 3

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Singing in tongues

Look! I exist! I blog. Therefore I am?

It has come to my attention that more and more Romanian pop bands/singers/"projects"/entities of the sort entitled "DJ X feat. Flange" are singing their ditties in English. This is a great pity for a number of reasons:
  1. They almost invariably sound absolutely terrible. This is nearly, but not quite, universally true for all bands. Sing in your native language, and it sounds good. In English (unless of course that is your first language) and it nearly always sounds like vomit-inducing pap. To give the worst example, I really truly advise you NOT to click on this link and hear the absolute awfulness of "Lovely Smile" from late last year. If you ignored me and are now cleaning up this morning's breakfast, well, you should listen. The only non-native speaker of English and get away with it is Shakira, and she gets away with it because, well, she could get away with more or less anything I think.
  2. Romanian is a language that really works well in song. It's a great shame to sing in simplified sickly English when something about the rhythms and rhymes of Romanian make it such a good language for songs.

Yet despite these compelling reasons (yes I know that's only 2, but 2 is a number), more and more bands are opting for the Euro-beat stylings of songs about lahv and sexy gaehls. It's quite depressing and has meant that recently I have switched radio stations in the car to one that plays a slightly older mix.

Now, it's quite possible (if indeed anyone happens across this blog after so long away) that someone is going to point out that for a Romanian band to make it big (or at least sell a few records in Belarus or Latvia) they have to record in English, but I would counter that by pointing out that the biggest and most successful Romanian record of recent times (and quite possibly ever in history) was Dragostei din Tei (which you may know as "that Numa Numa Yay song") , which was sung - yes - in Romanian. So ha. That's stumped you, no doubt.

In an interesting aside (well interesting to me, at least), while Romanian is a language which sounds really good in song, yet Romanians seem hell bent on singing in English, Hungarian, which really isn't a good language for singing, seems to go the opposite way around. Very rarely do Hungarian bands sing in English (in fact I only know of two examples, the utterly risible Speak, and the really very amusing and good "Hello Tourist" by Emil Rulez - and the latter is in English for a good reason). Indeed not only do Hungarian bands not sing in English, but they actually go the extra mile and translate English (and other) songs into Hungarian and repackage them. Which is taking the dubbing obsession a stage too far.

As an aside to that aside, while Hungarian doesn't really work in song to my mind (or to my ear), it works absolutely superbly in poetry. Something about the staccato rhythms of it really make poetry sound fantastically rhythmic and intense. You don't even need to know a word of Hungarian to appreciate it in my opinion - listen to this Petofi Sandor poem, for example, or this by Arany Janos