Educational reorganisation causes unrest

In February 1998, demonstrations in each province and a general demonstration in Brussels revealed the displeasure felt by Flemish secondary school teachers with a recent agreement on funding for primary education. The agreement would have had an impact on the funding for secondary education, a reorganisation of which had already been under negotiation for several months. A new agreement, which completed this reorganisation, averted a teachers' strike for the time being, but all is not yet well within the education sector. The formation of "school communities" within secondary education and a new teacher assessment system will continue to generate disruption.

The Belgian system of education is highly complicated. However, first and foremost, since the federalisation of Belgium, the organisation of education has been a regionalised matter - in other words, Flanders and Wallonia control their own education budgets and are responsible for its operation.

The education system distinguishes between four levels: primary education (nursery and primary education, known as primary schools); secondary education (general subjects, technical, vocational and artistic education); higher non-university education (taught in hogescholenor colleges of further education); and university education.

All four levels of education are in urgent need of reorganisation. In all areas there are seen to be too many institutions providing education and, within these, there are too many courses. Moreover, falling numbers of pupils and students are wreaking havoc at the various levels of education. Fewer pupils mean fewer teachers and this simple fact makes any reorganisation a socially sensitive area. In 1997, Wallonia made an attempt at reorganisation, which led to weeks of strikes in secondary education.

The excess of courses and institutions is, however, also related to the fact that education is, for philosophical and ideological reasons, provided by two "networks": the free, Catholic network on the one hand and public education on the other. The free, Catholic network encompasses schools which were initially individually managed by Christian congregations, but which are now jointly represented by the National Confederation of Catholic Education (Nationaal Secretariaat voor het Katholiek Onderwijs/Sécretariat National de l'Enseignement Catholique) - better known by its address, "Guimardstraat" - which also promotes their interests. Public education covers schools which were originally managed and operated either by a city, the municipality, the province or the state (the former Belgian state). Since regionalisation, the Autonomous Council for Public Education (Autonome Raad voor het Gemeenschaps Onderwijs/Conseil Autonome de l'Enseignement Communautaire, ARGO) jointly represents these schools and promotes their interests.

The various primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities receive operating funds from the Minister of Education. This subsidy is regulated by decree. In 1996 the funding of colleges was reorganised and in December 1997 a new decree was issued regarding primary education (known as the "Tivoli agreement", named after the castle where it was concluded). In 1998 it has been the turn of secondary schools, and in 1999 university education will be reorganised.

A series of demonstrations held in February 1998 in each province and a general demonstration in Brussels revealed the displeasure felt by Flemish secondary school teachers with the Tivoli agreement. The main focus of the dispute was the operating funds for education and their fair distribution across the various levels of education and across both networks.

Allocation of education funding

With the decree reforming primary education, which was reorganised in 1997, the Minister decided to allocate it more operating funds. Everyone in the education world thought this was the right decision because primary education had been treated harshly for many years, compared with the other levels of education. The Tivoli agreement, which governed this additional funding amounting to BEF 3.1 billion, did not however clearly describe where this money was to be found. Extra budgetary resources are hard to find. Though the Flemish budget may be better balanced than the federal budget, the purse-strings are being held tightly in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty and the convergence criteria for EU Economic and Monetary Union.

Within the context of the discussions which the Minister for Education held with "Guimardstraat", ARGO and the education trade unions on the subject of reorganising secondary education, it appeared that the Minister wanted to take some of the extra money for primary education from the reorganisation of secondary education. The Minister was able to save BEF 893 million by no longer replacing so-called "auxiliary staff" - wardens/tutors, supervisors, executive secretaries, clerical workers, junior clerical workers and others - when they retired or took early retirement. Furthermore, no longer replacing these staff in the event of long-term sick leave is worth BEF 100 million. Finally, the proposed rationalisation of courses provided some of the necessary money, altogether amounting to BEF 1.8 billion and the loss of 1,400 full-time posts. This plan was well calculated by the Minister, but appeared to leave "educational value" out of the equation. Instead of congratulations and peace in schools, the Minister got a series of demonstrations and a strike notice.

Equal demands

Another disputed measure was the Minister's long-awaited proposal to make equal demands on the two networks regarding operating funds. For many years, the Catholic network had complained about the differences in subsidies per pupil depending on the education network. Each school receives a fixed amount per pupil from the Minister which can be used to pay for the logistical operation of the school. In Catholic education, this annual subsidy fluctuates at around BEF 20,000 per pupil whilst in public education it can amount to BEF 60,000. ARGO puts the difference down to differences in methods of calculation and charging other costs. The Minister, however, who is not from a Catholic background, proposed transferring an amount from the ARGO budget to the Catholic network, in anticipation of a thorough and objective examination of cost-price differences. The Minister received no thanks from public education or from his own political party - on the contrary.

The Minister was forced to "do his homework" all over again, which resulted in the so-called "Dworp agreement" on 12 February 1998. The transfer idea was scrapped, so exactly where primary education will find its additional funding remains to be seen. In anticipation of an objective investigation of cost-price differences, operating funds are being divided using a distribution formula: for every BEF 100 going to public education, BEF 76 will go to the Catholic network (in contrast to BEF 53 under the current ruling).

Rationalisation within school communities

The Dworp agreement also governs other matters important to education and to teachers, some of which will certainly cause controversy once their potential impact is clear within the education world.

  • The Minister is recommending that schools "scale up" by cooperating within "school communities", so as to be able to benefit from the advantages of scale. A permanent teacher for whom no complete package of working hours is available within one school community can be "referred" to another school community which has to bear only 40% of the personnel costs, the other 60% being borne by the "parent school community", which bears chief responsibility for the appointment of this teacher. This financial ruling acts as a "big stick" to force the school communities to deal economically with the appointment of teachers. Dealing economically means that teachers will have to be employed more flexibly and, for example, give lessons in subjects for which they have had less training (a French teacher might have to teach English, for example). The trade unions have already reacted against this financial section of the proposal and called it a "degrading slave trade".
  • The Minister originally also intended to provide for "fixed-envelope" financing within secondary education for all payments relating to operations and personnel, as is the case in the colleges of further education. The purpose of this was to increase awareness of financial responsibility. This idea has, however, been dropped as the "accounts" can still be sent to Brussels. The new distribution formula (see above) and the non-indexing of operating funds for a few years will have to make the necessary economies in terms of the allocation of resources.
  • A teaching function classification system is being introduced, with function descriptions and an assessment system. This assessment system provides for dismissal after two successive "negative" evaluations or after three "unsatisfactory" evaluations. This assessment system will be introduced only after thorough preparation and will be applied first at executive level. Permanent appointment is not yet being entirely reviewed, but it is being seriously eroded.
  • The Minister provides only a limited financial package for replacement in the event of illness because of an assumption that there is too much unwarranted "absenteeism" from schools. The trade unions claim that these restrictions will undoubtedly give rise to stricter checks or increased social pressure and inspection amongst colleagues.

Commentary

For the moment, the Dworp agreement has defused the situation. The "sharp edges" (eg financial cuts in secondary education in favor of primary education) have been taken off the original Tivoli agreement. However, this does not signify lasting social peace in this sector. New evaluation systems for teacher performance and reorganisation in the direction of larger groups of schools will most likely cause more tension (Monique Ramioul, Steunpunt WAV).

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