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History keeps them safe
OUR POST-TROIKA world is meant to be a leaner, meaner place, where waste is cut away and cold, hard-headed logic holds sway.
Amongst the many cuts in budget our international lenders have demanded in return for a bailout, those imposed on the education ministry must stand as amongst the hardest to enforce because schools are perceived as the guardians of our culture and history. And with that comes the heavy burden of decidedly illogical emotional baggage.
Cuts in education force tough choices as was made clear this week when teachers protested at the House against austerity measures that could translate into hundreds of lost jobs for contract teachers. The education budget for 2013, meanwhile, has been slashed by 7.5 per cent or 78 million euros to 966.9 million euros.
Nowhere is the conflict between hard logic and emotional, historical attachment apparently more evident than in two primary schools in the old city of Nicosia which the Sunday Mail visited this week.
Just outside the city walls on the busy Stasinou avenue stands one of the country’s best-known and prestigious primary schools: the grand, imposing Elenion primary school with just 59 students.
Within easy walking distance a bit further to the east is Ayios Antonios primary school with 96 students. Choose to turn left into the city walls and the windy narrow streets will soon take you to the primary schools of Phaneromeni with its 93 students or Ayios Kassianos that has only 58 students.
Although these primary schools are maintaining these modest numbers, they are not growing, as fewer local children now live within the old town. These schools were built for an earlier time when Nicosia’s population was still focused in or around the old city.
As a sign of its reluctance to do the obvious and amalgamate schools into more viable units, just this week, the education ministry decided to place a moratorium on transfers from those schools to others elsewhere in Nicosia, to stop numbers from declining.
Efforts are also made to inform and - even encourage - those who work in the old city to enrol their children in the schools.
For the head teachers of the two smallest schools, Elenion and Ayios Kassianos, closing down or joining forces is quite simply not an option.
As a sign of her determination, Ayios Kassianos’ head teacher and former pupil, Flora Tsiola-Kepola, personally found 15 students for the first grade.
Kepola’s love for her school is infectious. She shows me old relics: notes from the school’s first head teachers, a punishment record book, beautiful photographs she paid to have printed from the press and information office for a school celebration.
She took the time to track down nuggets of history and write them down for the Sunday Mail. The formerly all-girls school had 148 students in 1928-1929 and 211 students in 1940-41. In 1941, the military used the building while Nicosia was evacuated but in 1942-1943, 266 students returned to the premises in what is now the buffer zone. During the intercommunal fighting of 1964, the school was abandoned and its 182 students were housed in a private home. Its present premises are basic, cramped and unimposing and in sharp contrast to the crumbling beauty of the original built in 1923.
That building - not used since 1964 - can be seen on the edge of the buffer zone standing behind vegetation grown over what used to be a paved road. The building is in an obvious state of disrepair, a ghost of its past self.
As far Tsiola-Kepola is concerned the school’s present location is only temporary, even after 48 years. “The school is in the buffer zone, waiting,” she said.
“The remains of the school are crumbling,” she said, adding that Ayios Kassianos is a reminder of a historical thread that must not be cut.
“We must not let go of these historical schools as we had to let go of the Ayios Kassianos school building. We owe it to our history to hold on to them,” Kepola said.
But - cool logic rears its ugly head - schools even for 58 pupils are expensive and need equipment, photocopiers, computers and the like, that along with the cost of books comes to “several hundred thousands,” a year according to the head of the education ministry’s primary education Elpidoforos Neocleous.
One teacher costs the state on average between €30,000 and €35,000 a year with social insurance contributions etc., Neocleous said.
So should we be looking at merging these smaller schools, like those in old Nicosia that are so close to each other, to at least limit the inevitable expenses that come in tow regardless of school size? According to the education ministry, small though they are Ayios Kassianos and the Elenion are viable institutions.
“The legislation says that in order to shut down, the school has to have fewer than 15 students,” Neocleous said.
Fifteen is a low threshold and though the education ministry would be within the bounds of the law in keeping such small numbers, still a school of 16 students seems too small to function properly. And although Neocleous made it clear there was no intention to close down the old Nicosia schools, he did concede that small schools in rural areas would be problematic for students and they did close the rural schools down when possible.
But he said, “because [the old Nicosia] schools have a satisfactory number of students we won’t close them down. On the contrary we help them out”.
That help accords a special status for the historically important Elenion where, however small its classes might be, they are kept intact and are not combined with other classes. Only one other school shares that honour, the one in Paphos’ isolated village of Pomos. In all other cases, the ministry has been enforcing regulation stating that when the number of students drops below 20 in primary classes, classes should be combined, Neocleous said. So if there are 11 students in first and second grade, a combined class is formed instead of having two separate classes taught by two different teachers.
But at any rate, the Nicosia schools in question “have 60 students more or less, they are in separate classes, the children are socialised, and benefit. In rural areas, there we encourage the creation of district schools,” Neocleous said.
Two examples are the district primary schools in the Nicosia district of Asinou that now has 100 students from the surrounding villages, and Peristerona with 145 students. In other districts, there is Paphos’ Timi district school with 96 students and in Limassol, Avdimou district school has 58 students.
But in the old Nicosia, the education ministry is not encouraging the creation of a district school and different schools within walking distance of each other stand proud - and separate.
Of these, the Elenion primary school, just outside the city walls, is the grandest.
Founded in 1925 by a well-to-do Nicosia trader, Kostantinos Loizides, the Elenion - originally a boy’s school - is named in honour of Loizides' beloved daughter Eleni who had died young.
The Elenion, built to cater for a once-wealthy and populous area, has a distinguished list of alumni including two former presidents, Glafcos Clerides and Tassos Papadopoulos, and 2010 Noble prize winner Christopher Pissarides, many of whom returned to the school for its often-packed events.
"All graduates adore this school. They have an almost inexplicable love for it," Elenion's head teacher Lia Kitromilides said.
For its head teacher, even though student numbers rarely now top 60, the school is more than the gorgeous stately building that houses it. It is a living organism and the legacy of a man who intended it to be used as a school. Which is why, when the previous education minister attempted to turn the premises into a natural history museum, the storm of protest from parents and its mostly well-connected alumni was swift and fierce. The plan was quickly shelved.
"[Loizides] intended the building to be a school," Kitromilides said, referring to the legal status of the building.
"There's so much work done here... It would be unthinkable to shut down such an educational institution,” she said.
Kitromilides who is in her third year as Elenion's head teacher leads a dedicated, enthusiastic staff.
Beautifully decorated classrooms are a testament to the teachers' efforts to create an interesting environment and the school's central position also means that the students are within walking access of a plethora of museums, Kitromilides said.
Being a small school of 59 students means that students receive special attention, Kitromilides said. Both Ayios Kassianos’ Kepola and Elenion’s Kitromilides spoke of the plethora of projects and activities that their schools are engaged in and the special attention they can pay their students.
For example, the children and the Elenion are part of an ongoing education reform in a real way: the school won a health education competition last year and the work produced for that competition will be part of teaching aid material that all primary schools will be able to benefit from. And the children of both schools are actively involved in the city’s community life. Kepola says that the schools infuse life in the old city. “Abandoning them, would be akin to letting the area decline,” she said.
But are there too many schools in old Nicosia? Should the crisis force us to be more practically minded about them? After all, village schools have been shut down to make way for a more sensible district school. If those children can cheerily get on a school bus to get to classes, could the old Nicosia city children not also happily adapt to one or two bigger schools in their area?
"Each school has its own history, its own culture and status in our country," said Kitromilides.
"I want to believe that the crisis will not result in schools shutting down," she added.
"We love the children and the school very much. Sometimes when I stay in after hours I will walk around asking, 'is there anyone still here?' and out come two or three teachers still working away."