The education of Icelandic children is facing an ominous threat. Funding to schools is being slashed by municipal authorities, which can only have dire consequences for the current generation of children. So Icelanders have a stark decision to make in the immediate future. In a nutshell, citizens must choose between the welfare of their children and increasing taxes to those who can afford it.
Municipalities face a money crunch because of Iceland’s present-day financial woes. Primary schooling makes up the largest part of municipal spending, so municipal authorities direct their attention there. Thus school authorities are being given an ultimatum to cut costs. These cuts are so severe as to blight the education of Iceland’s children.
The recently released document entitled ‘Frekari hagræðing í starfi grunnskólanna’ (“Further optimisation in the operation of Icelandic schools”) released by Samband íslenskra sveitarfélaga (“Association of Icelandic Municipalities”) proposes several strategies for cutting funds to schools. Every one of them lowers the quality of learning. Most are also—at present—illegal.
The proposed strategies are six in number. The first four rely on getting “temporary” exemptions from education laws, and from the official curriculum (Aðalnámskrá grunnskóla). To summarise:
1. Permission to shorten weekly instruction time.
The so-called “5-4-3 Way” refers to the number of hours per week groups of children shall have shaved from classroom time. Grades 8-10 shall lose 5 hours (14%); grades 5-7 lose 4 hours (11%); and grades 1-4 lose 3 hours (10%).
2. Permission to “transfer weekly instruction time between weeks and months”.
This seems to be a numbers game used to cut the required hours of classroom instruction. This is combined with cutting resources to transportation, school maintenance and food.
3. Permission to shorten the school year from 180 to 170 days.
This is self-explanatory.
4. Permission to decrease elective courses for young people.
Regulations require that young people have up to a third of their schedule composed of electives (courses tailored to interest or vocation). It is suggested here that authorities take advantage of “maximum flexibility” in the laws in order to reduce the costs associated with such courses.
5. That changes be made to the proportional distribution between subject areas and subjects.
This way does not involve changing laws or regulations, but rather reinterpreting the official curriculum in such a manner that the current standardised schedule – hopefully the best possible schedule – be abandoned for a cheaper schedule.
6. That changes be made to the rights of primary school students to education at the secondary school level.
Senior primary school students who excel in certain areas currently have the option of taking courses in those areas at the secondary level (“Menntaskóli”). The municipalities and the state share the expense. However, the government now makes no provision for them. It is pointed out in this document that such advanced education cannot be maintained under current laws; but falls short of proposing that it be cut.
In the title ‘Further optimisation in the operation of Icelandic schools’, “optimisation” is my translation of the Icelandic word “hagræðing”, which could as easily be translated as the doublethink term “economising”. The word gives the impression of finding a more efficient way of doing things, but is in fact a technocratic euphemism for withering on the branch. To this “economy”, money has more value than children. And “optimisation” means making, in human terms, the least optimum decision. Hagræðing.
The Association of Local Authorities in Iceland, by presenting the six proposals mentioned above, somehow avoids making the obvious proposal: no cuts to children.
As of their meeting of 21 January, SAMFOK (“The Association of Primary School Parents in Reykjavík”) anticipates that proposed cuts to schools in Reykjavík will harm their work, with unforeseeable consequences for children. The parents say that previous cuts have already gone far beyond acceptable limits, therefore affecting the childrens’ quality of life.
The parents predict a decreased ability to watch over students, leading to an increase in school bullying. Children who need more help with will get less help. Gifted children will not get work appropriate to their abilities; and so on. “Children have only one childhood,” they write. “… It will be impossible, later, to rewind and compensate for what has been taken from them.”
These cuts are unacceptable to the parents. They love their children. However, these cuts are acceptable to municipal governments. Why?
Accepting the proposition that children are sacred, the parents rightly protest to the municipalities. The municipalities have no money. Ergo, the municipalities must get more money. However, the government has no money to give them. So the government must get more money.
This is where we run into a roadblock. The obvious solution is for government to increase taxes to those who can afford it in order to save the children from harmful cuts.
Enter the neoliberal mouthpiece, with the standard baseless dogma about the inherent evil of taxes. Greed is good. To such people, economic austerity is good for everybody but their true constituency: the wealthy.
But, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The municipalities must now abandon harmful cuts to schools and turn to the government for more money. They should not squirm and try to find ways out of their obligations.
It turn, the government must oblige the municipalities by providing the money they need to maintain the schools at a high standard. Those who have the money must pay up through taxes. To do otherwise is to cannibalise the future of Iceland’s children.
Guy Stewart is a teacher in Reykjavík
The statement referred to from SAMFOK is available here [.pdf link] The document from the Association of Local Authorities in Iceland is available here [.pdf link].
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