BNN INTERVIEW | Leader of school principals: “Ministry of Education has lost its brilliance”

This conversation can be subtitled “Interview with a hostage”. Sigulda State Gymnasium Principal Rūdolfs Kalvāns provides insights on the conflict between the teachers’ trade union and the ministry representing the sector.
He reminds that the Latvian Trade Union of Education and Science Employees (LIZDA) and Ministry of Education and Science (IZM) are only two of the sides involved in the conflict. Two other co-implementers of the education policy – school principals and municipalities – Kalvāns represents as “two-in-one”. He is also the president of the Latvian Association of Education Leaders (LIVA) and a deputy of Sigulda Council (he also ran for the Saeima).
The principal-politician called IZM’s chronic weakness as one of the main problems for Latvia’s education system. The other is the ever-growing deficit of teachers. He categorically disputes, however, the recently stirred public opinion that just this year the quality of education in our schools will have fallen markedly.
Kalvāns holds a PhD in management sciences, basic speciality of pedagogical education – informatics teacher. He turned out to be an interesting conversationalist, because LIVA leader’s efforts to be objective and technocratic coincides with live language and gestures.
So just for clarity’s sake – are you a member of LIZDA?
-No, I’m not. I have a personal and subjective argument: I believe a school principal qualifies as an employer. LIZDA as a typical trade union represents employers, but we are the “other half” – and this lets us work together rather well. I would say as a school principal it would be slightly odd to be a member of LIZDA. There are school principals like that or were like that before taking office – there are different considerations.
How would you – a man from the side – would comment on LIZDA’s objectives, operations and results? Are the interests of your hired workers defended sufficiently?
I am positive the most about LIZDA’s capacity. An enormous organisation with a budget for it. They have a very capable office (unlike us, LIVA), where people work full-time, and they have

a fantastic capacity to perform complicated estimates,

which allows them to compete with the ministry’s estimates. They do good work! We help as much as we can as LIVA and Latvian Union of Local Governments. We help them perform negotiations, calculations and general research. But LIZDA does the lion’s share of work.
We, the leaders, can help cool heads down in moments when blood boils and people become too emotional, or we prove to others that things aren’t as bad as they look.
Does a county council deputy’s mandate give any additional advantages to work as a school principal?
-The mandate of a rank and file deputy – definitely not. This is not something that exists in Latvian municipal political culture. This isn’t the case for the Saeima either. Now full-time council chairmen have posts and influence.
Perhaps the only advantage is not in terms of influence, but in information exchange. As members of the coalition, we, deputies, are closer to decision-making. I can justify my opinions more objectively. I can also look past the “My school, my needs, nothing else interests me!” position.
Looking back at your recent announcement about LIZDA and IZM making school principals hostages: do you have any complaints about the trade union?
-I don’t know if they are really complaints… It’s a rather strong word! I would say this though: we invite both sides – both, not just LIZDA, but IZM as well! – to agree on a compromise. Even though it may be painful for both. Currently, as far as I know, each side wants to maintain its position to the end.

I believe the ministry should give more ground.

This is an agony that goes on all the time – and this is not just about this ministry’s office. It was the same for previous ministries!
The policy is put together by the minister’s office instead of the ministry – if it’s still not clear to anyone in Latvia [laughs], let’s keep in mind that… Krišjānis Kariņš is not the one responsible for directly forming the country’s policy. Each sector’s policy is managed by the respective minister’s office, their advisors and ministers personally.
And so the compromise bar should be lower: “Alright, we provide what is requested [by LIZDA], swallow our grudge, forget and move forward! We are not so insanely principled!”
The fight for some kind of absolute financial fairness goes on all the time – stubbornness of sorts. Honestly the sector in general cannot understand why there is this stubbornness. But the expectations from schools and teachers are well-known: “If you are the ministry, then give us what we want!”
It sounds very primitive, but we don’t need a billion! Let’s stop fighting over two billions! This is just splitting hairs – “who made the mistake in Excel” – LIZDA or IZM. This is just laughable.
By giving LIZDA what they want a peaceful resolution was found – we can now move on to other reforms!
Vanaga’s recent “move” – an offer for a peaceful resolution addressed to [Minister of Education and Science] Anda Čakša – seems to the public as a victory for LIZDA. What do you think?
-No, it’s too far to say it’s a victory. Whether or not there could be a winner at all is the question. We shouldn’t look at the education sector in such a way…
There are definitely losers – students and their exam scores!
This is a bit too emotional… People should keep in mind that any peaceful resolution – in a real war or a symbolic one – is related to various criteria. But it’s unclear if the criteria for a peaceful resolution between LIZDA and IZM could be completed. Everything is being postponed and re-scheduled in an effort to buy some time.
However, September is just around the corner. Principals have no idea what budget’s they can expect to work with, what workloads to assign to teachers.
What would you do differently than [Minister of Education and Science] Anda Čakša or wouldn’t do at all if you were in her shoes as minister?
-This is a fairly expansive question… First of all, and this is what I said during my Saeima election campaign, I would do this: strengthen the capacity, capacity of the ministry itself, the leading department of the industry, administrative (not political!) administration and its reputation in society, among teachers and school directors, rectors of higher education institutions. Strengthen the reputation of the ministry in the eyes of public administration colleagues – including the leading partner, the State Chancellery.
The ministry has catastrophically lost its brilliance, its attractiveness as a leading work place in this sector and its ability to attract (or rather deter) new colleagues. There are many administrative changes, changes in the management staff, as well as many delays and calculation-related frustration.
Everything is because the ministry has been weakened in the past decade. The previous brilliance, attractiveness and aura of a leading institution is long gone…
I believe the minister should be their respective sector’s leader, not be a supervisor and merely follow the coalition’s political agenda. They have to reinforce their “house”, strengthen the people. But maybe it’s a utopia.
There are sectors in which this problem is not as apparent. Certain ministers are allowed to devote themselves more to politics and build they own sky castles. This is because they generally have a stronger office to implement their ideas. But they don’t do it alone. The minister’s office only generates pretty ideas and pushes them forward, but its the ministry that does everything with assistance from its subordinate institutions.
What would you say about claims that suggest the quality of education has gone down tragically? Some say the low exam results are the direct consequence of the conflict between the trade union and the ministry.
-As a man who is deeply involved in the sector, I definitely disagree with that assessment. The suggested idea is too emotional, and people should be careful with that! If we look at previous exams, I wouldn’t say there have been any severe changes in student’s exam scores.
Mathematics, which has been the focus of many criticisms for decades, has always been at the bottom. We can dream and think about all kinds of causes for this, but… it’s not like its low now and had been at some peak before…
But two years ago we had covid!
Well, yes, three or for years ago… Scores jumped around a bit. This has always been and always will be the case. The other side society avoid going into – is that the score measurement methodology has changed. People who don’t work in education see only the numbers: “35%, 36%… Oh, that’s more!” That’s all people see. Just like “black – white, while – black”.
People should not look at education and other social processes in black and white [changes tone]: “This is high and this is low! This is good and this is bad!”
There is no drop. Yes, there is some for some groups of students, but others are on a rise. As usual, exam scores in mathematics are moderately lower than the rest. But it’s the same for Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Sweden if we look at OECD estimates. We will never see score in mathematics to go up as far as English or Latvian language exams. There are other problematic sciences to look at – programming, chemistry and physics.

This is a peculiarity of our human brain, and there is nothing we can change.

There are some that score a “nine” in mathematics, but they are in the minority. But there is nothing we can do! The majority of the people are focused more on “soft”, social humanitarian sciences. This is how we’re built. The only thing we can do is implement a simplified mathematics exam to make it seem exam scores are up!
I’m not saying I’m happy with the quality of education in Latvia – but let’s not make it into some tragic exception when compared with the year before. Emotions are at their peak because money is on the table, as is the school network’s reformation. This is the first time when Latvia had major 9th grade centralised exams. This is the change that is blamed for everything.
Is there something you think is important to mention?
-Yes, there is a dramatic problem no is talking about at all: the shortage of teachers. This has been a great pain for all school principals for years. Aside from that, working in a school – leading an education institution – is great and interesting.
The deficit keeps going up, and the competition for colleagues is merciless.
Does the conflict between New Riga Theatre and Dailes Theatre pales in comparison with this?
-Yes! We just take teachers away from each other. This is how far we’ve gotten. Forget about the school network, wages and the ministry’s prestige! We need all of it, but if lessons aren’t performed at schools – nothing matters! This is why it would be a topic for a much longer discussion.
When a principal goes on vacation, and principals have to at some point, while there is a shortage of, say, three teachers… This vacation has a sour aftertaste, and upon their return in August they are torn: “What do we do?! What are we supposed to do with mathematics, with physics – who is supposed to teach the children???” You either teach or you don’t; someone will have to work overtime…
This also affects the relations between schools and families. I’ve already said that the principal becomes a hostage in relations between LIZDA and IZM when requesting money. Same thing here – on the one hand there is a family that does not care why there is a shortage of something in a school: “Principal, you have to provide it! How? I don’t care!” On the other hand we have politics, the ministry…
Some parents understand it, but the principal has to explain to others that resources are exhausted. At some point he/she tells them: “You know what? I’ve had enough! That’s it! The school has wages, insurance policies, apartments for staff – but there won’t be chemistry lessons for your child… Don’t yell at me, take your documents and go to a different school!”
This moment has come, and no shouting, no letter-sending to the ombudsman will help.
What do you think is the influence of teachers’ wages on their numbers in schools and the quality of education in general?
-Yes to the first! I won’t speculate about percentage of influence, but higher wages do help with human resource availability. As for the second, I would say the influence is indirect. It is a difficult thing to measure in a long-term perspective. Social research indicates you need at least six years for that. We can measure, say, excise tax and see results immediately. This is not true for education.
Also read: Latvian teachers’ trade union accuses IZM workers of misleading ministry higher-ups