The Debate Over Foreign-Language Schools in Armenia
Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.
— B.F. Skinner
In April 2010, the Armenian government proposed a bill of amendments to the Armenian laws “On Language” and “On General Education.” Existing Armenian legislation didn’t allow teaching and education in general educational institutions on the territory of the Republic of Armenia in any language other than Armenian. The final goal of the proposed amendments is the opening of foreign-language secondary schools, which can be established either with private capital or on the basis of interstate or inter-agency agreements and by the decision of the Armenian government.
According to the initiators of the project — the government representatives — this will help to modernize the Armenian educational system in order to meet the highest international educational standards as well as to strengthen ties between Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Nevertheless, this project initiated active debates in Armenian society.
During the Soviet era, alongside Armenian schools, there were schools where all classes were conducted in the Russian language. In those schools, only such classes as Armenian language and literature were taught in Armenian. The number of Armenian and Russian schools was approximately the same in Yerevan and other large cities. However, in rural areas, most of the schools were Armenian. Within universities, most departments offered instruction in both Armenian and Russian.
In the Soviet years, most of the Armenian intelligentsia received a Russian education, which was considered to be of higher quality. A significant segment of world literature was not translated into the Armenian language, but was available in Russian, which people engaged in intellectual work knew fairly well.
On the tide of public enthusiasm about the liberation and restoration of the national state, the 1990’s were marked by rejection of Russian language and heritage, as well as its usage in public spheres. From 1990 on, all first-grade children in Armenia started their education in the Armenian language and, in 1993, Russian-language schools were completely banned.
Some 20 years later, the initiative of the Government of the Republic of Armenia about opening, or, as some call it — reopening — of foreign-language schools, has again generated considerable public discussion and debate.
The opponents of these ideas organized a public initiative called “We Are Against the Reopening of Foreign-Language Schools” and protested in front of the Armenian Parliament. They are very active in social networks, having a group of the same name on Facebook with more than 3,000 followers, as well as in blogs. Generally, the movement has received widespread public support.
The main arguments of the opponents are the following: first, Armenians must receive their basic education only in the Armenian language; and second, the Armenian secondary educational system itself has too many issues and gaps – namely, the newly imposed 12-year-long public education system was implemented without appropriate curricular adjustments; the educational program itself, as well as the textbooks, are outdated; and state financing is weak, which leads to low salaries in the schools and difficulties with recruitment of professional teaching staff. In the opponents’ opinion, under these circumstances, the Ministry of Education and Science should concentrate its efforts on resolving these problems instead of designing projects and developing new educational programs for foreign-language schools. However, the most important concern is over statements of high-ranking government officials that foreign-language schools will provide a somewhat higher quality of education leading to a situation where education in the Armenian language will be regarded as one of lower quality, and Armenian will become a “secondary” language for people with a foreign education. All this will lead to the loss of Armenia identity in the future, insist the opponents.
Initially, the draft amendments to the law “On General Education” didn’t foresee any limitation on the number of foreign-language schools. In subsequent versions, undoubtedly due to the pressure of public opinion, the government fixed the number of those schools at eleven.
According to the last draft amendments presented for the approval of the Armenian Parliament, “two of the schools will be established as non-state educational institutions and will operate in the cities of Dilijan and Jermuk, at least on the basis of the 6th grade (starting from the 7th grade); nine schools will be established on the basis of interstate and/or inter-agency agreements and will realize third-level international public educational programs.” (“Third-level education” is an official international term for higher education, mostly used in Europe.) The legislation will also limit the number of schools teaching the same foreign language to four.
On December 22, 2010, during an extraordinary session, the Armenian Parliament accepted the above-mentioned draft changes to the bills “On Language” and “On General Education” by a vote of 69 for and 1 against. However, in order to become law, the bills still had to be signed by the President. This parliament decision brought about a new wave of protests, this time in front of the residence of the President of Armenia, with protestors chanting slogans such as “Do not sign.” The opponents asserted that they would not stop their protests against the reopening even if the law comes into force — they are ready to dispute the constitutionality of the amendments as well as their compliance with international conventions signed by the Republic of Armenia.
“Dilijan International School of Armenia” Project
Meanwhile, before any decision on adjustment of the legislation was taken, the challenging project called “Dilijan International School” was launched in April 2010. Plans call for the school to be built in the city of Dilijan, and according to the initiators, “it is going to be the first top-level international boarding school in Armenia and CIS to provide a unique harmonious education for children between ages 13-18. It is planned to merge two excellences: the excellence of the world’s best educational system and that of its location.”
The school is a private philanthropic project involving no state funding, scheduled to open in September 2013. By 2020 the school plans to enroll a total of 600 children, about 200 of whom will be citizens of Armenia. The initiators also expect enrollment of students from the Armenian diaspora, as well as foreign students. According to the project’s website, “It is also planned that 60% of enrollment will be through scholarships.” The language of instruction at the school will be English and, upon completion, students will be issued an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. The majority of the school’s professors will be recruited from abroad, particularly from leading European countries.
According to the Project Initiators, “The school’s students from the Republic of Armenia will study native language and native literature under a program confirmed by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Armenia for the country’s general education schools, which will allow them to successfully enroll in Armenian universities.”
The “Dilijan International School of Armenia” project is being implemented by a multinational and experienced team, with an internationally prominent Board of Trustees, including Tigran Sargsyan, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia (President of the Board), Noubar Afeyan, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Business and CEO and Managing Partner of Flagship Ventures, Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, Armen Sarkissian, former Prime Minister of Armenia and Founding President of Eurasia House International in London, Ruben Vardanian, Troika Dialog Group’s Board Chairman and CEO and one of the prominent financiers in Russia, and others (full list).
The Minister of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia Armen Ashotyan expects the “Dilijan International School” project to be an immensely important investment in Armenia’s educational sector. “For the first time in the history of Armenian statehood, around $100 million are planned to be invested in the educational system. I hope that this initiative will encourage other businessmen and solvent people to invest significant funds in the field of education,” stresses Ashotyan.
Recently, the final legislative step in favor of the reopening of foreign language schools in Armenia was taken. On January 19, 2011 the President of Armenia signed the bills, thus giving them the force of law.