Under President Mikheil Saakashvli, schools in Georgia made progress in teaching English and cracking down on bribery. Now, following Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s rise to power, the Georgian government is taking on a new challenge in reforming the education system – overhauling the state-run school security service known as the “mandaturebi.”
The mandaturebi, or monitors, started policing Georgian public schools in 2010, operating as a branch of the Ministry of Education and Science. More than just unformed hall monitors, members of the service were initially portrayed as a quick fix to the pervasive problem of violence in schools; in particular, knife fights and aggressive bullying. But some critics raised concerns that the monitoring service had another purpose – to help the powerful Interior Ministry keep tabs on school administrators and teachers in an effort to ensure that the educational system promoted the interests of incumbent authorities.
Despite its controversial past, Georgia’s new education minister, Giorgi Margvelashvili, is opting to reform the program instead of shutting it down. The original idea of school monitors was valid, he said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org, but its “implementation” was politicized.
Former Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin, who introduced the monitor program, left Georgia following the October 1 parliamentary elections that ended in defeat for Saakashvili’s United National Movement. He could not be reached for comment.
A change of management and an opportunity for school students to design the monitors’ uniforms are among the initial steps to ensure that the monitors “will not be a sort of KGB of the schools,” said Margvelashvili, a former rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs in Tbilisi. He claims that parents and schools support the initiative to use the ministry monitors to keep schools safer.
School monitors who spoke to EurasiaNet.org emphasized that their efforts have made Georgia’s public schools (and some private schools) much safer. Based on reporting by the country’s 1,400 monitors, fights decreased by 45.8 percent over the course of the 2011-2012 academic year.
Tsitsana Tsereteli, the principal of Tbilisi’s Public School #54, applauded the monitors for making a positive contribution. “The children are friends with them; they have a very close relationship,” she said.
Reform efforts are focusing on the relationship between monitors and school staff. By relying heavily on the mandaturebi for discipline, the program tacitly weakened the authority of school principals and teachers, educational reform specialist Simon Janashia asserted. Some administrators reportedly became wary of correcting or otherwise trying to assert control over the monitors. Georgian education professionals insist there are cases in which teachers and principals were fired based on denunciations contained in monitor reports.
The “mandaturebi program was not only – and, one could even argue, not primarily -- about violence: it was about control of the schools,” said Janashia, an associate professor of education at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University.
Monitors interviewed by EurasiaNet.org maintain they have been careful not to cross the line between monitoring school safety and monitoring school administrators and teachers. “Our business now is prevention of some bad situation; not to teach someone – the teachers and the parents themselves teach,” said Public School #54 monitor Shorena Lashkia, who has worked in the program since 2010.
The monitor program’s newly appointed director, Levan Abashidze, stresses that the monitors now are being retrained to focus only on safety. “We will work only … [on] the prevention of crimes and the safety of children. We will not interfere in the school’s administration or [with] the teachers,” Abashidze said. “That created unpleasantness … and all the rumors and dissatisfaction stemmed from that the mandaturebi were interfering with their work.”
Critics contend that conflict-resolution programs for students would have a greater impact on improving any given school’s learning environment than the installation of more video surveillance cameras, fences or other physical security measures. Right now, Georgian teachers are relying on monitors to restrain students’ behavior, but not to show them how to get along with one another, said Janshia.
“[Pupils] are not learning any more how to deal with conflicts, how to communicate,” continued Janashia. “It is possible both to cultivate values and behaviors.”
Tamar Mosiashvili, a school safety specialist at the Civic Development Institute, a local non-government organization, said that the mandaturebi are just one part of what’s needed. The education ministry, she said, has “to see the whole problem.”
Margvelashvili said the ministry is developing a policy to nurture good citizenship, but did not elaborate. “Our attitude is we have to train a new generation of students who do not commit crime not because there is a sort of overlooking eye, but because they are law-abiding citizens,” he said.
This story was amended on December 14, 2012 to correct the last name of Public School #54 monitor Shorena Lashkia.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.