President puts money where his mouth is

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Leader is handing his salary over to rural schools in a bid to preserve traditions

If David Cameron announced that he was going to bequeath his monthly salary to a handful of UK schools to ensure their contribution to "local culture" could be maintained, it would no doubt raise a few eyebrows.

But that is precisely what Latvian president Andris Berzins has been doing since he came to power in July.

Though earning only about pound;1,850 a month, a relatively modest sum for a man in his position, he began handing this over regularly to schools in rural areas to preserve traditions that have become fragile in the modern, largely urban world.

Visiting Medumi secondary in the south-eastern Daugavpils region in late October, he said he was donating his pay to it partly because of a desire to stem migration from rural areas to larger cities in Latvia and other nations.

"Investment in education ensures long-term development in Latvia," he said. "I attended a small rural school myself, and I know that the foundations that are created for people by their first schools are the most important ones."

Yet, when politicians start being philanthropic, cynicism is a predictable reaction from some quarters. The question of why his generosity is necessary in the first place, given that most governments would normally be expected to foot the bill for a school's well-being, also arises.

Liga Krapane, press adviser to the president, assured TES that "general educational institutions in Latvia are financed from state and local government budget funds" but that President Berzins' decision was taken "by him and him alone".

She added: "As the rural population of Latvia shrinks, many schools are facing serious shortages of pupils. Experience shows that the closure of rural schools has a very direct effect on lower population numbers in a specific territory, with many people leaving for good."

Responding to the sceptical view that Mr Berzins might be trying to court favour among the electorate in the Latvian village community from which he hails, Ms Krapane said that he had only just won a four-year term to serve as president, so his contributions had "nothing to do with a desire to receive support and votes from people in rural regions".

He has also adopted a decidedly "hands-off" approach to what the schools decide to do with his salary.

"Mr Berzins delegates freedom to the school in terms of using the money, as long as it does so in accordance with Latvian laws," Ms Krapane told TES.

That said, the president wants Latvia's education system to become more efficient, she added. One of his priorities is to encourage more pupils to stay at school until 18, so they can have more success in moving on to higher education or into work.

If he wants to fund that plan himself, he is going to need very deep pockets.

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