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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greece’s education scandal

An EU member state says it does not have enough school places for the children living there, even as it spends millions on walls around refugee camps, and billions on military equipment.

Education is a right, not a privilege. It is not something to be ‘delivered if possible’, but not to be worried about if not.

‘It is the legal responsibility of every nation to ensure all children within its borders can and do attend classes. It is a legal and moral duty, and one of the simplest to understand of all pragmatic measures. Greece – including all of us – can and must do better.’

Children from 94 countries now ‘attend’ Greek schools, according to data from the Greek Ministry for Education.

Kathimerini (Greece) interprets the figures as meaning that 26,015 children in Greek schools ‘were born outside of Greece’ but this seems extraordinarily unlikely as the largest number by far are ‘Albanian’ children, of whom 15,532 were in either primary or secondary education.

To start with, the vast majority of these children in secondary schools somewhat ‘artificially inflate’ the sense of ‘challenge’ facing the Greek education system: there has not been a significant influx of Albanian people into Greece in the last decade, meaning that at the very least most of these children will have been through most or all of their primary education in Greece, so they are fluent Greek speakers and are not a ‘challenge’ in the same way some other youngsters may be in a country with a limited number of translators in some languages.

Equally, because of the Greek method of assigning ‘nationality’ (Greek citizenship is not granted to children of non-Greeks at birth, and in most cases not until those children choose it, at age 18), it is far from clear that all 26,015 children actually were ‘born outside of Greece’ rather than simply ‘to non-Greek parents’.

In any case, 26,015 children counts for around two per cent of the (roughly) 1.3m children in Greek schools – itself roughly 12.5 per cent of Greece’s population.

This is significantly lower than the official ‘foreign’ population of Greece, which is 7.1 per cent of the total population.

That is, and not to put too fine a point on it, Greece has a remarkably low number of ‘foreign’ residents (including those who have gained citizenship: the 7.1 per cent figure includes everyone born outside of Greece or born in Greece to foreign parents), and an even lower (proportionally and actually) number of ‘foreign’ school pupils.

But it is reasonable to note a challenge. Because after the ‘Albanian’ children, the next highest number (1,059) are from Afghanistan, Georgia (600), Iraq (561) and Syria (481).

At the other end of the scale, there are single digit numbers of students from Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Rwanda, Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago and Vietnam.

We should be very careful not to generalise too much: youngsters growing up in Greece who arrived from Chile, for example, may well be more likely to have reliable access to the internet and Greek television than, perhaps, a young family in a refugee camp in Greece: that is, some children are probably more ‘immersed’ in Greek culture and language than others.

But Greece is a relatively small country, and even the nations listed here speak a wide variety and large number of different languages (none of them Greek): we should recognise that it may not be easy for the Greek education system to find sufficient translators for all those who need them, and maybe even in some cases any translators in particular languages.

That said, however, it is the literal duty of Greece (and every other country) to ensure it provides education to all children within its borders, and this means more than just ‘a school place’ (as we know only too well is the reality for many children, who are simply left to watch, picking up only a little of what is being taught to Greek children as lessons progress around them).

And the Greek government has also failed even in that: not only do many children who should be in school not attend because they understand little and feel they are learning less (as well as for other reasons including bullying by children and adults and in some cases even that their parents need them to work to bring in money for the family), but even Kathimerini on Sunday 13 February noted – starkly and without comment – that ‘after the middle of 2020, new enrolments became more difficult, because schools were full’: now may be a good moment for a reminder that, as noted already, ‘foreign’ pupils make up just two per cent of the Greek school-age population.

It is unbelievable and unacceptable that Greece ‘cannot provide’ school places for everyone in the country, and it goes well beyond the Ministry of Education itself: if there are truly no more school spaces available for those who need them (and once again, we all know that there are not: there are children in camps who do not attend school because of the reasons noted above, but there are many more who do not attend because there is ‘no place’ for them) then that is the responsibility of the entire government – a government which has been able to employ thousands of new police officers, spend €6bn on aircraft and naval frigates and €28.4m – the equivalent, as we noted in our ‘Walls around camps’ piece on 1 February 2022, of the annual average wage of 1,352 schoolteachers – on building walls around refugee camps in Greece.

The Greek government must spend enough money to ensure there are enough school places for the children in the country, not just because it is the law, and the moral and decent thing to do, but also because to do so will benefit, and to refuse to do so will harm, Greece itself.

Because well-educated children will grow to be a great asset to Greece, bringing with them talent, innovation, competencies and a commitment and sense of belonging to the country. Children the country fails/refuses to educate will be less motivated to work ‘for’ it, and more vulnerable (because of the lack of other options) to make money through criminal activity, some of it absolutely detrimental to their fellow humans and to Greece itself.

And there are other options. For example, if one wishes to reduce the number of children who need translators, providing free Greek lessons to them (and their parents: both so they can ‘help’ with children’s schoolwork and so they can find work, making it more likely their home lives will be stable, assisting children and adults alike) is by far the simplest way to do so. The Greek refugee response has been ongoing for six years in its current ‘stage’ (post EU-Turkey Statement) and it is astonishing that Greek language lessons have not been mandatory for and open to all. It is useless to pretend the money ‘is not there’ when it so clearly is for things the government seems to believe are more important than educating children.

Equally, certainly since the response began, there have been an enormous number of adults who speak the languages these children speak: had successive governments wanted to, they could have taught these adults Greek, so they could translate, and simultaneously used them to teach others their language, so they, in turn, could have become translators.

During the pandemic, too, the government’s education response has been a cacophony of errors. While schools were closed, children were supposed to learn online. But ‘foreign’ children – particularly those with little money – were at an enormous disadvantage because they did not have internet access. Effectively, they were simply not educated during this period, once again an unacceptable and illegal situation, particularly in an EU member-state in the 21st Century.

One may ask ‘what else could have been done?’ and the answer to this is two-fold. First, the government had to make it possible for children to ‘attend’ online classes, either by providing laptops to every family, or by setting up ‘library’ areas with computers for children’s use during school hours, and in both cases ensuring good internet connections in camps.

This could have been done (even if we ignore the fact that the government has chosen to spend money it could have spent on education, on other things, the EU gave Greece €816m for education in 2020 alone, of which €7.5m was specifically for the education of refugee children) and was not: whether the reason was that the government did not want to provide for adults as well (who would have of course been able to use the technology at other times), there is no escaping that the Greek government chose not to educate children in Greece during the pandemic: an illegal, immoral, and as we have noted self-defeating decision.

But second, Greek schools re-opened long before curfews preventing people leaving refugee camps was lifted. Not only was this illegal under Greek and international law, it also kept refugee children out of schools for far longer than was ‘necessary’ and for far longer than Greek children were unable to attend. Once again, this was a decision, made by not even the Ministry of Education, but the Greek government.

This is not to say that no efforts have been made: UNICEF and the Education Ministry worked together to translate the Ministry instruction manual on synchronous and asynchronous distance learning into English, French, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Amharic, Lingala, Kurmanji and Sorani, for example – though this is the absolute least that was needed: without it, even children who have access to internet and laptops would have been unable to take part in educational activities, and also frustrating, because it indicates that there are some translators available (who could have at least run ‘lecture-style’ sessions to many children during the pandemic) and that the government knows there are things it should be doing, but is not.

And the Education Ministry has also begun (some would argue six years too late, but any progress must be seen as a positive thing) a training programme called Education for Inclusion – Teacher support program in teaching children with a migrant/refugee background which it (the Ministry) says is designed to help teachers interact with children in multi-cultural and multi-lingual learning environments to ‘help foreign children stay in school and improve their performance’.

But more must be done, and done quickly. At the start of this school year, in September 2021, less than 15 (14.2) per cent (1,483) of the 10,431 school-age children in refugee camps in Greece were attending school. In the Aegean Island and Filakio ‘reception and identification centres’ that number falls to a shocking 0.3 per cent: just seven children out of 2,900 attend classes.

Education is a right, not a privilege. It is not something to be ‘delivered if possible’, but not to be worried about if not.

It is the legal responsibility of every nation to ensure all children within its borders can and do attend classes. It is a legal and moral duty, and one of the simplest to understand of all pragmatic measures. Greece – including all of us – can and must do better.


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