Education in Greece – From Childhood to the Third Age

As the tourist tsunami and the last heat of the Greek summer die down, people’s minds are once again turning to the return to routine which characterises September. Perhaps surprisingly for foreigners, it is common for Greeks to bid their summer farewells to extended family, friends and acquaintances in their holiday neighbourhoods by wishing them a ‘good winter’ (Καλο χειμονα = kal-o he-mo-na), even though the biting cold that can occur during Greek winters is still far off.An important part of everybody’s routine, not only Greeks’, of course, is schooling. September sees troupes of children returning reluctantly to the incessant grind that constitutes their education. Greece must surely have the shortest school year in the world – approximately 32 weeks, not including one-day religious, national and regional holidays. Hence students must work frantically throughout the chilly winter months in order to cover the syllabus. To make matters worse for these aspiring professionals, the lack of confidence in state education that has developed over the last half-century means that most teenagers attend coaching colleges or foreign language centres (usually called ‘frontisteria’) on a weekly basis. Or they might have private lessons.This lamentably arduous process first began to evolve many years ago when university entrance examinations tested applicants’ abilities and skills at higher levels than those they were taught during their final year of secondary school. This clever state of affairs assured the wealthy elite of the nation that their progeny would occupy the limited number of tertiary places available, regardless of academic ability, and consequently the controlling positions in the state and the nation generally. In essence, it was a plutocratic system, for those days only the rich could afford to send their offspring to such establishments.Nowadays, the coaching college is so entrenched that it constitutes a huge industry; the parastatal education system – so much for free (and fair) education! And on September 13 the race begins anew – chasing points and credits in an effort to better one’s position in the employment and social stakes, a dogged marathon event with the prizes of status, wealth and a comfortable lifestyle awaiting the successful participants at the end of the long haul.For those who don’t make it into the top one or two per cent the options are more prosaic. The fact that a high percentage of the Greek workforce continues to be engaged in family-based business gives graduates at all levels the opportunity to carry on the family tradition if they fail to secure employment in their chosen field. So, it is not uncommon to come across highly-qualified bakers, carpenters, shopkeepers, kiosk-owners, electricians and hotel receptionists, to name just a few. This may be cold comfort after all those years of relentless toil, but these days work of any description is better than none.Greek educationists have recently introduced significant innovations in the state system, which had hitherto stood accused of being stilted, lacking creativity and too reliant on rote learning. The advent of information technology, interactive teaching equipment and the world wide web has altered the landscape of education globally, with Greece being no exception.So it remains to be seen whether the Greek youth return to their classrooms full of enthusiasm and optimism this year, or whether they’ll continue to be bored with more of the same old drudgery dressed up in ‘technicolor’ clothing. Will their fascination with mobile phones, Wii, PSP, P2P, social networking sites and so on help or hinder their education? The jury might well remain ‘out’ on this issue for quite a long time to come.Interestingly, the Greek word for education is εκπαιδευση (ek-pai-thev-si, with the ‘th’ pronounced as in ‘the’), which literally means ‘coming out of childhood’. But one could be forgiven for thinking that education has taken on a whole new meaning with the arrival of all this communication and information technology. One wonders whether this generation, sometimes called the ‘screenagers’, will ever ’emerge’ from childhood. Now that’s a new slant on life-long education, not to mention the now-blurred distinction between that process and that other holy grail of education – education for life.And that reminds me yet again of that ancient Greek saying, attributed to Solon, the Athenian reformist statesman renowned for his wisdom: Γηρασκω αει διδασκομενος (Yir-a-sko a-ei the-thas-ko-men-os) – ‘Growing old I never stop learning.’ It seems that some things just never change. Have a good winter!Copyright Leslie Neil Evans August 2010