Via the Athens News
The need for a new education policy to respond to the country’s increasingly diverse student body was stressed by Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou during a recent meeting with a group of immigrant students.
The nation’s public schools are feeling the impact of the major demographic changes on Greek society. Few public school teachers are trained to work with students whose native language is not Greek. A crippling lack of resources prevents many schools from meeting their most basic educational needs.
According to Diamantopoulou, the government wants to accommodate increased diversity of mother tongues and cultural perspectives and to find ways to adapt teaching skills and build bridges with immigrant families.
“Education reforms now also involve the generation of immigrants who are starting kindergarten, as well as issues concerning the teaching of their mother tongue and assistance to [immigrant] parents so that they can communicate with teachers and society in Greek,” Diamantopoulou said after the meeting on December 3.
An estimated 200,000 Greece-born children of immigrants currently reside in Greece, according to figures presented by the minister. They make up over a quarter of all primary and secondary school students nationwide.
In Attica, for instance, migrant pupils outnumber their Greek peers in many public schools. An estimated 90 percent of youths attending middle school in the western Athens industrial suburb of Aspropyrgos are of immigrant origin. The situation is very similar at most inner-city schools in Kypseli, Petralona and Gazi, as well as at Vathis Square.
According to Thalia Dragona, education ministry general secretary, the meeting with the minister proved a unique opportunity to “discuss problems second-generation migrants face in the school setting and to listen to their personal views and proposals for a school system more inclusive of diversity”.
“Some of the students talked about the difficulties they have faced regarding their integration in the Greek educational system and its inadequacy to facilitate their smooth participation,” Dragona told the Athens News. Additional complaints were voiced, she said, about “the predominantly ethnocentric character of the curriculum that ignores the culture and civilisation of the countries migrant children come from”.
“We also discussed the prospect of teaching such children their mother tongue outside the normal school hours as well as the importance of supporting their parents and teaching them Greek so that they are able to communicate with the teachers and become more actively involved in the education of their children,” added Dragona, who said she was impressed by how eloquently the students expressed their views and ideas.
“The meeting has been very productive and helpful for the ministry, since it is very important to listen to and take into account the opinions and views of the children before initiating any changes that may affect them,” she added.
The discussion also delved into the politically hot-button issue of granting Greek citizenship to the children of immigrants.
“One of the basic problems facing these children has to do with their residence status – many don’t have a legal status,” said Dragona.
A student’s view
Jackie Abhulimen is one of the seven immigrant students who met with Diamantopoulou on December 3. She is the daughter of African immigrants and one of the tens of thousands of immigrant children born in Greece who are not entitled to citizenship or a birth certificate.
“It was a very good discussion,” said the 18-year-old. “We tackled some very important issues like racism in school and ways to integrate us into Greek society. We also talked about our problem concerning our educational pursues because we don’t have citizenship. She said what everyone is saying, that it’s on the new government’s agenda.”
“The minister stressed the need for a more multicultural approach to immigration,” she added. “She stressed a need for finding ways to help children of immigrant origin to become integrated not only in school system but society. She also stressed helping the parents understand the system better.”
According to Abhulimen, the meeting served as an unprecedented chance to explain her current situation to the minister. She was recently accepted to university in the United Kingdom to study politics and international relations, but cannot afford to attend as an international student. She has deferred enrolment until she “hopefully” secures Greek citizenship.
Under current legislation, the children of immigrants born in Greece must wait until they turn 18 to seek naturalisation – a lengthy and costly process. The Pasok government, however, has announced it will soon amend the law so that these children may secure citizenship almost automatically.
Greece is the only European Union country that does not have special citizenship rules for children of immigrants.
Abhulimen has started a letter-writing campaign to protest the current situation. She is sending a two-page essay about her experience to policymakers and human rights groups across the country.
The development of intercultural education in Greece
Greece took its first steps towards establishing a systematic approach to intercultural education in response to the repatriation of Greek emigrants mainly from Canada, Australia, the United States and Germany. More than half a million Greeks abroad returned to Greece. One of the first policy initiatives was the creation of special Greek-language programmes for the children of repatriated Greeks. The education ministry created special so-called reception classes at public schools in 1981. Three years later, special schools were opened in Athens and Thessaloniki. These schools were called schools for emigrants (scholeia apodimon).
The mass repatriation of Greeks from countries of the former Soviet Union created new challenges for public school teachers. In response, the education ministry introduced special curricula and schools exclusively for the children of repatriated Greeks (scholeia palinostoundon).
The mass arrival of immigrant workers and refugees to Greece posed yet another challenge to the country’s public school system. The enrolment of immigrant children has increased dramatically from just 8,455 (or 0.6 percent of the total public school population) to more than 35,000 (2.5 percent) in 1998. Today, immigrant students make up more than 10 percent of the Greek public school student population.
The education ministry has set up Intercultural Schools (13 primary schools, 9 middle schools and 4 secondary schools) in Athens, Thessaloniki and other large cities around the country. These schools are tailored to immigrant children who are still learning the Greek language.