Sunday, 17 May 2009

Thoughts on the 25th of March

I was checking email at the Starbuck’s on Pentelis Avenue on March 24th: we’ve just moved to Geraka, and OTE has managed to misplace our telephone line. At around 10:00, the door opened and about 40 Greek high school students walked in, resplendent in their low-rider jeans, unfortunate haircuts, nose rings and pimples. Since the Starbuck’s had been practically empty until then, I wondered what had happened, until it occurred to me that they must have been let out of school early due to the March 25th holiday tomorrow.

That got me thinking: here we are, in the middle of an economic crisis, with Greek educational standards slipping every year, and children are let out of school by 10:00? What did they do today? Probably practiced lining up and marching in the obligatory school parade. Have they learned anything about the 25th of March, or about the principle of self- sacrifice and struggle to achieve something you believe in? Probably not. Indeed, that might even be considered anti-social in our present system.

I also wondered what their parents are supposed to do today? Leave work and return to school at 10:00 to pick up their children and make sure they get safely home? Or, accept the alternative: that they are out early, and that the next interaction they will have with their children will be to drive them to the frontisterio some time this afternoon, or evening? Or simply to give up, knowing that they have little knowledge over what their children are doing or thinking anyway?

Driving back home—since working at Starbuck’s was now impossible—I mentioned this sad state of affairs to Christine. Her friend has a daughter in the second year of the foreign language university in Athens. They have not held class in the past four months. No one is sure why, but the fact is that no classes have been held. Rather than worrying about re-scheduling classes, it’s been tacitly agreed that the passing grade level of the end-of-term exams will be lowered, allowing everyone to pass.

So what do we end up with? A public system where Greeks earn degrees, but where their academic knowledge is increasingly theoretical and unadapted to the real world. Where you gain more by gaming the system and shouting political slogans rather than by challenging your pre-held conceptions and learning to learn. A system where you don’t actually do much in school, but rely on the frontisteria or the threat of violence to earn a passing grade.

Given this situation, I am opposed to allocating 5% of GDP to public education, as repeated governments have promised (and failed to deliver). Besides the fact that Greece can’t afford 5%, there seems to be little point in flushing more public money through a corrupt and incompetent system, without stringent, reality-based reforms. These should include the following:

(a) Longer school hours: the school day should last from 08:30 – 16:30, with an option for extra-curricular activities and study.

(b) A commitment to achieving learning outcomes in school, not out of it (i.e., not through frontisteria). This should involve modern pedagogical methods for language learning, arts, computer education, applied and theoretical sciences and physical education as well as other subjects.

(c) School (and university) guards with a real mandate for zero-tolerance policing. University asylum should be immediately eliminated. Students who continually misbehave should be expelled from the public school where they are currently enrolled, and this expulsion should form a permanent record in their curricula. The same applies to students who damage school property or otherwise cause disciplinary problems.

(d) The objective of the secondary education system should be what is already stated: to prepare well-rounded individuals with a facility for critical reasoning, prepared for active involvement in civil society. This means that the current [unstated] objective—cramming for university examinations—should be eliminated.

(e) Eliminating the pan-Hellenic university entrance exam system. Each institute of tertiary learning, academic or vocational, should design its own admissions system based on common criteria suited to each academic discipline. Admissions should be based on a 360 degree view of the student, including academic record, an admissions interview, and a comprehensive application which includes standardised testing (if applicable), an application essay, teacher recommendations and grades.

(f) A real investment in teacher training and teacher remuneration, subject to systematic teacher evaluation and the elimination from salaried employment in frontisteria. It is manifestly ridiculous for the tax-payer to pay a teacher for a standard instruction, and then to have the teacher gaining more money for the same instruction outside the school in the afternoon hours.

(g) Peer reviews should be introduced by equivalent institutions at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. A process of accreditation should be developed every 3-5 years based on the peer review process as well as monitoring of learning outcomes and management indicators.

Each school or university should be paid directly out of the state budget, not through an intermediary (e.g. prefectures and municipalities, as is currently the case). Each institution should have a quadrilateral management system, comprising administrators, students, parents and teachers, and should have flexibility in choosing academic materials and curriculum scheduling. Each institution should have the right to raise funds privately, for its own account, always maintaining the public interest. All budgets should be transparent and online for public access and comment.

The role of the Pedagogical Institute and the School Textbooks Organisation in public education should be revised. Both institutions have done strong work in the past, but they are currently too slow and often too inaccurate for the modern workplace and modern society. They should be relegated to advisory roles. The role of quality assurance in education should be removed from the Pedagogical Institute: you cannot have one institution which develops curricula, develops educational materials, trains teachers and evaluates the system as a whole: there are too many obvious conflicts of interest.

In order to maintain educational competitiveness, the government should provide a real role for private education at all levels. There is no social or moral imperative to “crowd out” or disqualify the private sector from contributing to education. The government should develop ways of supporting private education, including through financial means.

The constitutional clause recognising tertiary education degrees from the public sector must be immediately repealed: it is an anachronism, a remnant of the traditional clientism which is ill-suited to the current era, and illegal both in terms of European Union law and common sense.

Finally, we need to abandon the socialist mentality of more education = better education. There has been a tremendous investment in all levels of education over the past 20 years, with the primary objective being to raise educational supply. Thus, new vocational and academic institutions have been established all over Greece, facilities built, and staff hired. We now need to invest in quality of education.

Greece needs centres of excellence: world-class institutions which correspond to the natural strengths and competitive advantage of the country. Disciplines such as archaeology and culture, shipping, agri-food processing, information systems and renewable energy need to be developed on an urgent basis. These institutions should focus not only on strictly academic achievement, but on vocational training and links with employment and the economy. The traditional divider between vocational and academic education is not useful in the global economy: institutions should therefore be merged and restructured as soon as possible to focus on results and outcomes, rather than institutional status.

Besides these centres of excellence, quality needs to be developed at every stage of education, from primary to tertiary. There has to be a real commitment to self-evaluation and peer evaluation, teacher training, accreditation and evaluation of learning outcomes. This process is only just beginning, but it should be the foundation of any future effort.

In absence of meaningful reforms, it’s hardly surprising that no one believes in the quality of the Greek educational system. Self-actualisation and self-realisation through education is out: instead, we are churning out cardboard cutouts of asocial, nihilistic youth who have been conditioned to succeed in the current system, but who are unsuited to the real world. Unless, of course, the real world changes, or converges, with their way of life. Which, judging from society around us, may be exactly what’s happening.

The results are regrettably visible everywhere in our society today: from hoodies and graffiti, to unionists burning the Belgian flag to protest a German takeover of OTE. The fact of high youth unemployment, or the “700 Euro generation” should not take anyone by surprise: Greek high school and university graduates are unskilled in the modern world of work. They have been conditioned to act upon theory, not reality. They have data store of theoretical facts, but little of the personal maturity, analytical capability or work ethic to use this in the context of the real world.

It is a bitter thing, to juxtapose our glorious history to the cruel reality of our present, and the crueller reality of our rapidly-approaching future. We have stifled the educational sector with the dead hand of monolithic government regulation. We have created not one, but several generations of graduates with no working skills or work ethic and little hope for value-creation in the modern world. We annually invest over EUR 80 billion in government spending, but continue to decline in nearly all international rankings, from educational standards to poverty levels, and investment competitiveness to health indicators.

Yet the real consequences of the riots and the wider education system today are crystal clear: that anti-social behaviour is acceptable, rather than exceptional. That the public system no longer serves the wider society and country, but its own narrow set of interests. That young people increasingly see little hope for the future, and indeed are learning the wrong lessons rather than the right ones.

All around us, the world is changing. Yet our government, and wider governing system refuses to learn from it or adapt to it, stuck in a nationalistic, misguided vision of history and reality. I no longer question whether the next round of street violence or student protests will erupt, I only question when.

No comments:

Post a comment