Educating refugee children in Greece: An avoidable tragedy
According to the EU: MANAGING THE REFUGEE CRISIS EU Financial Support to Greece some 352 million Euros have recently been given to Greece. This is on top of the 509 million allocated (2014-2020) for more general migration issues and it is in addition to the 700 million euros allocated (2016-2018) from the EU Emergency Humanitarian Support fund. This is a total commitment from the EU alone, of roughly one and a half billion Euros. And it does not take account of the many other NGOs at work supporting refugees, drawing their own funding streams from philanthropists, wealth funds and International Aid budgets.
We should be in no doubt that a lot of resources are going into Greece. Yet the outcomes which I see in refugee camps are still surprisingly limited. This is particularly apparent in the efforts to provide an education to refugee children. In May 2016 the NGO Save the Children noted that child refugees in Greece have been out of school for an average of one and a half years. Every month that goes by, the children drop further and further behind in their education, so it has been rightly recognised that getting the children back to school is an extremely high priority.
In Sept 2016 it was reported that: EU announces new €115 million emergency support, which included funds to ‘enable refugee children to access education.’ In England we spend about 5000 Euros per child on providing a full time education. There are about 20,000 refugee children in Greece. So, for about 100 million euros every single refugee child could get a full time European style education at English costs. In reality, teacher salaries in Greece are lower than in England and the overall costs of education are lower. So, with the kinds of financial resources flowing into Greece, it should be possible to provide a full time, full curriculum education for all the refugee children.
Schooling for the refugee children began in October 2016 accompanied by a series of media announcements. Aljazeera reported: First school bell rings for refugee children in Greece whilst the BBC focused on the fact that Refugee children in Greece face protest on first day of school. The impression given to the world was that this was the start of getting all the refugee children into full time schooling.
The reality is that less than 10% of the refugee children were able to start school in October and the situation remains patchy at best as we end December. The schooling offered varied from schools where it involved mixing with Greek children in normal classes, to other schools where it consisted of a few hours of extra classes after the Greek children had gone home. Most of the children got a very thin educational gruel, which EU parents would be extremely unlikely to accept as adequate for their own children.
Looking at the situation on the ground there seem to be five major problems inhibiting attempts to get the children into schools:
a) Teacher recruitment: in July 2016 it was recognised that about 800 teachers would need to be employed to teach the refugee children. Greek media ran stories like: Greece Hiring Spree for Hundreds of Teachers to Teach Refugee Children. It is well known that Greece has high levels of unemployment and that there are many unemployed teachers. One might be forgiven for thinking that it would be relatively straightforward to recruit and appoint the teachers needed to educate the refugees. However, in practice this does not seem to have been the case. Not only are significant numbers of teachers still not appointed, but some of those appointed have resigned very quickly due to what they said were issues with the nature of the contracts which they were given.
b) Transport difficulties: in some contexts the teachers are in place, but no bus contracts have been set up, in order to get the children to the school. There are specific processes for contracting in Greece and nothing seems able to be moved forward on the ground until all the right bureaucratic steps have been taken.
c) Parental opposition has been a problem in some school contexts. There are a range of reasons for the protests including health issues about the refugee children not being correctly inoculated. I have seen teams of medical staff in the camps during November giving the required inoculations. I have spoken to several camp managers who have acknowledged that this issue has been addressed, but there is still an underlying nervousness about public opinion.
d) Confusion on the ground is a factor in some camps. I noticed that the children in one camp were not even on the Ministry of Education list of children who were due to go to school. I asked why that was, only to be told that until the NGO running the camp formally requested schooling of the Greek Government, then the children could not be invited to attend school. No one had told the relevant NGO of this fact and so the refugee children were just discounted from official consideration until the right bureaucratic steps could be followed.
e) Winterisation is also upsetting planning. One team of planners has been working on arranging schooling based on where the children were in the summer. Another team of planners is moving people out of tents in camps, so that they can be relocated to conditions more appropriate for the winter. What this means is that when plans finally come together in order to get a group of children educated, the children are no longer in the geographical place where the education is now available.
Alongside official attempts at educating the children, there are a number of informal educational programmes taking place inside the camps themselves. Some of these programmes are of high quality, but other programmes raise questions.
In one camp an NGO had raised funding to provide 3 (paid) teachers. The teachers preferred to work as a single team, so all 3 teachers worked together to teach groups of 30 children, with a 1:10 teacher: pupil ratio. I watched the teaching and it was clear that there was nothing about the situation which required more than one teacher per group of pupils. The teaching was therefore very inefficient, having a much lower impact than would normally be expected for the expenditure.
In another camp I watched an English (ESOL) lesson given by a teacher. In the course of an hour the 12 and 13 year old refugee children learned 5 new words of English. Some of the children had essentially finished the entire lesson in the first 10 minutes. They then spent the rest of the hour colouring. Overall, the lesson had very low expectations of the children and it was low quality education.
The reason why we are seeing these types of inefficiencies and quality deficits is because there are general children’s charities (NGOs) which are good at raising the funds to put teachers in the field, but they do not typically have the Educational Management expertise in their structures, in order to get the most efficient and highest quality educational outcomes for the children.
In some camps I also saw an inadvertent and unintended ‘competition’ between formal state provided education, and the informal educational support provided by NGOs. Several NGOs set up educational programmes in camps whilst awaiting the formal state education to be provided. Now that that formal education has started to come on stream, the NGOs are not always taking a step back. They cannot always withdraw and relocate to a camp which has no education available to children, as the bureaucracy of getting in and out of camps can be surprisingly complicated. So well meaning NGOs are effectively encouraged to stay in situ. They remain and provide ‘extra’ support to groups of children who are starting to get a formal education from the state, whilst other children in other camps have no educational provision at all.
This kind of approach can have unintended negative consequences for girls education. I have noticed in several camps that teen age girls are less likely to travel out of the camp to educational provision, when there is an alternative available within the camp, even if that alternative is of lower quality and fewer hours. Several girls who I have spoken to have made it clear that they would prefer to leave the camp and go to school. But parents find it convenient to keep the girls in camp, as they can then continue with the baby-sitting and household chores which they would not be able to do if they were out of the camp in a school.
One of the most troubling aspects of the situation confronting the refugee children in Greece, is that all of the official planning to get refugee children into schools only applies to children up to the age of 15. For the older children, there is simply no plan.
The reason for the lack of a plan is that the Greek education system has a baccalaureate style qualification for school leavers. The oldest refugee children just cannot learn enough Greek in the time available, in order to be able to take the wide set of different subjects which constitute the school leaving certificate. As the children cannot work towards the official qualification, there is just no alternative educational solution for their needs.
This is a disappointing and extremely short sighted approach. If the refugee children settle in Europe then their lack of qualifications will mean that they run the risk of being unemployable and consigned to a life on benefits. If, on the contrary, the children are sent back to their former countries then they will become part of the potential problem of instability in those countries, uneducated and unemployable and so unable to contribute to the rebuilding of their countries. Wherever the oldest teenage children end up, they need to be educated - now.
This is what the 15-18 year old refugee children themselves want. Many of them aspire to be teachers, doctors, and to enter other professional careers. They show that they have the intellectual skills necessary. They just lack the teachers and education in order to achieve the certificates which will enable them to realise their aspirations. Writing them off as an unsolvable educational problem is just not good enough, especially when there are perfectly viable alternatives.
In Greece our charity Edlumino provides teachers to work with refugee children. We have worked with the 15 to 18 year old refugee children and we have found that it is entirely possible to teach them programmes which could potentially lead to single subject accreditation exams.
In one camp we had a group of 15-18 year old girls from Syria and Iraq. Some of the girls had never attended a school before. However, over a one month period we gave those girls intense and targeted teaching. We modelled it on the techniques which are used to improve failing schools when it is necessary to get groups of children to catch-up significant amounts of previous missed learning. All of those girls made the progress which we were looking for and, despite the gaps in their former education, they were starting to approach the point where they would be able to follow a course towards an eventual International exam.
With viable single subject accreditation routes available, it means that there is absolutely no reason to educationally abandon the 3000 older refugee children in Greece. There are educational solutions available for those children, but the solutions do not fit the paradigms of how people have previously thought about educating refugee children. This means that at the moment, no one will fund those solutions and the children risk being written off as collateral damage.
It’s a desperately sad educational outcome for children who have already suffered humanitarian tragedy. Day by day they are watching their hopes and aspirations slipping further and further away, and no one seems to be able to help them.
He is an educationalist and humanitarian with over 20 years experience in education.