View from the Linden Barn 8 (27 July 2017)

‘The Periphery can be sacrificed to the Centre’ [1]:
Greek Environmental Education in Times of Deep Crisis

By Veta Tsaliki and Phil Sixsmith



Taking action: Tree planting in Thessaloniki forest   


Introduction

In this short piece we would like to reflect on how ‘educations’ such as Environmental Education and Education for Sustainability are faring in Greece after the years of unprecedented crisis the country has found itself trapped in. Things were never great for these and similar ‘educations’ in our highly centralized system where every educational innovation finds it very hard to survive. There are successes, but these are inevitably down to dedicated teachers thirsty to try out something different, more experiential, something that takes into account feelings and values, rather than adhere solely to the traditional knowledge-based ways of teaching. Of course, the issues these ‘educations’ represent appear at the moment to be of less importance compared to the more urgent survival issues that Greek society faces, and so environmentalism has slipped off the political and media agenda, to be replaced with a seemingly never-ending round of cuts, more cuts and even more cuts. That is why we cannot discuss what is happening in the world of education before we give a brief account on the current state of play in the country and then try and look at how things have or have not developed in specific educational sectors.


The Greek Condition


It has been over seven years since the crisis started in Greece and six since the country began to be overseen by what is locally known as ‘the troika’ - The European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We all thought at first that the situation was going to be a temporary one and would be dealt with quickly and effectively. But this intense crisis is here to stay and the hopes for a rapid way out were gradually extinguished. Lots has been said and argued about the causes and who may be held accountable for this terminal position. Some say that it is a Greek problem because of distorted financial development and corruption amongst the people. Others claim that there is a crisis in values, a moral and spiritual crisis that runs through public and private life. Others blame the world capitalist system and its financial structures, whereas others argue that it is because the global economy informs the dominant ideology as the world rushes to embrace globalization with the political power of the nation state diminished accordingly. What is obvious though is that it is not only a financial crisis but one that spreads and influences all aspects of society: social, cultural, environmental, human relationships and of course education. In addition to this, in recent years Greece has been the main recipient of immigrants escaping from war and conflict on their way to Europe, looking for a safer place to live. With some notable exceptions, and Germany and Sweden spring to mind, the EU members effectively turned their collective backs on this issue, and left it to a country with a woefully inadequate infrastructure to deal with the problem as it suffered a depression more intense than the 1930s crash.

The citizens of Greece are now more or less accustomed to the soup kitchens, the closed shops and businesses, the friends and relatives who have lost their jobs or seen a massive reduction in their already moderate income or pension, the haunted house frames that have been left unfinished as the property bubble burst in an all too predictable way. They phlegmatically accept reduced services from hospitals struggling with scarce resources, burdened with massive debts brought about by huge scandals of embezzled or misused funds and an almost total absence of social care. And of course those who suffer most are the least privileged members of society who were already vulnerable to exploitation and unemployment and have the greatest difficulty overcoming the problems. The one-parent families, the elderly, the young people, the disabled and women bear the brunt of the cutbacks. After three bailouts and with a huge, monstrous debt over our heads, even the most optimistic lose hope of finding a way out. Lots of mistakes have been made by our governments and by the European institutions and the IMF, who even now cannot agree on what is best for the country. Recently there is some hope that there might be a beginning of a way out, as even the hardest-hit of institutions begin to admit that there are signs of improvement after all the cuts and sacrifices people have suffered. But even if this hope materializes, the consequences of the crisis and the recovery of the economy and society will take lots of time.

All this suffering and chaos in society has brought out, on the one hand, manifestations of hatred and racism, the rise of the far right and a never-ending political blame game played out in the media but on the other, affection, care and solidarity, as well as new ways of organizing life and economy. For example the ‘social medical practices’ where doctors offer their services voluntarily to poor people, ‘social pharmacies’ where people donate medicines, ‘social afternoon schools’ which offer lessons and help children whose families can’t afford to pay for the extra lessons that are a sad but necessary part of the lives of young people if they want to perform well in the all-important end of year formal examinations. Cooperative supermarkets have sprung up, schemes that bring products directly from the producer to the consumer at far more reasonable prices are in the ascendancy, and there is empowerment of antiracist activism confronting and isolating extremist actions. When the immigrants started to flood into Greece trying to escape to Europe, it would have been a far greater humanitarian crisis if it wasn’t for the help offered spontaneously by simple people in the islands, at the ports and at Eidomeni- the northern gateway to Europe - who individually or with friends cooked with their own resources and took the food where it was needed. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia (friend of the foreigner) and it was experienced by thousands of suffering people. What we would like to see is that these solidarity initiatives and new schemes will not remain only as a help to those who most need it, but will be the source of more positive action for change across society and the economy.

Environment, health and education were the first victims of the crisis and the financial measures (bailouts) that needed to be taken. WWF Greece in their published annual reports between 2011 and 2016 argue that there has been a dramatic regression in environmental legislation as well as a reversal in the application of environmental policies as governments have considered environmental protection to be an obstacle to the economic reconstruction of the country, overlooking the fact that both legislation and its manifestations in policy try to protect the natural resources of the country. Cuts in public expenses have affected the funding for the environment. In the 2011 budget environmental expenditure constitutes only 0.01% of the total budget, suffering a reduction of 28% from 2010 and 33.5% as against 2009 (Georgopoulos, 2012).

Education has suffered quite drastic financial cuts. In the period 2009-14 the budget for education was reduced by 35.4% and fell down to 2.23% of GDP (Sklavos, 2014) compared to 7.4% in Norway. It gets worse. In the period between 2014-16 another 14% was removed from the education budget. One wonders where all these cuts came from. Well, the answer is by merging schools, reducing the numbers and salaries of teachers, increasing teaching hours by two hours per week for all teachers, pushing back the retirement age and making pensions far less attractive and far less than what hard working public servants had paid in to compulsory schemes over many years. One of the worst horizontal cuts was the removal of whole disciplines from technical education. The most popular options for young people who desired a more vocational, less academic education (health and social care, art and design, and hair and beauty) were eradicated, which meant that overnight 2500 teachers of these subjects lost their jobs and thousands of students could not finish their studies. Though some changes would make sense in other contexts and situations, it was very clear that all the measures, even those which appear to manifest care for quality, were taken with one objective in mind: to cut the expenses. One of the big issues arising was that there should be enough teachers in the primary and secondary schools to teach the compulsory subjects. Dearth of teachers has affected the curriculum in its many different aspects including environmental education (EE).

 Environmental Education

Building trust and cooporation through activities  


One of the positive things that had developed in the pre-crisis years helping the promotion of EE in schools
had been the secondment from schools to the local education authorities of teachers with experience in EE to serve as teacher advisors. Their posts in school were covered by new temporary appointments of teachers. This was also true for the domains of health and cultural education. So one of the decisions made during the time of crisis was that instead of seconding one teacher advisor for each discipline they would second one for all three, regardless of their area of expertise. That meant that the one advisor was now responsible for all the environmental, health and cultural projects in their local authority. This turned advisory work into a largely bureaucratic task since it was impossible for one person to work with so many teachers and schools. But still, the numbers looked good. Never mind that the quality of the work, in-service training and the chance to plan, discuss and moderate in collaboration with an experienced colleague was a boon. The whole ‘gain’ was that about 100 teachers – the number of advisors from all over the country relieved of their advisory role – went back to school to teach their subjects, and the list of newly qualified teachers waiting for their first position grew by about a hundred.

Though EE is officially part of the curricula, the actual position of it in the school timetable is problematic. Things are easier in the primary sector because there is a ‘flexible zone’ of 2-4 hours per week designed to allow teachers to decide what kind of project they will develop in their particular school, so the supporters of EE found a good space to work with their class on a chosen environmental topic. The secondary sector, however never found any time in the daily timetable for EE, so interested teachers and children would meet after school for a couple of hours per week in order to work on their project. For the teachers though these two hours were included pre-crisis in their weekly obligatory horario (teacher/pupil contact time). So for example if the teaching hours for a teacher were 21 they were allowed to teach 19 on their subject and up to 2 on EE (or any other project or topic they voluntarily decided to do). This was not always easy to attain for reasons it is not possible to explain in this short piece, but at least teachers had this right and could fight for it.

In the crisis period what happened was that in the primary schools the ‘flexible zone’ hours were reduced to 1 or 2 hours whereas in the secondary sector the teachers who wanted to do EE lost the right to include these 1 or 2 hours in their horario. This meant that they had to complete their horario by teaching their school hours subject only and if they decided to instigate a project it would mean extra hours with no remuneration. So a teacher who chooses to do an EE project actually would do an extra 4 hours: 2 because of the increase in the horario and 2 more to deliver the project. Not very enticing for someone who is not especially dedicated and enthusiastic to start with! We may wish it to be otherwise, but sometimes humans need external motivation beyond the notion of intrinsic worth. The interesting – and heartening - thing is that while we expected a recognizable reduction in proposed projects for EE (or health education, etc.) this year because of this situation, the numbers either remained the same or were only slightly reduced. Talking to advisors we can say that there is a reduction of 10-15%. This means that those devoted teachers who always want to do something more meaningful with their pupils did not give up and continued to create opportunities for more imaginative and engaging learning to take place. Why? We go along with the grounded conclusion which argues that teachers of EE are people with ‘internal locus of control’, that is people who believe that they can make a difference and can help to improve things without waiting for government or any authorities to legislate for it (Georgopoulos, 2012). This is really a kind of invaluable treasure that may well ultimately help our education move towards more experiential approaches. But they are nonetheless ‘punished’ for this dedication, as the state is simply unable or unwilling to recognize the importance of this work in broader educational terms. If, for example, a devoted teacher does not complete their horario in their subject expertise and needs to find an additional 2 hours, he or she will be sent to another school to make up the deficit. This happens even though everyone knows that this teacher willingly stays on after the school day has finished to work with young people on a project, whilst some of their erstwhile colleagues conduct a LeMans start out of the car park in order to begin their highly lucrative private lessons in ‘proper’ subjects (but that’s another story!). Teachers actually usually devote lots more hours than the 2 suggested (it is common that EE groups meet during the weekends or take advantage of holidays in order to have more quality time to work together outside the pressures of the timetabled day). So, if you add up all the issues – reduction in salaries, increase in the horario, less funding for resources in schools – it is not unexpected when you hear teachers wonder why they should continue to do all this extra work.

Creating landart in Pindos Mountain 


The ‘flexible’ zone in the primary sector was not left alone either. In the 1st and 2nd grades it was reduced from an initial and appropriate 4 hours per week to 3 hours; in the 3rd and 4th grades it was cut from 3 hours to 2 hours; and in the 5th and 6th grades the 2 hours per week were abolished completely, thereby reinforcing the hidden message to pupils, teachers, parents and society that this kind of approach was really just a form of ‘messing about’, perfectly OK for tiny children just beginning their school career, but something to be left behind as soon as possible once ‘real’ education began.

Another support for EE in our country was the founding of the Environmental Education Centers (EECs). The first one opened its doors to pupils and teachers in 1993 and, as its pilot work was very successful, it led the Ministry of Education - through funding from the European Union Community Support Framework - to open more around the country. By 2010 there were 64 such centers. The staff members are primary and secondary teachers with an interest and/or expertise in EE seconded from schools for a fixed-term period, usually three years but extendable. The existence of these institutions helped EE to flourish by allowing groups of children to participate in specially developed programs at the centers, by providing teachers with the opportunity to be part of training schemes on EE and sustainability often using participatory and active approaches and by producing and distributing lots of freely available educational materials which were of great help to frequently isolated and insecure teachers for use in their classrooms. During the years of crisis the number of seconded teachers at the EEC has been reduced – from 7 or 9 to 3 or 5 - while the little extra money that staff at the centers were getting in return for their additional duties and responsibilities was cut. Several EEC were closed completely and generally funding was drastically reduced. The effect this has had on the numbers of pupils and children that can visit the centers, the resources they can produce and, of course, the seminars and events they can organize is quantifiable. At one point during the early days of the never-ending Greek financial crisis, there was a fear that they were all going to close but fortunately, with the exception or some that stopped functioning, the government drew back from such a draconian measure. Today there are still 53 active Environmental Education Centers, almost one in each county of Greece - all continuing the good work albeit at a reduced level. But at least they are still functioning. For how long, who knows?

In 2011, already two years into the crisis, there was an initiative from the Ministry of Education that surprised those of us involved in EE. And, lo and behold, for once it was a pleasant surprise. An advisory body of educationists and people with experience in EE projects proposed to the Ministry of Education that project and research work should be officially introduced to the Lyceum (i.e. for 16-18 year old students), a model closer to the French baccalaureate model. We have to let you know that the final three years of the upper secondary (Lykio) in our country is totally focused on preparation for the national exams that pupils take in order to enter university, and there is hardly any space or desire for anything else, with some exceptions of course. That is why there is an ongoing discussion that this condition has to change in order to make the system more reflective of the needs of the 21st century student rather than something with which children from a Dickens novel would be familiar. Encouragingly, this proposal was accepted. The idea was really revolutionary in the context of our moribund system. There were going to be 4 hours per week within the school timetable devoted to project and research work on issues chosen by students and teachers from a broad spectrum of themes, which included environmental and sustainability issues. One of the most interesting elements was that a whole year group in a lyceum would be reorganized into smaller groups of around 20 pupils. So, for example, if a particular grade had 5 classrooms of 30 students each, 7 groups of 20-22 pupils would be formed, based as much as the inevitable logistics allowed on the subject of their choice. The other positive initiative was that 2 teachers representing different disciplines would together coordinate and deliver the work. We were very excited with this development. After two years of financial misery and a great many more years of no recognizable change to the content and approach of the high school curriculum it was like all our Christmases had come at once! To introduce such a radical change to the ‘toxic’ school environment that our upper secondary education system represented was great. So, we, the EE practitioners, with many years’ experience of working with children on projects, were the first to support this initiative and to figure amongst the facilitators of teacher training courses all over Greece to enable those who had never been involved in such a work to feel more confident and better equipped to implement this approach in their schools. Of course there were fears and doubts, especially from non-experienced teachers, Of course, nowhere near sufficient preparation time was afforded by the scheme in order to properly equip inexperienced and sometimes antagonistic teachers to take on board such a radical change, but such doubts were cast aside in order to embrace the enthusiasm and hope for a better school. We hoped too soon. As has happened to lots of interesting initiatives, this one was also defeated by our well-established, centralized, unfriendly and woefully inefficient and unskilled education bureaucracy that failed to realize that all initiatives, however well intentioned, need planning and resourcing if they are to have any hope of success. Lots of difficulties such as lack of resources (the need for extra classrooms and teachers) and the need to re-organize the daily school program to fit this project zone, resulted in almost immediate and serious compromises: the 4 hours were reduced to 2 per week, the 2 teachers to 1, and the reorganized small groups of 20 based on the pupils chosen subject reverted to the original 30 pupil classroom. The positive is, that even in this much reduced form, it is still there, and it is a breath of fresh air of creativity when it is done well. Perhaps it would be well to remind ourselves of what is happening in Finland, a country known for the excellence of its education system. On that nation’s education ministry website it openly declares:

New core curriculum for basic education emphasizes the joy of learning.

This involves reduced subject content, a proposition that a modern education system should revolve around competences through project based learning rather than rote learning, and a more joyful curriculum exemplified by

…positive emotional experiences, collaborative working and creative activity (Abrams, 2017).

 

We wish! In complete contrast, project work (named this time ‘active approaches’) was introduced into the Gymnasium (13-15 year old pupils) but only for one hour per week. After two years of implementation it died a death, being abolished completely, due to the previously described increase in the teachers’ horario per week and, more generally, to the effort to ‘save teachers’ for the proper disciplines. And with its demise went the hopes of thousands of young Greek pupils and a great many teachers that positive change was on the horizon. Instead, all we could see were the dark clouds of further financial gloom and doom.


            An ant's eye view of landart                                     Devising drama on land use conflict            



Final Reflections

In composing this brief overview of how EE has been retarded by the Greek financial crisis, it would have been very easy (well, fairly easy!) to write a philosophical treatise focussing on why society needs to give credence to such approaches in and through its educational institutions. However, the above short extract from Finland seems to nail that in a beautifully succinct way. Instead, we have elected to present how the systematic unravelling of measures designed to allow creative freedom in Greek schools, and raise environmental awareness in young people who live in a land where, let’s be honest, this has never been seen as a priority, have either seriously damaged, or put at risk, the few positive initiatives of the last few years. Of course, when a country undergoes a recession as severe as the one Greece his undergoing and continues to endure, choices have to be made, and it is perfectly possible to have sympathy with politicians struggling to make ends meet in the face of an unsympathetic world financial system. But it is perhaps arguable that a time of crisis calls for brave and radical solutions. Greek young people are continually bombarded with the message that their country is a basket case, and no future exists for them within its borders. The essence of quality EE is to propose that individuals, groups, communities, nations and all those around the planet can make a difference if they are determined, critical and pro-active. This societal change is precisely what Greece needs in order to re-boot and get going again. As itemised earlier, the crisis has spawned many such laudable initiatives. One further example which undoubtedly owes something to a change in attitude consistent with a greater awareness of environmental issues, is the burgeoning tranche of enterprising young people who shun the well trodden jobs path in order to work plots of land in a completely different way from the EU subsidy led farming of the older generation. They do this not to own a Porsche Cayenne, (the agricultural region of Larissa in central Greece has the highest ownership per capita of this gas guzzling monstrosity) but because they value a healthy and sustainable lifestyle over financial gain. An environmental education project comparing the values and outcomes of these diametrically opposite approaches to food and raw material production might reveal some very interesting results.

 

References:

Abrams, F. (2017). ‘We are not hippies, we are punks’. School that has projects, not subjects, on the timetable https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jan/31/school-subjects-timetable-finland (Accessed 14 June 2017).

Georgopoulos, A. (2012). The crisis as a stimulus for the transformation of the cultural paradigm. The role of EE. For Environmental Education, 2(47), (in Greek). http://www.peekpemagazine.gr/issue/176 (Accessed 20 May 2017).

Sklavos, D. (2014). The consequences of the economic crisis on formal Greek Education. Masters research thesis, University of Patras, Greece (in Greek), http://nemertes.lis.upatras.gr/jspui/handle/10889/8296.


[1] The title is a quote from the excellent book, Border - A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova. The chapter in which the quote appears describes the callous behaviour of 'The Great Powers' towards the Balkan countries of which they had so little understanding. We felt the title both epitomised the European Union's attitude to Greece during the financial and social crisis, and the stance adopted by the Greek government towards environmental education in its schools.


Veta Tsaliki and Phil Sixsmith are Associate Member of Sustainability Frontiers. Veta is a founding member of the Hellenic Association for Environmental Education. Phil has long been involved in bringing together arts and drama education and environmental education, first based in England and then in Greece. For more on Veta click here. For more on Phil click here.


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