Greece is still managing to gain some revenue from its exports. Many of these are its natural products, lovingly cultivated and harvested by generations of Greek families according to traditional methods, and gaining well-deserved appreciation outside its borders. Many such products continue to provide income for the families and for the country. Notable examples are its olive oil, and two of its more exclusive items, mastic from the island of Chios and saffron from the crocus fields of Kozani.
At various points in its history, Greece has been renowned for its export of another natural product, also lovingly cultivated, fitting the description in the opening paragraph, namely its youth. The current crisis has resulted in an upsurge in the exodus of young men and women, many highly educated at great expense to the country and their families (calculated by the OECD at $23,701 per high school graduate, $37,429 per university graduate). It has been estimated that in the last 5 years well over 130,000 Greeks with university degrees have left Greece to work in other countries, and many others have failed to return home after studying abroad for a higher degree. Their talent is exploited, and their taxes are collected by their adoptive countries, and all Greece gains is an occasional accolade as a Greek scientist working abroad receives an award. This trend is likely to continue, but for how long can Greece keep up its production of this sought-after commodity to a sufficient standard?
Primary schooling starts at age six, provided by the state. Traditionally very young children in Greece were brought up at home with a large extended family ensuring that they acquired the skills needed to succeed and prosper. Even when young Greek women started working outside the home there was always a Yiayia, a grandmother, to take over. Then, with the passage of another generation, Yiayia was working, too, or was not geographically available as the wave of internal migration to the cities continued. Alternative forms of child-care had to be found, including baby-minders (native or “xenes” – how many foreign wives in Greece came originally to look after the children of Greek families?) and the “βρεφονηπιακός σταθμός” and the “παιδικός σταθμός” (vrefonipiakós stathmós and paidikós stathmós – literally “infant and child station”, respectively – nursery school), followed by νηπιαγωγείο (nipiagogío, kindergarten). In the beginning these were mostly privately run, although the larger cities had facilities for the children of civil servants, and some of the banks provided similar services for their employees. Eventually the demand was so great that the municipalities started subsidized preschool care, but with specific entry criteria. Kindergarten became part of the compulsory education for children between five and six in 2006.
All well and good – our budding scientists are headed on their course. The private sector burgeoned to cover the families not eligible for municipal childcare, or wanting something a little more imaginative for their children. The hours of state primary school often did not coincide with Mama’s work schedule, so a private school providing transport and additional “study time” was sometimes a necessity. And looking ahead, many parents started sending their children to language schools (frontistíria) in the afternoon, or arranging private tuition at home. A fragile balance seemed to have been forged, which ensured a steady stream of children to enter the next stage towards the “finished product” – high school – but that is another story.
Then The Wall came down and people from neighbouring countries were able to come to Greece looking for work and bringing their families. The Greek bubble economy of the turn of the century eventually attracted settlers from farther afield too. Their children, many born in Greece, changed the traditional nearly-all-Greek population of the schools and challenged the teachers who were not well equipped for a multi-cultural environment. The educational budget was being stretched. The private sector flourished further.
Come the crisis, and things really began to fall apart. Parents became unemployed. Mothers now find themselves in a Catch-22 situation where to enrol their children in the municipal preschool they need a letter from their employer, while to go looking for a job they need their children to be in preschool. Families whose earnings exceed a certain limit are excluded from municipal nursery schools, so have to spend a substantial proportion of those earnings on a private alternative. Or press Yiayia back into service.
Meanwhile the municipal facilities are in trouble. They are bankrolled largely out of European funds, but the austerity measures have entailed a pruning down of employees, including nursery nurses, preschool teachers, cleaning and security staff. The state kindergartens and primary schools find themselves in a similar situation, and the school year opened in September 2015 with no teachers at all in some kindergartens and schools, too few in others, and no special education specialists.
At the same time the possibility of a 23% VAT on private education brought the threat of transfer of thousands of children from private schools to a state system unable to cope with its present numbers. The government has now been forced to rescind the tax on preschool facilities and to reduce the VAT on other private educational establishments, to, for example, 6% for language schools and 13% for primary schools. So things do not look quite so bad (in a classic application of prospect theory we are so relieved to see our potential loss reduced that we treat it as a gain).
But we are not out of the woods yet. We must never discount the inevitable teachers’ strikes that will close down the whole system for days at a time throwing every family’s carefully juggled schoolday programme into disarray and playing havoc with the learning curve of the young brains.
It appears that the outlook for the continued successful cultivation of our prime national product is not sunny.
Image: Illustration from Greek primary school textbook c.1980.