Quite often we hear doom and gloom stories about Greek language learning in Australia. Academic standards are declining, enrolments are slipping, programs are being closed, parental apathy is of concern and with each generation language attrition is inevitable. After all, isn’t Australia a ‘multicultural country with a monolingual mindset’, reinforced by its absence of any land borders and the ascendancy of English globally.
Over the last five years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in education committees of the Greek Community of Melbourne, overseeing its various language programs. The conclusions I have drawn are that nothing should be assumed as inevitable, well thought out interventions followed by thorough execution can achieve remarkable results and that dedicated individuals have the capacity to solicit and inspire contributions from all sorts of fellow travellers to affect quality educational outcomes.
Like most people, my perceptions and understanding of the state of Greek language learning in Victorian schools have been formed by personal experiences, feedback garnered from students, parents and educators, and articles encountered from media and academic sources. However, if one is to consider intervening in this space, they must really get a good grip of the different type of providers, enrolment numbers and what lies behind them, the nature of the landscape and challenges at hand. One may have access to accurate statistics, but other qualitative inputs may be required before making any judgements.
This article is my attempt to come up with a concise overview of the state of affairs of Greek language learning in Victorian schools at primary and secondary level. Modern Greek in the tertiary sector requires a separate discussion.
The trend in the above table for government primary and secondary schools over the last decade depicts an approximate 50 per cent decline in primary and a 20 per cent decline in secondary enrolments. There has actually been growth in the sector within the after-hours VSL (Victorian School of Languages) campuses but the majority of students are enrolled in day-school campuses.
The programs are under constant threat as language courses come under the microscope, Northcote High School being the latest calamity. Unless there is constant vigilance by all affected stakeholders, proactive parent groups, effective curriculum and succession planning, this sector will always be on a knife’s edge. This is an important sector that mustn’t be allowed to languish. It provides opportunities for Greek language exposure to students of both Greek and non-Greek backgrounds who may not have otherwise had this opportunity.
The Independent School sector comprises four schools: Alphington Grammar, Oakleigh Grammar, St John’s College and St Monica’s Catholic College. Although enrolment numbers have declined significantly over the past decade, overall enrolments appear to have stabilised during the last few years. Long-term Greek language enrolments are on firmer grounds due to existing ownership and governance arrangements. In most cases Modern Greek is a compulsory subject until Year 9. Although enrolment expansion prospects are restricted by financial barriers of high student fees, it might be easier to incentivise other independent schools to introduce Greek into their curriculum.
The bulk of the heavy lifting in Greek language teaching has historically rested with the after-hours Community schools, where around 60 per cent of enrolments can be found. The sector consists of community organisations, church-linked schools and private providers. Numbers have hovered around the 6,000 mark for the last few years, significantly lower than the ~14,000 students that attended these schools in the 1970s and 1980s.
The recent influx of Greek arrivals propelled by the crisis in Greece doesn’t appear to have had much of an impact on overall numbers but has probably prevented them from dipping below the 6,000 threshold. The student cohort is no longer the homogenic composition of previous decades where most students spoke Greek at home. Students are of third, fourth and even fifth generation. They mainly speak English with their parents, many are from mixed marriages, while others communicate in English even with their grandparents. This presents severe challenges for teachers in having students of varying backgrounds and abilities. There is also a recently-emerged small student cohort that attend campuses with a curriculum that reflects those who have Greek as a primary language.
The figures in table No. 2 represent a summary of the Community School sector. Most people are aware that there is a drop off in enrolments after Grade 6 but also after Year 9. The decline, however, starts much earlier from Grade 3, are we intervening too late one might ask? Furthermore Prep enrolments are 37 per cent lower than Grade 1, this clearly presents an opportunity to encourage parents to enrol their children earlier.
What’s happening with VCE?
Year 12 VCE Greek Enrolments
Contrary to many alarmist reports, VCE Modern Greek numbers are not collapsing. The present Year 12 VCE Modern Greek enrolments sit at 262 students, of which 188 (72 per cent) attend Community Schools. Since 2009 they have been quite stable. No doubt the last few years’ enrolment numbers have been stabilised by the influx of new students from Greece. This level has also caused some angst, with some parents and educators calling for the introduction of two streams. One viewpoint is that the newly-arrived students from Greece, who naturally have higher oral proficiency, are discouraging local students from pursuing Greek at VCE level, while many others claim that two levels are unnecessary and the matter is creating a distraction from the main battles that should be pursued. Local Greek-Australian students, if they apply themselves, are more than capable of holding their ground − after all, half the exam is in English where they have a comparative advantage. Long-term, it is important that VCE enrolment numbers remain healthy and the curriculum isn’t diluted, as these students also potentially represent the Greek language teachers of the future.
So what are the main battles?
In my opinion there are three main challenges: a) improving teacher and curriculum quality, b) lifting overall student enrolments and c) getting students to stay at Greek school longer. Greater enrolment numbers and higher retention rates will flow through to larger numbers in high school and stable VCE numbers.
All these three strategies can be worked upon simultaneously and reinforce each other. A good example is the professional development workshops conducted during the September school holidays by the Greek Community of Melbourne but open to participation to all educators from all providers. Other examples are the seminars and workshops hosted by the MGTAV (Modern Greek Teachers Association Victoria). All teachers must be involved in continuous improvement, it’s imperative if one is to improve student engagement and retention. Don’t forget as of a few years ago before the economic crisis in Greece, there was actually a shortage of Greek teachers in Melbourne. Anyone in Melbourne with half-decent Greek and some methodology training could become employed in teaching Greek. By having better prepared and equipped teachers, especially in the earlier years, it should lead to better retention rates as retention is closely linked to understanding and enjoyment. We mustn’t forget that today’s students are tomorrow’s parents, whether they send their children to Greek classes will be linked directly to their own personal experiences.
How does one increase student numbers and overall participation? There might be more than 10,000 students doing some sort of Greek language study but there are probably at least if not more than 10,000 potential students not pursuing Greek. It is necessary to develop an exact understanding of the reasons and then develop appropriate strategies. One can think of all sorts of reasons: inconvenient locations, unsuitable times, crowded after-hours schedule, mixed marriages, lifestyle demands, financial etc. Dean Kalimniou recently wrote an excellent piece containing case studies on those who attend or don’t attend Greek school and why. It really exposed how complex the social dimension is, and what strategies does one employ if intervention in the social dynamics of family relationships is required? However, I would say that a very large proportion (and often where both parents are of Greek background) simply choose not to send their children to Greek school as it’s a low priority. Other activities outrank it, pushing it down in the pecking order. These reasons need to be clearly understood and misconceptions need to be dispelled.
In a survey conducted by the GOCMV a few years ago, parents were asked why they chose the after-hours school their child attends. Almost two thirds mentioned location was the key factor. With Melbourne’s sprawling population, is there scope for new campuses in emerging suburbs? Melbourne is littered with Greek-based soccer clubs. Their junior teams have footballers from all ethnic backgrounds. In my experience over the years, more than half of junior footballers that have at least one Greek parent don’t go to Greek school. How can we incentivise these kids and parents? Out in the community there is probably a cohort who I describe as the ‘oops, I forgot to go to Greek School’ generation. How do we tap into these students and provide a suitable program for them to follow. No single person or organisation has all the answers, or all the questions for that matter. If we’re serious about Greek language learning, it’s imperative we invest more time and resources in dealing with its challenges.
There is no silver bullet solution, but if we want Greek language learning to remain vibrant in the foreseeable future we must be proactive in addressing challenges and reversing apathy. We must be prepared to experiment with alternative solutions in promoting strategies to encourage more children to embrace Greek language study.
* Figures and statistics have been sourced from the Victorian Department of Education.