Five thousand refugee children attended school in 2016 – 2017

Connecting local communities with schools remains a constant challenge, general secretary of Greece’s Ministry of Education, Research & Religious Affairs, G. Angelopoulos says

According to the newspapers in September 2017, “Greece went back to school with more refugee and migrant children getting into the Greek education system more than ever”.
Yet, the inclusion of refugee children into the country’s education system and the government’s efforts to respond to the challenge hasn’t attracted media coverage. Since the government is planning to provide new data on the issue after Christmas, we interviewed General Secretary of the Department of Education, Research and Religious Affairs in Greece, Dr George Angelopoulos, to discuss the Ministry’s 2016-2017 Action Plan. The Plan aims to integrate children aged 15 and under into the country’s mainstream education system. In light of the racist attack against an 11-year-old student from Afghanistan, we also asked the Secretary General to comment on the event and discuss the ways in which the government is planning to ensure the right to education for all children.

I would like to start by asking a question about the attack against the 11-year-old student from Afghanistan named Amir. Amir was selected randomly to be the flag bearer in the country’s National Celebration on 28 October, but instead went to the parade holding a placard with the school’s name on it, due to the school principal’s decision.
I would like your comment both on the attack incident and on the Principal’s decision since the Department of Education has requested an audit.

It was indeed a very sad and worrying incident. In light of this event the Department expressed its repulsion and requested the police and judiciary authorities to take all necessary actions so that the culpable, whoever they are, are traced and bear the consequences of their actions. The Greek state should not show any tolerance towards racist and fascist practices. Every student must feel that they are a safe and equal member of his/her school community as well as their country of residence. However, as you have correctly indicated, at this stage the Ministry has requested an audit and I cannot make any further comments.

After the incident, the country’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with Amir to express his support. At the same time, he asked the Minister of Education and Minister of Immigration, Mr Mouzalas, to address the incident with attention and consideration. How will the Department of Education ensure that the right to education for refugee and migrant children is guaranteed? Can you refer to the Department’s Action Plan that was launched in 2016-2017?
The closure of the Balkan route in 2016 and as a consequence, the detention of 50,000 people in our county triggered the immediate response of the Department of Education, Research and Religious. In the spring of 2016 we formed an advisory committee that was responsible for managing the education of refugee children and making recommendations. The late Mr Ioannis Pantis, who was then the Department’s General Secretary, was responsible for overseeing the committee’s tasks. The advisory committee was responsible for submitting a study by identifying needs and facts, and proposing measures for the delivery of an Action Plan for the inclusion of migrant and refugee children in the country’s education system during 2016 and 2017 school years. Three months after its establishment, the advisory committee delivered its report with many key findings and recommendations that became the foundation for the Department’s Action Plan.
Οnce the Action Plan was approved, in June 2016, the Department of Education set up its Coordinating Body by constituting a working group for the Management, Implementation and Monitoring of refugee children’s education. The Action Plan promoted two important initiatives: establishing Reception Centres for Refugee Children’s Education, which operated out of school hours and were located within schools, close to the Reception Centres for Refugee Education; and establishing the role of Education Coordinators for Refugees, based in the Refugee Resettlement Centres. At the same time, Reception Classes in the Greek Language (Level I and Level II) (known in Greek as Τmimata Ypodoxis), are offered. The curriculum for these classes form part of the schools’ main curriculum.

Was the Action Plan and its results implemented on time?
The Action Plan was implemented progressively. The first Reception Centres for Refugee Children’s Education began to operate, on a daily basis, on October 10. These centres were located inside schools and offered four hour lessons in Greek language, English, Mathematics, Information Technology, Arts, and Physical Education, with the aim to integrate children at a later stage into the country’s mainstream education. During 2016 – 2017, there were 107 centres in total, and according to our estimations, the Reception Centres for Refugee Children’s Education as well as the Reception Classes (Τmimata Ypodoxis) received about 5,000 refugee students. However, estimating the exact number of students who attended classes is a challenging task mainly because of refugee mobility, continuous relocation and children’s fragmentary attendance patterns at schools.

Εstimating the exact number of migrant children who live in Greece in the Resettlement Centres is a difficult task. Even so, the Department has estimated the population of refugee children in an October 18 press release. Is that correct? In March 2017, the Department of Education collected and processed data from its own records, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Children’s Ombudsman and UNICEF. According to the most updated data, it is estimated there are 2,700 children aged six to 16 years old, who live in apartments or Resettlement Centers and attend school in cities. Whereas in the mainland, there are an estimated 2,593 children aged six to 16 years old who live in apartments and Resettlement Centers, and of course the numbers are increasing, since there are constantly new arrivals. During the first months of 2018, after the newly arrived children will have attended school, we are going to be in a position to provide more updated data.

In June 2017, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) took the initiative and organised a working group meeting with experts to discuss migrants’ children inclusion in education. The working paper published after the meeting by ELIAMEP entitled Migrants’ children inclusion into the Greek educational system: Policy and Management in working process referred to government’s positive initiatives, but also stated the challenges that emerged during the first year of the Action Plan’s implementation. Focusing on the problems, can you mention the steps that you are planning to take during the Action’s second year of implementation? What are your aims for 2017–2018?
During the 2017 and 2018 school years, the Department’s aim is to integrate all migrant children into education; our emphasis would be placed on ensuring migrants’ harmonious transition into daily mainstream schools. In addition, we will continue to implement successful programs such as the out-of-school hours program taking place in the Reception Centres for Refugee Children’s Education. These programs are going to be offered for a limited number of children who did not have time to complete the pre-inclusion stage last year or who lived in Resettlement Centres not located near a Zone of Education Priority.
The working paper that you are discussing referred to some problems that we, as a Department, had stated first (May – June 2017). The first problem involved hiring specially qualified educators for the Reception Centres for Refugee Children’s Education and the Reception Classes. We are resolving this problem by introducing legislation that defines and specifies special qualification in intercultural education or titles for teaching Greek as a second language, or addresses previous service in intercultural schools or experience in migrants’ countries. The second one involved the relationship between the local community and schools. This is a challenge that we have been trying to address every day for the last two years, and we believe that there will be important improvements when the Greek learning program for refugee parents commences in April.

A few months ago, Ms Jan Molloy, Coordinator for the Immigration Museum’s Humanities Programs (Immigration Museum, Victoria), told us that “We build strong student and parent communities when we provide people the opportunity to tell their story.” What kind of initiatives have you taken to reinforce parental participation and what steps have you taken to provide refugees the opportunity to tell their story?
As I have mentioned, establishing relationships between local communities and schools is a constant challenge. Bringing people closer and meeting people requires intensive efforts. These people have been through a great deal of problems and at this moment, they are in our country. The Department is supporting a plethora of artistic actions that take place in schools as well as in Refugee Resettlement Centres. This year especially, in the ‘Elaiona’ Resettlement Centre, we are preparing a festival that aims to introduce refugee parents to other parents of the school. In many Resettlement Centres, the Department’s Coordinators for Refugee Education are organising monthly meetings with teachers and parents’ school boards from various local school communities.

The contribution of the UNHCR, UNICEF and NGOs in managing migrant and refugee education in Greece was unquestionable. At the same time, and equally important, was the input that the Greek government received by European countries via the exchange of good practices. Are there any thoughts to exchange good practices with Australia, since the country has a long history in immigration inclusion?
Recently, the Working group for Managing, Coordinating and Monitoring Refugee Education made some contact with representatives of the Australian Embassy to exchange good practices on migrant inclusion. However, we have been engaging more strongly with EU countries, since we have been sharing with them common experiences related to the immigration crises and refugee children’s inclusion and education.

George Angelopoulos was born in Thessaloniki in 1966. He studied Sociology at Panteion University and Social Anthropology at the University of Saint Andrews (MPhil). He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. His interests focus on social and political anthropology in Greece and Balkans, anthropology of immigration and anthropological study of political and educational institutions. He serves as an Assistant Professor at the Department of History and Archeology (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). He has worked as a Researcher, Directorate XII, EU, Postdoctorate Researcher at the University of Cambridge and Coordinator of many research projects implemented by the Directorate V, EU during the 6th and 7th Framework Programs of the EU. He was an advisor to Costas Gavroglou (Department of Education) and today he is the Secretary General of the Department of Education.

Μaria Filio Tridimas is a sociologist. Immigration policies, inclusion and migrant education are some of her main interests. She has studied Human Rights, European Studies and International Relations and Educational Policy at the University of Warwick (UK) and University of Athens (Greece). She is responsible for the design and coordination of the educational initiative “Melbourne – Athens: A Journey of Friendship” that was implemented by the Greek Community of Melbourne’s Language and Culture Schools in collaboration with the Hellenic American Educational Foundation (HAEF) (Psychico College) and was nominated for Victoria’s Multicultural Awards for Excellence 2017.