GREECE: Government seeks consensus on education

Unlike his predecessor, Greece's new Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos appears extremely conciliatory and is striving to give the impression a real change of policy has been brought about in his ministry after a government reshuffle. Spiliotopoulos has indicated he is even prepared to make significant concessions during a forthcoming dialogue on education.

Following Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis' call for a joint decision on education by all political parties last week in parliament, letters were sent by the Education Ministry to all political leaders inviting them to contribute ideas, suggestions and proposals for the dialogue and to appoint their representatives.

The government is attempting to achieve maximum consensus among the political parties following last month's student riots. The aim is to reach decisions that will be tabled in parliament and approved by a cross-section of members, giving the impression of all-party unity although the parties are approaching this with a certain amount of scepticism.

The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) official Opposition spokesman George Papakonstantinou accused the government of lacking an overall plan for education: "We would expect the government to make proposals which we can discuss and see where we converge," Papakonstantinou said.

"A real dialogue on education is not a public relations exercise and we are not here to improve the image of the government. Nevertheless, we will not refuse to participate in the dialogue and we have already made our proposals public."

The Greek Communist Party declined the invitation to participate, claiming a dialogue at this particular time was meaningless. A statement issued from party headquarters said a 12 year free state education followed by free access to higher education was the party's official position.

The Left Wing Alliance, which will probably participate in the dialogue, said: "The government's plan for education is a book full of mistakes and constant meaningless revisions," referring clearly to the efforts of the Education Secretary's predecessors Marietta Giannakou and Evripidis Stylianidis to reform education.

The right wing LAOS has not declared its position as yet but the likelihood is that it will also participate.

In his invitation, the Education Secretary carefully outlined the procedure of the dialogue which will not be carried out under the auspices of the National Council of Education. Council President Professor Thanos Veremis attempted to pre-empt the government's position in recent statements, simultaneously casting doubts on the Education Secretary's tabula rasa philosophy and on his ability to be an impartial coordinator, instead becoming almost a persona non grata for the academic community.

A five-member parliamentary committee is envisaged, comprised of one representative from each of the parties in parliament, which will have overall supervision of the dialogue. The Primary and Secondary Education Council will have responsibility for collating and classifying the proposals.

In an effort to entice the political leaders to participate in the dialogue and convince them of his intentions, Spiliotopoulos made two substantial concessions: he is prepared to re-examine the provisions of his predecessor's framework law which caused so much acrimony and unrest last summer; and to freeze the legislation that will embody the European Court's decision for private colleges into the Greek legal system until it becomes final in two to three years.

Inevitably, any discussion on education apart from the level of finance provided by the state will centre around two main areas: reform of the senior high school and the system of examinations leading to universities and higher education institutions.

For the last few years the senior high school has lost its autonomy as an education level and has been gradually transformed to a kind of waiting room for entrance to higher education. Similarly, the university entrance examinations have given rise to a system of parallel education that imposes a tremendous workload on students and an enormous financial burden on their parents.

The system is based on vast financial interests with huge investments in premises, infrastructure and human resources that successive governments have been reluctant to address from fear of the so-called "political cost" expressed during general elections.

More than 20,000 teachers are employed in just over 5,000 education institutions where 200,000 students pay between EUR500-600 a month for two to three years for tuition they should have received at school. The system makes a mockery of "free state education".

Although state teachers are not allowed to work in such institutions, most do to supplement their low income while the rest hold private lessons in their own homes, often to students of their own class at the state school. Moreover, young teachers employed in such institutions take private lessons while waiting to be appointed to state or private schools.

Any attempt to reform these areas of education have failed miserably because the interests involved are extremely powerful. The present government, with a majority of one, cannot possibly hope to deal with the situation; that is why, in the wake of last December's unrest, it is seeking to obtain a joint decision from all the political parties.

Two ideas currently widely discussed are an additional year in senior high school preparatory to entering university and university entrance examinations carried out by an independent board which would also set the subjects. Other proposals will have to be submitted in the next two months while the dialogue is due to end in the summer and voted by parliament before the start of the new school year.

Whether or not it is a public relations trick by the government it is undoubtedly a clever one and it remains to be seen whether it will come off. The government has nothing to lose, unlike the other political parties which will receive no credit if it succeeds and be blamed if it fails.

During the dialogue the government, which hitherto has given no signs that it favours government by consent, can dictate its own terms and be as tough and intransigent as it wants. If the other parties break off talks the government can accuse them of torpedoing the process at the same time claiming that it is the only responsible power in the country.

The possibility of all being in vain is also on the cards if Karamanlis decides he is unable to govern in a worsening economic climate with his slim majority and calls a general election. Then, win or lose, and the odds are the government will lose, it will be a whole new ball game for whichever party comes to power.