Shepherds and sheepskins: an eagerness for education

Alarm bells are ringing in Greek education. Last June, the nation's supreme court ruled that foreign schools can open for business in Greece. That is a "threat" Greek leaders did not bargain for in joining the European Community (EC) this year. The court ruling came when the government tried to close down St. Lawrence College, a prep school available to Greeks which was opened last year by R. J. O. Meyers, founder of Millfield School in England.

The Greek Constitution gives the government sole responsibility for education in Greece, but the court cited a provision in the EC's Treaty of Rome which allows free flow of educational institutions among member nations.

High demand for education in Greece makes it a lucrative market for private schools. The ruling has encouraged about 20 foreign educational institutions, mainly British and profit-oriented prep schools, to pursue entry into Greece. An estimated 180 other foreign schools want to start teaching languages.

Government concern over losing control of education is based on the expectation that foreign schools would corrupt "the national heritage."

In the meantime, however, the crisis points to a deeper question: Will the new European competition in business generally force reforms in Greek schools?

"Greece will not be competitive in the EC until it changes its educational system," contends Alexis C. Dimaras, headmaster of the junior high grades at the Moraitis School, an upper-class private school in an Athens suburb.

Greek education is very conservative by European standards, relying on a 150 -year-old system imported from Germany. Spending is below EC averages. Curriculum is highly rigid, with no electives. Government interest in equality in education means the system does not "track," or push along, bright students.

If reform comes, it will be in unblocking the bottleneck for Greeks who want to get a university degree in their own country. At present, the government limits the number of higher-education openings to what it thinks is the number of available jobs for graduates. The result: Only about 20 percent of the 100, 000-plus applicants are accepted. Another 20 percent go abroad, taking precious foreign exchange.

The pressure to pass university entrance exams has caused an explosion of Greek-run cram-evening and on weekends. These schools are now students as young as 16 years old. Last year the government began trying to control their activities.

In 1977, the government tried to funnel less-qualified high school students into vocational technical schools to relieve the pressure for university education. (The first Greek attempt to push technical training was made by the ancient ruler Solon, who drew up a law that a son who under no obligation to support him.)

The government's try has all but failed before the political force of social-climbing families who view "voc-ed" as a second choice to a university degree. The result is that 90 percent of students still take college prep education.

Foreign schools would like to "sell" their education to those students. "If the door is open, I suspect we will have more profit-oriented schools, while the schools with good reputations will wait until later," Dimaras says.

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