Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #4

#4 It is vital for the academic life of the city

Heraklion is a major centre for scientific research. It is home to the Engineering and Medical faculties of the university of Crete (ranked 51st among the top 100 universities worldwide founded in the last 50 years). It is the headquarters of The Foundation for Research & Technology Hellas (FORTH) (one of the largest research organizations in Greece with an international reputation). It is hosts the Technological Educational Institute of Crete. the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, and the Cretaquarium. It is the home of one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, Knossos, and of several museums with international reputations, including the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the Historical Museum of Crete, and the Natural History Museum of Crete.

These institutions conduct world-class research and should attract researchers from around the world. But for academics with families, the presence of an English-speaking school is a prerequisite for moving here, especially for those coming on fixed-term contracts. A visiting researcher or postdoc from the US, say, may not want to put their child into the Greek school system if they will only be staying for two or three years.

Or consider Greek academics who have left the country, as many have in recent years. This ‘brain drain’ is doing terrible damage to Greek scientific research, and it should be a government priority to halt and reverse it. And again English-language schools will be vital to the process, making return easier for Greek ex-pats whose children have so far been educated wholly in English.

In short, Heraklion’s academic institutions need the support of an English-speaking school. Expat Greeks may be persuaded to return if there is an English-speaking school to ease the transition, and non-Greeks may move here if they know their kids will have a school to attend.

At the moment, Heraklion is lucky enough to have an English-speaking school – the European School. Let’s not let it go.

We have lost too much already.

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #3

#3 It is not elitist

I’ve heard it said that the European School in Heraklion is elitist. Only someone who didn’t know the school could say this. The fact is that it is a state school, run by the Greek government. It changes no fees and does not select by academic ability. (This isn’t to say that its admissions policy is perfect; I will say more about this another time.)

Moreover, as anyone who has visited the school will know, it is not well-funded or lavishly equipped. Quite the opposite in fact; it is a continual struggle for managers, teachers, and parents to make ends meet.

The idea that it is elitist probably comes from a misunderstanding of what kind of European School it is.

There are two basic types of European School. Those of the first type are for children of employees of European Union institutions and diplomatic services. They are run directly by the European Schools intergovernmental organization and they are well-funded. Rightly or wrongly, some people regard these schools as elitist, since free admission is limited to children of EU staff, and other parents pay high fees.

But there is a second type of European school. In recent years the European Schools organization has encouraged the creation of accredited schools, which follow the European Schools curriculum but are funded and administered by national governments. At present, there are twelve of these Accredited European Schools and more are planned. These schools make a European Schools education open to a much wider range of pupils, regardless of their parents’ job or ability to pay. The school in Heraklion is of this second kind.

So I firmly deny that our school is elitist. Except perhaps in one sense. It is a school where children belong to a welcoming and diverse community, where they are taught by gifted and committed teachers from many backgrounds, and where learning is stimulating and fun. It may not be a rich school but it is (as the European Schools inspectors themselves) a school with heart. In that respect, its pupils are indeed privileged.

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #2

#2 It is more than a school.

The European School is not just a place where kids are taught. It is a whole community, which has expanded gradually over the years and which now extends across Europe and beyond.

The school has many local Greek students, of course, but it has also welcomed children from all backgrounds, who have for one reason or another come to live in Heraklion. Our school community has welcomed members from Brazil, Finland, France, Holland, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, the UK, the USA, and many other countries.

Students, parents, and teachers have formed a strong and supportive community, which extends far beyond the school gates. They work together to support the school, provide extra activities for the children, and help each out.

We stay in touch with students and parents who have moved away, and many of them return to visit us. When I taught there, former students visiting for the summer would return to their old class to catch up with their friends and share their experiences since leaving. (Last year my class had so many visitors that we decided to hold our own little international conference on learning. Students presented, described, and compared the teaching and learning methods in their various school systems. It was amazing.)

I’ve not taught at the school this year, but I keep in touch with the many friends I made during my time there. Indeed, some of my best friends are former students and parents of this wonderful school.

Reasons to love the European School Heraklion #1

#1 It is a European school, which follows a European curriculum and is open to children from across the continent.

Yes, I know. At the moment many people would say this is a reason to hate the school. We all know about the failures of Europe — the bureaucracy, the lack of solidarity, the way that European institutions have been used to benefit some nations over others.

But this isn’t a reason to give up on Europe. Things won’t get better if we return to the nationalistic outlooks that fostered two great European wars. Rather, we need to build a new Europe — a Europe founded on genuine mutual understanding, respect, and support, whose institutions are flexible and sensitive, drawing on local strengths and supporting local needs, and where national cultures, traditions, and experiences are valued and shared.’

How could we create such a Europe?’ you may ask. Well, maybe by schooling children from different European countries together, in schools where they learn about each other’s culture and traditions, share their experiences and hopes, and learn to think of other European countries not as rival nations but as the homes of their friends. By bringing up young Europeans to be proud of their own country but also proud to belong to a wider family of nations with a shared history and shared ideals.

Is this idealistic? Yes, definitely! But kids are naturally idealistic and we should foster their idealism — and learn from it ourselves. We need the SEEH and more schools like it. Greece needs them. Europe needs them.

Maria K.

To the streets once again

Today I once again marched with students, parents, and teachers of the School of European Education Heraklion, which is again under threat. I took the posters that my dear friend Aglaia Michelakis-Kamprani made with her students in 2014. Many other old colleagues, friends, students, and parents were there. Many more were there in spirit, I’m sure.

Why did I march? A couple of months ago I reluctantly decided, for various reasons, not to teach at the school this year, and I have withdrawn my own children from the school, at least temporarily. So why am I still campaigning for it?

First, of course, for the sake of the students and staff. There are students at the school who have spent their whole school life in the European School system and who have no Greek. How could they join the Greek school system if the SEEH were to close? We owe it to them to allow them to continue their education. The staff—both those already hired and those still waiting—deserve our support, They know how vital the school is and are making great personal sacrifices for it. For example, my good friend Margarita Makrakis is currently self-funding her studies in educational support so that she can provide more effective help to her students. Yet she still doesn’t know if she will be hired this year. How is that for staff commitment? How can we not support such people? I am proud to stand with them.

But more than that, I marched because I still believe in the school and its European mission. There is more to a school than its present. A school is a community. Some of us were there in the past, some of us are there now, some of us are hoping to be there, but we all care for the school and carry it in our hearts, and we all believe in the European ideals set out by Jean Monnet.

I know the school has big problems, and students, parents, and staff are not happy. But we should respond by trying to solve the problems, not by pulling the plug. We must fight to get the right support so that the school can function as it should. We must do this, not only for the students who are dependent on it, but for all the children and families who could benefit from it in the future. And we must do it for ourselves—we have created a wonderful community spirit over the years, and we must preserve it.

I firmly believe that, if it’s to survive, the school must expand. There are many students and parents who have asked to join our community but have been refused. We must let them in, for their sake and ours. With a larger intake, our case for bigger premises and more staff would be far stronger. And by expanding our community we would expand the goodwill towards us. When people see what we are doing and what effects we have on students’ lives, they realize how special this school is and support our cause.

Have we a hope? Yes. I’m sure there are people who can see what this school really is and what it can be, and who have the power and courage to do something about it. If the right person hears us, there is every chance of success.

We owe it to our amazing students—past, current, and future. We owe it to the colleagues who are still waiting to be hired. We owe it to the town, to Crete, to Greece, and—yes, I’ll say it—to Europe. And we owe to it our school community.

Today’s march is over, but the fight is not over. Please, join us.

SEEH students at today's march
SEEH students at today’s march

Bursting the bubble

I’ve just been reading this piece on European Schools by Vincent Manancourt, and I thought I’d offer some reflections.

Vincent explains that he usually says he’s from Luxembourg, since that’s where he was brought up and lives, but that he doesn’t really believe it. He’s actually English, and just lives in Luxembourg, yet he’s not ‘really English’ either.

He suggests that his nationality crisis is due to his having attended the European School in Luxembourg. People from the school didn’t speak the language of the host country and didn’t need to mix with the locals (although he himself did mix to some extent), and in general there wasn’t a sense of permanency in his friends’ residency in Luxembourg. This, he feels, created a tense relationship between the school and the host country. He sums it up by saying that the school exists in a bubble, and the school community is like a stream that flows through Luxembourg but doesn’t have a permanent presence there.

Now, I don’t know Luxembourg and I was not lucky enough to attend a European School myself. But I have travelled and lived in different countries, and I currently teach in a European School (in Heraklion, Crete). And, like Vincent, I feel confused about my national identity. For as long as I can remember I have always felt ill at ease when asked where I was from. It didn’t matter where I was living at the time, what age I was, or who was asking.

I felt people wanted to place me, get the measure of me, and reduce me to a familiar stereotype they could deal with. That might be convenient for them, but it’s simplistic and short-sighted. I knew that a simple answer (even if I could give one) wouldn’t really be helpful to them or fair to me. We are not merely products or representatives of a country, and there is so much more to us, to each one of us, than a birthplace. Someone’s origin was never important to me, no more than their religion, gender, or ethnicity. People are complex collections of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and desires, and a person’s country of origin is just one of a huge number of parameters — and not the most important one. In fact, it would make more sense to ask what food I prefer or what music I like than to ask about my country of origin.

Of course, our connections with countries do colour our habits and attitudes to some extent. But we are not connected only to our birthplaces, and the great benefit of being able to travel and live in different countries is that one can build more connections and enrich one’s outlook.

European Schools facilitate this — they bring different national perspectives together in a natural way. And the school environment need not be an artificial bubble cultivating imported attitudes, but a meeting place, where different cultures can co-exist and flourish together, and where individuals can choose the elements that are most meaningful to them. In this way, students can create their own individual European personalities, drawing on the continent’s rich cultural palette, rather than being defined by their birth certificate.

So at our school, we sing Greek folk songs and bake Swedish pancakes, we dye eggs for Easter and carve pumpkins for Halloween. We study Shakespeare, read Hans Christian Andersen, and recite Cavafy. Some might say it’s a cultural soup – and perhaps it is, but it’s a very nourishing one, and one that builds more strength than some stodgy local diets!

I certainly don’t feel I live in a bubble. Working at the school, I have built up a network of friends across Europe — former pupils, parents, colleagues, and visitors. We keep in touch, they come back to visit, and we visit them. If it’s a bubble, it’s one that includes the whole continent!

Is the school community a transient stream? In a sense, yes — people come and go. But that’s not bad; that’s life. Steams are living things and the school brings new people and new life to Heraklion and carries the culture of Crete and Greece out to the rest of Europe. We need more streams like this!

But maybe others think we live in a bubble? Maybe they think that, since we do not thoroughly assimilate into the host culture, we remain outsiders? Certainly, there is some resistance to the school here and occasional accusations of elitism. But I think such attitudes are misplaced. We do not reject the host culture. Far from it! We embrace it and celebrate it and work on many projects with the local community. But we embrace much more too. We embrace the cultures of the children who have moved here, of the teachers who work here, and of the other schools across Europe with whom we have contacts. If anything, it’s our critics who live in a bubble, shut off from this wider European culture.

Of course, none of this is aimed at Vincent – but rather at the attitudes that make him feel uncomfortable. Moreover, Vincent is absolutely right about one thing – namely that ignorance of the local language keeps you in a bubble. Language is the key to culture, and the more languages you have, the wider your horizons will be. And we should all make an effort to learn the language of the country we are living in, or even just visiting. But, again, the European Schools are helping to puncture these linguistic bubbles. Second languages are learnt from first grade and third languages in high school. Many of my students speak three or four languages and many take extra classes in Greek.

So we need more people to burst out of their bubbles and share the spirit of the European Schools. We need more European Schools; indeed I’d like to see all the schools in Europe become European Schools! Then we can leave our national bubbles, be ourselves, and feel at home everywhere.

Still no news

It’s Wednesday evening and we still have no news from the EU schools meeting in Sophia. It seems our case is low down on the agenda and may not be discussed till tomorrow (the meeting lasts several days).

Meanwhile, I appeared on TV Creta this afternoon, along with Gian Andrea Garancini from the PGA and Fanis Fanourakis from ENISA. I wasn’t pleased with my own performance (I was very tired and migrainy), though Gian Andrea and Fanis put our case well.

When we get any news, I’ll post it here.

One day to go!

Disclaimer: As always I am writing here as a citizen and parent of three pupils at the SEEH, not as a representative of the school’s management, teachers, or PGA.

There is now less than a day left before the meeting of the European Schools Board of Governors in Sophia, Bulgaria. Have we got the Minister’s signature?

Well, if we have, we haven’t been told. Now, I won’t mind at all if I find out that the ministry simply forgot to tell us, or that they regarded it as premature to inform us before the meeting (though I think the parents, teachers, and especially the students deserve better, especially after such a difficult year).

That is, I am not bothered in the slightest, provided the Minister has actually given the explicit confirmations he promised. As long as confirmation is on the table along with all the other papers for tomorrow’s meeting, I won’t be upset. In fact, I’ll be delighted.

But will a document from the Minister be presented tomorrow? And if so, will it say the right things? Perhaps the thing I fear most – almost more than closure – is another fudge, a compromise that keeps the school going but doesn’t solve its underlying problems. I fear this because our children, and therefore we too, simply cannot bear a repeat of this situation next year. We cannot have another year in the same building, with a late start and the same old problems, and with another inspection that the government won’t take seriously. It is demoralising, unsettling, and degrading to us all. And in “us” I include our partners in the European Schools network and all those people who signed our petition (nearly 3,000 worldwide), shared the word about our campaign, and sent us messages of encouragement and support. We owe it to them too not to accept half-baked solutions.

There is another aspect to this. Some of us fear that those responsible for the school, while unwilling to close it outright, may actually want a half-baked solution. They may think that if they keep the school running under unsatisfactory conditions, the psychological pressure on parents will be so great that they will give in and transfer their children to another school. Similarly, teachers and management may become so demoralized that they quit their posts. In this way, the school would collapse of its own accord and the burden of blame for closing it would not fall on any specific individual or group.

I hope no one in authority is thinking in this fashion, but, if they are, then I think they should reflect on the events of the past two weeks, and reconsider their strategy. Parents, teachers, and pupils have shown themselves highly resilient and deeply committed to their school – more so, I suspect, than anyone bargained for.

For myself, I am committed to the school for somewhat selfish reasons — for the sake of my three kids and myself. But I am equally committed to it for the sake of my students, the local community, the region, Greece, and Europe. We would all be poorer if this school were forced to close. I feel I have a duty to do my best for the school. And I know that I am not alone in this – the other parents and teachers and the school management feel the same. We won’t just let the school go. So, no closure, and no half-baked solutions either, please.

We need real solutions, and if we are to get them, we need more students. That way, the problems will start to resolve themselves. The school will be seen to be far more economical, and it will be in the government’s interest to support it. And then the authorities may finally realize that the SEEH, far from being a burden, is a terrific asset for Greece, whose ethos and practices should be adopted throughout the country.

So of all the changes, opening up enrolment may be the key one. If you would like to see this happen and to register your own children at the SEEH, please come and talk to the school management when registrations open in June. Then all sides will win!

Six days to go!

Wednesday was a wonderful, inspiring day.

Pupils, teachers, and parents marched through Heraklion to the City Hall, where they put their case to the city authorities. The Mayor of Heraklion promised to help guarantee our school’s future and the Governor of Crete affirmed his support for the SEEH.

Our campaign got a lot of press coverage, and our petition passed 2,000 signatures.

Our campaign received strong endorsement from many leading academics, including Professor Evripides Stefanou (Rector of the University of Crete), Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis (Head of the The Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB-ITE), Heraklion), Dr Christos Tsatsanis (Vice Dean of the Medical School, University of Crete), and Dr Eleni Vasilaki President of the Department of Primary Education, University of Crete.

Our case is strong and we certainly making an impression! Let’s keep going until we get the Minister’s signature too!