By Nick Theodoulou
Increasing numbers of migrant children enrolled in state education have left both schools and students unable to cope and under urgent need of assistance, education officials warned this week.
“Our position is that a special school year must be allocated to students with migrant backgrounds with an intensive Greek learning course – this is what the education ministry must do,” president of Secondary Education Teachers Union (Oelmek), Costas Hadjisavvas, told the Sunday Mail.
He explained that this was vital as the current programme does not meet its objectives of teaching Greek to a satisfactory level.
Currently, students from a migrant background (SMBs) attend public school as normal – even though many of them arrive intermittently throughout the school year. In some cases, SMBs may even arrive two months before the end of the school year yet are still expected to take exams.
They do receive extra Greek lessons, but at the cost of missing out on other core curriculum classes.
“Many of them do not understand a word of Greek, but they are in the ordinary classes with the rest of the children,” Hadjisavvas said. “Understandably, since some students cannot follow the lesson, they become disruptive.”
These concerns are shared by president of the Federation of Secondary School Parents (Pasygome) Charalambos Dionysiou.
“It is challenging for the new children: they are coming to a foreign place, they do not speak the language,” Dionysiou told the Sunday Mail.
Dionysiou said that there are only a few schools in the larger cities capable of helping SMBs.
“At the moment the number is increasing, and schools in other areas – not just the large cities – are having to become better equipped,” Dionysiou said.
This week Education Minister Prodromos Prodromou also highlighted the importance of integrating migrant children into the school system, saying the issue is being discussed at the House.
“It’s a state policy and a ministry practice to ensure the smooth induction of these pupils into public schools and to provide them — as is their right — with the education stipulated by this country,” he said.
But this was not the tone of a letter sent in late February by the FSSP to the House education committee, which described in detail the situation at schools and taking aim at the government’s current programme for students with migrant backgrounds.
“Students are not learning Greek to the required level and are not able to follow the lessons,” the FFSP letter read. “In most cases they are simply ‘observers’.”
When SMBs do take Greek booster lessons, the teacher in most cases only speaks Greek or English – which many students do not understand. It also highlights that among the SMBs there is a diversity of languages spoken – with many of them not even understanding each other.
“The teachers also struggle, in some schools there have to be translators – at least an Arabic translator,” Dionysiou said.
Education officials have also spoken of a holistic approach to the issue, as there are wider problems.
“It’s not only in the classroom, it’s the societal difficulties. It’s hard for their parents – there needs to be more support from the state,” Dionysiou said.
There are also grave concerns that children arriving from war-torn countries also need care outside of school.
“There also has to be psychologists for the children, you need social workers for the families,” Dionysiou said. “Put yourself in their place, going from one country to a foreign place by boat and not knowing the language or having money – it’s very challenging to orient themselves.”
Officials from the Nicosia and Limassol municipalities said many programmes and actions are already being implemented by local authorities, such as a programme for social workers in schools, but they depend on funding from the government and the European Union.
“The state must help out, but from what we have heard the state also requires additional EU funds, which have to be increased,” Dionysiou said.
Asked about the long-term picture, in say 10 or 20 years’ time, he said “let’s take small steps at a time, and hopefully in the right direction.”
Many NGOs and observers are concerned that if the children of migrants do not integrate at an early age, their prospects of becoming a functioning member of society will be dim.
If the opportunity is missed at a young age, there is a real risk of societal alienation down the road.