My school sits in the port city of Piraeus, a few kilometres from Athens. It was built in 1980 and was once an open-air cinema. Today it hosts 260 pupils aged 6-12. The 12 classrooms are small and only just accommodate an average of 22 pupils per group and their teachers.
The situation is worse in the playground – children have to avoid bumping into each other as they play. On rainy days, things deteriorate further as pupils spend breaktimes in the corridors. Slight injuries are common, with teachers unable to maintain control and impose discipline. PE lessons are also confined to the corridors on rainy days. Luckily, we have many days of sunshine.
Lessons begin at 8.10am and end at 2pm, with four short breaks throughout the day. The curriculum is divided up: the younger pupils in classes A, B and C are taught 11 subjects and the older pupils in D, E and F are taught 16. The courses are intensive and compulsory as the school programme has been set by the Ministry of Education for the past five years.
Approximately 40 students stay after school each day until 4pm, eating their packed lunches and completing homework. For most Greek children, the school day is not over when they leave – in addition to doing homework, they attend private evening courses in foreign languages, or practise basketball, ballet or gymnastics.
Many teachers challenge the school curriculum and attempt to balance education with a respect for childhood and a child’s need for joy. It is quite difficult to combine these in a harsh environment. However, we find consolation and encouragement when pupils produce nice paintings, enjoy an interesting text, collectively discuss a progressive idea or find a solution to a problem.
Poverty knocks on the doors of students and teachers – and even the school. Severe deindustrialisation, coupled with the economic crisis of recent times, has led to vast unemployment. There are students in our school who cannot recall their parents ever working.
Family bonds and grandparents’ pensions prevent the most extreme poverty, but there are still students whose nutritional intake is limited to pasta, pulses and vegetables.
Teacher salaries have been cut by 20 per cent for senior members of staff and up to 40 per cent for newcomers. The new teachers, who are often on temporary contracts, face great financial difficulty when the school season is over and a period of job insecurity begins.
The school had computers installed almost two decades ago, but we cannot afford to replace or even maintain them. Bills for necessities, such as central heating, electricity and telephones, are paid with difficulty.
The parents’ association makes donations as far as it can; it buys photocopy paper, detergents to keep the school clean and crayons. But most of all, the parents continue hoping and fighting for their children’s future.