The cost of excellence

By Maria Katsounaki

Greeks tend to have ambivalent feelings toward excellence. They all acknowledge its importance and lavish it with praise. After all, excellence is considered the engine of growth and innovation, and a major education booster.

However, when the time actually comes to hammer out policy, select priorities, set aside funds, and create and operate structures to support and promote excellence, there is always that peculiar reluctance that often borders on all-out rejection.

We often read headlines about some Greek who excelled in that area or another. But the news often comes with a sense of relief when it actually concerns a Greek who lives abroad because he or she obviously does not disrupt the domestic order, creating fresh obligations or competition.

There is no shortage of examples: at universities, in public administration, in secondary education. It is no coincidence that the government’s efforts to promote an evaluation system for civil servants have met with repeated obstacles. Evaluators are always found to be insufficient or inappropriate because the evaluated always deem themselves to be superior.

The case of model experimental schools in secondary education is an interesting example. Legislation regarding these institutions was approved by Parliament in 2011 before schools began operating in the 2012-13 academic year.

About 8,000 applications were filed for the 36 model experimental senior schools nationwide last year (24 municipal schools are also operating across Greece). This year the number of those applying rose to 11,000 students. Society backed an institution which in its early days was met with arrogance even by the secondary school teachers’ union (OLME), for its exam requirements. The schools were also slammed by a portion of the Greek left for being elitist, competitive and market-oriented. The way in which these schools were designed to operate (staff evaluations, transfers and appointments are not carried out by members of teachers’ unions) proved annoying to some.

While in the beginning the political system hailed the new system, it soon began to subtly dismantle it. Newly appointed Education Minister Andreas Loverdos extended the deadline for admission test applications at the very last minute as some parents had failed to do so on time and were exerting pressure. Was this a first step toward damaging the new system’s credibility? Nevertheless the most serious matter remains the lack of administrative structure, even a rudimentary administrative mechanism capable of handling the system’s consolidation and expansion.

While rhetoric on excellence abounds, the cost of its implementation is turning out to be painful, not only for the political system (as it is not deemed vote-worthy) but to all those who are up for evaluation.