Education and the Greeks: Statistics tell a tale of modest improvement

We are bombarded daily and on all sides by statistics. But what is the effect of the overproduction and overconsumption of baseless, as a general rule, statistical facts? On the one hand, we are informed of the slightest ephemeral effect caused by the merest ephemeral statement by an unimportant and ephemeral politician (and naturally, these statistical facts will be forgotten a few hours later, since other, equally trivial data will succeed them). On the other hand, we are wholly ignorant of the facts that could provide a steadier guide for our lives, such as the population censuses that take place every decade and other figures so persistently compiled by that much neglected institution, the National Statistics Service (NSS). This article attempts, through a collation of the specific indices, to give a picture of that most important facet of Greek society, which is rarely discussed – the general level of education of the population of Greece. I will confine myself to educational performance over the past few decades, using data from the NSS censuses, focusing exclusively on the less educated sector of population. Table 1 shows the percentage of Greeks who range from the illiterate to the least educated (primary school-leavers) out of the total population aged over 20. The figures speak of a past that is very close to the present, as all 50-year-olds of today were born and grew up in the the educational environment of the 1950s, when one-third of the population had never been to school. Illiterate nation Starting out as a nation of total illiterates (in the 1870 census, 82 percent of the population did not even know how to write their names), Greece for years chugged on as a nation of semi-literates. Just a few decades ago, the majority of Greeks were gradually introduced to the simplest forms of written culture, and managed to obtain a primary school education. Today, 43.7 percent of Greeks only have a primary school education at best. To this lowest level of education let us add what is the basic level of education today: junior high school graduates. Table 2 shows the percentage of the population aged over 20 that includes illiterates to graduates of the third class of junior high. Table 3 shows the other side of the coin: the percentage of the population which, during the same years, managed to get academic qualifications ranging from a school-leaving certificate to a postgraduate degree. To round off this brief statistical overview, we should remember that the long-suffering candidates for entry into higher education institutes are not the rule but the exception, while enrolled students form only the absolute minority of young people aged 18-25. Not only that, but out of the total population aged over 25 years of age, only 5 percent in 1981, 8.2 percent in 1991 and 10.4 percent in 2001 had a degree, received either in Greece or abroad. Leaving exceptions aside, let’s look at the educational progress, over the decades, of the silent majority and their descendants. This silent majority was gradually incorporated into primary school classes during the postwar years. From the 1970s-1980s and later, they could cultivate expectations that their children would be able to finish senior high school. As for their grandchildren (today’s under-25s), 66 percent are destined to complete secondary school. The reality is assuredly more complex than the indices, which have the defect of skimming over the substance, that is, the processes which led to this result. The statistics given here are mostly unknown. But I want to relate them to other facts, which are known to all. No one is ignorant of the fact that free state education is still not in the position, even today, to ensure more than the basics for Greek citizens. In practice, whatever need there may be for further education (such as learning a foreign language) can only be met by various forms of private education: tuition institutes and private lessons and schools. This is the basic difference between Greece and other European countries. In short, the educational process in Greece is carried out in a context of institutes that are inexplicably dysfunctional, time-wasting, exorbitantly expensive and convoluted, and by an indissoluble nexus of private and public institutes. Inevitably, this results in swollen demand for every possible kind of cramming and tuition school. Consequently, the figures in the tables, which show a clear improvement in the average educational level, owe little to the rapid turnover of education ministers or to regular announcements regarding the restructuring and upgrading of public education, or to the gold mine of European funding for education. The younger generations’ acquisition of a school-leaving certificate was to a great extent funded by the preceding generation of primary school-leavers. This trend, which began at the end of the 1970s, was linked to the rise in incomes, the growth of consumerism and tuition schools. During the same period, the silent rural majority emerged one way or another into the modern world, and were rebaptized as the ubiquitous lower-middle classes. (1) Aliki Vaxevanoglou is a researcher for the Research Center into Greek Society of the Academy of Athens.