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Changing the world through education

«Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world». Nelson Mandela was right. In order to change the world one needs to change people. And education is the catalyst

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When it comes to private schools – which are constitutionally guaranteed in Greece- the government strives to undermine the freedom of choice private education allows.  Any effort to differentiate the school programme, or undertake any sort of quality assessment in private schools, is hindered.
When it comes to private schools – which are constitutionally guaranteed in Greece- the government strives to undermine the freedom of choice private education allows. Any effort to differentiate the school programme, or undertake any sort of quality assessment in private schools, is hindered.

by Evy Christophilopoulou*

It is unanimously accepted that education contributes to the development of human personality and hence it is a requirement of human dignity.  In accordance with this belief education has been accorded the status of a human right, both in national, constitutional and international legal orders. 

The right to education is at the same time a social right and a freedom right.  The social right to education consists of the right of everyone to be granted equal access to the existing education institutions.  In this respect the state must take active steps aimed at realising the right.  On the other hand, as a freedom right, the right to education requires the state to respect free choice of education and the freedom to set up and run private schools . The right to education operates as a multiplier, in the sense that it enhances all other human rights when guaranteed, and forecloses the enjoyment of most, if not all, when denied . 

Legal guarantees offer, however, very little results if there is insufficient political will. We also need an effective enforcement mechanism in place for implementation. Moreover, the various national and international legal texts have not prevented the illiteracy of 775 million of the world’s citizens.  Nor have they prevented 67.4 million children remaining out of school (mostly in developing countries), 60% of them being girls. 

There is a strong correlation between literacy and education on the one hand, and economic and social progress on the other. Graca Machel summarised in one word why education makes a difference; and that word is “empowerment”. 

As the economist Amartya Sen pointed out in his book Development as Freedom , education is crucial to give people not only knowledge and skills, but also capabilities such as confidence and self-esteem, which they need to participate in society. For example providing education to marginalised children and young people means they are more likely to participate in political and representative bodies, and therefore participate in directly or indirectly shaping their own future. Similarly, evidence from sub-Saharan Africa shows that increasing access to primary school promotes citizen endorsement of democracy and rejection of non-democratic alternatives. 

The same is true for environmental protection. Only people who sufficiently understand science to recognise the problem of climate change, can push governments to act according to environmental principles. The 2006 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) assessment of scientific literacy of 15 year olds proves that students that do better in science tests have higher environmental awareness and stronger sense of responsibility for sustainable development. The link between education and economic growth and poverty reduction, human development and well being, the availability of human rights and democracy, social cohesion and peace-building, resilience and environmental sustainability is clear. 

It cannot be stressed enough that the educational problems do not only concern the developing world, as one could possibly assume from the available international organisations’ literature and studies. 

To name but one example, Greece has taken many steps backwards “de-moting” educational freedom during the last year. 

Public schools of excellence, to which access was guaranteed through exams, have been abolished. Meritocracy gradually becomes an unknown word in the Greek educational system.  Instead of guaranteeing the same educational opportunities for all children, regardless of their socio-economic background, a lower standard of education is forced upon everyone in the name of uniformity. Excellence is under attack in the present Government. 

When it comes to private schools – which are constitutionally guaranteed in Greece- the government strives to undermine the freedom of choice private education allows.  Any effort to differentiate the school programme, or undertake any sort of quality assessment in private schools, is hindered. 

This is alarming not only because private schools allow for economic growth and help reduce unemployment among teachers, who are heavily affected by the financial crisis.  It is also significant mostly because differentiation, innovative practices, and excellence in education, are the necessary environment to foster new talent and allow for the full potential of the new generation.  Freedom of choice, as a constitutive part of freedom of education, is a necessary precondition for the optimum allocation of resources and the best possible outcomes of an educational system . 

 Instead of acting like a deeply conservative society, that it is afraid of anything new or different, we ought to open up our educational system,  decentralize it,  allow new ideas to flourish.  The State must of course guarantee certain qualitative features of the system.  But it cannot -and should not- fully control the system. 

In our Digital era of multiple sources of information and instantaneous multiple communication channels worldwide, trying to create a centrally controlled monolithic educational system is an anachronistic and dystopian effort.   We need to allow for innovation, both in public and private schools, through openness, competition and exchanges of best practices. 

Allow me to close with some final remarks on university education in Greece, which illustrate the above. Our Constitution is one of the very few European Constitutions -if not the only one- which provides for a state monopoly in university education.  This closed system is unsustainable in practice. European legislation and case law,  as well as the Council of State case law, have resulted in accepting all sorts of European degrees as a professional qualification, fully recognized in Greece.  

I want to end by citing Paulo Freire: it is a call to all of us, politicians, educators and academics alike: “let us strive, in unity, to make education the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world”.

*MP with the Democratic Coalition

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