Thursday, October 13, 2016

Greek parents padlock school against refugee children as education plan gets underway

Greek parents padlocked the gates of a school on Tuesday in protest against a controversial plan to allow refugee children access to education.

The parents waved Greek flags outside the school in the village of Profitis, about 15 miles east of the northern city of Thessaloniki, with some saying they were concerned that the refugee children had not been vaccinated against infectious diseases.

For the second consecutive day, many of them kept their children at home, saying they want local authorities to address their concerns before they will end their boycott.

It was the most extreme protest against a plan being implemented by the Left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, to give schooling to thousands of refugee children who have been left trapped in Greece since the Balkan migration route to northern Europe was blocked earlier this year.

Most of the 60,000 refugees and other migrants stranded in Greece are living in "appalling conditions" and face "immense and avoidable suffering," Amnesty International said in a recent report.

Greek parents have denied that they are racist, claiming that instead they are concerned over health issues.

They also say that many state schools are already overcrowded and under-resourced. But in some parts of the country their worries have been stoked by far-Right extremists, who are staunchly opposed to the education plan.

Around 60,000 asylum-seekers, many of them Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, are stuck in Greece after its northern neighbours, including Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, closed their borders in the spring.

On Monday, on the first day of the school initiative, around 100 police officers formed a corridor to enable about 40 refugee children to enter the school in Profitis.  "We are told these children have been vaccinated, but we don't believe them," one parent told the AFP news agency.

In other towns and villages in Greece, refugee children received a warm welcome from Greek parents and teachers. "These children fled war, fled hell," said Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, who brought sweets for the new arrivals when they turned up at a school in the city. "Soon they will learn Greek, you will be able to play together," he said.

The Greek government wants more than 10,000 refugee children to be able to go to school while their families wait for their asylum applications to be considered. About 500 children attended classes in 20 schools across the country on Monday, the first day of the programme.

Thousands more are expected to join the scheme in the coming weeks. They will attend special afternoon classes where they will be taught in Greek and in either English or their own language.  The long-term plan is to merge them into mainstream classes, once they have learned enough Greek.


Bilingual education battle revived in Proposition 58

When Palo Alto software entrepreneur Ron Unz led a campaign to ban bilingual education 18 years ago, California erupted in an acrimonious debate that drew national attention, with proponents expressing fears about the decline of English and opponents charging racism and predicting an educational Armageddon.

But today, in a sign of the Golden State’s dramatically changing demographics and politics, the campaign to roll back the “English-only” Proposition 227 seems low-key and uncontroversial, overshadowed by a bevy of hot-button ballot initiatives and the emotionally charged presidential race.

Through Proposition 58 on the November ballot, bilingual education proponents seek to permit public schools to teach in languages other than English, without securing explicit parental permission, as is now required.

A recent Field-IGS Poll showed that Californians overwhelmingly support the measure. But when they find out what the ballot language omits — that it would reinstate bilingual education — that support turns to opposition.

The proposition’s author, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, says the measure will help prepare students for jobs in a globalized economy. “We already have a natural reserve of children speaking other languages,” he said. “Why not help promote learning their native language?”

Lara insists he doesn’t advocate returning to the pre-Proposition 227 days, when many immigrant children were taught for years in Spanish, often without their parents’ permission or knowledge, and went on to struggle in English.

“All kids should learn English,” Lara said. “What we’re questioning is the method we use to get there.”

Proposition 58’s opponents, however, argue that English-teaching shouldn’t be delayed, and they emphasize what’s commonly observed: The younger the children, the easier and faster they learn English. And, the opponents say, parents have the right to know if their kids are placed in a class taught in a foreign language.

If Proposition 58 passes, “we are going back to a system that will ghettoize children,” said Kenneth Noonan, a retired Gilroy and San Diego schools superintendent and former bilingual education leader who now sees its failings. “It’s just not right.”

After eliminating bilingual education in his Oceanside school district, Noonan said, reading scores of second-grade English-learners grew 100 percent.

Bilingual education already has crept back into California schools because of legal provisions that allow parents to sign waivers to place a child in non-English classes. San Jose Unified School District offers bilingual classes in 14 elementary and middle schools, Mount Diablo Unified in six schools. In particular, programs that immerse children in a foreign language from kindergarten have become popular among parents of English-speaking children.

Proposition 58 could have a significant effect on the 22 percent of California’s 6.2 million students in public schools who are learning English as a second language.

Many parents see the measure as a way to make it easier to start teaching their children in their native language because schools won’t have to get signed permission to do so. “Our children will begin learning academic concepts without losing months” in English-only classes in which they hardly understand a word, said Jacqueline Garcia, a mother of three children at McKinley School in San Jose. And, she added, children learning in their first language can get help from parents who don’t speak English. “It’s always better when parents can be involved in their children’s studies,” she said.

Proponents also say it will promote bilingualism – which they say is becoming increasingly vital in business. “It’s a good idea, absolutely,” said Frank Guerrero, father of a fourth-grader in a Spanish-immersion class at San Jose’s Willow Glen Elementary. He, his wife and son are all bilingual.

Teachers unions, the state school boards association, the state PTA, Gov. Jerry Brown and a slew of Democratic politicians all back Proposition 58. Proponents have raised about $1.9 million, much of it coming from the California Teachers Association and other unions.

That has left Unz, who spearheaded Proposition 227, waging a lonely campaign to protect the status quo. The Republican and Libertarian parties have signed on but aren’t contributing any financial support. Unz hasn’t reported raising any money for a campaign.

Unz staunchly sticks by the benefits of English-only teaching. Proposition 227, he said, “is one of the very few totally successful ballot initiatives in the history of California,” he said. “Everybody knows it’s very, very easy for children to learn English at a young age.”

In June 1998, his initiative passed overwhelmingly, winning more than 61 percent of the vote. And rather than the predicted educational disaster, he said, state test scores of English-learners rose substantially.

Bilingual-education proponents, however, point to a George Mason University study from 1998 to 2000 that showed that the switch in teaching methods did not narrow the wide achievement gap between English-learners and native speakers.

Proponents favor so-called dual-immersion schools, which have spread throughout the state, including in San Jose, Palo Alto, San Mateo, Oakland and Concord, according to multilingual-education consultant Claudia Lockwood. Most of the 430 schools are Spanish-English, but others teach Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, German or French.

Unz contends that Proposition 58 is backed by dual-immersion Anglo families, who need a certain number of Spanish-speaking children for their program model to work. Eliminating the current requirement for parents to sign waivers makes it easier to populate those programs, he said.

Educators, however, see the waivers as impeding bilingual classes, especially when skeptical parents have to be convinced to sign up their children.  “It is a tedious process,” said Jose Espinoza, director of English-learner services for the Mount Diablo district.

But critics of bilingual education say parents are right to feel uncertain.

Isabel Ocampo says her older daughter had attended a Spanish immersion program in Redwood City from kindergarten. A native Spanish speaker, she reached middle school struggling in English and math, said Ocampo, who then decided to pull her younger daughter from the Spanish program.

“It is important to be bilingual,” Ocampo said, “but it is more important to know what you’re doing. I can’t sacrifice one thing for another.”


Rise of the home ‘unschoolers’ – where children learn only what they want to

To the extent to which it works at all, it probably works because of subtle adult guidance

It’s Tuesday morning in Coventry and three children are making clay seal pups on the dining table at home. Zephan is four, so his looks a bit like an aeroplane. Noah and Josiah, 10 and 13, are carefully shaping flippers. A book about seals lies open on the sofa. This morning’s activity was Zephan’s idea, inspired by the boys’ term-time holiday to see seal cubs on the Pembrokeshire coast.

While other children may be fidgeting at their desks in school, these boys can take the day in whichever direction they choose. Zephan goes off to make a den; Noah picks up his Lego; Josiah decides the seal activity has more life in it and starts a painting.

This is “unschooling” in action, a step beyond home education because children decide what they’d like to learn and when. Unlike school, or more traditional types of home education, there’s no curriculum, no imposed learning, no testing. The children set the agenda and pace; the aim is to learn through living.

For Alice Khimasia, mother to Zephan, Noah, Josiah and their 14-year-old brother, Elias, this is an antidote to school. “In year 3 I started to be concerned about Elias,” she says. “He seemed to lose his spark, almost like the light in his eyes went out. He seemed downcast. He stopped looking at people. He exhibited anxious behaviour.” Khimasia had written off home education as “weird” but she and her husband, Kaushil, a supply teacher, started to research it. Then came a snowy day in January 2010: “It was the most beautiful day, clear and bright,” she recalls. “The boys were so excited when they woke up. So I rang school and said: ‘The boys won’t be in today, we want to play in the snow!’ And we didn’t go back.”

Unschooling, also known as autonomous, child-led or delight-directed learning, has spread across the world from its inception in the counter culture of 1970s America. There are no firm figures for how many children are home educated in the UK, let alone unschooled, as there is no legal obligation for parents to register their children, but a 2015 survey put the figure at 36,609 home-educated children. The real number is likely to be much higher.

Anecdotally unschoolers appear to be increasing. “If you mean people taking their kids out of school and not teaching them in a structured way, that’s definitely on the rise,” says Simon Webb, author of Elective Home Education in the UK. “On most of the lists and the Facebook sites you can see that’s the trend, to not have to teach them as they do in school.”

Khimasia’s sons spend their days exploring their world. In addition to Zephan’s interest in ancient Egypt, Noah’s fondness for the Bloodhound land speed record car, Josiah’s art and Elias’s engineering, they tend an allotment, attend a woodwork class with a group of pensioners and swim with other home-educated children. For Khimasia, who trained as a teacher, unschooling has required a shift in her mindset. “I’ve had to let go of a lot of my thinking. I’m more of a mentor, encouraging the boys to have a vision and to undertake their own projects.”

According to a 2013 study by Boston College professor Peter Gray, which looked at the outcomes of 75 adults who had been unschooled as children: “Unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation and desire to learn.”

Khimasia’s eldest son, Elias, standing in his workshop in the back garden tinkering with the hydrogen generator he’s just built, appears a particularly self-reliant young man. At 14, he has chosen to re-enter formal education, attending an engineering academy to gain the GCSEs he feels confident will eventually lead to a career in the automotive industry. He feels unschooling’s emphasis on self-directed learning has made him a problem solver and given him time and space to follow his passions. “My teacher described me as the ‘Google of engineering’ because I’ve had experience actually building, designing and inventing things.”

Yet unschooling has its detractors. “If a child is really curious about the world and enthusiastic about learning, he or she can spend as long as needed to explore various topics and pick up valuable life skills,” says Webb. “But some parents might not understand this method, so the child drifts, not doing much.”

Although the majority of respondents in Gray’s study were positive about their unschooling experience, three were unhappy, stating they came from dysfunctional, socially isolating families. One, who grew up in the UK, wrote: “I actively disagree with unschooling because I believe that it is a very easy way for unwell parents to bring their children up without needing to actively participate/integrate into society.” She didn’t study anything or develop a satisfactory plan for her own life, she said.

Although the responsibility in law for children’s education is with their parents, local authorities have a statutory duty to make sure all children get a suitable education. In an effort to do this the Local Government Association has called for the power to compel parents to register home-educated children and for the right to enter premises to see children and check the suitability of education being provided. But some home educators claim local authorities already have extensive powers and are not exercising these fully.

Lewis James, 26, from Rotherham, was taken out of school at the age of 11. He describes his home education as “no schooling”, even though he was visited annually by a local authority inspector and signed off as receiving a suitable education. “But I wasn’t really doing anything. I mainly did drawing and made things out of Plasticine. My mum used to make excuses, like my uncle was in a car crash, and she said it was too stressful for me to do any work. We moved when I was 14 and after that I didn’t see anyone from the council.”

At 16, with no qualifications or work experience, Lewis tried to get a job, but it didn’t work out. At 17 he went to college to do wall and floor tiling and worked as a cleaner. Eventually he approached the Prince’s Trust, which gave him a grant to set up his own business as an illustrator and in 2015 he became a young ambassador for the trust, speaking at events where he tells his story of turning from ”Neet” to young entrepreneur.

Khimasia has had a broadly positive experience with the local authority, and her annual inspections have taken place without incident, but not everyone wants inspectors in their home. Julie Coles Bunker, from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, withdrew her three children from school when they were 13, 11 and eight and unschooled them at home. “They weren’t happy in school and the schools weren’t meeting their needs,” she says. “For my children, they did not want to have anybody invading their privacy, wanting to interview them and ask questions. My children have the right to a private life so we chose to give written information.”

Dr Helen Lees, senior lecturer in education studies at Newman University, Birmingham, recognises that some families will resent state involvement, but feels there is a need to modify the inspection regime to the benefit of children and parents: “We need to understand whether parents are engaging their children in a suitable and efficient way. It has to be non-intrusive and inoffensive, but it is not unreasonable to ask carers to explain what they’re doing and why.”

For Khimasia her philosophy is clear: “I want my children to become independent lifelong learners and to know that whatever they want to learn, they can learn it. Lay on a feast of interesting ideas and children will learn – that’s what they do.”


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