Greek education system needs flexibility to integrate refugees, says Canadian linguist

The Greek education system needs to become more flexible to help children refugees integrate better and faster in their new country, University of Toronto’s language Professor Jim Cummins said on Wednesday during a one-day conference dedicated to his work.

“Every country chooses what policy to follow to integrate the children of refugees in schools, based on its tradition and priorities,” he said, speaking at “Languages, identities and rights in school: on the occasion of Jim Cummins’ work”.

“But the general direction of linguists is that the sooner these children enter the basic educational curriculum, the better,” he added.

Cummins noted however that the fast integration has an important precondition: the system’s flexibility. “Integration doesn’t just require us to throw children in at the deep end and ask them to swim. There must be some flexibility from the teachers, there must be support for the students to learn the extra language and, ideally, there must be support to learn their maternal language,” he explained.
He gave the example of Canada, where schools allocate 2.5 hours for kids to learn their maternal language, outside the regular school hours, in programs funded by the government. There’s also support to learn English.

“But this is quite far from the Greek system,” he said. “Greece has a much more specific and centrally driven [by the Ministry of education] curriculum, which teachers must follow strictly and so it becomes more difficult to adapt to the needs of pupils coming from another cultural background and may have suffered a trauma. I believe the Greek system should show some flexibility to meet the needs of these children.”

Asked what Greece should do to change this system, Cummins said there are several experts in the country who understand Greek reality and could work together to discuss the best steps for the state to take. “It’s important that there is knowledge and experience from the systems of other countries but because every country is unique, solutions must be found that will develop in the Greek education system,” he said.

Cummins became an Honorary Doctorate of the Department of Education and Education in Early Childhood of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. His areas of specialization include literacy and multiliteracies, technology and academic language learning, English as a second language and critical pedagogy.