Starting a school in crisis conditions? A Waldorf school initiative in Athens

Cornelie Unger-Leistner

The school project group has been meeting for the past eight years and includes mothers, teachers and a musician. Their work has started from four small Waldorf kindergartens in various parts of the city, and one outside Athens, each of which has one group of children. Three of the kindergartens are named after Greek trees: Pomegranate, Walnut and Almond, while a fourth is called Rainbow. Until now, the 40 or so children who attend these Waldorf centres have had to go on to state schools when they reach formal schooling age.

But change is now afoot in Athens. Last year a first submission was made to the minister for education and culture with a view to founding a primary school, and the longer term aim of a secondary school as well. The school will seek “to enable children and adolescents to become independent and responsible citizens in society and the world by allowing them to develop as human beings in a healthy way in the context of Greek culture”.

Disappointed parents

“Parents are disgruntled with state schools, and they’re looking for alternatives,” says Elisabeth, a Waldorf parent in the project group. Children are increasingly expected to produce higher academic performance at an ever earlier age, and many parents don’t like the trend. “Teachers don’t really get the children interested in the subjects they teach them. They’re completely focused on them getting good enough marks to enter college or university.” Maria, who is herself a teacher in the state system, also thinks that far too little emphasis is placed on modern ways of working such as teamwork. “People keep saying that in Greece people don’t learn nearly enough about working together, and that this is also one of the causes of the current crisis. Yet the government offers no visions for changing this.”

The location of Várkiza originally planned for the school has been dropped now since kindergarten parents thought it was too far away. Finding a potential site is one of the obstacles the initiative needs to address if the Athens Waldorf school is to become a reality. Athens, with its extensive suburbs, has a population almost two times that of Hamburg. And, as Michael Tsigotsides explains, parents are not accustomed to their children travelling a long way to get to school.

The legal position is also very problematic at present, since the Greek constitution places exclusive responsibility for schooling in the hands of the state. The initiative group’s application to the minister of culture and education last year did, however, represent an important first step.

A new education concept to counter the crisis

Household budgets in Greece are still under dire pressure, and there is no current prospect of improvement here. The recession in Greece is now in its sixth year and the gross national product has shrunk by a quarter during the same period. With tax and inflation on top, the average disposable income of Greek citizens over this period has fallen by around 40 percent.

The austerity measures – above all public sector lay-offs, reductions in wages and pensions, and cut-backs in the health service – have led to strikes and mass protests.

Furthermore, in the 2012 elections the radical rightwing group the “Golden Dawn” gained many votes, as did the leftwing group Syriza which is critical of Europe. The “Golden Dawn”, which denies the Holocaust and publicly discriminates against and attacks ethnic minorities and migrants, managed to win seats in parliament.

In the context of these social and political upheavals, the work of the Athens Waldorf activists seems reminiscent of the original history of the Waldorf School, which emerged in 1919 from a widespread crisis in Europe following the First World War. “What can be done to remedy these afflictions of our time?” was the anxious question posed by the Stuttgart factory proprietor Emil Molt as he travelled through Switzerland in the upheavals of the post-war period. A lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Dornach, which Molt attended, made him think of founding a school based on new educational principles as a possible way forward out of crisis.

About the author: Cornelie Unger-Leistner is a public relations officer with the German Association of Free Waldorf Schools.

Contact: waldorf.hellas@gmail.com

(This is an edited version of a report first published by NNA News on 12 November 2013 at www.nna-news.org).