Tuesday, 22 May 2012

English examinations (Εξετάσεις Αγγλικών)

I spent last weekend examining Cretan students' spoken English. The food-related picture cards below were used in past EFL/ESL examinations (this examination format is no longer used in Greece). Bear in mind that examination candidates in Crete (and most of Greece, I'd say) that take EFL exams are predominantly school-age, with a small percentage of tertiary students.

While still in primary school, and in the years leading up to the final high school class, Greek children sit examinations to measure their English language skills. Some of these examinations are internal (ie the examinations are written by Greeks and the examination session is organised by a Greek body), but most are external, held by international examinations syndicates like Michigan University, Cambridge University and Pearson's (which recently replaced Edexcel in Greece). Twice a year, I travel to another part of Crete to conduct English language oral examinations for an external English examination company. I call it a company because a lot of money is spent by parents for their chidlren to sit these exams, and few parents do not send their children at some point to do these exams. This year, enrolments for these examinations were down by a staggering 20-25%, all due to the crisis of course: not only are fewer children attending the preparatory lessons (at the frontistirio) before they sit these exams, but they are not sitting the examinations either because they are very expensive - each exam costs the parents on average €150. Pass marks (ie scores greater than 60%) are not always guaranteed, but some examinations are notoriously 'easier' than others, hence they are more popular, keeping both parties happy: the parents will be pleased they got something for their money (although such certificates are quite meaningless in practice), while the examination company is keeping their customers happy.

Intermediate level students, under the general theme of travelling:
Cretan students can relate to this kind of photo because there are a few Asian restaurants in tourist areas on the island. What I found was that they couldn't relate it to the idea of young people travelling for experiences; they thought this would make an interesting meal out for a one-off experience in their own town.

Examinations take place over the weekend. The body that organises them always provides food and overnight accommodation to the visiting teachers. For a weekend's worth of work away from home, we are paid very well, with all due taxes deducted, and without delay. It used to surprise me to hear the complaints of some of my colleagues about their perks we were provided during this period: for example, when the inner-city luxury hotel where the examinations used to be conducted in was changed to the dingy suburban school premises of an out-of-town state school, when the a-la-carte menu we were served lunch from was replaced by a buffet from a catering company, when the coffees were limited to a certain number per day instead of the freely available room service by phone call. The most moaning and groaning was heard when the hotel was changed: for some of those teachers, it seemed that the move from a luxury hotel with silver-service breakfast taken by the pool, to a cheaper hotel with smaller rooms and only a basic continental breakfast, was a very difficult one.

The poshest place I've ever stayed at is Galaxy Hotel in Iraklio where EFL exams used to be held.
The high-quality accommodation standards that the English teachers had gotten used to in the past were due to the fact that the profession had a lot of money entering it. As I mentioned, we were paid very well for a weekend's work: I recall making €420 (net) at one time, which used to be half the average monthly salary of a Greek private-sector worker. For this, I sat at a desk for 10-12 hours each day for two days, getting up only to open and close the door to let the next student in and to have lunch. Each day, 70-80 students would be interviewed by each pair of interviewers: one would examine, while the other would assess (this year with fewer enrolments, we interviewed about 60 students per day).

Intermediate level students, under the general theme of travelling:
more of the same as above. Cretan children do not have such a well-developed concept of independent travelling as a young person.

Lowering living standards is a hard concept for people to grasp when they were used to a very materialistic throw-away lifestyle, even when it was provided to them for free. But I am happy to say that I don't hear these complaints any more. The frequent complainers have recently been dealt with quite swiftly. For the last two years, I've noticed that this side of the profession has been filtered out with a fine-tooth comb: these people were the first to go as the crisis hit the sector. It's sad to say this, but the truth is that this particular group of teachers wasn't always the most professional. Some would treat the working weekend as a holiday. Stories abounded of the empty mini-bars in the hotel room and the room service orders. A few of them would even invite their friends along for the weekend, so that they could go out in the evenings, despite an early-morning start the next day (we have to be up by 7am to wash, dress and have breakfast before we start work at 8.30am). Some of them would not even bother to show up to the exams, cancelling at the last moment. Who turns down such money, whether during a crisis period or not? Especially when you have been specifically selected to do the honours? Keep in mind an important point about the identity of these teachers: they were mainly foreign-born Greek women (ie native speakers of English). Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is definitely woman's territory in Greece.

It has always been too easy to become an authorised EFL teacher in Greece: you sit a European-certified C2-level examination for English language proficiency, and if you pass, you can apply to become a non-state-school EFL teacher, although most teachers often have more than just this qualification nowadays, because of the competition and the fact that most university graduates are unemployed, so they get involved in private teaching of some sort. I have often worked with women who have simply finished high school and gained one of these certificates - really good students of English can achieve this level before they leave high school. These teachers have no idea about teaching methodology, they have very little knowledge of theoretical English grammar, and they have never created their own teaching materials. This isn't necessarily a criticism: ust because they aren't always highly educated doesn't necessarily mean that they don't make good teachers at the end of the day. Their experience as both learners and teachers helps them to teach in a manner suitably directed towards passing an examination. I've also found that most of the time, students pass exams regardless of who the teacher is (in other words, the students took in whatever the teacher had to offer).

Intermediate level students, under the general theme of employment:
this picture was easier to handle than the previous ones, as it is a universally understood topic.

The profession is full of people who don't really have advanced knowledge, even though most of the teaching is very bookish. On this point, frontistirio owners are bombarded by publishing companies (both national and international) selling expensive course books, and some even make deals with them to use specific book series for a number of years - that used to provide perks for the frontistirio (eg advertising stationery with company logos) and sure book sales for the publishing company. English-language frontistiria were often run in the past by people whose qualifications level is quite basic, sometimes lower than the teachers they hire (while some operations are a one-person show); this has changed over the last few years, again due to more competition - frontistirio owners in Crete tend to have ESL qualifications.   

English language teachers have helped immensely to boost the family income. In rural areas where there are few positions of employment available, an English teacher could make a respectable income away from the local food processing plant or fieldwork, supplementing her household income quite handsomely, without too much initial outlay in setting themselves up as such. In a country with high unemployment, teaching English is perfect work 'on the side'. Private one-to-one tuition is rarely taxed (before the crisis, lessons cost anything from €10-20 an hour). Some unscrupulous frontistirio owners don't declare their employees (or even businesses, if they are running them from their own home) to the tax office (and this is continuing, as far as I know). In this case, it's the employee teacher that you have to keep in mind. She's often paid a low rate per hour, she may be uninsured, and when the business closes down for the summer holidays (like state schools do), she has to register at the unemployment office - which she can only do if she was being paid legally: the frontistirio owner would have to be declaring her employment, paying taxes and, most importantly, paying her national health insurance contributions.

Intermediate level students, under the general theme of employment:
another easy topic for our students.

This is what gave English language teaching its weird side in Greece: a lot of those schools and their teachers relied on image projection (pretty teachers and high pass rates) rather than highly qualified appropriate teaching staff. Word of mouth was the main form of advertising; but because frontistiria are as common as zaharoplasteia, souvlatzidika and corner shops (or at least they were before the crisis, while paying a small amount in salaries to some employees who are in a dead-end job), and they are run in a similar way (a little family business providing employment for most members), people often prefer to send their children for ease of access to the closest one in the neighbourhood. When a visiting professor from the UK came to Greece to conduct a seminar for English language teachers, he made an interesting remark at the beginning of his report: when he entered the lecture room, he wondered if he had been sent to a hairdresser's conference by accident, so saturated was the profession with image-conscious women that it was difficult to see its more serious side.

In the good old days when EU loans were pouring into the pockets of Greek state employees, this sudden wealth created the need for services that they could pay for with their new money, which in turn created a host of new businesses (which make up the Martyr's Party, as labelled by Petros Markaris), including frontistiria. But they had been around well before Greece's entry into the EU; however, they were not accessible to everyone. My husband, for example, used to work on construction sites in the summer and the money he earned from there would pay for his English lessons during the winter. In the 70s, there was much less money in the pockets of the average Greek than there was in the 80s, carrying on through to the first decade of the new millenium.

Advanced level students, under the general theme of pollution:
this topic was way off the scale for our students - and our teachers, as I subsequently found out when the topic was discussed over lunch. The idea of carbon footprints and food miles is only recently getting attention in Greece, but not in the form that it takes in the UK (where these exams and picture cards originate).

Such micro-businesses as the frontistirio have been hit hardest in the Greek economy. Civil servants have had their salaries reduced (in theory), but they still get paid something every month, while all those little support services in the form of private businesses that sprouted up around them have mostly gone completely bust. The economy's decline will have a number of repercussions in the frontistirio business, but moving away from the many hours Greek children spend in a frontistirio is actually a positive step in many ways. It may seem as though children won't have the opportunity to become as educated as they were before, but that's looking at the issue in a one-sided way. Most importantly, fewer hours spent in a frontistirio will assist children in their creative development. Frontistirio lessons take place in conservative environments and they take up most of the free hours of a child's afternoon and/or evening. All of the downsides of a move away from frontistiria are counter-balanced by the new technology available to us, which will continue to be available even with a return to the drachma.

The way Greek politics is going paves the way for a new form of frontistirio too. The old system has been crushed or severely bruised, and it needs to be replaced imminently with new ideas. There is no real need to go to a frontistirio these days to learn English (my own opinion - I know there will be a public outcry on this one) because we live in the internet age, and these days, it's unlikely that young Greeks will not have any grasp of basic English skills (check out a potential Prime Minister candidate's skills here! - he clearly didn't like going to frontistirio when he was young). But there is still a need for the frontistirio and its teachers:
  • private language teachers will still be needed, but on a more individualised basis - their salaries won't actually be reduced (but they will need to work harder to keep their customers and build up a clientèle)
  • private language schools won't need to close down - like publishing houses, they will diversify: many (but not all) are already using interactive whiteboards (or laptops connected to an overhead projector)
  • the publishing companies that brought out the course books can now diversify their products and sell online programmes instead of paper material
  • children's after-school hours won't be clogged with more sedentary activities, which is what is happening now in Greece (unless they have no one limiting their time on the computer) - Greek children are already regarded as some of the most obese in Greece (and it's mainly due to the many hours they are involved with school work, including frontistiria)
  • instead of children relying on being taught English by someone, with internet-based online lessons, the onus will be on them to learn what they need to learn, and at their own pace
  • the days of teaching EFL should be regarded as over and done with! It's ESL (English as a second language) that should be taught now!!! 
Before the crisis, Greek parents were forking out thousands of euro per year for their children to learn English. I'm glad my children are caught up in the period of change in Greece, when this kind of spending has clearly lost its significance. It may seem as though children won't have the opportunity to become as educated as they were before, but that's looking at the issue in a one-sided way. Individualised learning programmes require some knowledge of the specific needs that will be included in a tailored learning programme, which is a novel way to approach learning in Greece, since it is still very bookish. But all that is about to change in the coming year (September 2012):  the organisation which used to produce Greek school books has been closed down, because the Ministry of Education (MoE) has decided to produce more online material. Frontistiria can't continue to require that their students spend hundreds of euro (or drachma) a year to buy course books when the MoE will be providing theirs free - for the frontistiria, it will be a case of monkey see, monkey do. It will mean a lot of work in the transition stages, but you don't get something for nothing these days.

Advanced level students, under the general theme of cultural diversity:
students still needed prodding to get them to talk about the actual topic that this picture covered. Most students discussed their interests in the food and music of other cultures, rather than race relations (it was much easier for them to 'see' the topic in the non-food photo below). Bear in mind that students are given only one photo: it depends on their luck as to which one they get.

Since we live in a highly connected world, the frontistiria owners and their teachers are not the only ones who will suffer economically. Remember those examination syndicates offering tests to prove your English language skills and proficiency levels? They're all based in the UK or the US. And Greece - believe it or not - was one of their biggest customers: in other countries, teachers aren't even employed to conduct the oral examinations (they are all taped and sent to the UK, which is where they are assessed, but this isn't possible in Greece where hundreds of thousands of students sit exams all in one weekend). Leading people to believe that they need a commodity is something of an art in the maintenance of the global economy. Somewhere the bubble has loosened and air is being released. The balloon won't burst, but it's already shrunk considerably, and there isn't much air in it now.

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