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Parents’ preschool co-op breaks the education mould in Greece

Article by Anca Voinea, 4 November 2014

The Greek economic crisis led to devastating cuts in social services, including preschool childcare – but a new model of education is now emerging, with parents forming a co-operative to fill the gap.

The Halandri Parents Social Cooperative Enterprise is only the second co-operative care-giving enterprise in Greece – the first was established on Crete a few years ago – and offers a platform for parents to share information about preschool, primary and secondary education.

It started life in 2011, when parents in the Athens suburb of Halandri formed a committee to oppose the closure of a number of preschool nurseries. At the time, there were more than 2,000 preschool-aged children in the city while five out of nine public nurseries had been shut down, leaving expensive private nurseries as the only alternative for most parents.

“Free, public school services have collapsed – it’s a combination of services not working properly, cuts, and standards not kept – in some cases, they should be closed,” said Dinos Palyvos, a teacher and translator who helped set up the co-op. The team also includes two engineers, two translators, an illustrator, a graphic designer and two teachers.

In a bid to change the way education is delivered, the co-op has developed a number of projects, including a co-operative school of private tuition, which was opened two years ago. It has already doubled its number of students, and teachers’ wages are significantly higher than the market average.

Launching such a school in an extremely competitive environment was a significant challenge, said Mr Palyvos. The co-operative also had to deal with changes made last year to licensing legislation, bureaucracy and lack of awareness with regard to their enterprise model. “The hardest thing was to find a team of teachers who, apart from being excellent tutors, were also willing to undertake the management of the school, along with the parents,” he said.

“Sometimes we feel as if we are trying to reinvent the wheel – things that are taken for granted elsewhere – this is not the case here.”

Other successful initiatives include a childcare programme, which set up small schools in private homes to meet the demand for childcare.

The team is now working to establish the first co-operative day nursery in the Attica region. “Establishing the first co-op day nursery in Athens is an important goal for us,” said Mr Palyvos. “This day nursery will not only cover the needs of working families to access preschool education – we are attempting to create a high-quality school.

“The key parameters that greatly determine the provision of optimal services will comply with international standards, such as educational staff working six hours instead of eight, and a child to teacher ratio of eight to one.”

Greek lettersBy using parent volunteers alongside teachers to cut operating costs, the nursery will offer rates 45% cheaper than private nurseries. The co-op has already reached a preliminary agreement with the National Technical University of Athens to buy one of its properties and convert it into a day nursery, and has started the application process for a day nursery permit.

The co-operative is also working to promote social inclusion, launching a partnership with a vocational training centre that provides day care for people with disabilities. It has hired two trainees from the centre who had been long-term unemployed.

“We are trying to do all kinds of activities to bring people closer to the co-op idea which, in the end, goes down to bringing people closer,” said Mr Palyvos.

The co-operative has also been staging regular theatre events and is running the first International Cooperative Cartoon Festival, with the winners due to be announced at the end of this month. Another popular initiative, parent group coaching led by qualified professionals, could soon be expanded – and is part of Halandri’s ambitious plans to extend the co-operative day nursery model across the city. Mr Palyvos hopes this will tap into a growing interest in the social economy in Greece.

“Our actions aim to translate our strengths, and strengths of the people who can best serve their needs within their community, by developing a united, co-operative organisational model.”

He added: “This is the most significant benefit of our plan, which is also quite necessary in times of crisis: reconstituting a neighbourhood based on its needs and serving them without seeking a business profit.”