Back to the future

A major restructuring of the education system in Poland is underway. The government claims it is carrying out much-needed reforms. Opponents say the changes are disruptive and unnecessary.

Politicians, teachers and parents for the most part agreed that changes to the education system in Poland were (and still are) necessary in order to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world. But that is as far as the agreement went. On what the reforms should be, there were major differences of opinion. Anna Zalewska, the Minister of National Education, says that the new legislation, passed by the government last year and currently being implemented, will better prepare students for studying and working, and is fairer. “The aim of the current reform is to guarantee the same level of education for everyone, regardless of whether the school is located in a small town or a big city” she said. Opponents allege that thousands of teachers will lose their jobs – the government denies this – and that the real reason for the changes are to produce citizens of a nationalist leaning, one of the changes being an emphasis on the history of Poland – a history prescribed by the government.

Too quick a fix

Many say that – leaving aside ideological questions – the changes are simply too big and too fast. “The scope of the government’s reforms is huge and tries to resolve too many issues at the same time,” believes Klaudia Wolniewicz-Slomka, an economist at CASE – the Centre for Social and Economic Research. “The Government has two main aims for education in Poland: 1, a modern school, 2, rooted in a Polish tradition. According to the Ministry of National Education, these goals can be achieved by a return to the system of education that we already had, before 1999.” But well-prepared legislative changes need time, she points out. For last year’s legislations the whole process was very short. “The draft of new regulations was sent to Parliament on 2nd June 2016 and the new act was signed by the President on 6th July. We cannot carry out experiments on children by changing school structures again and again. We should also not forget about the consequences of this kind of reform on the local level. It’s one thing to create a new law on the national level, but sometimes it’s not so easy for local authorities to implement all these changes.”

‘Teachers don’t have the motivation to improve their lessons’

For the most part, teachers themselves appear to be unhappy about the changes. Poland’s largest teachers’ union alleges that thousands of teachers will lose their jobs. The government denies this. Wojciech, vice director of a junior high school (gimnazjum) in a small town in Mazowieckie voivodeship, is dismissive: “The whole reform was hastily produced, with hardly any professional or social consultation. The new school curriculum was not carefully planned – in all subjects.” For both Wojciech and Jan Sobiech, a high school (liceum) teacher, the government should have concentrated on basic long-term issues such as teachers’ pay. “Teachers don’t have the motivation to improve their lessons. Wages are far below expectations and do not reflect the importance and significance of teachers.”

Continuing the debate

For those of a business mind, the teaching of languages and IT are of the biggest concern. “For many Polish companies, the education system works well enough. But when it comes to the international business environment, where languages are a must and there’s a pressing need for IT specialists, then there are gaps,” says Wiktor Doktor, CEO of ProProgressio, a foundation supporting the growth of entrepreneurialism in Poland. “Languages and IT should be taught on a bigger scale – on a far bigger scale.” Education is like politics or religion – the varieties and shades of opinion are countless and passionately-held. Time will tell if the government’s reforms are successful or misguided. In the meantime the next generation of students will simply get on with their education. What is important is that Polish society continues the debate.

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Written by: Richard Stephens