A Matter of National Survival

Jadwiga Sokirkówna teaches secret language lessons in Łopiennik Górny despite the restrictions during the German occupation in 1941.
Education is important in all countries. In Poland, however, it’s ingrained into the very fabric of the national character. This is not surprising when, for large parts of the country’s history, teachers and students could be arrested – even executed – for following a Polish-centred curriculum. Here’s a potted history of learning in Poland.

Education has had a long and distinguished history in Poland. The Jagiellonian University, set up by King Casimir The Great in Kraków in 1364, is one of the 20 oldest universities in Europe. In the 15th century it attracted students from all across Europe, and in the 16th century around 10% of students at the university were from the peasantry – something highly unusual at the time. The first ministry of education in the world was established in Poland by King August Poniatowski in 1773 and was guided in its infancy by such luminaries of Polish history as Hugo Kołłątaj, Ignacy Potocki and Adam Czartoryski.

Survival: Education during the partitions

Shortly after the partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795, the authorities of Prussia and Austria started the attempted denationalisation of the Polish population. Classes given in Polish were shut down and the presence of the Polish language was at first limited, then marginalised. At the beginning of the 19th century people living in the territories occupied by Russia could exercise relatively more freedoms than those living under Prussian or Austrian rule. For example, in 1816 the University of Warsaw was established and educated students until 1831, when the November Uprising – also known as the Polish-Russian War – was lost by the insurgents. After the uprising, the denationalisation process under Russian rule was significantly intensified. Over the following decades the intensity of that process fluctuated, but what stayed constant were Polish efforts to continue the underground education, independent and hidden from the occupying powers. This secret education was cultivated on all levels, from primary schools to peer-to-peer education initiatives among youth, to lectures at the famous Flying University (1887-1905). 

Destruction: Education during World War II

After a short period of interwar peace, the Polish education system on all levels was immediately shut down by the Nazis when they conquered the country. Initially, teachers and professors were arrested or forcefully displaced. The only type of education possible was either vocational training or basic education, with significantly-reduced content. Soon academics were fiercely persecuted and often executed. Staff members of Jagiellonian University and the Mining Academy, for example, were arrested and transferred to concentration camps. Several members of the Jagiellonian University faculty were shot at Katyn. However, as in the times of the partitions, Poles very quickly established an underground system of education. In the very first year of the Nazi occupation, the first classes of an alternative Polish education started. By 1942, about 1.5 million pupils were taking part in secret primary education. But despite the heroic efforts of teachers, students and ordinary citizens, the devastation to education caused by the war could not be doubted. Thousands of teachers and academics had been murdered and thousands of school facilities lay destroyed.

Revival and ideology: Education in communist times

Directly after the horror of the World War II came to an end, Polish schools were gradually rebuilt and organised. The process of re-establishing the Polish educational system took place under particularly harsh and demanding conditions, with material shortages and a lack of educated teachers. The guidelines set during the National Educational Convention in the city of Łódź in 1945 helps to understand the ideological background of the Polish educational system in the early post-war period. Representatives of teachers, school administrative workers and politicians agreed on the priority of setting up a universal, free-of-charge, public and unified schooling system. Education was supposed to serve the need to integrate and unify a country torn apart by the war. The content of schooling was based on the pre-war curriculum. The concordat, an agreement between state authorities and Vatican, was not signed, but initially, classes devoted to religion were present and even obligatory.

From the 50s, the ideological guidelines of the educational system gradually evolved into a strictly-followed “Marxist-Leninist philosophy.” Relations with the Soviet Union became even closer and in 1949 learning Russian became obligatory on the national level. Basic values that were the point of reference for teachers and instructors involved the belief in the superiority of socialist internationalism. Sustaining the strategic alliance between the Polish People’s Republic and the Soviet Union was both a means and a goal of the politics in general, and the educational system in particular.

Underground schooling and education were present over the whole period of the Polish People’s Republic. However, the censorship of ideas was incomparably more subtle than it was during the partition period. Alternative ways of education proliferated mainly at the late high school and university education levels due to the narrowness of the official selection of books and authors that was strictly agreed within the ideological framework approved by the state authorities.

“Millennium” school in Węgierska Górka (1973). Polish People’s Republic built one thousand schools to commemorate the Jubilee of the Millennium of the Polish State.















Tug of war: Contemporary education

The education system in Poland today is based on the law drafted in 2016 that became effective in 2017. The most recent reform recreates the educational structure of primary and secondary education from the previous comprehensive reform approved in 1999.

The Polish education system is divided into three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Participation in the system is compulsory between the ages of seven and 18 years old. Both state and private kindergartens and preschools provide education for parents wishing to send their children before the age of seven, but they are not obligatory.

The age of starting compulsory education has changed over recent years and is a subject of public debate. In 2009, the ruling Civic Platform party (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) introduced a law obliging children at the age of six to take part in compulsory education. Both introduction and implementation of this law were regularly criticized by opposition parties and parents’ associations, who demanded a national referendum on the issue. After the change of the government in 2015, the new Law and Justice government (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) introduced a comprehensive education reform which restored the start of compulsory education to the age of seven. Parents still can send their children to primary school at the age of six, but it is no longer obligatory.

According to the new law, the first compulsory stage – primary school – lasts eight years and is divided into two cycles. They differ significantly: in the first three-year cycle, students learn the basic skills of reading, writing and counting during so-called “integrated” classes given by one teacher. In the second five-year stage, classes are categorized by the subject taught e.g. Polish language, history, maths, physical education, etc. At the end of their primary education, students will have to take a mandatory exam verifying their knowledge of the Polish language, mathematics, a foreign language, and one of the following subjects: biology, chemistry, geography or history. Unlike students between 1999 and 2017, they will not continue their education in ‘gimnazjum’ – lower secondary school. In 2019 gymnasium will effectively cease to exist and the path from primary school will lead straight to ‘liceum’ (high school, extended to four years), ‘technikum’ (technical secondary school, extended to five years), or ‘szkola zawodowa’ (vocational school, three years, the same as before the reform).

‘Critics alleged that bringing back the educational structure from before 1999…would only bring more chaos to the education system’

The elimination of the gimnazjum is perceived as the most significant part of the 2017 reform. During the debate in parliament, critics alleged that bringing back the educational structure from before 1999 is based solely on the sentimental longing for an idealised past and would only bring more chaos to the education system. Anna Zalewska, the Minister of Education, defended the changes by stating that they reflect the needs and demands of parents. The Polish Teachers’ Union (Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego, ZNP) is critical of the reform, claiming that the change will bring vast teaching job losses. Minister Zalewska maintains that the Union’s forecast is false and that teachers will not lose their jobs.

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Written by: Dawid Krawczyk and Richard Stephens