Not bad, but could do better

At a time when passions are raging in Poland between the government and its opponents concerning the future of education in the country, the latest annual education report from the EU provides a welcome context to the arguments.

Education in Poland is relatively strong, according to the ‘Education and Training Monitor 2017’, the European Commission’s annual report on education across the European Union. “Poland is one of the best EU performers on early school leavers, tertiary attainment, and the general level of basic skills of young people is high relative to other EU countries,” it states. Poland’s rate of early school leaving (ESL) is very low: in 2016 it was 5.2%, less than half the EU average of 10.8%. There are significant regional and gender differences, however: somewhat counter-intuitively, the highest levels of ESL are in western Poland, at more than 7%. The levels for boys, at 6.4%, are significantly higher than those for girls, at 3.9%. The proportion of 15-24-year-olds not in education, employment or training was 10.5% in 2016, just below the EU average of 11.5%. “The ambitious national target of reducing ESL to 4.5% will be difficult to meet,” says the report, noting that between 2013 – 2015 ESL declined by only 0.1% annually. The Polish government, it says, is attempting to further reduce the dropout rate by reforming vocational education and training (VET).  

‘The reform will affect schools, teachers and local governments. The cost of the reform over 2017-2018 is estimated at 931m zł, including a sizeable amount to be met partly by local authorities’

Participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) increased rapidly by 5.3% between 2013-2015 to 90.1%. This, however, is is still below the EU average of 94.8%. Participation by 3- and 4-year-olds shows the sharpest increase, mainly because the provision of pre-school education for every interested family became compulsory for local authorities. “Poland is gradually catching up with the levels of other countries in the region, but for younger children there is still room for improvement,” notes the report. “Despite progress, there are persistent regional differences and significant unmet demand for ECEC in urban areas,” it continues. The shortage of places is particularly keen in larger cities.

Low levels of low achievers

Despite recent declines, Poland is still among the best-performing EU countries. The declines are relative, as there was strong improvement between 2006 and 2012 in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In context, the country still scored better than both the EU and OECD averages in all areas, according to the European Commission in 2016. “The proportion of low achievers, at 16% in science, 14% in reading and 17% in maths, is significantly below the EU average in all fields and very close to the EU Education and Training benchmark of 15%.” Significantly, the OECD has warned that the recent reform of lower secondary education – referencing the abolishment of ‘gimnazjum’ (lower-high schools) – should be “carefully evaluated to ensure it does not cause deterioration to basic skills.” Government: take note. Public spending on education has remained stable and just above the EU average over the last decade, says the report. In 2015 it was 5.2% of GDP, against 4.9% across the EU. In terms of total government expenditure, in Poland it was 12.6%, against an average of 10.3% in the EU. Due to robust GDP growth, the absolute spending on education has risen.

We need to talk about… demographics

One of the major long-term problems facing education in Poland, arguably its biggest challenge, is the nation’s bugbear: demographic decline. In this, education is no different to business or even society at large. All are – and will increasingly be – affected. “Demographic decline is a key challenge as the numbers in the school system are projected to sharply decrease.” The numbers in education, the report goes on to say, are declining, reflecting the low birth rate since the early 1990s. “In 2013-2015 the numbers enrolled at all levels of education diminished by 4.3%, enrolment in higher education dropped by as much as 12.5%. Between 2007 and 2012 the number of pupils in primary education fell by 9.1% and the number of schools by 5.8%. In lower secondary education, the drop was an astonishing 20.3%, according to GUS, the office of national statistics. There is an unintentional benefit, however: the teacher to pupil ratio dropped from 16.4 in 2013 to 15.1 in 2015, meaning that class sizes are gradually getting smaller.

The EC report acknowledges the government-instituted changes taking place in Poland’s education system, recognising the dissatisfaction felt by many in the country, but does not overtly comment on them. “The changes announced in the structure of the school system are causing uncertainty,” the report states, before summarising the key changes and their timeline: “The December 2016 Law on School Education sets out a major reform of lower and upper secondary education to be implemented between 1 September 2017 and the school year 2022/2023. Lower secondary schools (gimnazja) will be gradually phased out. In the school year 2018/2019 these schools will cease to operate (when their last students graduate). The reform merges primary and lower secondary levels; students will stay in primary education for 8 years instead of 6. The Teachers Union argues that phasing out lower secondary schools could lead to potential job losses among teachers and thus have a negative impact on students’ learning outcomes, but authorities point to planned increases in teacher numbers.” The report continues: The reform will affect all schools, teachers and local governments, which are responsible for the school network. The cost of the reform over 2017-2018 is estimated at 931m zł, which will include a sizeable amount to be met partly by local authorities. An additional challenge relates to the adjustment of the school network at district (gmina) and county (powiat) levels as the district level network of primary and lower secondary school will be replaced by primary schools only, while counties will be responsible for the extended period of learning in the new secondary schools. Because of its potentially disruptive effects the reform is opposed by the Polish Teachers’ Union (Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego — ZNP) and by parents’ organisations, among others. In April 2017 a petition signed by 910 000 citizens was presented, calling for a national referendum on the reform. This call was rejected by the government because the reform had already been implemented.”

Adults learn from the children

In terms of attainment, tertiary education in Poland is the star. Poland, states the report, has one of the EU’s highest rates of tertiary education completion. In 2016 its rate was 44.6%, strikingly higher than the EU average of 39.1%. The country is also considering new entry paths to universities through greater openness to lifelong and adult learners – the so called ‘university of the third age.’ Yet in this, the older generations are proving to be much more reluctant than their younger counterparts. “Adults show low interest in developing their competencies or acquiring new qualifications.” Poland faces a long-term challenge in establishing a lifelong learning culture among its population. Adult participation in learning in 2016, at 3.7%, is well down on the EU average of 10.8%. With the country staring a demographic time bomb in the face, the authorities would do well to come up with a strategy for engaging adults. Yet without a coherent adult learning policy and clear leadership, the commission warns that efforts may prove ineffective.

In terms of graduate employment, however, the country is faring well. “Poland has seen a steady increase in graduate employment. The employability rate of recent graduates is high, at 87% against the EU average of 82.8%. The issue of steering more students towards the fields of study most required by the Polish economy has emerged. The proportion of Polish students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and ICT, is very close to the EU average but lags behind leaders such as Sweden or Finland. The same applies to learning mobility, especially at master’s level. Poland’s 2017 national reform programme outlines plans to reform the higher education system, one aim being to improve its relevance to labour market needs.”

The report clearly shows that Poland has nothing to be ashamed of regarding its educational levels. However, if the EU had a measure for the ambition of its member states, Poland would be right up there at the top. The country will not be satisfied until it is near the summit of the education charts. Will the government’s reforms move them in that direction? Time will tell.

PISA Assessment:  The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey which evaluates the educational systems around the world. Every three years, 15-year old students are tested on their knowledge and skills in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy. In 2015, over half a million students in 72 countries took the assessment test created by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Polish students’ performance in OECD’s PISA tests (2015 edition):
– reading: 506 pts (OECD average: 493 pts)
– mathematics: 504 pts (OECD average: 490 pts)
– science: 501 pts (OECD average: 493 pts)

Average class size in primary education in Poland: 19
OECD average: 21

Ratio of students to teachers: 11
OECD average: 15
(as of 2016)

Primary education enrolment:
By 2017 there were 2.3 million primary school students in Poland.

Average class size in secondary education in Poland: 22
OECD average: 23

Ratio of students to teachers: 10
OECD average: 13
(as of 2016)

Secondary education enrolment:
By 2017 there were 2.2 million secondary school students in Poland.

Secondary education attainment:
91% of adults aged 25-64 attained at least upper secondary education. OECD average: 78%. (as of 2016)

Tertiary institutions:
By September 2017 there were 521 institutions of tertiary education in Poland. The highest rated among them are the University of Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

Tertiary education enrolment:
By 2016 there were 1.34 mn students enrolled in tertiary education and 0.36 mn new graduates in Poland.

Tertiary education attainment:
21.6% of Poles aged 25-64 attained a Master’s tertiary education degree.
OECD average: 11.9%. (as of 2016)

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Written by: Richard Stephens

Richard Stephens founded Poland Today in 2012 to help bring Poland to the world and the world to Poland. Before this he was editor of Eurobuild CEE magazine in his first stint with the company, and then returned to conceive and establish The Eurobuild Awards, organizing the first two editions. He has a degree in Theology & Religious Studies from Bristol University in the UK.