Round table on education in Poland

University of Wrocław

Education has long been a cornerstone of Polish culture. Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, established in 1364 by Casimir III the Great, is the second oldest university in Central Europe and the oldest in Poland. In 1773, King Stanisław II August established the Commission of National Education (Komisja Edukacji Narodowej), the world’s first state ministry of education. Today, Polish education is taught to a high quality, with Poland in the top 5 countries in Europe for education according to the 2012 Pisa rankings, and has a large societal emphasis on obtaining university-level education. However, it is by no means perfect. The new generation of students is putting a strain on the current system because of their growing expectations of the employment sector and different attitudes towards education and social factors. This is exacerbated by the rapid growth of technology, which is pressuring teachers to adapt their methods to fit the demand of their technologicallyadept students. There is also a disconnect between Poland’s education system and the business world, with a lack of decent practical and soft skills making it harder for firms to find students that are ready to be employed.

What are the main issues facing Poland’s education system today?
Anna Wicha: There’s a lack of practical skills. Since the fall of communism, vocational schools have been closing and practical education has declined. Not only has this reduced the practical skillset of employees in the market, it’s destroyed cooperation between business and education. Previously, there was a close relationship, with special lectures, training and classes run by the industry.

Do you think it’s necessary for these types of schools to return?
Bratek: Absolutely. They closed because there were perceived to provide poor education, and as far as I know, the government is bringing them back. They had good links to business because of central planning: schools were attached to state-owned companies because of their long-term plans for production and they had a certain number of students that they needed in order to do this. But, in the free market, these schools didn’t know how to respond to the demands of the local labour market.

Wicha: It’s had a real effect on the market: Poland has the jobs for people with technical skills, but we just don’t have the workers available. On the other hand, we have high numbers of graduates, but we cannot offer them the same opportunities as we had before.

Bratek: Europe is still focused on higher education when it should be reviewing its strategy. In Poland, we are trying to reverse this and we are investing twice as much as other European countries to promote areas like vocational education. The Ministry of Regional Development is using more money from the European social fund on schemes like the Leonardo da Vinci programme, which provides vocational tuition for students.

Dorota Fiett: I agree with Tomasz: secondary school in Poland only prepares its students for further studies, not work. At our school, we wanted to offer the standard curriculum, while teaching more practical skills, so we asked universities and entrepreneurs what skills they thought were important in students. Because we have an agreement with the ministry of education, our education lasts for four years, instead of three, and for the first two years, our students study the same topics as they would in other schools. But, they then choose from one of three specialisations: multimedia and design, IT and business and economics.

Paweł Bochniarz: I think the world as a whole has a problem with education, it’s not Poland-specific. If you look at PISA results across the world, Poland is doing relatively well compared to places like the United States, the United Kingdom or Germany, where results have stalled or fallen for years. A bigger problem is that, internationally, there is no correlation between the amount of money funnelled into the education system and the results it produces.

Bratek: I agree – when you look at the results that our youngsters are achieving in the PISA rankings, they’re very successful relative to the rest of the world and this is a massive improvement. People say that these results only show that students are good at taking tests and don’t accurately measure how well equipped they are for real life, but I disagree. This is the system that we use to test the progress of all children in the world, so it’s a good comparative result.

Bochniarz: The problem is more general: education has lost its sense of purpose. It’s become extremely utilitarian and is trying to catch up with changes in technology and the labour market, and we’re ending up in a situation where we always have a new trend to follow. A good example is eLearning: there has been a huge push towards using technology for education across the world, but the results are pretty bad. It’s clear that while it can be useful in some cases, it’s absolutely not a substitute for classroom teaching. A sense of purpose is extremely important because it drives effectiveness. If you have a corporation that’s lost its sense of purpose, it won’t be able to attract the right people. I don’t think a lot of people in the education sector have this sense of mission anymore. Administration and bureaucracy takes up a lot of their time and it frustrates them. We have to rediscover what the purpose of education is, and this will be the starting point for everything else. If the role of the educational system is to discover and nurture talent in society, then schools have to work harder to get parents involved because both have a common purpose to develop talent. It should drive cooperation between them in the future and it’s also a huge opportunity because the school infrastructure can educate parents as well. A lot of things that children are learning in schools, parents don’t know.

Bratek: There’s also something to be said about generation change. The new generation has completely different attitudes and dreams to ours. They don’t remember communism, have a completely different approach to communication and are very familiar with new technologies. Importantly, they also have totally different expectations of the labour market. They are looking for a balance between work and private life.

Jakóbczyk: I don’t think they are. We employ 700 young students and graduates, and a lot of them are very focused on their development and enhancing their career path. They don’t have to be hard-workers, we just want people who are engaged and focused.

Fiett: I think that normal school kills students’ ability to be engaged. Our school is named ‘Bednarska Realna’ after the street in Warsaw where the first school was built following the fall of communism. Because it was Poland’s first non-public school, it had its own democratic system of governance so it could decide how it should be run and we’ve used this to really encourage students to develop their personality and soft skills.

Jakóbczyk: From a recruitment perspective, soft skills – like communication, logic and presentation – are very important. Several years ago, when you employed younger people, education was all that mattered on their CV. Now we look for additional activities like volunteering or extra jobs, because it shows us that this person is very engaged and motivated. Our recruitment process lets us analyse their soft skills: we set up workshops where they’re given cases to solve in teams. We want to see how they cooperate and communicate with each other and how they behave, especially in a conflict.

Do you think Polish people have a stronger work ethic than other people from other countries?
Wicha: Yes, you can see it in the amount of hours that they work abroad as well as how quickly they can adapt. Poles are well-known for their mobility and their work-ethic.

Bratek: But Poland has one of the lowest levels of adult learning in Europe – our life learning isn’t actually that good. There’s lots of people in higher education, but a low level of adult learners and this is a social problem: people don’t see the need to improve their skills once they’ve completed their education. It’s a challenge for the government to reach out to people and, for example, help parents who have children struggling with maths to improve their own ability in maths.

Bochniarz: To promote adult life learning, there needs to be a change in attitude. People have to realise that learning never stops and this is a challenge for employers because of the volatility of professions. Jobs that exist today will not be the same in 10 years’ time and, even if they exist then, they will be very different. It’s difficult to know how to prepare for this change, but I think adaptability is a key element. I also think the education sector has to answer why it exists, what its role is and what it is trying to do. I like the ecological approach to innovation, theorised by Urie Bronfenbrenner, who said that the purpose of education is to make human beings more human. Schools should exist to enable children to explore their talents and develop their own potential. The McKinsey report in 2007 said that ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’ and this is the root of the success in countries like Finland or Singapore. To teach in these countries is one of the most prestigious jobs you can have: people compete for teaching positions like they compete for jobs in investment banking elsewhere. It is, of course, connected to salary, but teachers also have a very credible status within society and a strong sense of purpose. They are given a lot of freedom and, unlike in Poland, they are not treated as administrative workers. They are well-prepared for what they do and they are trusted to do a good job. Once, I interviewed a Finnish parliamentarian – the head of the parliamentary commission on education at the time – and asked her why Finnish education was so good. She said that because they are such a small country, they simply can’t afford to lose even one talent. We should take this approach; teachers should not be allowed to forego even one talent.

Fiett: At our school, we have 25 teachers for 40 students, and they have two or three other jobs. It’s good if they have other hobbies or interests but when they work like this, they just don’t have time for school. The system would be better if there were fewer, better paid and better-qualified teachers.

Even though there is a financial challenge, do you think that teachers could attain a higher social status in Poland?
Bochniarz: I think it can become our strength. I’m happy with the progress that we’ve made, but we still have a long way to go. Remember, during the Second World War, the Nazis implemented capital punishment for education in Poland. Despite this, so many schools existed, so many children earned their school diplomas and there were even underground universities. This shows how important education is in our country. But you’re right, money is always limited and we have to spend it wisely. We are not paying our teachers insignificant salaries and the problem is that a teacher’s salary is decided by years of service and extracurricular teaching, not by performance. All educational research that I’ve come across shows that years of service is not a good predictor for quality of teaching. A young, talented teacher can achieve very good results.

Wicha: One really interesting point was brought up at the Youth Employment Forum in Brussels a few months ago. In Germany, there is an institution acting as the platform between business expectations and the education system but in Poland, we don’t have anyone to take responsibility for this. So, whatever is produced by the education system is used by the employment market but expectations from both sides don’t match at all. We have to improve communication between the education system and the business world. Adaptability and soft skills are only partially taught at school and are not properly tested. They’re only properly assessed later when employers are trying to find people to hire, but there are difficulties with definitions. It’s very difficult to define what good or bad communication or adaptability is, because opinions will differ. Something should be put on the table to help broadly outline what is good and what is bad.

Bratek: The main priority for me is that we focus on links between business and education. We have to find a way to shorten the time between graduation and when students are actually able to undertake tasks effectively. There needs to be time for practice when they study, through internships, volunteering, or any form of practical work. This should start in high school and continue throughout university so that, when they complete their education, they don’t need to spend two years adapting. Businesses everywhere want this, it’s not just in Poland. A study by the University of Phoenix’s Institute for the Future shows that businesses look for critical analysis, problem solving, social and emotional intelligence, adaptability – these key soft skills that we keep mentioning. Students should know what the purpose of their education is and they should be able to adapt to the changing world around them.

Fiett: I don’t think that my graduates need to go to university, it’s much more important that they make their own company and go later, when they know what they want to study. My graduates often tell me that they get lost in their studies and that they aren’t ready for university. To add to the point about business: at our school, we’ve recently asked 50 businesses to provide scholarships and only two agreed. Now, four of my students have scholarships, but I would like all of my students to have scholarships from business.

Jakóbczyk: I’m glad you’re saying this because this year we organised traineeships that start at the age of 18. We want to target high school students because we found that young people are choosing their speciality at the age of 15 or 16, when they decide that, for example, they want to study medicine, so they choose to study biology and chemistry at school. We are trying to catch them at this age and convince them that they should start working before or while they study. It’s a good trend that companies and universities are developing dual-studies because it means that the employer is engaged at the very early stage of the university programme, and they can influence the programme and help prepare people to work in the industry.

Bochniarz: It’s only fair that big corporations give back to education, because they benefit from the people passing through the system. Employers have to get engaged and links between education and industry have to be stronger, but schools shouldn’t act like islands. They have to reach out and involve other organisations to develop their curriculum to make their programme more attractive for students

Poland Today brought together a diverse group of people in Polish education for a round table discussion, hosted by founder & editor Richard Stephens. The attendees were:

Anna Wicha, country manager Poland of Adecco and president of the Polish HR Forum
Tomasz Bratek, deputy director of the Foundation for the Development of the Education System
Dorota Fiett, school director and biology teacher at Bednarska Szkoła Realna
Jolanta Jakóbczyk, director of the Human Resources Development Office at PKO Bank Polski
Paweł Bochniarz, president of MIT Enterprise Forum Poland

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Liam Frahm is Poland Today’s editorial co-ordinator and is based in the United Kingdom. He currently studies politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University and is interested in current and international affairs.