The 2000s were considered old school

Analysis: The reform of the school system in Poland

Dr. Andrzej Kaluza

To person

Dr. Andrzej Kaluza is a research fellow at the German Poland Institute in Darmstadt. There he is responsible for press and public relations work, the Poland Yearbook and is co-editor of the reading lexicon "Polish Traces in Germany".

The school reform of the PiS party in Poland has been in place for a year now, bringing the school system back to the level it was before the 1998 reform. What are the goals of the PiS? What does this role backwards mean for students and teachers?

With the school reform, children now attend primary school for eight years and a secondary school for four years. (& copy picture alliance / Xinhua)


For a year the school reform of the government of law and justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS), which is returning to the two-tier school system of 8-year elementary school and secondary school known to the parents' generation from before the 1998 reform. The PiS the education system, as it was last reformed under the previous government, was considered too liberal and pluralistic. The most recent reform moves school education in the sense of "good change". That means less modern teaching methods and hardly any education for independence, but rather a connection to traditional content and forms of teaching. The author subjects the current and previous major school reforms to a critical analysis and explains why the affected groups - teachers, pupils and parents - are satisfied today or remain relatively quiet despite dissatisfaction.

One of the election promises of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) in 2015 was a major reform of the Polish education system. The national-conservative politicians were initially far removed from this area until, in view of the disputed school policy measures of the then governing citizens' platform (Platforma Obywatelska - PO) realized that the PO offered targets in education policy. The occasion was provided by the government of Ewa Kopacz (PO) with the lowering of the school entry age to six years, which was decided a few years earlier but was repeatedly delayed, and which she wanted to implement energetically from the 2015/16 school year. The aim was to strengthen equality of opportunity for the more disadvantaged and educationally deprived classes whose children should start school a year earlier, coupled with a visit to kindergarten for all 5-year-olds whose parents wanted this.

On the other hand, there were protests from parents from the conservative middle class who wanted their children at home longer and the commitment of the ruling party PO denigrated as a kind of "compulsory regulation". These parents, because of their cultural and social capital, were able to give their children the necessary attention in preschool age. The parents of the lower class also supported the criticism, even if the new regulation should benefit their children in particular. The Civic Platform had once again good intentions, but hardly showed any perseverance, to speak to those affected and patiently discuss the reform plans, which corresponded to the party's "arrogant" image at the time of wanting to modernize the country, according to the motto "cost it what." it wants ". The PiS on the other hand supported the burgeoning protest movement of the PO-critical parents. PiS- Politicians expressed widespread criticism of the general framework guidelines for school teaching, which they considered "too liberal", including e.g. B. also in the reduction of for the PiS such important history lessons. The PiS also reaffirmed the popular aversion to the 3-year high schools that had only been established since the last major school reform in 1998 (gimnazjum), which is a link between the primary school (szkoła podstawowa) and secondary schools such as Lyceen (liceum) and technical high schools (technical center) were. Essentially it was about PiS but a reform in the sense of their "good change". Above all, this should serve to secure the party's power in society, and this also requires comprehensive control of what they consider to be an overly "liberal" and pluralistic education system. In school, therefore, those areas that reflect the image of society should be accentuated PiS correspond to: discipline, patriotic attitude, national symbolism, historical politics, national literature, folk music, etc.

The 1998 school reform

The democratic opposition of the "Solidarność"-Zeit, that is, in the 1980s in the People's Republic of Poland, not only dreamed of a more just society and a democratic-free state. They also knew that the way to get there was through fairer access to education and an increase in the level of learning After 1989, the first non-communist education minister, the historian Henryk Samsonowicz, committed himself to a decentralized school system that would act relatively autonomously from the state and help to reduce the differences between rich and poor and between town and country The government gradually transferred the material maintenance of the schools to the self-governing bodies (municipalities and municipalities, later also districts and voivodships, only a few types of schools remained under the direct care of the ministry), who received a grant per pupil with which they ran the school and the teachers paid, the law Community was encouraged to establish or take over socially or privately owned schools, and many denominational and private schools emerged. The Ministry of Education in Warsaw noticeably withdrew from the organization and concentrated more on adapting the framework guidelines to the new democratic order and the principles of a pluralistic society. The central government gave teachers and directors who were keen to experiment a great deal of freedom with regard to pedagogical practice and general curricula. The reform approach also included an emphasis on the autonomy and subjectivity of the teaching and learning process as well as the subjectivity of the teaching staff. Their salaries were initially indexed to 103 percent of the average income.

This principle then changed the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej - SLD) when it came to power in 1993 and the institution of school boards (curatorium oświatowe) reintroduced. These were entrusted with the technical supervision of the teaching programs and with the actual control of the teaching staff. Since the school authorities do not belong to the municipalities, but to the voivode, d. H. the respective Warsaw ruling party, the schools and their leaders felt increasing pressure to adapt to the guidelines of the "central" school system. As a result, the teaching programs designed by ambitious educators themselves became less and less and the democratic reform idea was gradually stifled in the administrative jungle of the subsequent amendments to the legal acts. Also the initially criticized access to the school authorities in the reign of the SLD left all subsequent governments untouched.

In 1998, the conservative government under Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek pushed through the first major educational reform since 1989, which was linked to the name of the then Minister of Education, Mirosław Handke. She extended inter alia the period of compulsory schooling from eight to nine years and divided this into two sections: the 6-year elementary school and the 3-year high school for all pupils, with external learning controls at the end of the 6th and 9th grade. This was followed either by the 3-year general high school (liceum ogólnokształcące) or 2-year vocational schools with the option of attending a 2-year supplementary lyceum (with a high school diploma). The Abitur was upgraded and recognized as a binding document with which the students applied for a study place. The new school structure was linked to the reform of the self-governing bodies, which was also carried out at that time: the primary schools and grammar schools were financed by the municipalities and municipalities, the secondary schools by the districts and only special schools such as art, ballet schools, etc. were directly subordinate to this Minister of Education.

The primary aim of the reform was to better prepare children and young people for the challenges of the future (Poland was aiming for membership in NATO and the EU at the time), more equal opportunities for children from the country and a longer period of time for all children of a given year learn together. The newly established 3-year high school should be particularly advantageous for the village children, as it was only located in larger cities and better equipped than the previous village schools and the teachers there were generally considered to be "young", "competent" and "cosmopolitan" . While the development opportunities of the previously disadvantaged groups (village children, educationally disadvantaged families, socially disadvantaged groups) were clearly in the foreground of the reform, the reform remained unpopular. Education Minister Handke and his team just managed to secure the "material" requirements for the reform: First of all, the sometimes overwhelmed municipalities had to find suitable school buildings. It is not uncommon for elementary schools and high schools to remain separate, the construction of new buildings dragged on, and the state let these investments cost itself a lot of money - in the years 1999 to 2016 more than 130 billion zlotys (approx. Euros), with the lion's share going to high schools. The municipalities, on the other hand, often ran out of money to maintain small schools in rural areas, so that schools died out on a massive scale and the way to school became a constant challenge for everyone involved. The government, the ministry and the school authorities often had neither the strength nor the time for a broad social debate that would explain the necessity and merits of the Handke reform. The reform approach did not even reach the majority of the teaching staff: in 1999, 60 percent felt they were not sufficiently prepared and voted to stop the reform.

In retrospect, the impression emerges that the reform was not properly thought out at the time, not consistently enough, and above all not carried out to the end. And so the dissatisfaction of teachers, parents and students alike grew. They all put up with the reform of that time (like many other painful market reforms in the 1990s). In reality there was no time for proper preparation and follow-up of the reform with all those involved and for in-depth considerations of what schools should achieve in a democratic society. Above all, the grammar schools, which were regarded as a "refuge for all evils", where pubescent 13 to 15-year-olds, with previously different school experiences, were together in a confined space, were particularly unloved. The grievances in the field of discipline at (some) grammar schools, which the media denounced in the 2000s, but sometimes also inflated them deliberately, became famous and notorious. They have also indiscriminately attributed signs of general brutality, excessive drug and alcohol use, and brutal sexual assault to high school students. Some cases of suicide among minors as a result of school bullying have attracted attention across the country. Even if studies find more cases of violence in elementary schools than in high schools, high school students often became negative heroes. This was processed, among other things. in several acclaimed and controversial films, for example Galerianki (on prostitution among minors, 2009), Sala samobójców (on loneliness and emotional neglect, 2011), Baby blues (on teenage pregnancy, 2012), Obietnica (on youth bullying and cold-blooded murder, 2014).

The professional criticism went even deeper: the differences in level between rich and poor and urban and rural areas were no less noticeable even after the reform, since the grammar schools offered the option of "better" classes (e.g. with a foreign language profile or mathematical and scientific Profile). The minister also failed to limit attendance at the grammar school to the school district in question. This led to the formation of "better" classes or even entire grammar schools for the children of the aspiring middle class with corresponding wandering movements. And if that wasn't enough, they sent their children straight to an expensive private school. The goal of common learning up to 9th grade for everyone was undermined in this way. Once again, the lower class kept to themselves and hardly benefited from the reform. Above all, the "bad" high school classes had permanently damaged the reputation of the reform. It is noteworthy, however, that although there was media dissatisfaction with this development, there was hardly any resistance from politicians, parents or teachers. Despite the warning signals, nobody was interested in improving the situation.

Why the later governments did not correct the Handke reform, one would have to ask those responsible today - most emphatically the citizens' platform, because it had the longest opportunity and responsibility to do it. However, the political will of this party was lacking, which in the 2000s fully concentrated on economic integration with the European Union and judged the educational policy from liberal points of view as "also running". The PO Neither did it support the schools in order to improve their financial situation and to reform the rigid model of state subsidies (too low) based on the number of pupils, nor the young people who need more psychological counseling in the neuralgic grammar school age (appropriately trained staff is generally present in Polish schools a rarity), after all, it left the teachers alone with their worries and challenges in the field of discipline. Nor did the party dare to improve the training of teachers and their status; their material decline was generally accepted. Nobody in the PO opposed the increasing segmentation and commercialization of the school system, in which, in the end, the children of the middle class got hold of the most coveted study places in the university system, which is also segmented and commercialized according to rankings. The "achievement orientation" of the grammar schools and lyceums often had only the grades in view, but not the established knowledge: Directors and school authorities pushed for better grades, which resulted in a "testomania", an accumulation of learning controls in the multiple choice procedure which praised the competition rather than the cooperation among the students and produced hardly any critical thinking, but above all the "cramming" of knowledge. It was not legal, but it was ubiquitous that students could obtain learning controls and tests on the Internet for a fee. The better pupil was then often just the smarter one.

Despite all the concerns and inadequacies, the Handke system worked for many years and finally guaranteed everyone involved some stability and equilibrium. A real reform should then rather prevent the negative excesses of everyday school life (especially: high school) described here and "modernize" education in the social and professional sense, i. H. make them compatible with teaching programs in other EU countries by upgrading the diverse components of cooperation compared to memorization for tests.

The then opposition party PiS On the threshold of their 2015 election campaign, a vague social resentment towards high schools was enough to declare the entire previous school system bankrupt, with the aim of completely changing it once again after 18 years. This negative feeling has not been confirmed scientifically, because for a long time no serious studies have been carried out on the learning success at high schools. Such studies are now being published, as the success of educational reforms is measured in terms of time longer than the political election periods. The studies clearly show that the grammar schools had only just entered a phase of stability in which the interaction between all those involved normalized and some successes became visible - which Poland has already attested to in all PISA studies since 2001.

The education according to the ideas of the PiS: roll backwards

The PiS, which has been leading a kind of counter-revolution against liberal society in Poland for years, would like to rely on familiar, more traditional models in educational policy as well. In keeping with the spirit of the 19th and 20th centuries, the school aims to educate students in the spirit of patriotism (with an emphasis on national symbols) and counteract the lack of discipline with educational and administrative guidelines.Non-modern learning methods, the critical handling of sources and media, the acceptance of social and political plurality and the introduction to new technologies were the inspiration behind the current educational reform of the PiS from 2017, but the desire to see the school, as in communist times, as a "state reformatory" that should produce as many adapted individuals as possible, but who (should) have no opinion of their own.

Minister of Education Anna Zalewska officially justified the need for the reform shortly before the 2017 summer vacation with the demographic low, which was exacerbated by the painful experience of the strong emigration of young Poles. The fact is that in the last ten years the number of students in Poland has dropped dramatically by around 1.2 million. Data for the period between 2004 and 2015 confirm the decline: in primary schools from 2.8 to 2.3 million, in grammar schools from 1.5 to 1 million and in secondary schools from 700,000 to 500,000, with the same rate Number of teachers of around 500,000. However, nobody knows how the reforms proposed and already implemented by the PiS will counteract demographic change.

The PiS first ordered the school system to have a policy of scrolling backwards, i. H. the return to the system from the time before the Handke reform of 1998. In fact, this is the status from the time of communism with an 8-year elementary school for everyone and a secondary school - either a 4-year general high school or a 5- year technical high school or a kind of 2-3 year vocational school (szkoła branżowa). The accent on the revitalization of vocational training is noteworthy insofar as the neglect of this area has in fact been greatest, as evidenced by the demand in the labor market.

On the other hand, the shortening of compulsory schooling from nine to eight years and the stipulation that only 7-year-olds may start school are worrying. The reform is a constant challenge for the municipalities and districts that had to change the system within a few months of 2017. The expensive high schools are usually operated until 2020, cleared later or they make space for enlarged elementary schools or lyceums. Many village schools are now being "reactivated" so that the children in the countryside are taught separately from the townspeople for longer. The high schools will disappear and with them the numerous jobs located there, which represent a certain purchasing power factor in many small and medium-sized cities. Even if the minister initially ruled out job cuts due to reform, it is clear that not all grammar school teachers will find a job in the other school types; moreover, it is not just the teachers, but also administrative and technical staff such as secretaries and caretakers.

Who will the reform benefit? Primary schools and their headmasters are favored, many locations in the countryside are reopened, "Education is returning to the families", according to one PiS- Electoral slogan. It promises to meet the demands of the (socially and educationally disadvantaged) rural population, but not in the sense of the actual "interests" of the rural population, but in the sense of their short-sighted "wishes". The wish that the children go back to local school is counterproductive in that the rural schools have a lower level, so that the pupils are less prepared for a secondary school, for example. The lobby of the humanistic lyceums, in which classical subjects, especially Polish history and literature, are taught (among the PiS-Members and followers can be found many "patriotically" thinking teachers who teach at Lyceen). The reform is also intended to serve the short-term policy of the PiS: As early as 2016, the school authorities were "recaptured" in many places by their party members, with whom the party in turn can exert influence on the school principals and the teaching staff. In any case, it has an influence on the framework plans through the Ministry of Education.

The situation of the teachers

Minister Zalewska urges everyone involved, like Handke back then, to implement the reform in the shortest possible time, both organizationally and financially. It neither gave a plausible justification for the reform, nor does it in any way stimulate a discussion of what Poles should and may expect from schools in the 21st century. For this, everything had to be ready on September 1st, traditionally the start of school in the whole country - in 2017 the new 7th grades were set up in the elementary schools and no 1st grades were admitted to the grammar schools. On September 1, 2018, there were 8th graders in the primary school for the first time, who will apply for places in the new lyceums on September 1, 2019. In doing so, they collide with an entire year of the last 9th high school classes. The entire company not only has to be mastered in terms of space and personnel, but also adapted curricula must be written and appropriate textbooks purchased. Everyone is working in a hurry and under constant stress: the building authorities, the school authorities, the directors of the schools to be abolished and those of the expanded schools.

The teachers are uncertain about the future. This profession shows clearly the decades-long "negative career choice practice": Many weaker graduates choose the teaching profession. In addition, the milieu is unable to clearly define its interests; it lacks leaders, courage and self-confidence, because the teachers (read: as a rule, female teachers) have been too long by the local authorities (who give them the Pay salaries) and the school authorities (which are responsible for their qualifications) governed. But they also allowed this themselves for decades. From their midst, there was no nationwide formative idea of ​​their own on how to rethink schools today, train and pay teachers better, develop methods further and achieve successes for the development of the country. In the past few years they always had to follow others, the ministry, the school authorities, the local politicians. Her authority steadily deteriorated. For example, they could only count on advancement if they acquired additional qualifications that were supposed to fill existing gaps in school practice. This practice degenerated into an unhealthy competition for unnecessary training certificates. Gone were the times of "experiments", "project weeks", etc. The school program decided centrally in the ministry was compulsory, and dismissals could even be issued for disregarding the curriculum. The industry privileges of the so-called teacher card (Karta Nauczyciela), such as the 18-hour week, non-cancellability, paid sabbaticals, advanced training at the employer's expense, were reserved for the privileged ranks (around 50 percent of "qualified" or "appointed" teachers). Low-ranking teachers ("volunteers" and "contract teachers") became flexible faculty who were supposed to plug all the holes for little money (starting salaries at the minimum wage of 2,200 zloty / 500 euros gross) and then often had to go quickly. These differences in rank also meant that the trade unions are only weakly represented in the schools and the teachers do not assert themselves with their demands from the politicians. Today the promises PiS Salary increases, but the teachers' salaries are currently extremely low anyway and are well below the average salary: An "appointed" teacher - the highest level - earns around 3,000 zloty (700 euros) basic salary, with functional allowances, for example as a school principal, around 4,000 zloty (950 euros) ). In comparison, the average salary in 2018 is around 5,000 zlotys (1,200 euros). The increasing number of schools in rural areas will also cause problems for the teachers: The subject teachers in the so-called minor subjects in particular have to fear that their previous number of hours will be divided between several schools or that their total number of hours will be reduced. Of course, the reform will not affect all teachers equally. As is often the case, the new situation favors opportunistic individuals among the teaching staff who seek proximity to those in power - school principals, school authorities or mayors.

The learning conditions of the students

The most obvious problems faced by students will be addressed by reforming the PiS hardly addressed. Their well-being should be the goal of any reform. However, it will neither bring them a new pedagogical approach nor any relief - a 7th grader had previously not included an average of 37 hours of lessons, homework and preparation, and after the reform it will be even more. The problem for the students is also the technical and pedagogical weakness of the teachers, who no longer have adequate access to the younger generation, similar to the parents. The Polish school insists on discipline and authority vis-à-vis the teachers, whereby they persist in the pedagogical and social behavior patterns of earlier eras.

Many qualified teachers give up their profession or do not even take it up because they earn better elsewhere. In addition, the technical component predominates in teacher training, while pedagogical approaches are treated more theoretically than practically. As a result, teachers hardly have any teaching experience during their studies. This is followed by existence as a lone fighter, in which the method of learning by heart and the strong orientation towards the textbook predominate. The result is preprogrammed: The lesson becomes a boring sequence of learning units because the focus of the lesson is not on a thrilling method, but on the stubborn imparting of knowledge. Disruptions in teaching as a result of this rigid transfer of knowledge lead to the disruption of the relationship between teachers and students who have not had much psychological training, with far-reaching health consequences and increasing burnout among the teaching staff. The school's lack of support for young people also leads to health and mental consequences: children and young people with anorexia and bulimia are no longer uncommon today, many of them are considered to be at risk of drug, alcohol and media consumption. This increases the problems that real reform should address.

The traditional role of schools to impart knowledge has already been exhausted in the last two decades. However, the Polish school has not yet found an answer and it is to be feared that the reform of the PiS neither encouraged those involved to do so. Nowadays, information is mostly available on the Internet. Teachers should take students' demands for the new digital age seriously by showing the younger generation (using their role as "older contemporaries") how to work critically with sources and differentiate good from bad sources. Acquiring tablets for class or school alone will not improve teaching unless the old methods change. To do this, however, the teachers in particular would have to be prepared to forego the predominantly frontal teaching and to offer more group work and project-related lessons in order to get the students enthusiastic about the lessons. Enthusiasm will arise when you are allowed to think for yourself and come to results.

The parents as pillars of the education system

Parents play a not insignificant role in this system. However, they rarely stimulate discussion about which school they would like their children to have. Rather, in their opinion, the school should "function" according to the long-established patterns. The return to the tried and tested 8 + 4 model that parents know from their own experience, as well as the emphasis on discipline through the reform of the PiS will suit most parents. You have already got to know many reform approaches and have tacitly endured many (since 1991 there have been around 70 legislative changes). Most parents do not think about the "school of the future", ideas from alternative circles or a few "project schools" tend to make them suspicious. Middle-class parents who get involved give up after a while and tend to rely on their money: tutoring, additional courses and language courses are paid for during the holidays, and sometimes their children switch completely to the private school system. Here, too, the envisaged reform will not result in any change in the attitudes of the parents.

What really helps: courage for the future

The reforms that have been introduced do not help to master the real challenges facing the country: the "middle-income trap", the still clear technical backwardness and the drifting apart of social classes. On the other hand, it would help to clarify what the education system should achieve for all strata of the Polish population, to strengthen teachers vis-à-vis the school management and administration, to change teaching methods and to establish a new partnership between teachers and students / parents.

The critics of the PiSReforms warn that the abolition of grammar schools is not an adequate answer to the real challenges of the Polish school system: there will not be enough work for all teachers anyway, as well as improvements in the education and training of teachers, and the change of name of the school types in the end, it alone will not ensure that Polish students acquire more key skills that are particularly important in today's world - creative thinking, making bold decisions, taking risks, facing adversity, dealing appropriately with defeat. In the Polish "School of the Future", the new relationship between teachers and students will be of decisive importance: the change of perspective from individual to collective learning methods would help teachers to see the world less in fragments of the specialist disciplines than more interdisciplinary and to allow the students to do so convey. Ultimately, with the acquisition of the Abitur, they should be able to independently make complex intellectual, moral, social and political decisions. If the school fails to achieve this goal, school time was wasted. Here everyone - including politicians and society - has to think in longer time phases than in 4-year electoral terms, because educational reforms can only succeed in the perspective of generations. The reform of the is silent on this arguably most important challenge for the Polish school PiS but persevering.
The Poland analyzes are published jointly by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.