The first school bell on September 4 ushered in a new school year for almost 5 million students in Poland and also marked the beginning of a controversial reform of the country’s educational system.
The changes introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party’s education minister Anna Zalewska replace the former three-level system of 6 years of primary school, which used to be followed by 3 years of junior high school and then by 3 years of high-school with 8 years of elementary school followed by 4 years of high school.
The reform, which has been 10 months in the making, has drawn criticism mostly due to the speed of its introduction but also to the fact that some 7,000 junior high schools will have to be closed.
The Polish Teachers’ Union, which opposes the changes, stated that 10,000 teachers might lose their jobs due to the reform. The Union, joined by a group of concerned parents, collected 910,000 signatures under a petition to make the reform subject to a referendum, which was later rejected by Polish parliament, where the ruling Law & Justice party holds a majority.
Poland underwent a major educational reform in 1999, which introduced junior high-schools for students between 13 and 15 years of age.
Known in Polish as „gimnazja“, the junior high-schools have been doing well: in 2012, Poland was among top 10 countries in the PISA international education ranking, which measures 15 year olds’ skills. Ranked 22 out of 72 in 2015 students’ results were above above the OECD average. This indicates a steady improvement over the years, as prior to 2000 the country’s education outcomes were seen as below the OECD average.
Nevertheless, according to the Law & Justice minister of education quoted by the Polish press agency PAP, junior high-schools increased disparities between students.
“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. School should be closer to home and modern,“ said Anna Zalewska.
The current reform will not only result in structural changes, but also in changes to the curricula with programming lessons starting in 1st grade of elementary school and an increased emphasis on Polish language and history. Political opponents have, however, voiced their concerns that the ultimate goal of the changes is to raise nationalist and obedient citizens.
Meanwhile teachers and parents alike are dealing with the practical implications of the bill. “Our school really prepared students for the demands of the 21st century and now we have to close it,“ said Krzysztof Adamowicz, a physics teacher and principal of a popular private junior high-school in Warsaw, which is now being transformed into a high school. Adamowicz spent the entire summer juggling lesson plans and trying to keep as many employees as possible.
Maria Sass, a mother of three, is skeptical of the changes. Two of her children, Wojtek and Ania have just entered 1st and 7th grade respectively and are immediately affected by the new curricula and textbooks. “10 months is too short a time period to change the entire school system and the curriculum. I find it hard to believe this has been done properly,” said Ms. Sass, adding that she would be closely following what is being taught to her children.
Barbara Chwedczuk, a high-school principal and Polish teacher from Piaseczno, however, welcomes certain aspects of the reform: “I’m glad we will be working with younger students. This should make it easier for us to raise them. The pupils, who would come to our school after 3 years of junior high-school education considered themselves to be young adults, having already had their first experiences with sex, alcohol and cigarettes“.
Ms. Chwedczuk is nevertheless dissatisfied with the fact that teachers still aren’t paid accordingly to the role they play in raising the society of the future. “Many talented teachers leave because they can’t afford to raise their families”, she said.
To appease critics, Polish PM Beata Szydło declared on Monday, that teachers would be receiving pay raises of 5 percent for three consecutive years, beginning in April 2018. Nevertheless, “these extra 90 zlotys won’t amount to much when a teacher at the onset of his career gets roughly 1800 zlotys (420 euros) a month, as much as a cleaning lady”, said Chwedczuk.
Nevertheless, some parents say the changes will probably be less disruptive to children than critics predict. Antonina Falandysz-Zięcik, a mother of three, whose eldest child Barbara (pictured above) just started 1st grade. As a child, she was among the first cohort to study in the newly introduced junior high-schools in 1999.
“Everything was new and chaotic and a lot was unknown but we still managed, so I’m sure my children will too”, she said, hurrying her daughter to school on a rainy Tuesday morning.
By Julia Szyndzielorz in Warsaw