Critics say Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party is wrecking the education system for political gain — and students are suffering.
By Claudia Ciobanu
For Dobroslaw Bilski, the final straw came when the change in the school system started hurting his 14-year-old daughter’s health.
“She had serious problems with her digestive system as a result of the stress,” recalled Bilski, a tertiary-level teacher in the central Polish city of Lodz.
“In many families I’m in touch with, kids ended up needing therapy to be able to cope with the pressure. We’ve heard from parents whose children were suffering so much they tried to commit suicide.”
Blaming the stress on education reforms introduced by Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS), Bilski rallied more than 50 other parents to do something about it. They are now preparing a collective lawsuit against the state.
The parents say the culmination of an overhaul of the school system that began in 2017 breaches children’s constitutional right to equal access to education, to say nothing of the pressure it subjects them to.
Under the reforms, PiS got rid of the so-called gymnasia, which provided secondary education between the seventh and ninth years of schooling.
At the same time, the government revived an earlier system in which children spend the first eight years of education in primary schools before moving on to high school or technical training.
The gymnasia were relatively new in Poland, having been introduced in 1999 as part of a larger reform package.
Controversial at first, they grew to be respected institutions known for promoting a sense of common identity and helping students develop self-confidence by exposing them to a more challenging educational environment than the one previously offered by primary schools.
Data suggests they were successful in raising standards.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently announced the results of its latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which gauges scholastic performance across the OECD club of 36 mostly advanced nations.
In 2018, PISA placed Polish students in top positions in Europe in the main disciplines of reading, maths and science. It also showed that Poland has done well at reducing the gap between stronger and weaker pupils.
All those improvements are now under threat, critics say.
When the government phased out the gymnasia this year in the final act of the reforms introduced in 2017, children who had been schooled in the gymnasia now found themselves competing with their peers from the re-established primary schools in high school entrance exams.
While the number of high school classes was increased, there were not enough places to accommodate all the new demand, and many children who had hoped to attend high school ended up in technical schools, parents say.
The group of 50-plus parents suing the state, including Bilski, therefore argue that children seeking to start high school in 2019 fell victim to the chaos.
“The pressure on the children was enormous,” said Bilski, whose daughter did eventually get into the high school of her choice.
“In my daughter’s class, an advisor came in and told students — while they were preparing for exams — that none of them had any chance of getting into high school and they should face the fact that they’ll end up in technical schools.”
This summer, Bilski posted a note on Facebook inviting parents whose children had similar problems to join forces in preparing a collective lawsuit against the Polish state. More than 1,000 parents got in touch and a team of pro bono lawyers is preparing the case.
“I thought it was important to show my daughter that we can fight against the things that we consider unjust,” Bilski said.
The socially conservative PiS justified the closure of the gymnasia by saying that Poland needed to return to a more traditional system of schooling. It cited cases of aggression and misbehaviour among gymnasia students as proof that the institutions were dysfunctional.
It also argued that the gymnasia system marginalised technical training and that universities were becoming overcrowded with students who did not need to be there.
“The government was never interested in serious negotiations with the protesters,” Dorota Obidniak, a member of the ZNP teachers union, said. “They just wanted to destroy the system as soon as possible.”
But Dorota Obidniak from Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP), the main teachers union in Poland, said the 1999 reforms that brought in the gymnasia were in line with international trends.
“The tendency internationally is to prolong the stage in education when kids get general knowledge,” Obidniak said. “This increases flexibility when it comes to planning further education and personal development, and [gives] more mobility in the labour market.”
Obidniak added that the Polish economy, like the global economy, has changed, and technical schools no longer reflect the country’s industrial makeup. Until they are reformed, putting kids into them is a waste of potential and time, she said.
According to Obidniak, the government’s real motive for changing the system has to do with identity politics and control.
She noted that the reorganisation of schools was accompanied by syllabus changes — particularly in subjects such as Polish history, literature and civic education. PiS also introduced a new system for appointing school directors, who are now more dependent on local administrations.
“This government destroys various institutions with quite a lot of persistence,” Obidniak said. “We see the same philosophy at play in education.”
She added: “The government imagines that schools should be obedient and subservient to PiS ideology. And this effect is easier to achieve when people are uncertain about their future, when everything changes, including directors of schools, teams of teachers and programmes.”
Children under pressure
“The educational programme is now larger in volume than it was in the late 1980s during the PRL [Polish People’s Republic],” said Dariusz Chetkowski, a high school teacher from Lodz and the author of BelferBlog, a popular blog on education.
“Before the reforms, there was a different philosophy. There were 13 compulsory readings over three years, and then the teachers could add readings based on their assessments of student capacities and needs.
“But now there are 80 compulsory books over four years, including a lot of unnecessary and repetitive readings, which means there is no space to take students’ needs into account. I just have to constantly press them to do the compulsory stuff.”
Chetkowski said the new curriculum does not reflect cultural changes over recent decades.
For one thing, children are more into asking questions and debating, while society expects them to be more innovative and creative, he said. To allow space for such expression, teachers have to push some of the compulsory, boring tasks into the realm of homework.
“This is a huge problem in Polish schools: kids end up having to work more hours per week than is legally allowed for a worker,” he said. “Children no longer have time to be children. They are forced to become adults faster.”
While many problems in the Polish education system — including low pay for teachers and rising homework demands — precede PiS, experts say the government’s reforms have added to the strain.
The 2019-2020 academic year started with alarming news from across Poland: in high schools, an increase in the number of classes to make way for children from both the old gymnasia and the new primary schools meant that corridors were so crowded that pupils could not get to the toilet during breaks. In many cases, lessons were scheduled late into the evening.
Low salaries, the failed strike and reforms of the system prompted many teachers to quit the profession, leaving thousands of positions vacant nationwide. Unqualified teachers and short-term replacements filled the gaps, lowering standards. The new curriculum turned up the heat.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of school phobia cases among pupils in Poland,” Chetkowski said.
In mid-December, a young rapper named Mata caused a furore in Poland with a music clip entitled “Pato inteligencja”, about the pressures facing rich high school children at elite institutions.
In the video, watched more than five million times in just a few days, Mata raps about what lies beyond the image of well-performing students from upper middle-class families: widespread use of drugs, alcohol and anti-anxiety medication, random sex and even suicide.
The PISA analysis shows that Polish students spent around 47 hours weekly on schoolwork (more than the average) and felt much more competitive with their peers than in other countries.
Polish students also reported getting bullied slightly more often than the OECD average and said their teachers were less enthusiastic compared with other countries, a factor affecting both school performance and general wellbeing.
To put up with this competitive and stressful environment, better off families — like rapper Mata’s, whose father is a prominent lawyer — invest in psychological support and private classes (the rapper covers these topics too in his song).
About a third of Polish parents report relying on extra classes, according to a study published this year by the Batory Foundation. These parents spend on average more than 500 zloty (120 euros) a month on extra tuition — the sum the government famously pays families for every child under PiS-led welfare reforms.
“If nothing changes in the public education system, the majority of children from less educated and less well-off families will never make up the distance between them and their age peers, to whom the financial situation and education level of parents offered a better start,” the Batory Foundation report concluded.