Poland: Government enacts radical education reform despite opposition

Amidst widespread union opposition, Poland’s controversial education reform plan was signed into law by the President in January and will take effect from September. The reform sees a return to the former two-tier system, with a focus on vocational training. The Polish Teachers’ Union is still not ruling out industrial action.

Background

The Law and Justice party (PiS) entered government after its victory in the parliamentary elections in autumn 2015, a few months after PiS candidate Andrzej Duda became President. The party announced it would carry out its election pledge to eliminate middle schools and re-establish the two-tier education system (primary school and high school) that had existed prior to 1999.

The new Minister of Education presented the government’s plans for redrawing the school system in June 2016. The reform was adopted by the parliament in late 2016 and signed into law by President Duda in early January 2017. It is expected to be implemented at the beginning of the 2017–2018 school year.

The reform also aims to reinvigorate vocational schooling by replacing the current general vocational schools with a two-tier system closely linked to the national qualifications framework.

The reform has triggered massive resistance, mostly from trade unions. The largest sectoral union, the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP), is the fiercest critic. Solidarity, the second largest union in the education sector, is critical of the reforms but is not openly contesting them as it fears this would result in substantial job losses – although the government has firmly denied this. Some influential education NGOs are also opposed to the plans.

The model for Poland’s current system of compulsory education was put in place in 1999, along with a series of other structural pre-EU accession reforms relating to local government, healthcare and pensions.

Educational reform objectives

The 1999 three-level system of compulsory education was organised on the basis of:

  • five years of elementary school;
  • three years at middle school;
  • three to four years at high school, technical high school or general vocational school.

The two-level system that will replace it comprises:

  • eight years at primary school;
  • four to five years at high school, technical high school or vocational school.

A student’s time at vocational school will be subdivided into two stages of three years and a further two years. The new style vocational school (szkoła branżowa) is intended to emulate the German dual education system. This will combine students’ classroom study with a minimum 50% of hands-on learning.

Middle schools (gimnazjum) are expected to stop enrolling new students in 2017 and to close in 2019. There are more than 7,000 middle schools with around 40,000 teachers. The reform is expected to create a serious financial burden for local government and entail job losses for teachers.

The government’s main arguments for the reform are:

  • to provide equal educational opportunities for young people from different social backgrounds, and to address evidence that the lower a student’s socioeconomic status, the weaker is their educational performance;
  • to address a need to extend the period of general education at high school level;
  • to increase the appeal of vocational schools to young people by linking them to a national system of qualifications.

Trade union reactions

Major sectoral unions have expressed their concerns about this reform.

In a special statement, the Chair of the Polish Teachers Union (ZNP) – associated with the All Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) – called the proposed reform ‘ill-considered’. The education section of Solidarity was also worried by the potential consequences of such a fundamental change. On 1 September, when the 2016–2017 school year began, the last before the new system comes into operation, the details of the reform were still unknown.

The major arguments raised against the reform are:

  • middle schools have proved their efficiency in terms of their students’ performance, judging by test scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment;
  • the reform is ill-prepared and its implementation too rushed;
  • public consultations preceding the reform were widespread but superficial, and their results have not been disclosed in full;
  • the reform is likely to result in redundancies for teachers, although the scale of this is still unknown – though the government insists there will be no job losses.

Continuing protests

In November, ZNP organised a national protest under the banner ‘No to chaos in education’. At the heart of this was a mass demonstration in Warsaw on the day of the first reading of the draft legislation in parliament. Estimates differ over the number of people who took part; some observers say several thousand, while the organisers claim 50,000 attended. Nevertheless, the protest did not affect the decision of the deputies and a majority voted for the proposed changes.

Undeterred by this, the ZNP and the civil society movement Parents Against the Education Reform then pressed the President to veto the new law. In mid-December the two organisations demonstrated in front of the presidential palace. The protesters wished to deliver a petition to the president (signed by more than 250,000 citizens) objecting to the reform. However, despite public pressure, in January the President signed the law, completing the legislative process.

Now the only hope for opponents to halt the reform is a referendum, which parliament could call if it receives an appropriate motion with the registered support of at least 500,000 citizens. The initiative has drawn support from nearly all parliamentary opposition parties, as well as several prominent organisations, including OPZZ, the Civic Educational Association and the All Poland Association of Managers in Education. It has not been endorsed by Solidarity. The government enjoys a stable majority in the lower chamber of parliament (Sejm), so it is likely to win any vote on whether a referendum should be held. In the final weeks of 2016, the union also began preparations to enter into collective disputes with schools and other educational facilities covered by ZNP branches. The union is not ruling out the possibility of a general strike but is treating this as a last resort.

Commentary

With preparations nearly complete, the time for the reform’s implementation is approaching. It seems unlikely that a referendum will be held since protestors are still some way off achieving their target of 500,000 signatures. Even if that much public support is found by the end of March 2017, parliament will probably still not yield.

It remains to be seen whether ZNP will continue to oppose the government on this issue by entering into collective disputes and ultimately by going on strike. The union – and its supporting coalition of civic organisations – may still have an ally in local government organisations, but they are only likely to dive into a conflict with central government if they find the financial burden of school reorganisation too heavy to bear.

 

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