Poland Table of Contents

Throughout the modern history of Poland, education has played a central role in Polish society. Together with the church, formal and informal education helped to preserve national identity and prepare society for future independence during the partition period. In the communist era, education was the chief mode of restructuring society and improving the social mobility of hitherto unprivileged workers. The postcommunist era brought an extensive debate over the goals of restructuring the system and the role of the church in secular education.

The Education Tradition

The education of Polish society was a goal of rulers as early as the twelfth century, when monks were brought from France and Silesia to teach agricultural methods to Polish peasants. Kraków University, founded in 1364 by Kazimierz the Great, became one of Europe's great early universities and a center of intellectual tolerance. Through the eighteenth century, Poland was a refuge for academic figures persecuted elsewhere in Europe for unorthodox ideas. The dissident schools founded by these refugees became centers of avant-garde thought, especially in the natural sciences. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Western Europe brought advanced educational theories to Poland. In 1773 King Stanislaw August established his Commission on National Education, the world's first state ministry of education. This body set up a uniform national education system emphasizing mathematics, natural sciences, and language study. The commission also stressed standardizing elementary education, integrating trade and agricultural skills into the elementary school curriculum, and improving textbooks at all levels.

Eras of Repression

Partition challenged the work of the Commission on National Education because Germany, Austria, and Russia sought to destroy Polish national consciousness by Germanizing and Russifying the education system. During the 123-year partition, pockets of resistance continued teaching and publishing in Polish, and some innovations such as vocational training schools appeared. In general, the Austrian sector had the least developed education system, whereas the least disruption in educational progress occurred in the Prussian sector.

Between 1918 and 1939, the newly independent Poland faced the task of reconstructing a national education system from the three separate systems imposed during partition. Although national secondary education was established in the 1920s, the economic crisis of the 1930s drastically decreased school attendance. Among the educational accomplishments of the interwar period were establishment of state universities in Warsaw, Wilno (Vilnius), and Poznan (available only to the upper classes), numerous specialized secondary schools, and the Polish Academy of Learning.

Between 1939 and 1944, the Nazi occupation sought to annihilate the national Polish culture once again. All secondary and higher schools were closed to Poles, and elementary school curricula were stripped of all national content during this period. In response, an extensive underground teaching movement developed under the leadership of the Polish Teachers' Association and the Committee for Public Education. An estimated 100,000 secondary students attended classes in the underground system during the Nazi occupation.

Under communist regimes, the massive task of postwar education reconstruction emphasized opening institutions of secondary and higher education to the Polish masses and reducing illiteracy. The number of Poles unable to read and write had been estimated at 3 million in 1945. In harmony with the principles of Marxism-Leninism, wider availability of education would democratize the higher professional and technical positions previously dominated by the gentry-based intelligentsia and the wealthier bourgeoisie. Because sweeping industrialization goals also required additional workers with at least minimum skills, the vocational school system was substantially expanded. At least in the first postwar decade, most Poles welcomed the social mobility that these policies offered. On the other hand, Poles generally opposed Marxist revision of Polish history and the emphasis on Russian language and area studies to the detriment of things Polish--practices especially stringent in the first postwar decade, when Stalinist doctrine was transferred wholesale from the Soviet Union and dominated pedagogical practice. During this period, all levels of Polish education were plagued by shortages of buildings and teachers. Capital investment lagged far behind the grandiose goals of centralized planning.

Education reform was an important demand of widespread Polish demonstrations against Stalinism in 1956. Under the new PZPR first secretary, Wladyslaw Gomulka, government education policy rejected the dogmatic programs of Stalinism and in their place began the first period of (fragmentary) postwar education reform. Religious instruction was restored, at the option of parents; by 1957 over 95 percent of schools had resumed offering such instruction. In the vocational program, agricultural training schools were added, and technical courses were restructured to afford greater contact with actual industrial operations. By 1961, however, state doctrine followed the generally conservative turn of Polish politics by again describing the goal of education as preparing workers to build the socialist state.

The Law on the Development of Education Systems, passed in 1961, established four formal principles that reiterated the goals of the pre-1956 system and endured through the rest of the communist era. The education system was to prepare qualified employees for industry, to develop proper attitudes of citizenship in the Polish People's Republic, to propagate the values of the working classes everywhere, and to instill respect for work and national values. Education was specifically described as a function of the state, and schools were to be secular in nature. Religious institutions could sponsor schools under strict limitations, however, and the church was permitted to establish a network of separate religious education centers to compensate for this restriction. In 1968 the return of strict communist dogma to school curricula was an important stimulus for a national wave of student demonstrations. Although the Gierek regime sought broad education reform when it took power in 1970, the uneven progress of reform programs in the 1970s led to further unrest and diminished the role of education in state control of society.

In the communist era, two levels of education management existed. At the central level, the Ministry of National Education was the chief organ of state administration. That agency prescribed course content, textbooks, principles of school operation, standards for admissions and scholarship awards, examination procedures, and interschool relations throughout the country. At the local level, superintendents established personnel policy, hired and trained personnel, and oversaw other local institutions having educational functions. The daily functioning of each individual school was administered by a headmaster and a pedagogical council.

The Drive for Education Reform

In the Solidarity movement of 1980, student and teacher organizations demanded a complete restructuring of the centralized system and autonomy for local educational jurisdictions and institutions. In response, the Jaruzelski government issued sympathetic statements and appointed committees, but few meaningful changes ensued in the 1980s. Although an education crisis was recognized widely and experts advised that education could not be viewed in isolation from Poland's other social problems, the PZPR continued making cosmetic changes in the system until the party was voted out of office in 1989. The political events of that year were the catalyst for fundamental change in the Polish education system.

The round table discussions of early 1989 between the government and opposition leaders established a special commission on education questions, which was dominated by the Solidarity view that political dogma should be removed from education and the heavily bureaucratized state monopoly of education should end. That view also required autonomy for local school administrations and comprehensive upgrading of material support. Accordingly, the Office of Innovation and Independent Schools was established in 1990 to create the legislative basis for government support of private schools established by individuals and civic organizations. In a compromise with communists remaining in parliament, state subsidies were set at 50 percent of the state's per-student cost. The new private schools featured smaller classes of ten to fifteen students, higher teacher salaries, and complete freedom for educational innovation. Tuition was to be high, from 40,000 to 50,000 zloty per month, with scholarships available for poorer students with high grades. In the first eighteen months, about 250 new private schools appeared, 100 of which were affiliated with the Catholic Church. In 1990 the total enrollment of 15,000 reflected parental caution toward the new system, but the figure rose steadily in 1992. The Ministry of National Education viewed the alternative schools as a stimulus for reform of the public school system.

In 1990 Minister of National Education Henryk Samsonowicz established interim national minimum requirements while offering teachers maximum flexibility in choosing methodology. The drafts of new education laws to replace the 1961 law called for the "autonomy of schools as societies of students, teachers, and parents," with final responsibility for instructional content and methods. Controversy over the laws centered not on their emphasis on autonomy and democracy, but on the relative status of interest groups within the proposed system. Disagreements on such issues postponed the effective date of the new Polish education laws until September 1991.

The most controversial aspect of the new law was the status of religious education in public schools. A 1991 directive from the Ministry of National Education required that every student receive a grade in religion or ethics. For many Poles, this meant an invasion of the constitutional right to keep silent about religious convictions as well as recognition of a church education authority rivaling secular authority. Many other Poles, however, considered separation of the church from education to be a continuation of communist policies and a weakening of the national moral fabric.

Structure of the Education System

Poland's postcommunist education legislation left intact the public structures established by the 1961 education law. In that system, the first stage was kindergarten, attended by children between three and seven years of age. City kindergarten schools were open from seven to eleven hours per day and designed their programs to accommodate the schedules of working parents. Schools in rural areas were open from five to eight hours, depending on the season and on agricultural requirements. The level of education and auxiliary services was generally much lower in rural schools, and kindergarten attendance there was roughly half that in the cities. Some primary schools also had kindergarten sections, whose graduates continued to the next level in the same institution. The cost of kindergarten education was shared by the government and parents. Under the communist system, the cost of kindergarten education had been paid wholly by the parents. In 1992 the 23,900 kindergartens in operation included 11,000 separate kindergartens and 12,900 kindergarten sections.

Eight years of primary school were obligatory in both the communist and the postcommunist systems. Children entered this phase at age seven and remained until they completed the program or until they turned seventeen. Foreignlanguage instruction was widely available. Some special schools were available for students gifted in the arts or sports, and special courses were designed for physically or mentally handicapped students.

Poland's acute shortage of classroom space required double shifts and large classes (thirty to forty students) in most primary schools. Some schools provided after-school programs for students in grades one to three whose parents both worked; older students, however, were released at the end of the school day, regardless of their home situation. In 1992 some 5.3 million children were in primary school; new enrollments dropped 2.9 percent from the previous year.

In 1991 over 95 percent of primary-school graduates continued to some form of secondary education. Admission to the secondary level was by examination and overall primary-school records. In general, the students with the highest primary achievement went into a college preparatory track, those with the lowest into a trade-school track. Of pupils completing primary school in 1991, about 43 percent went to three-year trade schools (specializing in various trades, from hairdressing to agriculture), 25 percent to four-year vocational lycea and to technical schools, and 26 percent to college preparatory schools. The last category grew by 3.2 percent between 1990 and 1991, while the other two fell slightly. Of the three categories, only the first provides a trade immediately upon graduation. Students in the other two categories require further education at a university or at a twoyear postsecondary schools to prepare them for employment. Some college preparatory schools combine a variety of nontechnical subjects in their curricula; others specialize in humanities, mathematics and physical sciences, biology and chemistry, sports, or classical subjects. In 1987 these schools enrolled more than twice as many girls as boys; about 11 percent of secondary-school students received scholarships. Students passing final exams in the college preparatory program are permitted to take university entrance exams.

Most technical programs are five years in length. Such programs are offered in economics, art, music, theater production, and teacher training (a six-year track). Many students live at secondary technical schools because some districts have only one such school. The government and parents share board and room expenses; tuition is free. The Polish Catholic Church also operates fourteen high schools, whose curricula were state-mandated until 1989.

To enroll at the university level, students have to pass entrance exams. Institutions at this level include full universities (of which Poland had twelve in 1990), polytechnical schools, academies, and specialized colleges. In 1988 the largest of these were Warsaw University (23,300 students), Marie CurieSklodowska University in Lublin (12,900), Adam Mickewiecz University at Poznan (12,100), the Warsaw Technical School (12,000), and the Silesian University at Katowice (11,400).

The polytechnical schools offer theoretical and applied training in such fields as electronics, engineering, computer science, and construction. Academies specialize in medicine, fine arts, economics, agriculture, sports, or theology; thirty-four academies were in operation in 1990. In that year, twenty-nine specialized colleges were training students in pedagogy, oceanography, and art. College enrollment increased each year between 1989 and 1992. In 1992 some 430,000 persons attended college, 330,000 as full-time students; initial enrollment for the 1991-92 school year was 17.7 percent higher than for the previous year.

As a rule, students pursue postgraduate degrees as members of an academic team working under a single professor. Continued progress through the academic ranks depends on regular evaluation of scholarly activity and publications, and failure to meet requirements means removal from the program. Polish postgraduate studies programs, which culminate in doctoral degrees, suffer from lack of material support, low salaries, and low demand for individuals with advanced degrees in the job market. In the late 1980s, these factors made the dropout rate very high and forced cancellation of several programs. Between 1982 and 1992, Poland suffered a serious "brain drain" in higher education and the sciences as more than 15,000 scientists emigrated or changed their profession.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress