Education in Poland.
Was dismantling of "gimnazjum" necessary?

Marta Wójtowicz, Lancaster University

For the last four years Poles have been engaged in a heated public debate over the educational reform in the country, which meant that the institution of gimnazjum had to be eradicated. In 2017 6th graders stayed in their primary schools to continue their education for another two years. This year both, those graduating from gimnazjums and those graduating from primary schools, applied to high schools which resulted in competition being so high that in Warsaw alone, 3173 students did not get into any school. This situation revived the debate once again pointing at the ways in which the reform was poorly implemented as well as whether it was necessary at all.

The ruling Law and Justice Party’s education minister Anna Zalewska introduced a ‘new’ structure of education in which former six years of primary school, three years of junior high school (‘gimnazjum’) and three years of high school/4 years of technical school would be replaced by eight years of primary school and four years of high school or five years of technical school.

Killing potential?

It is crucial to mention that the newly introduced structure of schooling in Poland was not novel at all. The 8+4 system existed in Poland from 1961 until 2000. Professor Krzysztof Konarzewski, a renowned Polish educationalist and one of the authors of the 1999 educational reform through which gimnazjum was reintroduced (after its abolishment in 1948), described the recent reform as a move behind which stands the idea of ‘progress through regress’ – something logically and substantively senseless. Konarzewski and many other commentators and specialists pointed at the fact that the educational system in which gimnazjums do not exist quickens the process of selection by a year.

In the 8+4 system a 14-year-old student has to make a decision regarding his further education. A student with lower grades is then likely not to apply to high schools, but rather to technical schools. It is contested whether in today’s world more technical specialists are needed, however, what is of perhaps even greater significance is the fact that the potential of students to improve and do better in school is killed early on. Once deemed less intelligent during their early years of education, those students need to continue learning in the same environment, with the same label that might have been given to them even subconsciously by teachers and other students for 8 years rather than 6. The relevance of going to gimnazjum in such a situation would be two-folded: firstly, students could ‘reinvented’ themselves, a new environment could motivate them to try harder; secondly, the aforementioned process of selection is postponed as there is another obligatory educational institution with the same curriculum for all children up until the age of 15/16.

Dr Michał Sitko from the Educational Research Institute found that, between 2000 and 2012 the inequalities between students diminished which was mainly due to improvement in the results of pupils with lower grades. He also observed that the differences in educational outcomes between students of different socio-economic backgrounds also lessened. Moreover, the disparities between the type of school that young people chose after gimnazjum in relation to their socio-economic background diminished as well.

As someone who attended school in a system with six years of primary school, three years of junior high school (gimnazjum) and three years of high school, I can understand the concerns people had with regards to gimanzjums. The argument raised perhaps most often was that of how difficult it is to work with children between the age of 13 and 16 especially when they are forced to spend their time in the same building which, allegedly, was supposed to conduce to aggressive behaviour among the teenagers in gimnazjums. This, however, proved not to be true. The 2011 research conducted by ‘School Without Violence’ (“Szkoła Bez Przemocy”) showed that 49% of pupils in primary schools encountered violence, whereas 36% of pupils encountered violence in gimnazjums. Additionally, as argued by professor Konarzewski, teachers’ complaints regarding how difficult it is to teach children during their juvenescence should not be an argument in introducing a reform of an educational system; ‘It is as if doctors were demanding changes in health services because their patients were more and more ill’, said Konarzewski.

Drawing on my personal experience, I can clearly see the advantages given to me simply by going to gimnazjum. My primary school was located in a small town. The teachers there were not the most highly educated and the possibility of being able to leave my primary school at the age of 13 instead of 15 was immensely valuable. Many teachers in my gimnazjum were also teachers in high school, since the two were combined which resulted in the higher standard of teaching as well as, what was expected from the students. The fact that my time in gimnazjum gave me such a good basis for my further education in high school, allowed me to often only revise a large proportion of what was taught, rather than trying to understand the content for the first time. I personally know people who were not among the best students in primary school, but the opportunity of being among more ambitious students resulted in their own improvement and a big raise in their self-confidence in high school due to their good results. Had they been made to decide whether or not they were suitable to even apply to high schools right after. primary school, chances are they might have not even thought about it or might have even been actively discouraged by teachers.

How to build the best educational structure

In order to build an educational system that prepares young people for their future lives in the most effective way; that allows them to develop their interests, but also gives them a good basis of different disciplines; a system that favours and supports critical thinking among students, the main concern should not be centred around the ways in which ‘how to divide number 12’. Ultimately, whether it is 6+3+3 or 8+4 is not the most important. After all, there are different structures of educational institutions in various countries around the world and even those among the best (such as Finland, Switzerland and Belgium) all have different structures. It goes to show that a different structure does not guarantee educational success.

It is a widely-shared view supported by data that those in favour of the recent reform in Poland are also those who did not attend gimnazjums and whose opinion is shaped by the feeling of nostalgia about their own youth which shapes their beliefs about what Polish schools should look like. According to the survey conducted by IPSOS for OKO.press in 2016, the only age group who were against the dismantling of gimnazjums were those between the ages of 18 and 29, therefore, those who actually studied in gimnazjums. Moreover, many educational experts have spoken about the problem that educational reforms are becoming a battlefield for politicians. The same survey showed that the opinion of respondents on the educational reform largely dependent on their political preferences and affiliations. 73% of respondents who support Law and Justice Party thought the reform was a good idea and merely 10% thought it was a bad idea, whereas 68% of Civic Platform and Modern’s (together) electorate thought it was a bad idea and 25% viewed it as a good step. It is clear that rationality and objectivity in evaluating the education reform among the public has been lost and heavily influenced by politics.

Instead of investing money in development of what we already have and instead of spending money on educating teachers by providing additional trainings, that money was spent on developing new curricula, adjusting buildings, etc. While it is not fair to say that the structure of educational institutions is entirely meaningless in its consequences, to ascribe such a large proportion of faults within an education system to its structure, is certainly not accurate and serves as a political tool of creating division within the society. However, the damage has been done and there is no turning back now. What is left is just hope that in the upcoming decades pupils in Poland will be able to attend schools which has continuity unshaken by rapid and impulsive reforms driven by populism.