Representing Polish Parents in School Decision-Making

Polish school system has been undergoing the radical changes since the 1989 year political revolution. On 11 February 1999, almost ten years later, the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaœniewski signed the bill introducing into the Polish education major reform. However, these last ten years have witnessed all sorts of changes of which the recently launched reform is one of the elements, as well as their result. These changes appeared on various levels. At all these levels, the role of parents has changed as well. The following sections will deal with three main aspects of changes in the Polish school system:

1.1 The organisation of the Polish Education System

Until 1989 in Poland only the state-owned schools had existed, with a very small exception of the privately-owned schools belonging to the Church. We cannot forget that the role of the Catholic Church in Poland was significant, compared to all the other communist countries in the world. The Church-owned schools, however, had the rights of the state schools in issuing the certificates and the obligation of observing the general curriculum established by the central authorities. The only difference was the source of finance for the school provision and permission for observing Catholic traditions, including religious education lessons. All the other schools were not allowed to teach religion. Nevertheless, all the schools were fee-free according to the doctrine that the education was to be equally available to everybody.

After the change in the political situation in 1989, Poland has witnessed the emerging of private schools on all levels of education - from the primary, through secondary, to the higher schools. There are two types of the so called non-public schools: private and social ones.

The private school is owned by a private person or group of people who make decisions in the arbitrary way without much consultation with parents.

The so called ‘social schools’ are much more influenced by the parents. However, in both cases parents have to pay comparatively high fee.

The majority of pupils, however, attend the state free of charge schools. Due to the political changes in the organisation of the administration of Poland, the state schools are not owned by the state anymore. They have been handed over to the local authorities – local governments. Local authorities are the source of provision for both maintaining of the school buildings and teachers’ salaries. Until now only the primary schools have been provided by the local governments and, as an experiment, in some selected areas of Poland a few secondary schools as well.

At the age of seven, children start their obligatory education in the primary school, which lasts for eight years until they are more or less fifteen. This kind of basic school is called elementary or primary. They can attend nursery and then kindergarten, but these are not obligatory and were established as the help for both working parents.

At the age of fifteen all the children have to take their first and probably the most difficult and important exam, which decides whether they enter the ‘good school’ or they are passed over to the ones with vacancies but not having as high a level or reputation. This is only in cases where they pass their exams. If they fail, there is only the choice of vocational schools in which they train for qualifications to get a job as quickly as possible.

The secondary school lasts for four years and ends with the final examination called ‘Matura’ – ‘the exam of maturation’. The certificate of ‘Matura’ enables the nineteen-year-old girl or boy to try their chances at the entrance exams to all kinds of institutions of higher education or universities.

All these entrance exams, except ‘Matura’, are taken at the higher level schools which means for children and their parents the additional stress of completely new surroundings and people.

There are two types of vocational schools – those in which the trainees acquire the qualifications to get a job, and the technical secondary schools ending with ‘Matura’. The problem is the constantly diminishing number of vocational schools which offer learning and training for the profession only. These schools used to be related to big factories which are now closing down or to taught professions no longer necessary for the modernising economy. The certificate of such a school is not sufficient to enter the university. If someone wants to continue education they have to enter the secondary school of the general education type or the vocational one but teaching the subjects necessary for the ‘Matura’.

The general education schools are called ‘lyceum’. Within the ‘lyceum’, the pupils can attend classes with various profiles, for example: science, biological, humanities or linguistic. There are also artistic schools for young musicians or adept at fine arts. In the general education schools pupils have to study all the subjects extensively, regardless of the profile. As a result their acquisition of such subjects as Polish, maths, history, geography, biology, physics, chemistry, two foreign languages, knowledge of the current affairs, music, art has to be quite profound in order to get promotion to the next year and then to be able to take the final exams, the ‘Matura’ itself. The ‘Matura’ could be roughly compared to A-level exams in British schools.

There is another characteristic feature of the Polish school – pupils might repeat the class if they fail to achieve satisfying results in some or all the subjects, even at the most primary level. There are cases of children who repeat a number of consecutive years, simply because they are lazy. If their intellectual abilities were not sufficient, they would either be treated more leniently or sent to a special school.

The new reform (from 1991) is going to organise education into three levels instead of two.

In a way it is a return to the old system which used to be current in Poland before the second world war and was replaced by the communist educational system. It is comparable to the systems in most western countries.

Obligatory education will start at the age of seven ( preceded by the kindergarten) and will last until the age of nineteen, not as previously to seventeen years of age.

All children have to attend the primary school which lasts only for six years. In the primary schools pupils will pass to the next class regardless of their results. This is absolutely new in the Polish school, and teachers complain that it will lower the pupils’ performance.

At the end of this stage, all the children will take their first exam, the so called ‘competence test’. The results should not influence the attendance of the second level school, called ‘gimnazjum’, because it is obligatory for everyone.

After three years of the secondary level school (between 13 and 16 years of age), there will be the ‘pre-orientating test’. The results will decide about the possibility of further education. Presumably, the better the school the higher the score will be required.

The tertiary level will be more diverse. Pupils will either continue their education in three years, ending with the state ‘Matura’, or they will go for two years to a vocational school and finish their education at this point. If they change their mind and decide to complete the acquisition of knowledge, there will be a possibility of attending a two year ‘complementary lyceum’ ending with ‘Matura’.

At this stage education can be continued at higher vocational schools or at a more academic level in universities preparing for either the studies the licence (about six semesters), or at the longer lasting magister course, comparable to master’s diploma (about eight or ten semesters).

The financial situation of universities has been so bad that they have introduced various means of ‘making’ money in order to survive. The main method is proposing that the candidates who passed their exams, but not well enough, can study for a fee at the evening courses. There are also extramural courses at weekends. It must be noted that the state universities are much more expensive than the private schools. Only medical academies do not take extramural students. However, their so called evening courses are the most expensive of all.

Private schools of higher education can prepare for the diploma of ‘licencjat’ (comparable to bachelor) or at extra courses for the ‘magister’ (master). At these schools there are no entrance exams, only the entrance fee.

2.1 Contents and Character of Curriculum

The reform is introducing, at last, long waited changes in curriculum. The emphasis is to be shifted from the encyclopaedia approach to the knowledge acquisition towards the development of child’s own creativity and independence of thinking.

The primary school will concentrate on passing to children basic skills and bringing up in close co-operation with parents. That is why the process will be organised into educational blocks instead of dividing into subjects in the academic way. The school is to be within close reach of children so parents can have decisive influence on children’s progress and what is more important the school’s work/ performance.

The participation of parents in the educational process will be much greater than it has been so far. However, it is not at the primary level where parents are going to be taken into account most significantly.

There are expected to be special workshops in which teachers and parents will share their experiences and co-operate in dealing with difficulties.

It is also obvious that the Catholic attitude towards the education will be more taken into account as the predominating aspect of Polish culture. This is one of the most difficult issues to be dealt with. The idea is to maintain the impartiality of schools, without emphasis on any particular outlook whether it is Christian, lay, or atheistic. However, the parents’ opinion in this matter will be respected.

Polish education has already witnessed the re-introduction of religion to schools from the Catholic Church, which has not happened without consequences for its teaching. The fact is that the attendance at those lessons has decreased.

‘Gimnazjum’ (the secondary school) will continue to teach more traditionally, by means of academically divided subjects. Since this stage is obligatory for everyone one of its main aims is to recognise abilities and interests of the children, enabling them to make a right choice concerning the future education and career.

The most able ones will continue education leading to ‘Matura’ and academic studies.

3.1 Role of Parents in School Decision Making

The role of parents in decision making differs depending on the school level, and therefore the age of children. Their involvement can be looked upon from three perspectives

All these aspects maybe analysed in accordance with the changes being currently introduced by the reform. Some of them have already been mentioned..

So far the process of selecting / electing parental representatives is similar in all types of schools. During the first meeting of parents at the beginning of the school year the teacher responsible for the class/ form invites three parents to become the representation of the class on the school forum. They form the so-called School Council which co-operates with the school management in decision making regarding the school.

The School Council representing parents, together with the management of the school, make decisions mainly of the financial nature. These decisions only relate to the money collected as the voluntary contribution of the parents. The Council decides also how high this contribution should be. This arrangement pertains to the state schools only, which are free of charge otherwise.

It must be noted that the parental contributions have helped to sustain the impoverished Polish schools in the financial crisis caused by the political changes in the country. Actually, Polish education is one of the main victims of the political changes. In order to revive Polish education had to start with drastic reductions on expenses in the budget. It meant big savings and limitations wherever possible.

According to the communist doctrine the central authorities decided how money was spent on various sectors of economy and institutions which were constitutionally free to everybody, such as health care, education or social care. When the economiccrisis forced the introduction of savings on expenses, the easiest were the sectors that would not have gone on strike, for example teachers or students, although there were some occurrences.

Teachers at the state schools remain the worst paid group in Poland and the condition of this profession cannot be compared to any other country in the western world. The same refers to schools in their material substance and therefore the role of parents in sustaining the schools has been immeasurable.

It is worth mentioning at this point that poverty affecting education in Poland has instigated the appearance of the ‘second circulation education’. Schools’ performance has dropped to the level of the teachers’ salaries:-

There is an insufficient number of secondary schools leading to ‘Matura’ and higher education providing everybody with the place in the school, caused the competition to better schools at the level beyond the imagination for the citizen of the western world. The best secondary schools presenting the highest level of education can have up to 15 candidates per place. Similarly to the most popular university courses. Here the role of parents is the biggest.

Parents simply finance the so called co-repetitions and extra courses enabling their children to pass exams well and enrol to the best ‘dreamt about’ schools giving the best possible education in this changing rapidly and challenging world.

As far as the other role of parents is concerned, as it has been stated at the beginning, it is protective. When the children are still small and the teacher needs extra help in various kinds of activities, parents help comes in handy. It involves trips into the country or outings to the cinema, the museum or the theatre. The organisation of school festivities or holidays would be difficult without parents participation. However their influence on the most crucial aspects of school activity such as the process of didactics itself has been rather limited so far.

Until now the authorities assigned pupils to the school districts according to the area they lived in. The money was sent to schools first from the state, then from the local governments, but was not connected with the quality of the school.

From 1999 it is up to the parents and children to decide where to study and the reform introduces a parental form of influence on the level of schools by the means of the ‘educational voucher’. This is to be a form of financing of education on various levels and will help the small private or social schools in their maintenance, if they are of good quality. A certain amount of money will be allotted to a pupil and it will follow him/ her, whatever school they are going to choose. It is up to parents to decide to which school to send the child. So, in this way, good schools will attract more students and more money. We will see how it is going to work in reality. This is to be the most revolutionary change. It will certainly influence the quality of the performance of the schools and the role of parents in this aspect is going to be undeniable.

4.1 Conclusions

Concluding, it could be stated that partnership of parents with the Polish school has been limited to the financial support mainly. Quite possibly this situation is inherited from the previous epoch, when school was the tool of communist indoctrination and parents were treated in the instrumental way. Consultation regarding their opinion in any area, especially their attitude towards the general outlook, such as religion or ideology was not possible. Parents, just as the rest of the society, had to represent the communist party ideology. If they were employed by the school, it was plainly instrumental and disciplinary function.

Although the change in the political situation has brought new solutions in education, for example the rise of various types of non-public schools of public or private type, the influence of parents on the curriculum remains non-existent.

The other serious problem is the negative selection of teachers, caused by very low salaries and difficult conditions of work. Again, parents have very limited if any influence on their performance or employment.

The new reform promises to increase the role of parents in the education of their children in at least two ways.

Firstly, parent’s opinion will be taken into account, particularly at the primary stage of education, regarding their comments on the school and its work.

Secondly, they will influence the level of schools, even the primary ones, by the system of ‘educational vouchers’ and a free choice of school, at last.

It would be ideal if the role of parents in the School Councils were not limited to financial decisions only.

On the whole it can be said that parents still seem to be very passive in their co-operation with schools. This probably is the outcome of the previous, communist epoch, and it will probably take the next generation to expect more partnership in this area.

Dorota Pawlak