Education in Hungary and Poland: Crisis in the Classroom

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Absent

As both countries prepare for a new school year in September, many people involved in public education systems are asking, “Where are the teachers?

In Hungary, Tamas Totyik, vice-president of the Teachers’ Union, says around 17,000 teachers, or 15% of the total needed, are absent from the national education system. The shortage of math, physics, chemistry and computer science teachers is particularly acute, even in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

Teachers are aging and going to retire, and there is no one to fill the void,” Totyik, who taught maths and geography in rural Hungary for more than 30 years, told BIRN.

In Poland, staff shortages, especially in large cities, are also a concern. In Warsaw, for example, there are more than 1,800 vacancies, according to the ZNP union, and in Krakow around 1,000.

At a press conference in mid-August, Education Minister Czarnek derided the concerns, saying the shortages were “normal staff turnover at this time of year” and claimed that the national figures were equivalent to a situation where a school with an enrollment of 50 was missing a teacher.

Yet a tracking of vacancies advertised by regional education authorities, compiled by English teacher Robert Gorniak and posted on the Dealerzy Wiedzy Facebook page, showed that at least 20,000 teachers were needed nationwide in July, large cities being disproportionately affected.

“As a reminder, shortages last year amounted to 15,000 missing employees in August, which is a 50% increase,” Gorniak commented.

This same kind of doublespeak from the Polish authorities can be seen when it comes to increasing teachers’ salaries, which has been a constant demand for years, including during the 2019 strike.

Czarnek claimed that the ZNP, the union, had rejected an offer of salary increases for teachers of around 36% (a claim that the ZNP vehemently denies), while at the same time the Sejm, the lower house Parliament, controlled by the PiS, rejected a 20 percent increase.

In Hungary, experts say an immediate salary increase of at least 30-50% would be needed to retain and attract new teachers to fill shortages.

After 10 years of neglect, Orban’s right-wing government now at least admits that there are problems in the public education system and that teachers are somewhat underpaid. He now promises to raise wages to 80% of the country’s average wage by 2029. The money to fund this, around €1 billion, is expected to come from EU structural and cohesion funds, but the government must provide credible anti-corruption safeguards, just as it must with frozen payments from the Coronavirus Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Either way, teacher Zsuzsa Berkesi thinks these are empty government promises and won’t solve the here and now problems: “When the new utility bills arrive this fall, teachers will have to decide whether to they have to pay or eat. Literally many will starve. We need an immediate solution.

And many wonder if the Orban government is even ideologically ready to change course and start investing in education. Totyik, the union leader, claims he has systematically diverted resources from the education system: in 2008, 5.8% of Hungary’s GDP was spent on public education, while in 2020 that figure had fallen to 3, 8%.

“More money is spent on sports than on elementary schools — it’s hard not to see some kind of ideology or prioritization in that,” he says.

Totyik believes the ruling party is following a conscious strategy of deconstructing public education to prevent social mobility. “Our constitution promises equal access to education for all: this is clearly not the case,” he says. In the meantime, the children of the ruling elite mostly attend private schools or those run by the church.

Class Strikes

The ZNP and other Polish teachers’ unions are currently threatening to go on strike after the start of the new school year unless concessions are made on wage increases.

Hungarian teachers’ unions are more cautious about staging a nationwide strike on September 2, but student organizations are already staging a big protest outside the parliament building.

The rights of Hungarian teachers to organize strikes have been seriously restricted over the years. Students cannot be left unattended or sent home, and minimum service must be observed. Strike days are deducted from teachers’ salaries and many have to think twice about whether they can afford to lose even a fraction of their income. “Teachers are divided and many fear for their existence,” says Zsuzsa Berkesi.

A further sign of Orban’s tough tactics is that the new Fidesz government sworn in in May has returned education to the control of the interior ministry and its iron-fisted leader, Sandor Pinter, who has promised more sticks than carrots when dealing with teachers and their unions.

In Poland in particular, the new academic will come with the additional challenge of integrating the children of Ukrainian refugees.

The Minister of Education claimed that Polish schools were ready to accommodate between 200,000 and 300,000 Ukrainian students. But ZNP leader Slawomir Broniarz warns the government has done little to prepare for the influx.

“Even getting 100,000 new students would require building 1,000 more schools for 1,000 students,” Broniarz said in a meeting with the online portal Krytyka Polityczna. “After all, our classes aren’t made of chewing gum. We must be open to the needs of Ukrainians, we must help, but who and where can this help be implemented? »

“The reaction to the arrogance of [education] minister could be a huge teacher rebellion,” Dariusz Chetkowski, a teacher from Lodz wrote on his popular education blog hosted by the weekly Polityka. “It’s hard to say what form this rebellion might take after September 1: a general strike, a mass exodus of teachers leaving the system, or principals having to deal with teachers who do their job in an angry and frustrated way of uncontrollably.”

“We can only sympathize with the students,” Chetkowski added, “who are forced to learn in such difficult times. They attend a sick school and the minister refuses to take blood tests or apply treatment.

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