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Conditions of the educational system in Poland

Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska

Education should respond to the challenges of the present. This is an obviousness that could be replicated in many different contexts. So: education should respond to the challenges of the current political/ social/ economic situation. If there are some significant changes in the organisation of education, they stem from these great needs that affect the society. This is the simplest justification of the educational reforms that have been conducted in the Polish society over the years.

Historical conditions

The complicated history of Poland over the last two hundred years directly affects the history of conditioning and development of education. When the Western European countries were developing models of education in reaction to direct needs of the industrial revolution, teachers on the ethnically Polish areas were busy fighting for the survival of their language and culture, since these were directly running the risk of being eradicated at the times of partitions.

When Poland regained independence after the World War II, the new authorities faced a challenge to align the educational structure in the entire region. And hence some reforms were necessary. The programme of universal/ basic and secondary education developed by Jędrzej Jędrzejewicz was in place since the ‘30s to 1948.

The actions taken by the new, post-war authorities of the People’s Poland were justified, on the one hand, by the actual change of the reality within the country which stemmed not only from the political situation, but, above all, from moving the borders to the so-called Regained Territories.

The changes in 1989 resulting in the new economic and political system made it necessary to adjust the existing solutions to the emerging needs. After almost a decade, apart from three other reforms (territorial, pension and health), an educational reform was conducted and it decentralized school management (it transferred the responsibility for school management onto local governments), as well as it changed the school obligation scheme. Eight-grade primary schools were substituted with six-grade ones and the obligatory lower secondary school (gimnazjum). As a result, general education period got longer and it directly translated onto the results achieved by Polish students in the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for almost twenty years when the lower secondary school was in place. The time spent at high school was shortened from four to three years and vocational technical schools were introduced.

Another important change in the Polish educational system was launched in 2016, when it was decided to move away from the lower secondary school idea and go back to the concept of the eight-grade primary school. The three-year high school was replaced back with four-year ones and a number of significant changes were implemented in vocational education. Vocational schools were established: first-grade (of three years) and second-grade (of two years) ones. Apart from that, there are also five-year technical schools within vocational education. The Ministry of Education of that time (currently: Ministry of Education and Science) that was responsible for development and implementation of the reform prepared a series of informational materials regarding the implemented reform. One of the tools is a “Good school” brochure which includes a clear scheme of the new functioning of the educational system in Poland.

Fig. 1 Educational system scheme (source: Holistic Think Tank)

Specific education stages are completed with an external exam which is a door opener for continuing education further. Monitoring the quality, preparation and checking of exams is the obligation of Central Examination Board (Centralna Komisja Egzaminacyjna). External examinations include eighth-grade exam (egzamin ósmoklasisty), secondary school leaving exam (egzamin maturalny) and professional exam (egzamin zawodowy). The latter is conducted among the graduates of schools teaching specific trades and includes a number of practical trade-specific tasks.

external examinations in Poland
eighth-grade examcompulsory; no minimum threshold is specified, hence you can’t fail
covers three obligatory subjects, i.e. Polish language mathematics modern foreign language
matura examcompulsory (if you want to go to the university)In 2022, a graduate needs to take four exams in the written part. Obligatory exams in the written part: Polish language (basic) mathematics (basic) modern foreign language (basic) additional subject of your choice (advanced) In 2022, oral part of the exam is not compulsory
professional exams (exams that confirm qualifications for a given profession)
compulsory to graduate from the school. To pass the professional exam, you need to obtain: in the written part: at least 50% of all the points (i.e. min. 20 points) and in the practical part: at least 75% of all the points. The results of the exam confirming your professional skills is defined and announced by the Regional Examination Board (komisja okręgowa).
The exam confirming your qualifications for a given profession assesses the information and skills you have within a single qualification in a given profession. The scope and skills for every qualification have been stipulated in the core curriculum for vocational education.
Fig. 1. external exams in Poland (source: own elaboration based on:

Legal grounds for schools in Poland

The educational system in Poland is based on several legal documents which systematically form grounds for education. Currently (as at 30 October 2021) the core document is the Educational Law of 14 December 2016 (Journal of Laws of 2021, item 1082) that was implemented during the reform of 2016 and offered a new description of the organisation of the types of schools. The Act of 7 September 1991 on the Education System (Journal of Laws of 2021 item 1915) remained in place; it regulates, among others, external exams. The issues related to performing the profession of the teacher were described in the Teacher’s Charter of 26 January 1982 (Journal of Laws of 2021, item 1762) that, despite being drafted in the previous social-economic system, remains in place after a number of amendments.

Another issue are the regulations related to the contents taught at school. These include documents such as, among others, core curriculum which involves contents that should be taught during the education process or an ordinance regarding fixed curriculum which includes guidelines for constructing planning grids for specific education stages. An example of the planning grid for the compulsory primary school is presented below:

example of the planning grid for the compulsory primary school
Obligatory educationgrades 1-3total at the stage
Early school education20202060
Hours to be used by the school’s headmaster33
Obligatory classes and classes with the supervising teachergrades 4-8
Polish language5555525
modern foreign language3335519
social studies22
natural sciences22
Information technology111115
physical education4444420
safety education11
general education classes111115
total: compulsory classes and general education classes2425253433145
hours to be used by the school’s headmaster44
career counsellingmin. 10 hrs/ yearmin. 10 hrs/ yearmin. 20 hrs/ 2 years
source: own elaboration based on the ordinance of 3rd April 2019 on core curriculum

Financing educational tasks is regulated by the Act of 27 October 2017 on the Financing of School Education Tasks (Journal of Laws of 2017, item 2203). Finacing of school education tasks is based on redistribution of some funds from the state’s budget earmarked for education among different levels of local government. Financing of specific types of schools has been described with a complex algorithm based on a number of weights that depend on the type and specifics of the schools, as well as needs of students that influence the final amount distributed to a given school.

It is worth paying attention to one more aspect: special position of regulations related to professional education. Professional education and training, apart from the regulations included in the abovementioned acts, includes one more document, i.e. a forecast of the demand for employees in particular trades on the state and local labour market, which is annually distributed in the form of an announcement. The idea of the forecast assumes preferential rates of educational subsidies for schools which decide to teach professions which report the highest demand in a given voivodship.

Training skills

Public policies stemming from the processes in educational systems both in the European Union and across the world are being delivered simultaneously to functioning of schools at the domestic level. A game changer for the education of the future is shifting the weight from knowledge to skills that is based not on limiting the knowledge component but rather on changing the focus of education.

The early 21st century saw the launch of actions related to the so-called Bologna process which was aimed at standardisation of skills of people receiving higher education. All this has resulted in a process of describing qualifications, which means a switch to treating skills as an aspect of human existence which is indeed used in different aspects of everyday life (professional, social, personal).

When describing the process from the historical perspective, the first step was to develop regulations regarding the National Qualifications Framework (Krajowa Rama Kwalifikacji), and then the implementation of the Integrated Qualifications System (Zintegrowany System Kwalifikacji) commenced. All these actions are combined into a strategy of thinking about skills from the perspective of the subsequent decade. The main assumption of qualification framework is the possibility of benchmarking, i.e. comparing and assessing specific skills between different countries (and different educational systems). Implementation of the Integrated Qualifications System allowed for aligning the effects of learning; learning takes place not only at school, but in many informal and non-formal situations. Thanks to the qualifications system, you can talk about the skills regardless of the way you have obtained them. In the Integrated Qualifications System, it is important whether you can do something and not how much time you have devoted to learning this particular skill. The most obvious document that shows a wider context of thinking about skills is the Integrated Skills Strategy (Zintegrowana Strategia Umiejętności, ZSU) that consists of two parts, a more general and a more detailed one. ZSU provisions form a long-term framework for the state’s policies in skill development. The main objetive of the implementation of the ZSU is to strengthen social capital, promote social inclusion, foster economic growth and achieve a high quality of life.

Developing skills is directly related to the Lifelong Learning (LLL) policy and career counselling. Polish students encounter issues related to Lifelong Learning starting from the stage of professional pre-orientation whose elements are present already at the stage of pre-school preparation and are conducted on subsequent educational stages.

Statistical aspects of the educational system

According to the Statistics Office that runs publics statistics in Poland, in the school year 2019/2020 in Poland 4.9m children, teenagers and adults were receiving education in different forms, thus constituting 12.7% of the Polish population. According to the Statistics Office, in the school year 2019/2020 there were:

  • 22.3k kindergartens, teaching 90.4% children aged 3-6;
  • 14.4k primary schools, teaching 3.1m children and teenagers;
  • 1670 vocational schools, teaching 195.4k students;
  • 1887 technical schools, teaching 648.5k students;
  • 3434 general secondary schools, teaching 756.8k students;

Regarding external exams:

  • 361.2k students took the eighth-grade exam (standard version);
  • in April 2019, 345.1k students took the lower secondary school-leaving exam;
  • 248.1k graduates of high schools took the secondary school-leaving exam, including 63.3% of general secondary schools graduates.

Public spending on education and upbringing in 2019 stood at PLN 83.9bn, which represented 3.7% of the GDP.

Polish education from the perspective of international research

For over 20 years, Poland has been participating in international research on students at different stages of education. The most important research measuring students’ success include TIMMS, PIRLS and PISA.

The research is carried out by an independent consortium of research organisations and government departments from 70 countries, i.e. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, IEA:

  • TIMMS – Poland has been part of it since 2011. In the wave carried out in 2019, Polish forth-grade students obtained the average result of 520 points in maths and 531 in natural sciences.
  • PIRLS – Poland participated in it for the first time in 2006. In the last wave in 2016, Polish forth-grade students obtained 565 points on average.

Poland also participates in subsequent waves of PISA. The first time was in 1999, and the last wave took place in 2018, when Polish fifteen-year-olds attained the following results:

  • reading – 512;
  • mathematical thinking – 516;
  • natural sciences thinking – 511.

Polish schools in covid times

The first step within the measures undertaken by Polish authorities amid the intensifying pandemic was to temporarily close schools in March 2020 and, after over a dozen days, to switch to the remote education model. Due to subsequent decisions about prolonging remote education, presential education was not restored whatsoever until the end of the school year. The only exception from the remote model were practical classes for vocational school students, which results from the nature of practical education that is impossible to be effective remotely.

The school year 2020/2021 started with presential classes in all types of school, but as soon as on the 24th October remote education was restored and last until 16th May 2021. According to the press coverage, the last weeks of the school year were devoted to “catching up” on the backlog, i.e. mainly testing the knowledge and assigning grades. The experts were, however, underlining the need of working on relationships and restoring the team spirit within the groups, which required re-integration and educational efforts. However, it was not possible to transfer the weight of education from grades onto relationships in each and every area. It is, nevertheless, necessary to mention the fact that the authorities (with the professor Pyżalski among them) appealed for that at trade conferences.

A lot of studies and research have been done into the functioning of schools during the pandemic. In 2020, the experts from the Digital Centre wrote an extensive report, which was then followed by its second part, on how schools operated during the pandemic.1 Research on children functioning in the times of the pandemic was also conducted by the Interdisciplinary Team for Childhood Studies at the University of Warsaw. The results of the project “Children’s archive of the pandemic” (Dziecięce archiwum pandemii) run by the institution, as well as of a more extensive initiative “The young and the pandemic” (Młodzi i pandemia) can be found on a dedicated website.2

Social dialogue around the educational system issues

The main problem of the educational system in Poland is the lack of consistency of actions that arises from the frequently changing governing authorities. To be able to reliably assess the implementation of a reform, it is necessary to view it from a perspective longer than over a dozen years. The instability stemming from the frequent changes of the legal acts most important for the system influences the decisions taken at the operational level: there are no strategic solutions for specific schools that could adequately prepare for the demographic changes that remain rather independent from the political situation.

To some extent, lower secondary school fell victim to the lack of patience and some helicopter view over the system as a whole; they started to be extinguished in 2017. Despite the teachers and protesting, the reform, called a “deform” by its opponents, was implemented. In the last PISA research in which lower secondary school’s students took part, it turned out that the Polish students are among the world leaders and it constituted a significant increase in the tested skills, as compared to the skills of students tested in the first or the second wave of the research. 2019 saw teachers protesting against the reform and calling for a salary rise; the strike limited the educational activity of schools.

One of the recurring issues to be discussed is a religion class that is confronted with the accelerating secularisation of the society. Including the grade in religion in the average calculated based on all the grades on the certificate causes recurring social debates. A similar thing can be observed with drafting school curricula where religion is one of the schools subject and students that do not attend the class need to go to the common room, library (in the case of younger children) or stay in the corridor (for older children).

Another recurring issue is the age of starting compulsory education. For several years (2014-2016), school obligation was related only to children aged 6, but after the authorities changed in 2016, it was raised to 7.3 Lowering the age of compulsory education was to contribute to bridging gaps between students from different circles and enable to level off the chances on the later educational path.

The school is not only a place where you receive education; for many children, it is a place where they spend their free time after classes, do their homework with the help of a teacher or eat a hot meal. From the systemic perspective, 2019 saw a kick-off of the “Meal at school and at home” (Posiłek w szkole i w domu) programme aimed at supporting students from the families in financial distress. From the local perspective, there are many programmes aimed at providing food to students and it is difficult to align them according to a single scheme.

Apart from the teachers, the school staff includes a school counselor that supports teachers in their educational tasks; a school psychologist is available less frequently. A school counselor needs to form part of the school staff, but there is no requirement for a psychologist; it depends on the body running a particular school whether it can afford it.

The Polish school has changed dramatically over the last thirty years. These changes are related not only to schools’ design or equipment available in theme rooms. Over these years, most schools got rid of doctor’s (sometimes even dentist’s) office; some schools closed school canteens and switched to catering companies. Almost every school is now equipped with state-of-the-art tools and multimedia boards, above all thanks to the support of EU programmes that finance the development of the school’s infrastructure. Not much has changed within teachers’ training and conditions of their work which regularly triggers discussions about the need and scope of these changes; opinions about it differ among the school administrators, teachers’ trade unions and teachers themselves.

About the author
Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
holds a doctorate in health science along with a degree in philosophy. Over the years, while remaining an enthusiastic educator, she has been researching and tracking education system changes with a particular focus on alternative education. As a researcher she worked for the Educational Research Institute, the Association for Open Education, and the “House of Peace” Foundation.
see other articles by the author
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