• Paweł Marczewski

The inequality epidemic in Poland’s schools

Experts are debating the extent to which the reopening of schools in September has contributed to current record levels of coronavirus infections. But another, less discussed, disaster has also developed from how the health crisis exacerbates the structural problems of Polish education. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the divide between pupils from various backgrounds, accelerated the departure of qualified specialists from the teaching profession, and worsened the quality of teaching.

The return to school after the summer holidays and several months of remote teaching raised justified concerns among teachers and parents. There was a lack of clear, nationwide guidelines telling schools what epidemic situation would mean they should return to remote classes or enter a hybrid teaching mode. Decisions were left up to headteachers and local education boards, once again shifting the responsibility for the health of teaching staff and pupils onto them.

This is particularly concerning in the light of the record numbers of COVID-19 infections Poland is currently experiencing, which emphatically show that the pandemic is far from over. Despite the fears, however, the school system did not break down on 1 September, and schools have not yet become centres of outbreaks.

According to education ministry data from 24 September, 99% of Poland’s 48,118 schools were operating as normal, with only 274 working in hybrid (online and in-person) mode and 92 teaching completely remotely.

Although the number of educational institutions forced to suspend in-person teaching has grown since the beginning of September, this increase is not dramatic, and media interest in the situation of schools in the pandemic has dissipated. There have been no disasters, so most of the media have turned their attention elsewhere.

The problem is that what might cause a real disaster in schools is not sudden mass illness among pupils and teachers. The genuine breakdown threatening the Polish education system results from the extraordinary measures necessitated by the health crisis, which exacerbate the inequalities in education that already existed.

Prelude to an earthquake

In recent years, the Polish education system has received two major blows that have made it much harder for schools to equalise opportunities for pupils from deprived families and to play their role of integrating pupils from different backgrounds.

The first was the reversal of the reform that saw children starting school at the age of six (rather than seven). Earlier contact with educational institutions and delaying the moment of selection until the next rung of the educational ladder could have brought tangible benefit to pupils, giving them more time to close the distance on their peers with greater cultural capital, and therefore better opportunities for continuing education and higher earnings after completing it. Unfortunately, failure to carry out wide-ranging public consultations and concerns about schools’ lack of preparation led to huge protests against lowering the starting age, culminating in its repeal.

The second blow to the integrational and equalising function of school was the abolition of middle schools (gimnazjum). This resulted firstly in many teams of teachers being broken up and many talented people leaving the profession, lessening the quality of the Polish educational system. Secondly, in effect it brought the moment of selection for high schools (liceum) forward by a year. In the new system, selection takes place after eight years of primary school, not six of primary school and then three in middle school. This hit the chances of pupils from deprived families particularly hard.

The two unfavourable changes were followed in 2019 by a strike from teachers, who demanded an increase in their salaries, which had been frozen and eaten up by inflation. The government not only refused to satisfy the teachers’ demands, but met them head-on, portraying teachers in the media as entitled complainers.

The result was further departures from the profession from people tired of the low rate of pay, mudslinging from politicians and increasing restrictions on their professional independence from education boards subservient to the central government. These boards did not cover themselves in glory during the strike, parroting the government narrative rather than creating a space for dialogue for the various sides in the dispute.

But all these negative processes were a mere prelude to the real earthquake of the lockdown. Suddenly, schools were forced to begin teaching remotely, without first being able to prepare pupils and teachers adequately and with major deficiencies in infrastructure.

Disappearing pupils – a class problem

On 7 May 2020, when schools had been working remotely for almost two months, Warsaw deputy mayor Renata Kaznowska reported that 604 pupils had “disappeared” from the school system in the capital. Data on disappearing pupils also came in from other local authorities, yet the ministry did not deem it appropriate to compile information for the whole country, arguing that it was the local boards that were responsible for ensuring children were fulfilling their school obligations.

In short, once again the education ministry shifted responsibility onto schools and local authorities. They also made them responsible for provision of remote teaching platforms. Even today there is no ministry platform to reduce the scale of disruptive behaviour – trolling, disturbances and name-calling – in online lessons.

Some have played down the problem, saying that children simply spent time with their parents, taking longer holidays and enjoying the break. Certainly, not all the pupils who never showed up to virtual lessons were forced to abandon their education by difficult conditions or misfortune. Many of them, however, did not spend this time having fun with their parents or polishing their skills and knowledge in private classes.

A study by CenEA Centre for Economic Analysis shows that the number of Polish pupils struggling with technical barriers hampering access to remote education is 1.6 million. Some 7.1% of all pupils had no internet access, and 17.3% had problems with access to suitable equipment, as their families had fewer devices available than the number of schoolchildren.

These access barriers particularly affected children from worse-off families. An additional obstacle was the lack of a separate room or space for study – 833,000 pupils lived in households where the number of rooms was the same or lower than the number of pupils.

The damage caused by several months spent outside the education system will be very hard to repair. There is also a risk that some children will not return to school at all.

The Brookings Institution, an American thinktank, estimated that after months of remote education children would return to school with 70% of the learning gains in reading from the prior year relative to a typical school year, and less than 50% of the gains in mathematics. For pupils who did not participate in remote classes at all, this damage will be much greater.

Repairing the damage caused by remote teaching will be much easier for pupils whose parents have the cultural competences and financial means to make up for the deficits of the education system presented in “emergency mode”. In some cases, this is a case of additional tutoring. Research by the Batory Foundation ideaForum shows that before the pandemic over 34% of Polish families, mostly living in big cities and with parents educated to degree level, paid for supplementary teaching. During the lockdown, some well-off families employed people to assist their children with remote classes.

In addition, parents working from home – who are far more likely to be able to help their children with online lessons – are usually those with university degrees. Research by Citi GPS shows that in 2018 the proportion of people with higher education working remotely almost every day in Poland was 15%, while none at all had only primary education.

During the lockdown, these differences became more pronounced as the people forced to work “face to face” were above all shop employees or couriers educated to primary or secondary level. People working in these professions were not only more exposed to infection, but also much less able to help their children with lessons at home.

Absent teachers

It was not just pupils who began to disappear from the education system during the pandemic, but teachers too. The departure of qualified people from the teaching profession had begun even earlier.

The abolition of middle schools meant that many specialists lost their jobs or left the profession. In October 2017, after the introduction of the last educational reform, the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) informed that 6,500 teachers were being made redundant and a further 18,5000 faced reduced hours or work in several schools or had taken retirement. Failure to meet teachers’ salary demands made during the strike in spring 2019 and the campaign to undermine the strikers gave teachers additional reasons to quit the profession.

Amid the pandemic, the chaotic introduction of remote teaching, and then the inadequate preparations for the opening of schools, concerns about health were added to the mix. Partial ZNP estimates from September 2020 show the loss of a further 9,400 teachers in the 2020/2021 school year.

The exodus of qualified and experienced teaching staff, along with the lack of genuine incentives for working in the classroom, means that the education system is beginning to be plagued by similar ills to those that have long afflicted the health system.

Numbers of specialists are dwindling, and as a result, access to good-quality education is worsening. According to ministry data, the average age of teachers in Poland in the 2018/2019 school year was 44.1, and around 30% of teachers were over 50.

Staff shortages, meaning difficult access to good-quality public education, particularly affect poorer municipalities with poorer communications links. A report by the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) from 2019 showed that educational subsidies after the last education reform grew by 6%, but local authority expenditure associated with reorganisation of schools increased by 12%. If we add to this the drop in local authorities’ income caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of underfunding of education becomes even more pressing.

These structural problems have brought about a division into regions that are able to compensate for deficits – be it thanks to higher income to the local budget or private expenditure of parents paying for private schools – and regions which do not have such possibilities. As a result, the common standard – an absolute educational minimum identical for the whole country – becomes a fiction.

Alarm bells ringing

The effects of the educational inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic are already visible not only in staffing shortages, but also in pupils’ results. In 2020, 74% of young people passed the high-school leavers’ examination. In 2019, the figure was 80.5%.

Of course, the drop in the number of pupils passing the exam was certainly affected by the enforced move to remote teaching. But if this extraordinary situation had occurred in an educational system not weakened by staff shortages, worsening access to good-quality teaching, infrastructural deficiencies and increasing expenses out of parents’ pockets, the negative effects of the health crisis for education could have been considerably reduced.

The COVID-19 pandemic is yet again sounding alarm bells for the educational authorities, after the negative effects of the last reform and the teaching strike. This time it really could be a final warning bell.

Translated by Ben Koschalka from Notes from Poland