Poland: Polish Schools at Sixes and Sevens

polish schools at sixes and sevensWARSAW | Karolina Elbanowska, 28, is the mother of four young children. With summer on the doorstep, she’s not only planning her family’s holidays. She will spend at least some of her free time this summer thinking about what the Polish government has in store for her children’s education.

Instead of considering the educational opportunities in store for her children, she worries about how the newest change to the country’s education system may be nothing more than an obstacle to their development.

Last March, the Polish government – a coalition of liberals from the Civic Platform and agrarians from the Polish Peasants Party – pushed through a controversial school reform whereby children will attend first grade from age six instead of age seven, as has been the policy for at least the past 35 years.

Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, parents will have the option to send their children to first grade at age six. By 2012, school year attendance at primary school will be required for all six-year-olds. Until then, however, parents can decide whether their child is ready and school principals can decide whether they feel their school is appropriate for such young learners.

The law was originally intended to go into effect, with compulsory attendance for all six-year-olds, from the 2009-2010 school year but was postponed due to criticism that the education system was under-prepared. Many parents still believe that three years is far too short a time for the Polish primary-school system to prepare to accommodate hundreds of thousands of new, younger, children.

No Trust in the System

With that in mind, Elbanowska and her husband Tomasz, 30, both journalists with a local weekly in Legionowo, just north of Warsaw, have already made up their minds. They’re not sending their son, who will turn six this year, to primary school until they have to. But their other children, who are now one and three, very likely won’t have that choice.

Instead the Elbanowskis’ eldest will attend “zero grade,” which is a compulsory year just before first grade but in most cases held on premises that are separate from the primary school. At zero-grade, kids don’t sit behind desks, as in primary school, and there’s still quite a lot of fun while serious work, like learning to read, is being carried out to prepare them for school.

“Polish schools are in large part not sufficiently suitable to accommodate six-year-olds,” Elbanowska says. “The schools are very often in old buildings that date back to the 1960s and are now in desperate need of renovation.”

The Elbanowskis say that the class schedules at primary schools are too demanding for a six-year-old, not to mention the schools’ often inadequate equipment. Even though it’s a question of only one year, it represents a huge difference in a child’s intellectual and emotional development.

“From zero grade, where they’d be taken care of throughout the day, with three meals, time for a walk and so on, they will now go to schools where there’s only one meal,” Tomasz Elbanowski says, “and if parents can’t take them home directly after lessons, they will end up in overcrowded common rooms.”

He and his wife also complain that education authorities drafted a new curriculum for six-year-olds on the assumption that all, or at least very many of them, would soon be attending primary school. “But they’re not, and there’s a program for six-year-olds in first grade. Only there are no six-year-olds in the first grade,” he says.

The Elbanowskis and other parents disgruntled by the government’s education policies have banded together under the name “Save Our Kids,” an initiative that is finding resonance with families across Poland.

“Parents’ trust in the reform is in my opinion close to zero. Here in Legionowo we know that no six-year-old will attend school as of September,” Karolina Elbanowska says.

“In some cities where parents will definitely be sending six-year-olds to school, they were in fact forced to do so when local authorities decided to get rid of zero grade,” Elbanowska adds. “To me, the current zero grade from which kids go on to first grade is a system that has proven itself. Why is the government working to dismantle it?”

Mariola Zalewicz, deputy principal of a primary school in Kalisz, a town of 100,000 people in central Poland, says that parents are still wary of the reform. At her school, only two families decided to send their six-year-olds to first grade. The children were assessed as sufficiently well-developed to attend first grade with seven-year-olds. Otherwise – since it wouldn’t make sense for the school to create a separate first-grade class for just two pupils – they’d have to spend one more year in zero grade.

For Zalewicz, then, bringing six-year-olds into her school presents no special difficulties, at least for now. “There is no cost to us to accommodate two six-year-olds in a class of seven-year-olds. In time, however, there will be more and more six-year-olds attending our school and this means costs to arrange special classrooms for them with carpets, a place to rest and to play,” she says.

The Ministry of Education and Sport believes that extending primary-school by a year will ensure that younger children have “better access to education,” it said in an e-mail response to questions, adding that the earlier children begin their formal education, the better their chances for further success in life.

Private Schools Flourish

Not all parents mind the changes to the primary school system, however. Katarzyna Bolechowska, 37, is the mother of six-year-old Karolina. The Bolechowski family lives in the Warsaw district of Ursynow, where local authorities have removed separate facilities for zero grade classes beginning from the new school year, in September.

“My bottom line is that whatever the curriculum, whatever the course books, a child’s success at school is dependent on a teacher,” says Bolechowska, a kindergarten teacher herself. “A good teacher will almost make a school’s disadvantages unimportant, while a bad teacher will ruin the best possible conditions that a school can offer.”

Bolechowska runs a private kindergarten for children age two to five. Hers is one of many private facilities that have sprung up to meet the growing demand. Education before age six is not compulsory, and there aren’t enough public kindergartens to meet the need. On the other hand, private facilities are often beyond the means of many families: the fees at public kindergartens in Warsaw are in the range of 25 euros to 80 euros monthly, while private kindergartens start at around 200 euros per month.

“It’s understandable that parents don’t want to send six-year-olds to regular schools,” Bolechowska says. “Parents are concerned about their kids’ safety, and that their kids will feel lost in the big school building with hundreds of other children.”

While the government did give way to criticism by not making primary school mandatory for six-year-olds from this September, it still proved very determined, mustering the votes to overturn President Lech Kaczynski’s veto. That put the new system into operation, despite Kaczynski’s warning that it was “an experiment on living children.”

Supporters of the new system in the government and the left argue it is needed in Poland because an earlier start to compulsory education is a trend across the EU, and implementing change now will mean fewer disparities between children later on. According to the left, the current system simply ensures that many Polish children don’t get any early schooling at all because access to preschool facilities is very limited.

Another issue is money. When approving the budget for 2009, the government earmarked 347 million zlotys (77 million euros) to finance the enlarged primary school system. The economic crisis, however, forced it to slash no less than 300 million off that amount. The remaining 47 million is a ludicrous amount, critics bellowed.

With the majority of parents following the Elbanowskis’ example, as it looks like they may do, it might just as well be enough.




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