Poland’s rightwing opposition criticises Tusk’s education shake-up

<span>Donald Tusk’s newly elected coalition government is seeking to make its mark after eight years of the Law and Justice party.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Donald Tusk’s newly elected coalition government is seeking to make its mark after eight years of the Law and Justice party.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Poland’s new government is seeking to slim down the material taught in schools by about 20%, saying a cramming of the curriculum under the previous rightwing populist administration has left teachers and students exhausted.

Speaking during a school visit in the Silesian town of Mysłowice over the weekend, the education minister, Barbara Nowacka, said she was consulting experts on how to narrow down the curriculum, which will come into force in secondary schools after the summer break, from 1 September.

The reduction of the amount of material taught would “enable teachers and students to cover the material more calmly and in depth, resulting in a more effective education”, Nowacka’s education ministry has said.

But narrowing down the syllabus in history and literature classes is proving controversial, with opposition politicians reportedly decrying the removal of military heroes and the late Polish pope, John Paul II, from standard teaching guides.

Education, a source of considerable national pride in Poland, is one of several areas in which Donald Tusk’s newly elected coalition government is seeking to make its mark after eight years of rule by the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).

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The country’s progress in the Pisa education rankings over the last 20 years has gained international attention. In the most recent index, Polish students scored higher than the OECD average in mathematics, reading and science, and the country recorded the EU’s joint best result – equal with Finland – in a key literacy index that assesses reading comprehension.

But the Tusk government said Poland’s educational achievements were being undone by reforms brought by PiS, with average 2022 results down compared with 2018 in mathematics, reading and science.

“Over the two decades Poland has seen one of the fastest improvements in the history of the Pisa rankings,” said Tomasz Gajderowicz, deputy director of the Educational Research Institute, which is overseen by Poland’s education ministry.

“But since 2018 our performance has deteriorated. Schools struggle to teach the required curriculum over the course of a compulsory general education that was shortened from nine to eight years by the PiS government, and there are serious problems with teachers’ and students’ wellbeing.”

The PiS administration’s handling of the pandemic is also likely to be a factor in the recent drop in rankings: primary schools in Poland were closed for longer than in most other countries worldwide, with the in-person education of 98% of students disrupted for more than eight weeks.

“The current first set of changes are an emergency measure: if Poland’s schools are like patients arriving at A&E, we are first giving them a dose of ibuprofen for the inflammation”, Gajderowicz said. “Surgery and well-thought-out treatment will take time.”

Modifying the syllabus for history and literature is likely to prove particularly contentious, however. While the majority of the works removed from the mandatory reading lists for both primary and secondary school – such as German writer Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum or fables by the Russian writer Ivan Krylov – do not have an overtly political agenda, others risk stoking a culture war that the opposition is waiting to exploit.

For example, the cuts mean the national epic Pan Tadeusz by romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz will only be required reading in parts, while some works by Pope John Paul II have been removed entirely. The list will reportedly also include more modern literature, such as novels by Polish Nobel prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, a noted critic of the PiS administration.

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PiS politicians have also criticised the removal from the history syllabus of the Volhynia massacres that took place during the second world war, in which Ukrainian nationalists killed tens of thousands of ethnic Poles.

In an interview with Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, Przemysław Czarnek, who served as education minister in the PiS government, said: “[These changes] are supposed to lead to cutting Poles off from tradition, culture, that is, cutting them off from Polishness.”

The Polish national curriculum underwent a significant overhaul at the hands of PiS in 2017. The party oversaw the relegation of Greek and Roman history, the Holocaust, and the story of Poland joining the EU, while promoting Polish kings, anti-communist partisans, and Pope John Paul II.