Last-minute educational “reforms” cause chaos and confusion in Hungary

September 3, 2016

school

“I don’t know what kind or how many teachers are needed, who can teach a subject, and what they are going to have to teach. There is nobody anywhere with the schedule preparation. I’m doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The first day of the new school year was fraught with complications, confusion and chaos. Hungary’s educational authorities appear to have waited until the last possible moment to announce dramatic changes to public education still reeling from ill-conceived reforms introduced under the 2nd Orbán government.  And they have done so without first consulting or even informing educators of the nature of those changes.

Last-minute name changes

210 thousand students study in vocational schools (szakközépiskolák) across the country, and they have been thrown into a state of total disarray. The name of the schools has been changed to szakgimnázium, which has confused teachers, students and parents alike. Prior to the changes, there were two kinds of high schools: szakközépiskola and gimnázium.  In addition to changing signs on the doors, official stamps used for official documents need to be replaced in order for the schools to function.

Problems created by the name change itself are small in comparison to all the major policy changes that come with it.

Last-minute scheduling

At the new szakgimnázium, fewer general courses will be offered in favor of more technical curricula, in order to “bring honor back to the manual professions,” as the mantra goes. This necessitates a rewriting of the curriculum framework and deciding who is qualified to teach those subjects. The biggest complaint heard so far is that the massive process of dismantling Hungary’s most successful post-socialist educational institution has been so rushed, and without any meaningful preparation or discussion among those affected, that no one is prepared for the beginning of the school year. One school director in Budapest told Index.hu: “I don’t know what kind or how many teachers are needed, who can teach a subject, and what they are going to have to teach. There is nobody anywhere with the schedule preparation. I’m doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Last-minute curriculum changes

The semester began on September 1, and the official curricula only reached the schools on August 31.  Many schools are using improvised materials to teach subjects they assume will ultimately appear in the curriculum: one Budapest high school is teaching work safety and first aid because the teachers don’t know what they are officially required to teach. Another school received word several days before the beginning of the semester that they would be required to teach truck driving, a subject they had never taught before and for which they have no instructor.  Fortunately, new changes allow teachers without qualifications to teach vocational classes for which there is a shortage of educators.

Last-minute courses

A radical new program, quickly thrown together over the summer, called “complex sciences” is being introduced in all vocational high schools. The students will attend three courses per week their first year, with physics, biology, chemistry and geography integrated into a single course. However, from the second year the complex science class will be pared down to a single discipline depending on what is decided to be most suitable for that school. Therefore, students will only be able to study one science, say biology or geography.  Critics say this may preclude them from entering other fields where perhaps physics or chemistry are required, severely limiting their career choices.

This new integrated science course has no teachers, no textbooks, no approved teaching materials, and its curriculum was made public five days before the beginning of the year, thus forcing teachers to devise their own approach to this new system: they can either fit their four individual science curricula into a single course and take turns leading classes, or elect a teacher to give the whole “integrated” course. This could mean a physics teacher might end up teaching all the branches of natural science, even if he or she knows little about chemistry or biology.

This scheme and other major changes in education were reportedly lobbied for by Undersecretary of Education László Palkovics and under the guidance of the Ministry of National Economy. The stated goal is to make adjustments in the labor market, an approach criticized as focusing on the wrong problem and channelling young people into educational tracks at an early age that will be far too difficult for them to change.

The last straw?

Many educators were already fed up with recent educational reforms, and the “I Would Teach” (Tanitanék) teachers movement has been actively opposing controversial reforms, including the nationalization of the schools and the centralization of their administration. Now the movement, led in part by educator István Pukli, has vowed to radicalize as their demands have not been met. According to ATV.hu, the Tanitanék movement believes minor concessions made by the government within the framework of the so-called “educational roundtable” have not been enough. The education system has not recovered its institutional autonomy, there is no academic freedom, no freedom to choose textbooks, and they have not reduced the burden on students and teachers, teachers say.

“In the last academic year we learned that we cannot pressure the government to make real changes to the flawed education system with nice words, with intentions to negotiate, with proposals or with demands,” the group told ATV.hu, adding that they believe the government either talks around the issue or actively lies about the state of the education system.

All dressed up and nowhere to go

One of the unfulfilled demands of the educators is that “the government…take immediate action to combat the growing segregation of Roma students in the interest of effectively banning all forms of discrimination.” Such a case has been unfolding in the Budapest suburb of Csobánka, where the Petöfi Sándor Általános Iskola (primary school) was closed under the controversial reorganization of Klik, the organization which administers public schools. In the aftermath of the closure, a controversy arose over where the former students of the school should be sent to continue their studies, Abcug.hu reports.

Most of the students of the school were of Roma background, a fact that incited a public backlash in neighboring Pomáz when it was suggested the children be re-enrolled in primary schools there. Petitions were circulated and thousands of signatures gathered to prevent the children from being sent to Pomáz schools. Csobánka, a village of 3,000 inhabitants and 300 school-aged children, the petitioners argued, ought to have a school of its own. Meanwhile, Klik wrung its hands about where the children were to continue their educations, so that two days before the semester began, many parents still had no idea where they were going to send their children on Thursday morning.

Finally it was decided that six of the 37 children involved would be sent to Pomáz, and the rest would be taken into schools in Szentendre, 15 kilometers away. Parents learned where their children would go only two days before the school year began, and only then could begin making arrangements for how to get to and from school in other towns. Some children were assigned to different schools than their siblings, increasing this burden.

Officially, parents are entitled to choose which schools their children attend, but parents in Csobánka have said that this is not how it has worked in practice. If Szentendre, for whatever reason, was not a suitable place for the student to be enrolled, and the parents inquired at other schools closer to home, they always received the same answer: there isn’t enough room in the class for your child.

The major of Csobánka holds a Pomáz protest poster. Photo: Hajdú D. András, Abcug.hu

With such an auspicious beginning to the school year, speculation has already begun to circle about whether similar protests and strikes by educators are expected this year as there were in the last school year. With teachers movements vowing radical action, and the educational system in a grand state of confusion and disarray, the first day of school already feels like something’s got to give.