Changes to education across Central Europe show once again how parties vie to shape young minds.by Martin Ehl 4 April 2012
Education is a powerful political weapon. That isn’t news to Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas and recently resigned Czech Education Minister Josef Dobes – who had faced widespread student protests over his controversial reforms – or to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, and soon-to-be Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Throughout Central Europe, there has been huge interest in education as a political tool. Teachers unions are well-organized, and their votes carry weight. They also know how to sway the opinions of their students and those students’ parents.
Orban’s government has, for example, handed 80 schools over to the administration of religious institutions in the first step toward a general overhaul of the educational system, which, like other parts of public life, the ruling Fidesz party intends to control. Fidesz has centralized education in order to have the greatest possible influence on the appointment of school principals and the curriculum. A law adopted in November cut from one-third down to 10 percent the amount of the curriculum teachers can alter in the classroom.
In the transfer of schools to religious institutions, Catholics were the big winner, increasing the number of schools they administer by a fifth. The Evangelical and the Reformists also strengthened their numbers. While the state officially made the transfer in order to cut public spending, in many communities, especially villages or small towns, young people will have no choice but to attend church-run schools where ethics and religion classes are mandatory.
In Poland, parents last year faced a government proposal to reduce the age at which children start school to 6. That move provoked a wave of reflection over whether 6-year-olds were prepared for school, a reaction quite incomprehensible for Czechs, whose children start at that age. This year for a change – judging by the opinion of Uwazam Rze, the most widely read Polish weekly – the debate will be about changes in secondary education that would sort students at around age 16 into humanities or technical streams.
The measure’s authors say it will improve the chances of young people on the labor market, but its critics say it pigeonholes children too early and narrows their horizons.
From a political standpoint, conservatives are mainly bothered that not everyone would have to study in detail the history of Poland and the Poles through the end of secondary school.
And finally, thanks to education, interesting news has begun flowing out of Slovakia, where, for a time after the elections, it looked as if Fico and his Smer party would practice a conciliatory and tolerant brand of politics. Designated Education Minister Dusan Caplovic has, however, announced that he will not allow the establishment of any new private colleges. That move has rankled Germany, whose embassy has been supporting the launch of a new German private college in Bratislava that was waiting only for the signature of the minister.
Caplovic is right that higher education in Slovakia is in a slightly chaotic state. Many branches of universities are not even accredited. Thirteen private colleges exist, and Caplovic doesn’t want any more.
Caplovic, who was a deputy prime minister in a previous Fico administration, is known for championing the state’s role in anything, especially education. It will be interesting to follow, for instance, the debate around his idea of allowing into high schools only students with a grade point average of 1.5 and higher, which would likely lead to the closure of some high schools.
In an interview with the TASR news agency, he said he is even considering a requirement that secondary schools be accredited. To decide where schools in Slovakia are really needed, he wants to convene four-sided negotiations that would include the founders of basic and middle schools (i.e. municipalities, the regions, religious institutions, and private entities), as well as union representatives and the state.
The education ministries manage a considerable part of the state budget: in Central Europe around 4 percent GDP usually goes toward education. When we add European funds to that amount, politicians have a major stake in installing their most faithful at the education ministries. And those like Orban and Fico, who won landslide elections and could be unbeatable in the next elections, can think longer term about how to fashion loyal, uncritical, and obedient voters out of today’s schoolchildren.