Football-mad Poland climbs the education league table

Elizabeth Buie

As co-host of Euro 2012, Poland has been the focus of the football world. But away from the media spotlight, it has also won international approval for its rapid rise up the education league table.

Following modernising reforms at the end of the 1990s, Poland has become the most successful of the east European former Communist countries.

More than many others, its schools have managed to narrow the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

The 2009 results for Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment), run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ranked Poland 14th for reading, ahead of the US, Sweden, France and Germany - and well ahead of the UK, in 25th place (Scotland was ranked 15th).

The OECD has consistently argued that increases in attainment are not always achieved by governments throwing a lot of money at education, but by the money being carefully targeted.

Michael Federowicz, director of Poland's Education Research Institute in Warsaw, traces the roots of his country's success to the years under martial law after the Solidarity era ended in 1981, when, as he put it, "educated people were suppressed". When democracy came in 1990, a huge appetite for change, including education, was unleashed.

Initial reforms concentrated on stripping out the ideological content of the old Soviet-influenced curriculum. Then, legislation in 1999 reduced the country's primary school tier from eight to six years, and a new three-year "junior high" or "gymnasium" tier, for 13 to 16-year-olds, was introduced. This gave pupils an extra year to decide on future pathways into higher education or vocational training.

In tandem came reform of local government, leading to greater local autonomy, and the introduction of national standards for exams and teacher training.

There has also been a huge expansion in young people going to university - five times the level of 1999 - and that has required a redesign of higher education courses.

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Elizabeth Buie

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