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Gove seeks ingredients for success in a surprising place

In Poland, he gets to grips with system that delays vocational learning

In Poland, he gets to grips with system that delays vocational learning

From the charter schools of New Orleans and New York to world-beating Finland, via Sweden's free schools and the Asian tigers of Singapore and Hong Kong, Michael Gove has scoured the globe for policies to borrow.

Now the education secretary has set his sights on a new and rather unlikely, some might imagine, source of ideas: Poland.

Eastern Europe is not generally the first place people have turned to when looking for excellence in schools, particularly since the collapse of Communism. But Poland is changing and, after modernising reforms that began at the end of the 1990s, it has become the most successful of the former Warsaw Pact countries.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results from 2009 ranked Poland 15th out of 65 international school systems for reading, ahead of the US, Sweden, Germany, France and the UK, in 25th place.

Interestingly for Mr Gove, who says his reforms are aimed at improving education for less affluent children, Poland's schools, more than many others, have managed to narrow the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. Even more importantly for a minister trying to achieve results in austerity England, Poland has achieved this success with limited resources.

A source close to the education secretary said he had been interested in Poland's "consistent rise in the league tables and closing of the gap between good and bad schools", adding that these improvements had been achieved by delaying all vocational study until pupils were 16.

Andreas Schleicher, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development official who runs Pisa, advised Mr Gove on his three-day trip to the country last week. "Poland is one of the countries offering very interesting policy lessons," he told TES.

"I think what it did so well is that it was very good at moderating the differences and removing institutional barriers between schools. It was very good at bringing the teaching profession really into play and improving the education system.

"And it was a country achieving much of this, really, without money," he added.

Mr Schleicher, described by Mr Gove as one of the two most important people in world education, also said Poland had been successful at moving disadvantaged pupils who had been attending vocational schools back into mainstream education.

"That is very hard to do," he said. "Because the parents at those (mainstream) schools will say: 'Why would I want my children to be together with those kids?'

"It is a very hard thing to justify and the way in which Poland has achieved this, underpinned by good evidence, provides a very interesting lesson for the world."

Mr Gove met his Polish counterpart, education minister Krystyna Szumilas, last week and discussed topics including school autonomy, Poland's success in Pisa and an electronic textbook scheme. He visited two schools in the country, a lower secondary and a vocational school in Warsaw, as well as a teacher training institution and an educational research centre.

The education secretary also took part in a debate on the role of education in times of economic crisis, organised by a leading daily Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

Dr Michal Federowicz, director of Poland's Educational Research Institute in Warsaw, told the BBC earlier this year that the roots of its schools' success could be traced back to the martial law imposed in 1981, in response to the Solidarity trade union, when "educated people were suppressed".

When democracy finally arrived in 1990 there was a massive appetite for improved education. Early reforms in the 1990s concentrated on removing Soviet-influenced ideology from the curriculum. Structural changes, which helped to prevent half the school population from dropping academic study at 15, were introduced from 1999.

POLES APART

479 - Poland's average Pisa score in reading in 2000.

500 - Poland's average Pisa score in reading in 2009, the seventh biggest rise of 26 OECD countries.

10% - Percentage of Polish adults with university degree during the Communist era, one of the lowest rates in the world. There has since been a five-fold increase in university enrolment.

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