Reform - Could Poland be the answer to our prayers?
It is curious how perceptions can change. Back in the year 2000, when Poland's education system was languishing in the doldrums of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) charts, Pisa was held in high esteem among Poles. Now that Poland finds itself among Europe's best performers, the country's own academics are calling Pisa's methodology into question.
Dr Michal Federowicz, director of Poland's Educational Research Institute, said that "Pisa is now regarded with suspicion", adding: "If we are so good there must be something wrong."
Beyond Poland's borders, however, the feeling is that much can be learned from the country's consistent rise through the league tables. Indeed, after the publication of the latest triennial Pisa statistics last month, Scotland's minister for learning Alasdair Allan identified it as a model for improving performance. Meanwhile, education secretary for England Michael Gove has also declared an interest.
According to Pisa 2012, Poland is now ranked in the top 10 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries for reading and science, and in the top 15 for maths. Back in 2000, however, Poland's secondary school students were performing well below average OECD levels.
Rising through the ranks
Poland has made two significant jumps up the Pisa rankings, one between 2000 and 2003 and the other between 2009 and 2012. The main factors behind this, Dr Federowicz said, were changes to the structure of schooling, and the introduction of a national examination system and a new curriculum.
Until 1999, Polish children attended eight years of primary school, after which they entered a three- or four-year secondary school or a three-year basic vocational school. However, from 2002, primary was reduced to six years and a new type of school, a lower secondary called a "gymnasium", was introduced to cater for students between the ages of 13 and 16. The result was one extra year of comprehensive education.
"During the first jump from 2000 to 2003, mostly lower achievers improved because of the additional year of general education," Dr Federowicz said. "Also, the newly created lower secondary schools were much more effective at encompassing lower achievers.
"Between 2009 and 2012, we raised the results of everybody. This was substantially different and a sign that the new core curriculum had started functioning."
According to Pisa, the proportion of low-performing students in maths in Poland dropped from 22 to 14 per cent over the nine-year period from 2003 to 2012, while the proportion of high performers rose from 10 to 17 per cent.
A new national examination system was introduced in Poland from 2002. It included a standardised national assessment at the end of primary and examinations at the end of lower secondary and upper secondary education.
"The exam at the end of primary is only to know the results of the school," Dr Federowicz explained. "It is forbidden by law to take it into account in recruitment to the next stage of education as it relates to individual children; children at this age are too young to be subject to such an evaluation."
The exam at the end of lower secondary is high stakes, however, as it determines what type of upper secondary the student will be able to attend.
Previously, Poland had no national examinations. Students had to pass a test to get into a more academic "lyceum" when they finished primary, but only between 22 and 25 per cent of the population attended these schools and the tests were internally devised and marked.
Similarly, although the end-of-school exam - the Matura - was called a national exam, only the topics were determined at a national level; the exam was set by schools and marked by teachers. As a result, most universities ran their own entrance tests. Today, however, almost all recruit students on the basis of their Matura results. "It took quite a while before universities accepted it," Dr Federowicz said.
In 2010 it became mandatory for students sitting the Matura to take an exam in maths. "One of the results is that we have increased the number of students in technological universities," Dr Federowicz said.
"If somebody has to pass maths that person invests more in it. If they invest more, the jobs in technological studies (such as engineering) look more feasible."
Breaking with convention
There were also concerns that primary teachers lacked confidence in teaching maths because many - particularly those teaching in early primary - had not done "a deep course in mathematics at secondary level", Dr Federowicz added.
"Even if the maths being taught is very simple, the teacher should have a much more developed imagination in the subject in order to be open to the unconventional reasoning of a child," he said. "This unconventional reasoning is the most valuable treasure but many teachers do not understand it. They want children to follow set patterns, which is like killing mathematics."
Similar concerns about teachers' maths ability exist in Scotland. Graham Donaldson called for basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy among student teachers to be addressed in his 2010 report on teacher education, Teaching Scotland's Future. The entry requirements for teaching needed to be more rigorous, he said.
More generally, Poland's focus on maths chimes with the central aim of Curriculum for Excellence to drive up students' numeracy skills. Dig deeper and it becomes clearer still that the two countries are travelling in a similar direction.
The aim of Poland's new curriculum, the 2012 Pisa report explains, is "to give schools more autonomy to create their own curricula" while balancing three goals: imparting knowledge, developing skills and shaping attitudes. Innovative teaching methods are encouraged and teachers are expected to develop their own styles and tailor lessons to the needs of their students.
Maciej Jakubowski, under-secretary of state at the Polish Ministry of National Education, sums up the new approach: "We already had a core curriculum, which told teachers in general terms what they should be teaching but not exactly how they should teach every class.
"The new curriculum became about what we expected students to know and be able to do at the end of every year, rather than the specific knowledge to be transmitted. The new curriculum emphasises not the knowledge but the process - analytical skills and problem-solving skills, for instance."
This will no doubt sound familiar to Scottish readers. CfE places an emphasis on developing skills. It also aims to declutter the curriculum, freeing up teachers to teach. And Scotland's schools are designing their own curricula, with personalisation and choice for students seen as key.
One of the main differences, however, is that Poland implemented its new curriculum in 2009 after just a couple of years of debate and discussion. Scotland's new curriculum has been in development since 2002 and is yet to be fully implemented.
The 15-year-olds sitting the Pisa test in Poland last year were the first cohort to have gone through the new curriculum. Their results are being taken as an early indication of its success.
Lecturer Dariusz Grabowski's 16-year-old son was among them. But Dr Grabowski does not believe that the students joining his university - the 30,000 student-strong Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice - are improving.
"The students that have joined us in the last few years are not better than those that came to our university 10 years ago," said Dr Grabowski, who lectures in the electrical engineering faculty. "The Pisa results are better but I think the level of the students is not. For me the level is lower, but perhaps the experience of lecturers in other faculties and other universities is different."
He also disagreed that the increase in university applications stemmed from maths being made compulsory at Matura level. Rather, he believed this was down to the high demand for engineers in Poland and neighbouring countries such as Germany, and the promotion of such subjects by the government. Students studying certain technology subjects would receive a payment if they got good grades, he explained.
Generally, however, Dr Grabowski was supportive of the recent reforms. School-leavers looking to go to university no longer had "double the stress" of sitting an end-of-school exam as well as a university entrance exam, he said, adding that the introduction of the lower secondary school had caused no issues for either of his sons - he has another aged 18.
"But I can understand many people who say this was a big problem for them," Dr Grabowski said. "A lot of people argue that this is not a good moment to change the school of a teenager (when they are 16 and move into upper secondary)."
Dr Federowicz and Mr Jakubowski both acknowledged that the reforms had been extremely controversial. And there are more to come. The biggest change will be the lowering of the school starting age from 7 to 6 by September 2015.
Mr Jakubowski said that the government also hoped to reform the "overly bureaucratic" continuing professional development system, which required teachers to pass exams and was linked to pay. It planned to create networks of teachers so they could "work together to develop", he added.
Food for thought, certainly, but it is worth bearing in mind that, unlike in Scotland, there is no political consensus over the direction the Polish government is taking in education. That division will inevitably bring its own strains.
WHERE IN THE WORLD?
Pisa 2012 rankings
UK's position overall out of 65 countries:
Poland's position overall out of 65 countries: