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The view from here - Poland - Disgruntled profession prepares to fight back

Solidarity was once a watchword that seemed inseparable from life in Poland, but the two look as if they might be about to part company, at least as far as the teaching profession is concerned.

Egged on by local councils, which are responsible for providing teachers' pay and conditions, the education ministry in Warsaw has decided to embark on a series of negotiations with teaching unions that aim to radically overhaul long-standing working conditions, including pay and sick leave.

Many in Poland have come to regard the treatment of teachers as over-generous, especially in the light of changes that have occurred in other sectors since the fall of Communism. Yet Polish teachers are not about to take any erosion of their status lying down and are increasingly aggravated that they are often made to account for society's shortcomings. Poland's poor medals haul of just 10 at the London Olympics, for instance, has been held up by some observers as a sign of inferior practice at the nation's schools.

Just before the summer break, the Polish Teachers' Union (ZNP) conducted a survey of its members and asked what action they would be prepared to take to safeguard their conditions. Of the 170,000 respondents, 96 per cent said they would support protests. Some 36 per cent said they were prepared for one-day strikes, with an eyebrow-raising 31 per cent backing indefinite withdrawal of their labour.

"Teachers are simply tired of the constant attacks and criticism directed at them," Dorota Obidniak, ZNP's coordinator of educational projects, told TES. "They are fed up with all the talk of their long holidays, sick leave entitlement and the pay rises they have had in the past four years."

The government has acknowledged that transforming teachers' terms of employment too radically would harm pupil performance, though this hasn't dissuaded many local authority representatives.

Deputy education minister Maciej Jakubowski, who is the government's spokesman during talks with unions and councils, said uniformity of teachers' conditions, whether based in rural or urban areas, contributed to Poland's good performance in international tests.

But, despite the encouraging words, Ms Obidniak still worries that teachers are at risk. "Our great fear is that the new proposals will pave the way for the privatisation of schools and hiring teachers on temporary contracts," she said. The three-way negotiations will continue into the new school year and are likely to stoke the ire of many teachers.

Many of the arguments will sound familiar to teachers in England and Wales, who also face the possibility of national pay and conditions being torn up. But consider this: in Poland, pay for so-called chartered teachers - the highest rank of classroom staff - starts at just #163;725 a month, or #163;8,700 a year.

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