Wisdom from Warsaw

Polish heads back UK rural schools campaign

Isabella Kaminski

"If we managed to deal with communism, nothing could stop us".

So says Alina Kozinska-Baldyga, director of the Warsaw-based Federation of Educational Initiatives, on her campaign to open hundreds of small rural schools throughout Poland following government closures.

It is this kind of determination that she believes could stop the closure of similar schools in the UK.

Last week a contingent of Polish headteachers, led by Ms Kozinska-Baldyga, arrived in Britain, and threw their support behind campaigners currently battling to save rural schools, warning that plans to close or merge them were misguided and should be reversed.

Schools are at the heart of village life in Poland - 38 per cent of the population live in rural areas. But over the past decade the government has closed thousands of kindergartens and primaries.

In protest, the federation has set up 130 community-run kindergartens and over 300 small schools. The schools are run by associations and parents are very involved. Their efforts have since gained government recognition and funding.

During a week-long visit, the Polish heads shared their experiences with officials in Wales and met representatives from ContinYou, the UK charity that is working with European countries to develop a set of international standards for community schools.

"Of course small schools are more expensive than larger ones," said Ms Kozinska-Baldyga. But she strongly believes they are a worthwhile investment. "The liquidation of small rural schools is a problem in every country. But you can see how this kind of education is changing rural society in Poland.

"In Poland, rural communities are almost always poor and they are the ones who have been most active in schools - it is a revolution in the countryside."

In one new school, teachers and parents worked for a year with no funding. Staff had to raise money to heat the building. Now the school receives a budget from the state.

Although most of Poland's new small schools are in rural areas, they have also been established in cities where a traditional sense of community had vanished. Anna Florek, head and founder of a civic kindergarten in Warsaw, said the school had made a huge difference to the lives of children and their parents.

Earlier this year the ATL teachers' union launched a campaign at all three party conferences to highlight the educational problems endured by England's rural poor.

It highlighted poor public transport, a dearth of affordable housing and a lack of public services.

The federation plans to seek further recognition from the Polish government and aims to make rural schools a key issue during Poland's 2011 EU presidency.

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Isabella Kaminski

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