Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has been implementing reforms to many parts of the Polish constitutional system, including justice and education, to bring them under greater central control and impose its socially conservative, deeply Catholic worldview on them.
The education reforms have included the dismantling of the successful gymnasium system and the adoption of curriculum changes formulated by the government’s first education minister, Anna Zalewska. These meant a more crowded, tightly controlled educational program, particularly on key subjects for the government, such as Polish history and literature.
Critics dubbed these reforms “the deformation of the education system” and they led to significant protests by teachers, parents and students alike, culminating with a weeks-long national teachers’ strike in 2019.
The ideological underpinnings to the reforms are causing alarm in education circles. “[PiS] are trying to transfer their ideology into the schools, to impose their own values already on kids of school age, and show that their worldview is the only right one,” 19-year-old Wiktoria Kostrzewa, who is a member of a consultative body dealing with education that is associated with the Polish Women’s Strike movement, tells BIRN. “But the core curriculum should not be ideological like this – this is not a good direction.”
“This government destroys various institutions with quite a lot of persistence,” Dorota Obidniak from Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP), the main teachers’ union in Poland, told BIRN last year. “We see the same philosophy at play in education. The government imagines that schools should be obedient and subservient to PiS ideology.”
Czarnek’s proposed changes are further steps in the same direction, burdening students with compulsory content, all promoting a type of Catholic nationalism, and leaving little space for free thinking and creativity.
Kostrzewa, whose team recently published a report about the major challenges in the Polish education system, lists the most important problems that the Education Ministry should be addressing instead: the overloading of the core curriculum; its disproportionate focus on theory and detachment from the realities of the labour market; systematic underfinancing, including low pay of teachers; and the psychological wellbeing of students.
“Now, with the pandemic, we can see very clearly what a serious problem we have with the psychological health of youth,” Kostrzewa says. “We were suddenly deprived of contact with our peers, we couldn’t go anywhere, it was winter and cold. And yes, we hear more and more in our circles about suicides.”
“This is what the government should focus on now: it’s very hard to access psychological help. There are too few psychologists, especially for kids, in the state system. And many schools don’t have a psychologist on staff or, if they do, they are available for just a couple of hours per week. Many kids don’t even know there is this possibility of getting help,” she says.
Laura Kwoczala, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Olesnica in southwest Poland, who is active with the youth branch of the Polish Greens, agrees, telling BIRN how dispiriting it has been to spend so much time in front of the computer, deprived of direct contact with friends and teachers, and says it has taken a toll on everyone she knows.
“Poland is second in the EU when it comes to youth suicides,” Kwoczala says. “Minister Czarnek started speaking about the need to have a psychologist in every school. But the question is, when? Because we can’t wait any longer!”
Kwoczala, who took part in protests against Czarnek and is currently being investigated by prosecutors for her role in last autumn’s rallies by women protesting the near-total abortion ban, felt moved to demonstrate against the new minister despite the risks, because he clearly wanted to lead a “Catholic crusade” in Polish schools.
“He does not want to make schools better; he just wants to get rid of the things he personally does not like,” Kwoczala says, in reference to Czarnek’s proposals for the education system. “This is the end of school as I know it.”