I think to myself that in the offices of the Ministry of Education there are mysterious hostile powers that exert overwhelming influence on the people who are there. Perhaps it is a kind of a virus that attacks every new team of officials. Perhaps a bacterium… Whatever is this plague proper services should get interested in it because it causes a dangerous disease. Its main symptom is an obsession to reform regardless of the sense, logic and price of the reform. What other explanations can we provide to understand this alarming phenomenon, which the citizens of our country have been observing for several years? But if it is not a disease I am scared to think what it could be… I will not mention the past reforms after which I have got a huge collection of textbooks that are of no use at all. These books have not been used much because only one of my children needed them. My other children needed completely new books. By the way, today this practice has become a norm and nobody wonders about that. The odd thing would be to see five children of one family use the same textbooks and to be quite well educated.
Katarzyna Hall, the present Minister of Education, has also begun reforming the system and she has done it on a grand scale. She wants to make schools friendly to pupils. An ambitious task, worthy of highest praise. This task is to be accomplished by the obligatory graduate examination in mathematics, changes in the list of required reading and moving the six-year old children from pre-school to the first form of elementary school. Someone may ask at this moment what’s that got to do with anything? I would like to ask that because I cannot see a logical relationship between the aim and its way of realisation. I think that Minister Hall invented a very original way to deal with the problems of the Polish system of education. She will ignore real and thorny problems and she will graciously evade them pretending that these problems lie in some completely different fields. Since the invented problems can be easily solved by issuing a ministerial directive. The real problems are much more complicated. Perhaps I am unnecessarily dramatising or simply carping at her. After all, nothing terrible is going to happen if secondary school graduates – educated in the humanities – will have to take the exam in mathematics. This was the situation not long ago and the pupils succeeded. The world is not going to collapse because young people will have different required reading or only read fragments. Although it is an obvious surrender and legalisation of the common unwillingness to read anything apart from SMSes and tabloids. Those who invented the schemes may hope that pupils will zealously begin reading books, out of sheer contrariness, because the reading will not be restrictively required. It would be a real success. But treating this issue really seriously I must admit that I am not very much worried about the final examinations and the required reading. There will certainly be people who will fiddle around with them, the only reason being that they will not get the ministerial salaries for free. What really makes my blood boil and pierces my heart is six-year-old children. When I heard about the idea for the first time I thought that it would not succeed, that it was impossible that a group of people could decide lightly and carelessly about the fate of thousands of kids. I was encouraged to read numerous critical opinions, including those of the teachers themselves. Then parents wrote their letters of protest to Minister Hall. Finally, thousands of parents signed the protest on the web page. Today it seems that all these actions have not been successful and the citizens’ opinions have no power and meaning. The well informed claim that no substantive arguments support this idea. There are only economic-political arguments. I do not want to believe that since I would have to admit that the ministerial officials become cynical traitors able to trade even children if needed. Let us then look at the key argument that Minister Hall uses to justify moving six-year-old kids to the first form. Well, allegedly (and quite surprisingly) it turned out that we occupied the last place in Europe as far as educational achievements are concerned. Because of that we need to intensify the education of the youngest children so that we could catch up with the leading countries. I must say that the statement about such a serious backwardness completely astonished me. I wonder whether this thesis has been confirmed by any research or is an effect of sudden enlightenment of the leaders of our educational system or of their advisors. Up till now the media has informed the society about a completely different situation. One could learn that our pupils won various international contests, received international scholarships, had internships in reputable institutions and generally speaking they managed in schools of various levels and kinds abroad. From time to time one could hear that parents, who left Poland together with their children and intend to return after some time, send their children to additional classes so that they were not behind their peers when they decided to continue their education in Poland. The opinion about the embarrassingly low level of state schools in Europe or America seems to be common. No one mentioned that we were to catch up with somebody; that we lacked things to equal others. I do not speak about the reputed, elite schools or universities. We know such differences from our own situation when one school does not rival another and the same is true about universities. Someone could rightly say that the above-mentioned positive opinions about the condition of Polish education are not so common and the media inform about such phenomena because they are unique. However, we cannot forget that all these things have only begun; that just recently we have had the chance to move freely around Europe; that recently we have had the chance to compete on the international level as far as our knowledge and skills are concerned. But these first experiences give justifiable grounds to expect that the situation will improve, especially that the most important barrier for any successes abroad – lack of knowledge of foreign languages – will gradually disappear. Today pre-school kids can learn foreign languages. If we add the increasing access to the Internet we can assume that the world is open wide before us.
Let us return to the issue of our six year-old children who are still secure and happy in the pre-school classes. I think that moving them to elementary school is harmful and unnecessary. The research and experiments conducted by various psychological-pedagogical counselling centres show that at least 15% of the seven year-old children have not matured enough to go to school. What can this statistics look like with the six year-old children? My intuition tells me that 25% will not be an exaggerated figure unless the last year witnessed a rapid growth, which I have not heard of. I went to school when I was six because I wanted that very much. My teacher toiled to make me observe school discipline for half a year. In the end, she succeeded but what it would have looked like if she had had more children like me. And what will it look like when next year the unprepared schools and teachers will have to accept armies of six year-old kids who will be forced to go to school unlike me? Minister Hall ensures public opinion that till that time schools will be properly adjusted and teachers will be prepared. Taking into account all circumstances and conditions one must admit that Minister Hall counts on a miracle to happen. Leaving this ministerial faith in miracles aside we must ask the question: What is the revolution for, considering the fact that we have good nursery schools and pre-school teachers and the education of six year-old children has been quite satisfactory? Would it be better to use this energy of the ministerial officials and the means to create such an educational centre in every, even the smallest, town and village? Recently I have taken my son, who is seven, to school and I have noticed his crying colleague. Sobbing he uttered that he wanted to go home. He did not like this school at all. No wonder the school is to be friendly next year when the efforts of Minister Hall yield fruit. When my child was in the pre-school last year he often asked me to take him home earlier. I managed to fulfil his request several times but I usually had to wait for him to finish playing with friends. The pre-school teacher understood that and expressed her opinion, ‘Madam, they have still not played enough. They want to play more and more. And the time before leaving the class is best for them since it is assigned to spontaneous games; they do what they want and with whom they want. It is possible that they learn most then.’ Listening to that wise lady I remembered the book I read. It was Dr. Carla Hannaford’s book entitled ‘Smart Moves – why learning is not all in your head’. She is a known neurophysiologist and educator. As a therapist dealing with for children with educational difficulties she got to know various systems of education all over the world. In her opinion the best system was the model of public education in Denmark because it was kept with the tempo of development of the brain and many-sensual integration. In Danish schools children begin education at the age of seven. Their lessons are full of movements, music, art and group work. Emphasis is laid on individual initiative and creativity as well as respect for differences and talents of each pupil. Until the age of 14 pupils have no tests, which makes them collaborate without any competition. The Danish secondary school exams differ from other models and actually, they are examinations of pupils’ intellectual, social and citizen maturity. I remember Carla Hannaford’s book for another reason. She has proved scientifically that children up till the age of seven are not ready, because of neurophysiological reasons, to learn reading and doing other school activities. She means the ability to focus, i.e. to see in two-dimensional way. Children acquire this ability about the age of 7-8. Till that time the natural vision is three dimensional, peripheral. Rapid and forced transition to close two-dimensional vision is, according to the author, a serious cause of school problems and humiliations. After having read this extraordinary work I wondered whether it was known to our officials in the Ministry of Education and to teachers, whether it can be found in the programmes of trainings for teachers. It seems to me that the book could be an important contribution or inspiration in thinking about school and education in general. I also think that in spite of (or rather besides) the reform real problems of Polish schools are still to be solved. And new problems appear. We can give examples from the reports in the media. This is still a big challenge that the Ministry of Education is to take up. The recent ideas of the reforms presented by the Ministry of Education testify to a false diagnosis. Therefore, we cannot count to see it properly treated. The best solution would be to give up these ideas and to begin anew.
The Author graduated from the Catholic University of Lublin with a M.A. in Psychology; she is mother of seven children, including Ola with the Down’s syndrome.