The right to an education is considered fundamental in Poland. This right was first legally recognised in 1961, and is among the rights enumerated in article 70 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland of 2 April 1997. According to this article, all citizens have the right to an education, and the public authorities are obliged to ensure that all citizens have equal access to education. Education in public schools is free of charge.
The Polish educational system has undergone significant changes since the systemic transformation that began in 1989. As the country transitioned to a democratic system with a market economy, the current system of general and vocational education was designed and introduced gradually. The goal was to adapt the Polish educational system to the changes which were occurring in all spheres of public life, and to the related changes in the aspirations of the people (Sławiński et al. 2013). The reforms resulted in the following changes:
- the elimination of the state monopoly on the establishment and operation of schools and on the development of teaching programmes and textbooks;
- the adaptation of the teaching programmes to the needs of a democratic and free market society through the replacement of the doctrine of education based on “giving pupils information” with the doctrine of education which leads to the “independence and activation of pupils”;
- the guarantee of equal opportunities in education for people of all walks of life, and an increase in the variety of institutions and forms of education for adults;
- the modernisation of education and the continued training and improvement of teachers, even as the autonomy of individual higher education institutions and other learning providers is guaranteed; and
- the decentralisation of the management of general and vocational education through the transfer of responsibility for the operation of schools to local government units.
The introduction of new solutions began with the passage of the School Education Act of 7 September 1991. This reform of the formal general and vocational educational systems made it possible for various entities (including private ones) to establish and operate schools. As modernisation has progressed, the Act has been amended several times. For example, a competitive recruitment process for school principals was introduced, and programmatic pluralism was implemented, including an indirect system for managing school curricula (i.e., schools are free to choose their teaching programmes and textbooks). Parallel to the reform of local government, the School Education Act (concerning the formal general and vocational educational systems) included regulations on the responsibilities of local government units for operating schools. Changes were also made to the organisation of pedagogical supervision.
Organisation of the educational system
Full-time compulsory education lasts for 11 years, and consists of the following phases: two years of preschool education, six years of primary school education, and three years of lower secondary school education.
Full-time compulsory education (i.e., the obligation to attend primary and lower secondary school) applies to children aged 6-16; while part-time compulsory education (i.e., the obligation to be in some form of education) applies to young people aged 16-18, and may take place in either school settings (e.g., an upper secondary school) or non-school settings (e.g., a vocational training course offered by an employer).
The school system is organised according to the following principles (https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/fpfis/mwikis/eurydice/index.php/Poland:Overview):
- There is a combination of centralised governance (i.e., laws/regulations for which the Minister of Education and the Minister of Science and Higher Education are responsible) and the decentralisation of school administration (for which local authorities are responsible).
- A system of external examinations is carried out at the end of each educational stage. These exams are obligatory for pupils attending primary or lower secondary school, but not for graduates of an upper secondary school. However, students who wish to continue their education at the tertiary level are required to take the upper secondary leaving exam, or egzamin maturalny.
- The status of teachers is clearly defined. The teaching profession is regulated by separate legislation (the Teacher’s Charter), which defines the rules regarding the admission, the remuneration, and the dismissal of teachers, and their career paths.
- The public education sector is far more dominant than the private sector. The numbers of public schools and public school students are far higher than the numbers of non-public schools and pupils. In the higher education system, the majority of students are also enrolled in public HEIs.
The Polish education system consists of the following educational stages:
- ECEC (wczesna edukacja i opieka). One year of preschool is mandatory for children from age five onwards.
- Primary education (szkolnictwo podstawowe). Six years of primary school (szkoła podstawowa) are compulsory for all pupils. Before the school year 2013/2014, children started school at age seven. After a transition period, all six-year-olds will start primary school in the school year 2015/2016.
- Lower secondary school (szkolnictwo średnie I stopnia). Three years of gimnazjum represents another stage of compulsory education. At present this school is attended by 13-16-year-olds. But due to the lowering of the starting age for school, 12-year-olds will enter lower secondary school in the school year 2020/2021, and they will graduate at the age of 15. At the end of lower secondary school, pupils take a compulsory external exam. The results of the exam influence whether they are admitted to an upper secondary school.
- Upper secondary school (szkolnictwo średnie II stopnia). There are three types of upper secondary schools: three-year general upper secondary schools (liceum), four-year technical upper secondary schools (technikum), and three-year basic vocational schools (zasadnicza szkoła zawodowa). Pupils attend an upper secondary schools between the ages of 16-19 (or 16-20 years in the case of the technical upper secondary school). Although this stage of education is not compulsory (except up to the age of 18, when part-time attendance is compulsory) the vast majority of students attend an upper secondary school.
- Post-secondary non-tertiary education (szkolnictwo policealne). In the Polish educational system, post-secondary education is considered part of secondary education.
- Higher education (szkolnictwo wyższe). All of these institutions offer first- and second-cycle programmes as well as long-cycle master’s degree programmes, while only university-type HEIs can offer third-cycle programmes (doctoral studies) and are authorised to award doctoral degrees.
- Sławiński, S., H.Dębowski (2013). Referencing Report. Referencing the Polish Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning to the European Qualifications Framework. Educational Reserach Institute.
- Eurypedia – data for Poland https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/fpfis/mwikis/eurydice/index.php/Poland:Overview