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Polish education reforms and governance structure

Maciej Jakubowski
Traduction(s) :
Réformes en éducation et structure de la gouvernance en Pologne


La décentralisation, l’autonomie des établissements scolaires, l’évolution professionnelle des enseignants, les examens nationaux, les évaluations des écoles, les révisions des programmes et le soutien accru à l’enseignement précoce font partie des changements les plus importants qu’ait opérés le système éducatif polonais entre 1999 et 2015. Bien que le gouvernement actuel ait restauré l’ancienne structure du système scolaire, limité son soutien à l’éducation précoce et tenté d’accroître sa mainmise sur les écoles, il est difficile de retirer les droits qui ont été accordés aux parties prenantes clés. Le système éducatif polonais continue de tirer parti d’une gouvernance décentralisée et de l’autonomie des établissements, tandis que sa complexité requiert des efforts supplémentaires. Dans l’ensemble, le succès des réformes éducatives entreprises en Pologne a reposé sur une mise en œuvre décentralisée et sur l’implication des acteurs locaux. Un système éducatif moderne qui partage les responsabilités et multiplie les échelons de gouvernance a été mis en place.

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Polish education reforms

1Poland started reforming its education system soon after the collapse of the Soviet system. In the 1990s, the reforms focused on changing curricula and preparing grounds for decentralization of the system, which was still managed by central authorities. In 1990 only preschool education was decentralized, with unsatisfactory results due to insufficient resources (Jakubowski & Topińska, 2009). The 1999 education reform covered all areas of the school system (Jakubowski, 2015). The reform goals were to improve the quality of education and to increase educational opportunities for all students, but politically it was supported by those who wanted to finally break with an educational system inherited from communist times. The reform also responded to the changing economy and increasing demand for skilled people.

2The 1999 reform decreased the number of grades in primary education from eight to six but added three additional years in new comprehensive lower secondary education. Later on, compulsory education also covered 6-year-olds and 5-year-olds, which expanded compulsory comprehensive education from 8 years in 1999 to 11 years in 2015. The reform also changed the curricula, freed the textbook market, and increased school autonomy. These changes continued in 2008 with the introduction of the core curriculum, which gave additional freedom, but also responsibility, to teachers. The reforms established a new accountability system with national standardized examinations at the end of each education level (launched in 2002) and a new school evaluation scheme that emphasizes improvement of teaching quality (since 2008). In 1999, the new system of teacher development was also established with four professional levels, which improved teacher qualifications.

3From the governance perspective, the most important was decentralization and a new scheme of school financing. Since 1999, local governments own school facilities and are responsible for their maintenance and investments. They also play a key role in selecting school principals and deciding about school networks. Central government provides funds to local governments for covering school operating costs using a per-student funding formula that makes adjustments for special needs or objectively higher service costs, for example in rural schools. Theoretically, local governments are responsible for distributing these funds across schools in their area, but the main expenditure is related to teacher salaries, which are centrally regulated. Local governments can make only small adjustments unless they contribute own additional funds.

4The most recent reforms focused on early education, with an attempt to lower the starting-school age (from 7 to 6 years) and to increase support for preschool education. In 2016, the new government partly reversed these changes by increasing the starting-school age again and by making preschool education non-compulsory. The new government also eliminated the lower secondary schools and restructured the old school structure.

Reform outcomes

5The reform of 1999 expanded comprehensive education, with immediate benefits for students who would otherwise go to vocational education (Jakubowski et al., 2016). The reform reduced performance differences between schools, from one of the largest disparities across countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to one of the smallest. This reform also established the basis for further changes gradually implemented until 2015. In the PISA evaluation in 2012, Polish students were among the top reading performers in the EU and close to countries like Finland in mathematics. In 2015, the results declined but were still above the OECD average.

6Overall, the reforms substantially improved student outcomes and increased enrollment in early education. On the EU 2020 benchmarks, Poland is one of the few countries that managed to decrease the number of low achievers (in reading, from 23.2% in 2000 to 14.4% in 2015); it experienced a large increase in the share of preschool enrollment (from 66.8% in 2007 to 93.1% in 2016). Recent results from international assessments in primary schools (PIRLS 2016 and TIMSS 2015) also show that the Polish education system is among the best performing in Europe.

Increased complexity of the governance system

7The reforms were partly successful thanks to the increased involvement of actors at different governance levels. In most cases, local governments managed educational facilities more efficiently, while teachers used the freedom given by increased autonomy to improve learning outcomes. However, increased involvement comes at the cost of increased complexity, overlapping responsibilities, and constant political tensions. It often might be unclear to citizens who should take responsibility for school closure, teacher salaries, lack of preschool facilities, or unsatisfactory student achievement. This ambiguity is often used by political actors to blame others or misinform citizens.

8Additional institutions are needed to manage such a complex system. In 1993, the committee was established to discuss current legislation between the central government and local governments. Committee representatives meet regularly with key ministries to discuss ongoing issues, with one of the subcommittees meeting regularly at the Ministry of Education. The committee discusses every piece of legislation. Its opinion is presented to the parliament, although it is not required to find consensus before proceeding further.

9The role of parents, employers or NGOs is still very limited. While consulted in the decision process, they usually have little influence over the outcomes. Attempts to formalize the role of parent councils in schools did not succeed, and they still play mainly an advisory role. Similarly, students do not influence school decisions. This lack of representation of key stakeholders at the local and national level is often criticized and results in harmful tensions.

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JAKUBOWSKI M. (2015): Opening up opportunities: Education reforms in Poland, IBS Policy Papers 01/2015, Instytut Badan Strukturalnych.

JAKUBOWSKI M., PATRINOS H., PORTA E. and WIŚNIEWSKI J. (2016): “The effects of delaying tracking in secondary school: Evidence from the 1999 education reform in Poland”, Education Economics, vol. 24, no. 6.

JAKUBOWSKI M. and TOPINSKA I. (2009): “The Impact of Decentralization on Education in Poland”, in AHMAD E. and BROSIO G. (eds.), Does Decentralization Enhance Service Delivery and Poverty Reduction?, Edward Elgar Publishing.

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Référence électronique

Maciej Jakubowski, « Polish education reforms and governance structure », Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres [En ligne], Colloque 2019 : Conditions de réussite des réformes en éducation, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2019, consulté le 24 septembre 2019. URL :

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Maciej Jakubowski

Evidence Institute and University of Warsaw
Dr Maciej Jakubowski is a policymaker, advisor, and researcher in education and labor market policy. He served as an under-secretary of state (deputy minister) at the Polish Ministry of National Education between 2012 and 2014. In 2014, he established Evidence Institute to promote evidence-based policy and online school improvement tools. Before joining the government, he worked in the OECD PISA team in Paris (2008–2012). He works at the University of Warsaw and as a consultant for international organizations and governments in Europe and Asia. His research focuses on impact evaluation methods for education and labor market policies.

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