March 24, 2003
Lessons from Poland

I'm back from my trip to Krakov, and am in a position to tell you a little about the state of Polish education. My informants understandably concentrated on the top end of the system, both in age and in academic attainment, because that's the bit they all have most and most recent experience of.

I'll tell the story in two parts. First, there's what happened during Communism, and second, what has happened since.

Under Communism, the cleverer young people of Poland worked ferociously hard. Life did not offer many means of self advancement, but the people in charge of Eastern Europe did want weapons technologists. But there were not very many university places for such people. So, these places were keenly sought after, and the successful applicant got such a place by scoring percentages in maths exams, for example, that I still suspect of being an elaborate practical joke at my expense. I mean, 96 per cent? And in a test that most British maths graduates wouldn't get higher than 70 per cent in. Apparently so.

The point of this is that not only were the scientific and technological elite superbly diligent pupils; so too were all the ones who were trying for these positions but who would eventually fail to get them. The failures became, I don't know, minicab drivers I suppose.

My hosts were at pains to point out that this wasn't any sort of government plan. It hadn't been their deliberate intention to crank out a generation of semi-brilliant maths and science and technology wizzes. That's just the way it turned out. And to reinforce their point that none of this was deliberate, it occurs to me that this "policy" may have had quite a bit to do with the downfall of communism. First you stir up their minds and make them very, very clever. Then you treat most of them like empty milk bottles. Not clever politics.

What has happened since communism confirms one of the Continuing Theories of this blog, which goes that the private sector reflects the gaps and failures in the existing system. Whatever the official system does well, the private sector ignores. Whatever it does badly, it compensates for.

And what the Polish education system under Communism did really badly was, as I have just explained, educating the not-quite so-bright kids. It subjected them to an idiotically competitive exam race, and then just when it ought to have carried on educating them pretty well considering, it spat them out like so many failed Olympic gymnasts and forgot them.

Since the fall of communism there has been a huge eruption of free market education, in the form of what in Britain are called "minor public schools", and their university equivalent. There is no Winchester or Eton, where the richest and best get the best teaching there is. The state system continues to educate the brightest and best very well. But there are now lots of newly emerging private schools and private universities, of very variable quality, some of which are pretty good and improving, but many of which are decidedly dodgy, to teach the capable but not dazzling.

Some of them said the state system in general was descending into rack and ruin. Others said it wasn't that bad, and that the big change wasn't anything getting worse, but rather the sense that averagely clever averagely hardworking young people now have that if they work hardish and smartish they now had a chance to make something of their lives. And as you would expect, the people saying that things were getting worse were the people who had made it to the top under the old system, or who would have, while the optimists were the ones who didn't or wouldn't have been winners.

Which illustrates another point I probably go on about rather a lot here, what with it being true, which is that educational effort and educational attainment is anything but a mere matter of throwing quality teachers at pupils and watching them teach up a storm and crank out super-educated people. There is also the incentive structure of the wider society, which I would say is more important. If you have so-so teachers but seriously good reasons for people to want to study like hell – in other words if you have Poland under late communism – you get educational fireworks. If you have good teachers, but pupils who have no particular reason to do anything except sex, drugs and rock and roll, sex and drugs and rock and roll is what will be done.

If you want to know why state education in Britain is, at the bottom end, in decline, don't leave it at blaming the teachers, the teacher training colleges, the professors of education, etc., dreadful though a lot of these people undoubtedly are. Ask yourself this. Why does the teaching profession – and most especially the teacher teaching profession – consist largely of out-of-their-depth mediocrities, or worse? Is it inherent in teaching that it attracts only the dregs of society? I think not. The other explanation is that good, positive, optimistic people join the teaching profession by the thousand, and are either turned into incompetent miseries by the idiocy of their circumstances, or they leave and do something else where their goodness, unlike in state education, has the chance to do some good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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