On November 15, with the deliberation of the reform of the public education system under way in the Hungarian legislature, a civil initiative showed up to hold “office hours” outside of the parliament. Their name is HAT: Hálózat a Tanszabadságért, or Network for the Freedom of Education. They are protesting against the Hungarian government’s plans to reform public education, a plan they consider to be dictatorial, anti-child, anti-family, anti-teacher, lacking in social or professional consensus, and doomed to bring irreparable damage to Hungary’s educational system.
HAT comprises a number of prominent educational experts, among them kindergarten and high-school teachers, university professors, and psychologists, the Democratic Union of Educators (Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szövetsége), Equity – Association for Equitable Public Education (Equity – Méltányos Közoktatásért Egyesület), as well as members of the Hungarian Educators’s Society (Magyar Pedagógiai Társaság). They raise their tent on Kossuth Square, in front of the Hungarian parliament throughout the parliament’s deliberations of the proposal.
They are not the only group opposed to the passage of the government’s educational reform. Thousands of public school educators signed a petition in protest against the bill, in addition to the 77 schools that preferred to join as an institution (despite a letter signed by Zoltán Gloviczki, under-secretary for education, who had a chilling effect on additional signers, some of whom ended up withdrawing their signatures). Two teacher unions threatened with a national strike if the bill is passed. Ferenc Lóránd, the president of the National Council for Public Education (Országos Köznevelési Tanács) handed in his resignation over it.
The government’s public education reform is so controversial that not even the governing party’s own MPs seem to be in support of it. In the beginning of the week, a compromise was struck among Fidesz MPs, which secured the votes required for passing the bill only in exchange for the prime minister’s support for a tax option called eva, championed by party caucus leader János Lázár.
But Rózsa Hoffman, Hungary’s state secretary for education nevertheless thought it important to go on the defense. To debunk her critics, she sent a 7-page long document, “Falsehoods and Facts in Connection with the New Public Education Law,” to the MPs of the governing party (see the Hungarian-language document here).
“Worries and rejections [of the planned reform] are generally based on political differences, misunderstandings and insufficient, or intentionally distorted information,” states Hoffman’s defense of her proposal. “In letters addressed to the secretariat and during visits all over the country in person, hundreds of educators voiced their agreement,” she states.
For example, “it is not true that the mandatory directions for lesson planning developed for the National Base Curriculum would abolish professional independence for educators, that professional independence would be abated.” The law allows for a choice between two versions of the curriculum, and teachers could diverge from these plans during 10% of the lessons (in the previous system, 30% of classes could be planned independently from the national curriculum). “Determining 10% of the curriculum would entirely be the right of the teaching community. It is the kind of liberty that educators can really exercise.”
According to Hoffman, it is also a lie that some of the measures contained in the new bill are going to lead to segregation. “One of the most important goals of the law regulating national public education is integration. But it does not wish to realize this goal through the failed liberal means, without securing the requisite conditions.” Those who need remedial education should first be separated, and then, once they are caught up, they would be ready to be integrated, clarifies the secretary for education for her critics.
The system separating those in need of remedial education would be in place for students of all ages. But educators are perhaps even more concerned about the institution of a state examination which would determine the specific type of schooling for which students would become eligible at age 14.
Based on the results of the state’s aptitude test, students would be categorized either as eligible for high school education in preparation for university studies, or as students for an educational track geared toward a specialized (usually technical) occupation. Unlike in the current system, this latter type of school would no longer provide the baccalaureate, the high school degree required for entering college or university. A third group of students would attend a three-year vocational school of their choice.
Determining the specifics of the exam used for categorizing students into the various educational tracks would remain within the regulatory jurisdiction of the secretariat for education. As such, the details of the aptitude test are not known at this point, with the exception that there would be a 40% cut to the number of spots available in high schools geared toward university studies, while vocational schools would accept 35% more students.
Another important change would be that students participating in vocational studies would only receive a total of 9 years of education in the traditional classroom setting. For the remaining 2 years, 5 hours of classroom experience would educate them “in general studies,” while on four out of the five days of the week they would receive training in the “realistic scenarios” of the workplace: in factories or workshops of companies willing to partner with the state to provide practical training to such pupils.
One further category of the aptitude test to be taken at age 14 is reserved for students ineligible for studies at the high school level. They would be held back in the so-called “bridge program,” where their education would focus on passing the aptitude test in the coming years of their education.
The material circulated by Hoffman does not address criticism related to these features of the proposal. The document does state, however, that the government is not going to back down from reducing the mandatory schooling age from 18 to 16. In early November, a study commissioned by the ministry projected that this would make way for savings of 73 billion forints (234 million euros or 315.6 million USD) and the closing of 633 schools. The system would require somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 fewer teachers (they would not necessarily be laid off, rather, according to the study, retired teachers would no longer be replaced by new hires).
Though the study was commissioned by her ministry, Hoffman writes to the governing party’s MPs that it is not true that the government wants to close hundreds of schools or let go of thousands of educators. According to her, it is also not true that lowering the mandatory age for schooling would “push out thousands of youth from the educational system.”
“Few people are aware that 2010 was the first year in which it was mandatory to attend school up up to reaching the age of 18 in Hungary” explains Ms. Hoffman. “Before 2010, the mandatory schooling age was 16, and still almost all youth between the ages of 15 and 19 studied in day school, and this will likely remain so in the future as well. By lowering the mandatory age for schooling, the government creates a harmony between mandatory schooling and time spent in vocational trading. It provides an opportunity for those youth who prefer to work instead of studying to step out into the world of work by learning a trade.”
Hoffman’s document also explicitly states that it is not the case that the new bill regulating the public educational system would violate freedom of opinion. The truth is that, “instead of a value-neutral – decisively liberal – mentality, the bill introduces a value-based school system.” The school system would continue to remain neutral of ideology, but this does not mean neutrality of values, the explanation continues.
“The new public education bill represents values around which societies of countries belonging to the European cultural group are organized: diligent, honest work, honor, family, love for country, and order that facilitates living with others as well as real liberty. It provides ideologically committed church and private institutions a number of rights due to their ideological commitment, and prescribes the possibility of elective instruction in faith even in state and municipal institutions.”
Best of all, the misconception that teachers would be overworked, given the raise of their school hours from 22 to 32, is the furthest from the truth. First of all, the maximum number of hours any educator could be asked to teach classes - as opposed to preparing for classes or grading homework and tests – is capped at 26. Any remaining hours that would make up 80% of their workweek (i.e. 32 hours) would be spent on work outside the classroom: on other school-related tasks as assigned by the director of their respective institution.
But even more importantly, “meaningful work is never a burden, but a vocation, commitment and a form of life.”
HAT, the civil group which formed just a few weeks ago to resist acceptance of the bill continues to hold office hours (and expert presentations on educational theory) outside the parliament. The opposition (with the exception of representatives of far-right Jobbik) demands the withdrawal of the proposal.
Unnamed sources present at the meeting of the governing party’s caucus meeting on Monday reported that, in response to their criticism, prime minister Viktor Orbán said that he considers any critique of the educational reform a criticism of his person. “Those who spit on the floor against the etiquette, to them we thank very much, no longer is there co-operation,” he was quoted to say during the meeting.
In other words, between Hoffman’s weighty counter-arguments and Orbán’s forceful warning, it would be surprising if Hungary’s new law for public education did not pass without a problem during the official vote.