Poland scores late goals in education
The eyes of the football world have turned to Poland, as it plays co-host to Euro 2012.
But the country has been winning international approval for a different kind of league table success - as Poland has become one of the rising stars in education.
Among eastern European, former-Communist countries, Poland has been the biggest education success story - following modernising reforms launched at the end of the 1990s.
It has also been more successful than most countries at one of the holy grails for education reform, equality of opportunity.
Poland's schools are succeeding, more than many others, in narrowing the gap between the weak and the strong, the gifted and the challenged.
No other European country has climbed the international education tables quite so consistently as this nation, which emerged so recently from decades of totalitarian rule and economic hardship.
More for less
The most recent test results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) show that Poland is ranked 14th for reading, ahead of the USA, Sweden, France and Germany - and well ahead of the UK in 25th.
While media attention focused on the scorching performances of Pisa chart-toppers such as regions of China and South Korea, it was Poland's success which perhaps offered the more relevant lessons to the struggling post-industrial economies of western Europe.
So what is it that Poland has been doing so well?
The OECD points out that Poland's reforms have raised performance to the same or higher levels as those of the USA and Norway, "despite spending less than half of what those countries spend on education".
But if throwing money at schools was not the answer, what is?
Dr Michal Federowicz, director of Poland's Education Research Institute in Warsaw, traces the roots of this success back to the dark years of martial law after the Solidarity era ended in 1981, when, as he put it, "educated people were suppressed".
For most of the 1980s, he said, Poland turned its back on education - so that when democracy finally arrived in 1990, a massive appetite for change in economic, cultural life was released. This soon translated into demands for better education.
Initial reforms in the early 1990s concentrated on stripping out the ideological content of the old Soviet-influenced curriculum. But it was not until the 1999 education act that deeper structural changes were approved.
The act was radical. Poland's elementary school tier was to be reduced from eight to six years, but with a new three-year "junior high" or "gymnasium" tier tacked on, covering ages 13 to 16 years olds.
This gave all pupils a crucial extra year before having to decide on their paths into higher education or vocational training.
"The political will was there to achieve substantial changes in the quality of education and other public services," said Dr Federowicz.
"But the changes couldn't have happened without comprehensive reforms of the structure of local government itself, which resulted in more local autonomy."
Poland's former deputy minister of education and higher education, Professor Zbigniew Marciniak, identified factors beyond political and economic imperatives.
"It was the spirit of the people. The effort that parents and families put in for their kids to continue at school… society did it for us, we just created the conditions."
While decentralised decision-making was vital, government intervention was required in the poorer rural areas, as well as in formulation of nationally-standardised exams and teacher-training.
'Scale of problem'
In fact, Poland used the Pisa test information from 2000 to help pull itself up.
"We knew we had problems - but the first Pisa measurement showed us the scale of the problems," said Professor Marciniak.
It helped to reveal one of the biggest failings of the old system - "Grade Eight syndrome", whereby half the school population ditched academic study at 15.
"Pisa showed that a lot of those kids forgot all they learnt in elementary school... and the most dramatic thing was they couldn't learn any more."
The next round of Pisa in 2003 coincided with the first cohort completing the first three-year junior high cycle. "We got a great improvement," Professor Marciniak added.
"Not to over-estimate, we were starting from a very low level, but the decision to mix these weaker kids with all others, all going through a longer general education, was working, the outcomes were really surprising. But very pleasant for us."
The weaker pupils did better and the strongest ones carried on getting stronger.
Examining the exams
The break at 12 to 13 years of age also gave children the chance to start afresh, to escape stigmatisation from earlier failures. And the creation of 7,000 new junior high schools led to better teachers.
"There was a big attempt by teachers to show they were good enough to teach in these schools - they had aspirations, and this was more important even than training," said Professor Marciniak.
Structural change was accompanied by reform of the curriculum and qualifications. A new core curriculum is still being fine-tuned, as are the new university entrance exams, the "Matura".
There has been a massive expansion in young people going to university.
A falling birthrate notwithstanding, Poland now has five times as many students in higher education than it had in 1999.
This has meant that the higher education system has had to shake itself up to cope with an influx of students from a far wider range of backgrounds, rather than only the most academically able.
As a professor of mathematics, Professor Marciniak appreciated how far academics had been "spoiled" in the past.
"We admitted only the 10% most gifted. In that context we could really believe all our students were talented enough to be our followers in research, and all our studies were constructed this way," he said.
But now with student intake soaring, universities have been asked to re-design their courses.
"The only intervention of state apart from finance, is to create a good accreditation system which would ask, what is your promise to students? How can you explain the real outcome of learning? The rest is in hands of the schools."
If the heat of that decade of reform has now tempered somewhat, there are still changes.
Dr Federowicz regards one of the greatest achievements to be the success of decentralisation: "We proved that local government could take responsibility for education," he said.
For example, the government is funding a Digital Schools scheme to provide copyright-free electronic text-books to children in 380 schools.
The scheme, hailed by open learning advocates, was the result of a deal between central government, publishers and other stakeholders.
Professor Marciniak is looking forward to the next Pisa results, which he believes will show Poland making further progress. How much?
"It's hard to to predict because changing the curriculum on such a scale, it's like pushing a bus - you have to push a long time before it moves."
"But something good is happening - our national exams will show it, Pisa will show this year I hope. If not, then definitely in three years time, we will take the harvest."