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The Education System at the Local Government’s and State´s Level – How to Improve the Quality of Education? – part I

8th European Congress of Local Governments

Universal access to quality education is a greater chance for sustainable, balanced and peaceful development of countries and societies. Education is truly fundamental, since the level of education translates into the prospects of finding a decent job, opportunities to participate in social life, exercising one’s civil rights, and even affects one’s health. Unfortunately, educational centers are often forced to care more about meeting bureaucratic requirements than about what should be their priority – the student and good quality of education. During the VIII European Congress of Local Governments in Mikolajki, challenges in the field of education were jointly pondered by the speakers participating in the debate entitled The Education System at the Local Government’s and State´s Level – How to Improve the Quality of Education?

The panel discussion was preceded by a short presentation by the Mayoress of Gijón, Ana González Rodríguez, entitled: What can local authorities do to promote gender equality? Her speech flowed from her conviction that guaranteeing equality is a fundamental duty of municipal leaders, given that a city should meet the needs of all its users, men and women alike. Creating wise urban policies should therefore start by analyzing these needs and identifying areas where existing solutions perpetuate a situation where access to specific services or spaces is hindered depending on gender. Councilors and mayors should thus understand the importance of ensuring that the buses subsidized by the city hall funds need to have a dense enough network so that female residents returning home at night wouldn’t have to walk long distances and cross dark alleys. They should realize that the offer of budget-funded vocational training must provide all users of municipal job centers the prospect of equally attractive careers and earnings in the future, instead of unreflectively training women to be low-paid cleaners and men to be plumbers. The task of the authorities, then, is to enable all citizens to function actively, safely and stereotype-freely in public spaces, regardless of gender.

The discussion on education was moderated by Pawel Abucki, CEO of the Center of Local Initiatives. The participants included: Mayoress Ana González Rodríguez, MP Krystyna Szumilas, Professor Nina Chala (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) and Jaroslaw Szczepanski, PhD (Warsaw University). From the outset the moderator directed the panelists’ attention to the problem of public education’s dependence on the governers: “Education is an important political issue at the state level. And since it is influenced by politicians, who represent specific worldviews and interests, education becomes a contentious area due to differences in attitudes and values among those in power. Besides, the political situation affects education in various ways. So how can we secure that education mantains high quality?”

Professor Chala shared her thoughts on the detrimental effects of the war on the Ukrainian education system. Maintaining high standards and continuity of teaching is often impossible; many universities have been relocated (e.g., Lugansk University has already been moved twice), many institutions have lost technical facilities or have been partially destroyed, yet continue to work. Some classes are held in bunkers. In such difficult conditions, the support received from the international academic community is invaluable, not only in its financial dimension, but also with regard to teaching itself, for instance through running partnership programs and tandem courses with foreign universities. Such arrangements improve the quality of education, which is now more relevant than ever for Ukraine – the country’s post-war reconstruction will not be possible without quality social capital.

After expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people, Ana González Rodríguez outlined the challenges of education in the city of Gijón. For although the situation of the education system in her city is incomparable to that in Ukraine, this sphere is subjected to so many tensions and diverse pressures that it is always problematic. According to the Mayoress, the current disputes around education come down to the lack of agreement on how to educate young people – with the emphasis on traditional values or rather so that they could navigate modern reality and face the challenges of tomorrow. The panelist believes that the school should prepare students for adult life, and in such a way that they actively participate in shaping the world around them. In addition to teaching technical or digital skills, the school is supposed to teach social conscience and responsibility for the environment. It is to this end that the Gijón city council works closely with educational institutions and offers schools more than 400 extra-curricular activities related to the life of the city (participation in cultural festivals, visits to companies, museum lessons, etc.). By learning about local institutions, e.g. during a trip to the city’s cleaning plant, the youngest learn how their surroundings function and how to take practical care of the planet and of each other. González Rodríguez also expressed her deep outrage at the politicization of education: “Education is not a political tool to brainwash voters! It’s about shaping people capable of forming their own ideas about life and thinking independently, not automatons to vote for a particular person. The school is supposed to show the importance of informed voting and teach how to give arguments, it is supposed to shape citizens capable of deciding what they want their city and country to be. Of course, children should be instilled with certain values – defined within the framework of what we call human rights.”

Krystyna Szumilas, MP, was equally critical of the attempts to subordinate the education system to politicians. “School cannot be a political tool. Curricula should be written by experts, practitioners, not politicians. Education is supposed to best serve the young people and not be conceived a booty for the politicians,” she said. The school’s autonomy in carrying out its tasks, as well as greater trust and respect of the authorities towards teachers and educational experts, are essential to achieving high quality education, according to the panelist. The former Minister of Education pointed out that school should be a place where we shape the future citizen, capable of responding appropriately and responsibly to what happens near and far. In her opinion, those in power are currently treating young people as objects, tampering with the curricula in order to create citizens capable of only a very narrow perspective dictated by the government. “If we ask whether the school should educate mathematicians, humanities experts, or local patriots, formed according to the schemes in the head of a particular minister… neither of these models is right. School should prepare a young person for the future.” This is a big challenge, because it is impossible to know what awaits us in the future, but instead of narrowing education, one should talk as widely as possible about geopolitical, military or climate threats. Szumilas also defended the decentralization of the education system, thanks to which Polish schools are more firmly rooted in the local community and more flexible, contributing to better resilience in critical moments (such as being able to accommodate a huge number of students from Ukraine).

Jaroslaw Szczepanski, offered a lecturer’s perspective on the changes in the education system and their impact on the subsequent generations of students. He noted that the transformations observed are not solely due to pressure from political circles. An equally important vector of change is demography, for example, and how the system adapts to demographic changes also affects the quality of education. Nonetheless, he recognized that the temptation to tailor schools according to specific ideology is simply too strong for politicians. All the more so because the role of school excedes mere transmission of knowledge, but also involves shaping future citizens, future generations of Poles and their vision of what our country should look like and relate to foreign countries. Politicians in power understand that the school curriculum can help them form voters – high schoolers will also go to the polls this year, and since the outcome of the elections is far from certain, it isworth to fight for these votes. The current changes in the core curriculum mainly concern the presentation of historical politics and civic content, so topics that directly translate into electoral decisions. Following this diagnosis, Szczepanski also advocated for greater autonomy in the education system, because the interference of politicians in teaching content currently goes as far as to threaten diversity. “The state education system should give a certain framework, but leave space for local communities and local governments to have more say in the educational process, making sure that minorities are respected and the specificity of local communities is preserved. The point is to provide space for diversity, for that otherness that is and has always been part of Polishness,” he said.

Finally, inquired about the solutions, the participants mentioned the following points: replacing narrowly understood patriotic upbringing with civic education, so that in addition to concern for history and the nation, young people are also instilled with respect for otherness, concern for other people and the environment; broader autonomy for schools instead of imposing increasingly rigid curricular restrictions; transferring some of the decisions regarding educational content or the way the program is implemented to local communities and local governments; increasing trust in teachers and increasing teachers’ salaries; creating curricula with a balanced proportion of canonical content, a necessary bridge between generations, and local, diversity-embracing content; striving towards a partial financial independence of educational institutions from the state budget.

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