Every country is struggling with serious problems in the field of education. The story is familiar: children can’t read and write at their grade level. Students finish high school but are functional illiterates. Until recently, smug Europeans thought that these problems existed only in the United States, but by now they have to face the fact that they are plagued with the same kinds of deficiencies. It’s not that the crisis is new, rather that it’s only recently being recognized. Hungary is no longer isolated but part of the western mainstream. And there are nasty little tests comparing the children of different countries. Hungary, which was always so proud of its educational system, turned out to be nowhere near the top in these comparisons. The heart of the problem seems to be a huge education gap. Although there are some very bright students and some excellent schools, there are more students (bright and not so) who don’t get an adequate education. A small intellectual elite and a vast number of poorly educated people.
The economic consequences of this education gap are predictable. There is a large group of uneducated people with at best at eighth grade education who are permanently unemployed and live on government assistance. Most of these people are Gypsies, but there are impoverished, undereducated non-Gypsies as well. These people’s children seem destined for the same fate: at home there is not only a lack of money but also a lack of intellectual stimulation. When a child from such a family arrives in school he is already at a great disadvantage. Apparently the vocabulary of a child of a disadvantaged family at the age of four is a third of that of his more fortunate classmates. Something must be done with these people because otherwise Hungary’s long-term economic success is at stake.
The Gyurcsány govenment is tackling the problem. Some people are suspicious that the prime minister pulled out this newest program from the hat only to divert attention from the referendum. However, I heard an educational expert today who claims that the background work has been going on for at least a year.
The plan is as follows. As of next year the government will spend 130-140 billion forints for public education. One third of this money will come from the Hungarian budget, the rest will come from the European Union. The emphasis will be on early education and there will be incentives given to the families at the lowest end of the social scale: if they send their child to kindergarten they will receive 20,000 Ft. at the time of enrollment and an extra 10,000 per semester afterward. There will be incentives for teachers as well. As it stands today, just as in the United States, the prestige of the teaching profession is low. Only those at the bottom of the class will end up teaching in the country’s classrooms. Beginning salaries will be boosted substantially. If someone has a five-year degree (M.A.) he will receive an extra 40,000 Ft., for a three-year degree (B.A.) an extra 25,000 Ft. An additional 40,000 Ft will be given to teachers who teach "difficult children" in disadvantaged districts.
The government is also planning to expand the network of "welfare officers." The plan is to hire 300 extra people whose job it is to keep an eye on the situation within the family. In addition, the salaries of the welfare officers will be raised: they will receive an extra 1,000 Ft. per child.
We will see what happens. The government claims that Hungary spends almost as much as Finland on education but while Finland by all measures is producing the best educated population, Hungary is almost the last. Thus it is not just a question of money but of know-how. Or perhaps just those bleak Finnish winters (with the notable exception of this year).