On September 1 Hungarian children are returning to school, and the press is full of complaints about the financial burden this places on the family. Before I go into some of the details of what Hungarian schools demand, a sidenote and a personal hobby horse. In Hungary the educational establishment, specifically the ministry of education, still hasn't figured out that it would be much cheaper for the parents if the schools or school districts, similarly to the practice here, purchased textbooks and lent them to the children for the year. If a child ruins the textbook then the child's parents will have to compensate the school for the loss of the book. Otherwise the book is lent out to a new child the following year. Some textbooks can have quite a long life expectancy (until they become outdated). This practice teaches children to take care of the books that don't belong to them, and it is decidedly less wasteful than having parents purchase brand new books each year. And the textbooks are not cheap.To give a few horrifying examples, especially considering average Hungarian wages: the price of the first-grade textbooks in a Budapest elementary school (Szent László Általános Iskola) is 8,000 Ft ($50), for fourth graders 11-13,000 Ft ($70-$80), and for seventh graders 16,000 ($100).
But that is not the end. I'm not even sure whether I will find the English equivalents of all the items that the school demands because I don't know what is what. The above mentioned elementary school has an arrangement with one particular store for the basics; this package costs 6,000 Ft. (almost $40). However, it's incomplete and most likely includes only crayons, pencils, erasers, notebooks, and such. But the school usually demands a great deal more than that. I am copying the list attached to an article in Népszava, "This year it is a bit more expensive to begin school." So, here in paragraph style, starting with the Hungarian description (since sometimes I'm guessing at what these "must-haves" are) is the shopping list for parents of first graders. I will give the total price at the end.
(1) Tisztasági csomag (hygiene package: towel, glass, a package of napkins, Kleenex); (2) Tornazsák (fehér zokni, póló, shorts, jó minőségű tornacipő ) (gym bag: white socks, T-shirt, shorts, and good quality sneakers); (3) Ünneplőing, illetve szoknya vagy nadrág (clothes for special occasions: usually a white shirt/blouse and blue pants or skirt); (4) Iskolatáska (backpack); (5) Papírdosszié (paper folder); (6) Vízfesték (watercolor set); (7) Dobókocka (dice? What's it for? Taking on Vegas?) (8) Stift vagy folyékony ragasztó (This is a bit of a mystery but it is either "stift" or liquid glue); (9) Vékony, vastag ecset (thin and thick brush); (10) Olló (a pair of scissors); (11) Üzenőfüzet (a little book in which the teacher sends messages to the parents); (12) Leckefüzet (I guess this is a booklet in which homework assignments are recorded); (13) Papírcenti, 100 cm (measuring tape, thank God from paper and therefore cheap); (14) 2 csomag írólap (two packages of writing paper); (15) 10 db boriték (10 envelopes; I wonder what these are for); (16) Zsírkréta (I assume some kind of crayon); (17) Gyurma (modeling clay); (18) 30 félfamentes rajzlap A/4, 20 famentes rajzlap A/4 (drawing paper); (19) 2 csomag kivágóminták (színes papir) (colored paper for cut outs); (20) Korong (that is a disk but I can't fathom what the kids need this for); (21) 1 db hangjegyfüzet, 2 db négyzethálós füzet, 3 db vonalas füzet (1 notebook for music, 2 notebooks for math, 3 notebooks for writing); (22) Hurkapálca (skewer; another mystery); (23) Tolltartó, 12 színes ceruza, 1 radír, 1 hegyező, vonalzó (pencil holder, 12 color pencils, 1 eraser, 1 pencil sharpener, ruler).
My head is spinning. I checked what my local Connecticut elementary school demands for first graders (the only outlay for their parents) and found this: 1 pencilbox, 1 pack of 16 Crayola crayons, 2 folders, 2 Elmer glue sticks, 1 pair of blunt scissors, 1 ring binder, 2 pink erasers, and 12 #2 pencils. How modest for a town that was awarded not only the "best small town in Connecticut" award but also the "most expensive small town"!
And now let's see what all this stuff costs the poor Hungarian parents. The supplies I mentioned above will cost 14,000 Ft. in addition to the 8,000 Ft. for the textbooks. That is a handsome 22,000 Ft or over $135. For a first grader?! As I already mentioned, the cost of textbooks goes up as the children move from grade to grade. So it's no wonder that parents are complaining.
I really wonder whether all this is necessary for a first grader. I guess if the school wants to teach them musical notation in the first year the kids need a rather expensive notebook. But is it possible? Is it necessary? I understand that the Hungarian school system is set up such a way that it crams too much into the first year or two. In the end the kids don't have a firm grasp of the three R's. In spite of all this fancy stuff a good 25% of fifteen-year-olds can't understand what they read. They are functional illiterates. This in a country that until recently thought of itself as excelling in education, in learning, in cultural achievements. Something has to change. But how?