Hungarian teachers and students: Crisis?

You may recall that Viktor Orbán said that the budget that will most likely soon be accepted by parliament is so unrealistic that it will have to be revised because otherwise even the schools will have to be closed. There is not enough money in the budget for their upkeep.

On November 7, only a few days before Olga Kálmán's interview with Orbán, eighteen "professional and civic organizations" demonstrated in Budapest. The reason, according to Gábor Kerpen, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), was the alleged cut of 63 billion forints from the budget for Hungarian education. This would mean the end of quality education. Before going any further, let me state right here and now that Kerpen's figures, as usual, bear no resemblance to reality. All in all, education will receive 24 billion forints less next year than in 2009. One would be happier if no cuts were necessary, but there are mitigating circumstances that might explain why education, together with healthcare and public safety, is relatively lucky when it comes to the negative effects of the austerity program.

First a few words about Gábor Kerpen and PDSZ. There are two trade unions of teachers. PDSZ is very small. The other union, Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), represents the overwhelming majority of teachers. One rarely hears of PSZ because this really important organization normally manages to reach an agreement with the ministry. Not so PDSZ and its chief. Gábor Kerpen,Kerpen by the way, reminds me of a homeless man who didn't have a chance to wash up for weeks. Maybe I have old fashioned ideas about the demeanor and behavior of teachers, but my image of a teacher doesn't square with that of Gábor Kerpen. Although Kerpen's trade union is insignificant and has little influence, because of the belligerent attitude of its leader it is constantly in the news. If one didn't know the real situation, one would think that all the thousands and thousands of teachers are constantly on the verge of walking out. Of course, most of the people don't have the foggiest idea about the weight and importance of PDSZ.

As for the ideology of Kerpen and the members of his trade union, suffice to say that PDSZ belongs to a trade union umbrella organization led by István Gaskó, the infamous head of one of the MÁV trade unions.

I tried to find figures for the size of the demonstration, but not one newspaper managed to come up with even a wild guess. I saw, however, a picture of the "crowd," if you could call it that. Considering that the demonstrators came from "all over the country" representing eighteen different organizations, it was a meager little gathering. After the demonstration, Kerpen made his usual round at the various television stations where he kept repeating, in a very muddled fashion, his figure of 63 billion forints.

The right-wing papers, for example Magyar Hírlap, emphasized that "the teachers were demonstrating for the youth." Oh yes, just as the doctors are demonstrating only for their patients. I really hate these pious and untrue stories. Why don't they tell the truth? They are demonstrating, as any trade union should, in defense of their own interests. They want more money, fewer hours and duties, longer vacation time, and so on. Perfectly normal union demands, but please leave out the sugar-coating.

Since then newer complaints have emerged. According to Kerpen, because of changes introduced in the law on public education it is possible that from next September on class size in high schools may be as high as 46. It will be possible to cram 33 kids into a kindergarten class, while in the first eight years class size might be 36. According to Origo (the only paper that reported this piece of news) the change in the law allows class size to exceed the current maximum by 30%. The maximum class size in the first four grades is now 26 and 30 in the upper four grades of elementary school.

Class size is a controversial subject. In Israel, Japan, and South Korea classes are large, yet the measured results are excellent. In Hungary classes are small, with very mixed results. Over the course of the last hundred years or so class sizes have been decreasing worldwide. For instance, at the end of the nineteenth century in Austria-Hungary the average elementary school class had 120 students! UNESCO and the World Bank consider the teacher/student ratio a good indicator of economic development. So let's see a few figures from the developed world. Hungary is outpacing the field. In Hungary the teacher/student ratio is 1:10.2, significantly ahead of Japan (1:19), USA (1:16), Netherlands (1:15.6), Germany (1:14.4), and France (1:19.7). So what is Mr. Kerpen talking about?

Where Kerpen is getting the figure of 63 billion from no one knows. As I said, next year's educational budget will be reduced by 24 billion forints. However, one must keep in mind Hungarian demographics: the student population is shrinking. For instance, there were 22,000 fewer students in September 2009 compared to June 2009. One also has consider that a lot of EU money is being poured into the physical plants of educational facilities. Just between September and December 52 school buildings will be modernized to the tune of 100 billion forints. What the government wants is fewer but better equipped schools.

As I was watching an interview with the minister of education, István Hiller, in the background on a monitor one could see classrooms with students and teachers at work. Perhaps they were showing only the most modern and cheerful classrooms, but what a contrast to the classroom I entered at the age of six. An oiled floor, a coal stove, no color anywhere except for some drab greenish oil paint. No gym, no library, no cafeteria. And, indeed, well over forty kids in the class.

Now what Hungary needs is better performance. And I'm not just talking about the performance of the students.

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I also went to a very ordinary small town school with no extra-curricular facilities. Many of my contemporaries did very well indeed for themselves. The quality of the teachers (not all, but many) was the distinguishing aspect. Teachers unions tend not to have much to say on the topic of linking teacher rewards to teacher ability! Having said that, I do believe (smaller) class size is very important, especially for the above average and below average students.