Hungarian education: A new detour?

Most likely I will spend more than one day on this subject because it is a complicated issue. I would also like to give a little historical background that may shed light on the current controversy between Rózsa Hoffmann, who is in charge of education in the Ministry of National Resources, and Zoltán Pokorni, Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on education. I'm not crazy about Pokorni, but I think even less of Rózsa Hoffmann. In Galamus I wrote an article in Hungarian about the woman and a bit of research into her background led me to believe that she is one of those people in Fidesz–and there are quite a few of them–who served the Kádár regime faithfully, became party members, were working in high positions in one of the ministries, but then came the change of regime and suddenly they discovered truth with a capital "T". In Hoffmann's case that also included religion.

Hoffmann graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Eötvös Loránd University as a French-Russian secondary school teacher in 1971, but instead of being assigned to a high school as a teacher she began her career at the National Relations Department and Universities Department of the Ministry of Culture as a senior desk officer. (Whatever that meant.) So, she started rather high on the ladder. After about ten years at the ministry she began her high school career as a vice principal and a few years later she became principal of a high school. Because she badly wanted to be a principal she decided to join the Communist party.

Later she received a doctorate in education and became a lecturer at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. Her religious views influence her whole approach to education, and she relies heavily on the advice of those members of the clergy who are involved with education. Apparently, this church influence is quite discernible in the proposals she has put on the table since she became undersecretary.

Hoffmann's own university experience can in no way provide guidelines for higher education in today's world. In the 1960s ELTE was not much more than a glorified high school for the privileged few. In her days only about 12-15% of young people attained a college degree. The situation didn't change much even in later years. As someone jokingly said the other day, only Albania had fewer university graduates than Hungary before 1990.

But for Hoffmann that old, very structured university setting is the model she advocates. She is horrified at the "terrible damage" liberals inflicted on Hungarian education. Her sidekick, László Dux, a professor of biochemistry (but otherwise originally a medical doctor), just yesterday said "school is not for fun." So, if the place is really miserable it must be good for the kids. A strange view. In my own experience people learn when they enjoy the subject, not when they hate it. The same sidekick also announced that the whole Bologna Process (bachelor, master, Ph.D.) should be scrapped. No good. The old system was perfect and we should return to it. What does it matter that Hungary is part of the European Union where the new higher education system has already been introduced? Hungary goes its own way.

But the sailing of Hoffmann and Dux may not be so smooth due to the opposition of Zoltán Pokorni, who is after all a rather important man in Fidesz. Everybody thought that he would return to his old post as minister of education, but he was dropped. Education was tossed to the Christian Democrats in the hope of retaining the political support of the Catholic Church. It is an open secret that the churches, especially the Catholic church, would very much like to carve out a greater role in the educational system. And now through Rózsa Hoffmann there is a possibility.

Pokorni has been quite critical of the activities of Hoffmann and Dux. First, it looks as if they want to greatly restrict the number of students who could obtain a college degree. In their view underlying the problem of poor student achievement is simply numbers. Both of them believe in elite education. Only the best should ever get a degree. That would naturally mean that the educational attainment of the Hungarian work force would be even lower than it is now. Hungary today is paying for the sins of the past when so many people finished only eight grades. These undereducated people today represent the vast majority of the permanently unemployed.

In my opinion the real problem is free school choice. There are excellent elementary schools and high schools, called elite schools, and there are the dregs. Better off, better educated people send their children to the so-called elite schools. Students in these schools receive an excellent education. But there are thousands and thousands of inferior schools that naturally produce inferior graduates. In the Finnish school system, which is apparently the best in Europe, there is no choice: kids go to the school in their district. As long as the current school system is in force, I don't think that there can be a general rise in standards. The current system produces a very small tier of top-level students and a huge number of poorly prepared youngsters.

But I see no hope because of the vested interests in the current system of free school choice. There was only one MSZP politician who dared to state that if it depended on her she would return to the old system of regional schools. Naturally, if one doesn't want to send his child to the district school he should certainly be able put the child into private school, but not on public money. As it is now, all taxpayers contribute to the cost of education in elite schools. How unfair.

For how confused politicians are about the whole question of education here is an example from today. Viktor Orbán is absolutely enamored with the idea of hard work as opposed to financial speculation. Today he went so far as to declare: "There is nothing wrong with starting work at the age of fifteen." And what will that fifteen-year-old be doing in ten years? Somehow Hungarians haven't gotten it into their heads that without a certain level of educational attainment modern society cannot function. Turning back to the 70s will not make Hungary competitive in the world economy.

 

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whoever
Guest

There is nothing wrong with starting work at the age of 15
IF
The work is not exploitative
IF
This is a full apprenticeship
IF
The work offers further educational opportunities as part of a full career development plan.
Now, how many of these jobs currently exist in Hungary? Orbán will create ubermenschen und untermenchen: it’s that simple.

Hank
Guest

The problem is not with free choice of schools (which also exists in many countries with far better educational systems than Hungary). The problem is with the way resources are (mis)spend, with the outdated organisation of the school system, with the stupid way in which good vocational training was thrown out, and certainly not least with the old fashioned way of teaching (and teaching teachers to teach) etc. Hoffmann seems to have no clue, but I’m afraid Pokorni doesn’t either.

T. Sanyi
Guest

Recently I was repeatedly struck by notions of elitism in FIDESZ’ argumentation. First by an interview of a state secretary in the ministry of economics in an Austrian newspaper (http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/eastconomist/607299/Zoltn-Csfalvay_Hohe-Steuerlasten-sind-tuechtigen-Menschen-nicht?from=suche.intern.portal), talking about the talented and hardworking who are slowed down by high taxes (somehow implying that just people with high income are really hardworking). Then my wife quoting an asrticle she read about Orban being inspired by John Kekes. And now this post and the comment by whoever.
It is really an open question as I really don’t have a clue and my hungarian is not good enough to inquire original sources: How elitist is the mindset of the current Hungarian government? By what ideas are they inspired in this regard?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

whoever: “There is nothing wrong with starting work at the age of 15 IF The work is not exploitative IF This is a full apprenticeship”
What I mean is that only eight grades of formal education is simply not enough to start apprenticeship at age of fifteen.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sanyi: ” How elitist is the mindset of the current Hungarian government?”
Put it that way. Orbán thinks that only the better off people will be able to move the country forward. This is why most of the tax breaks go to them. I think that they think that assisting the lower classes is a waste of money.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Hank: “which also exists in many countries with far better educational systems than Hungary”
There are just a few of those countries. Hungary has a long-standing track record of having world-class level of education, bested only by Finland in Europe.
There are no “many countries with far better educational systems than Hungary”.

whoever
Guest

HA! HA! What absolute rubbish. Kevin Moore, where on earth are you retrieving these generalisations?
Only bested by Finland? Show me the evidence, year on year! Without removing the Roma! Not saying that Hungarian education is always that bad – but sometimes, it is abysmal. There’s no doubt of that!
Are you going for some racialist angle here – that the Finno-Ugrics are the cleverest race? if so, then that’s a very silly game given the suicide rate and age of mortality.
Or are you really just taking the mickey?

Kevin Moore
Guest

You are talking rubbish about any racialist angle here.
You show me the evidence that Hungary’s education is not world-class. You were first.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kevin: “You show me the evidence that Hungary’s education is not world-class.”
There are international comparisons which clearly show that Hungarian children do very badly. For example PISA comparisons. Take a look and see the difference between Finland and Hungary.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_Student_Assessment

Pete H.
Guest

Eva, the PISA (which look at 15 year old students) scores are rather poor, but the 2007 TIMSS score in math and science ranked Hungary fairly high (6th globally). The PISA and TIMSS are both administered by the IEA, so the methodologies should be comparable.
Hungary seems to be getting it right up to 8th grade, but then something goes wrong. Why does Hungary’s rank slip so badly during those two years? Does the system change at that point in a student’s life? Or is the system not geared towards adolescents who’s psychology is significantly different from eight graders and requires a different educational approach.
I find it really sad that any country would be happy to see 15 year old kids working. That is a rather low bar to set for a nation. And if women can retire after 40 years of work, there could be a substantial population of women in their mid-50’s who are relying on pensions/savings for 20 to 25 years. If the the number of students finishing school at 14 years of age is substantial, I do not see how this could be economically sustainable.

Paul
Guest
My initial reaction when first visiting Hungary was that the education system must be superior. This assumption was based on three things: the appalling ‘standard’ of education in the UK, the incredibly good behaviour of Hungarian school children, and the idea of starting school at 6 or 7, not the ridiculously early 5 as in England (my daughter actually started school at 4 years and 3 months!). But, as the years have passed and I have seen more and more of Hungary from the inside, and also now have kids of my own, my asumptions have gradually been worn away. The first thing that happened was a slow realisation from personal contact and observation, that Hungarian kids, although so well behaved, didn’t seem to be any better educated than the kids at home. The second reality call was my daughter starting school at such a ridiculously young age in England. We seriously considered moving to Hungary to avoid this, or trying to delay things here, but in the end practical considerations meant her starting school at 4 here in England. However, this year we were in Hungary from Easter, so we enrolled her in the local óvoda and she spent… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

“Hungary seems to be getting it right up to 8th grade, but then something goes wrong. Why does Hungary’s rank slip so badly during those two years”
Too early start for teenagers, too many lessons, no mid-day lunch break, monotonous text-book/teacher centred methodoloy, pretty horrible classrooms, disproportionate closure of vocational schools. Jesus I’m bored to death, and I only have to teach them.
I had to substitute for a colleague today usual 10 minutes notice. Unusually enough they were in a room with a DVD player. So I popped on King Arthur, they were a weak group, so with Hungarian soundtrack and English subtitles. It was about 10.40 and I hadn’t heard the bell go, so I asked the class when the lesson ended they said 10:35. When I got up to turn off the DVD they groaned. Poor kids. In the eighties in the UK videos were a standard part of both language and history classes.

Paul
Guest

Sophist – I gather you have taught in both the English and Hungarian systems?
I know this is a horrible question, but which do you think is the ‘best’ system?
I am no fan of the English system, and the few Hungarians I know whose children have experienced both have always been very pro Hungarian teaching/methods. But, as I say above, the more I learn about the Hungarian system, the more I think we have got it ‘right’ in England (we just aren’t managing to get it to work for some reason!).

pgyzs
Guest
Paul: There is no unique “got it right” solution. On the other hand, I think that at least about the starting age, we get it right on average. Maybe you were lucky and your daughter took it well to start school at the age of four, but I really think that it is not favorable for most of the kids at that age. I also learned to read from my father when I was 4-5 but I had classmates after who had problems with that even in second grade. And not because they were genetically dumber, it’s simply just that children at that age develop at a very different pace. On the other hand I don’t really know what they do in school in Britain with the four year olds. My step-father is a very good expert in the English-type comprehensive model, so I have some well founded guess that it is not the same as what the Hungarian six year olds do. I think people sometimes have trouble with thinking outside the box of their own experiences, so they just project what happened to them to everyone. I don’t even want to pretend that I know the British system… Read more »
Sophist
Guest
Paul, I’ve only taught in Hungarian Schools, and I went to a public school in the UK – so I appreciate that my educational experience is not typical for the UK. Like you I’m tremendously impressed with Hungarian primary education – as a parent. My 12 year old came home with a test paper in which her answer on the differences between clssical and gothic architecture knocked me sideways. I’ve listed what I think the problems with Hungarian Secondary education are. Overall the biggest problem is Hungarian complacency about Education. They used to have one of the best education systems in the world, (see The Voice of the Martians by George Marx) and don’t see that that might have changed. Interestingly this is as true of the students who are on the receiving end as it is of parents and teachers. They are immensely conservative. Another issue for me is the decline of choice in the Hungarian Education system, this is a result of the demographic problem, far too many non-academic students stuck in classrooms. One thing I guess might be good about the UK education system is access to a wide range of schools. A final issue is the… Read more »
Paul
Guest
Thanks for the reply, Sophist. My feeling (and that’s all it is) at the moment is that I wouldn’t mind my kids going through primary school in Hungary, but I’d prefer them to be educated in the UK after that, and certainly if they go on to university. But, beyond education, you touch on a very important (in my experience) part of the Hungarian psyche with your comment about people not seeing that things might have changed. Hungarians seem to believe that almost everything about their society is “the best in the world”, often in the face of much evidence to the contrary. My wife shares this general belief/assumption, and she didn’t even grow up there! I think this is one of the keys to the appeal of OV and Fidesz. Hungarians ‘know’ they are superior and can’t come to terms with the reality of being a largely ignored, middling European country. They desperately want things to be as they ‘were’ once again, they want reality to match illusion – and they’ll flock to vote for someone (anyone) who tells them this is possible. By the by – I would love to know how someone who was educated in a… Read more »
An
Guest

@Paul: “Hungarians seem to believe that almost everything about their society is “the best in the world”, often in the face of much evidence to the contrary.”
I don’t know, I think we (Hungarians) are more like going between the extremes, thinking that everything is absolutely the worst in Hungary and other (Western) countries are so ahead of us, and then switch into thinking that Hungarian things are the best in the world, and sometimes we can think both at the very same time. It’s a huge inferiority/superiority complex.
Mind you, I don’t think it is unique to Hungary… I have some Polish friends here in the States who never fail to point out certain inventions that were originally invented by Poles, how Polish pickles and other food item are absolutely the best and proudly claim every somewhat famous American with a Polish name as Polish. Exactly like a lot of people I know do in Hungary (about Hungarians).
As for Americans, I was told that everything (that counts as a modern invention) was invented by Americans.

Sophist
Guest

Paul,
“I would love to know how someone who was educated in a British public school ends up teaching in Hungary”
Nor am I an isolated phenomenon. I live in a town of about 65,000 people. There are about five native speaking teachers I now well: an American, a Canadian and three Brits. All three of the Brits are ex-public school. Maybe public school boys are particularly susceptible to the charms of Hungarian women.

Sophist
Guest

An,
“Mind you, I don’t think it is unique to Hungary”
The only other culture I can compare this with is Russia. I worked there for a year after my first two years in Hungary. The Russians were also certain that their culture was the best in the world. But they were a lot more complacent about it than the Hungarians, no anxious pointing out, just heavy criticism of the way things were done elsewhere.
As part of my MEd I had to study videos/transcripts of a Russian classroom. I was struck by the similarity to my impression of Hungarian teaching. I wonder how much of current Hungarian education is the result of Russian/communist practice rather than the Prussian system they claim descent from.
Both the Prussian system as origninally conceived by William von Humboldt:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Humboldt#Minister_of_Education
and the excellent Hungarian system implemented by Maurice Karman
http://mek.oszk.hu/00300/00355/html/ABC07165/07445.htm
seem to have been quite liberal in conception, over time it has degenerated into abstracted rote-learning.

John T
Guest
There are four key issues that the Hungarian system needs to ensure:- 1) That it keeps up with a changing world 2) Identify the strengths and weakness of a child as early as possible. It would be good to think that the weeknesses could be addressed with support. But at the same time, if kids have talent in a particular area, whether it is academic or vocational, then it should be nurtured. 3) That it encourages kids to think for themselves and not dictate “one version of the truth” in everything. I loved history at school, the reason being that lessons weren’t simply about learning the dates of important events – the teachers encouraged debate about how / why these events happened and also included discussions on “what ifs”, to give an idea about how situations might have turned out differently. Additionally, in my school at least, we didn’t look solely at British history, which I think gave us a much broader appreciation of the subject. 4) Ensure that parents are fully engaged in the process of putting their kids through school. Paul has made some good points about the faults in the UK system. But I think a key… Read more »
The Columbian
Guest
An interesting post, and apart from a bit of anti-fidesz fuming, it might be the most moderate I’ve read here. I for one like it and encourage you to write more of the like. That having been said, there are a few omissions and misdirections that should be addressed. First off, Pokorni is a total has-been in Fidesz, he’s been pretty much put out to pasture ten years ago. When in office and minister of education he managed to convince most of his party that he is completely insane- see his aborted attempts to merge universities with reckless abandon. If you’re into Fidesz kremlinology, you may note that at Orban’s victory speech in the spring, Pokorni and Ader and a couple others were given a place to stand in a darkened corner of the stage- as the Hungarian says “végük van, mint a Dallasnak”. I also feel the post does not address the two most crucial points of the Hoffmann proposal. One is the tightening of exam regulations. Having gone to Pharmacy school in Hungary, I can tell you that unlimited exam opportunities are the best way to lower the standards of education. You actually don’t have to know anything,… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

to The Columbian. I’m aware of the low standards of Hungarian universities and the unsavory activities of the student organizations. Naturally I don’t approve of them. The reason I decided to write a description of the credit system and how it works was to actually show how strictly controlled the system is here. As for the student’s representation. The practice was introduced here at the time of the student disturbances after 1969 but the student unions have very limited roles to play in the running of the universities.
As for repeating exam after exam it is an unknown practice here. I’m all for tightening the requirements but I dislike Hoffmann’s ideas. What I would recommend if they asked me is to do a decent job on the three-tier system and not what they have managed to do up to now.

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