In a scenario that sometimes seems like three-card Monte, it's a real challenge to figure out where Hungary's education is headed. Rózsa Hoffmann wants to take the country back to the late nineteenth century, Zoltán Pokorni is sore that he didn't become minister of education, and then there's the so-called Széll Plan.
Rózsa Hoffmann and her two assistant secretaries in charge of education are making an awful mess of things. Every day they come out with some impractical ideas. Here are a few, and I'm sure the list is far from complete. Let's have physical education every day in all the schools. Oh, but it turns out that there are not enough gyms to accommodate five hours of physical exercise for all the classes. So there's silence for awhile. Then a few days ago they announced a dumbed-down plan: as of September they will introduce daily gym in the lower four grades of all elementary schools. If this is just good old-fashioned recess, all well and good; educational research supports it. Send the kids out to the school yard to run around and let off steam. But what first-grader needs structured phys ed?
Then Hoffmann came up with a more grandiose idea. It is a well-known fact that most Hungarians don't excel in learning foreign languages. We could be very happy if, as in German schools, students knew one language reasonably well by the time of matriculation. But this is too modest a goal for Rózsa Hoffmann, who wants to make three languages compulsory in high schools. No one knows whether there are enough teachers or how on earth they will squeeze two additional languages into the curriculum. All this is just talk.
Hoffmann is also great at making promises that cannot be fulfilled. Not now, not next year, and most likely not within three years. Yet she announced a few days ago that very soon the beginning salaries of teachers will be 200,000 Ft per month! At the moment teachers with years of experience are making about 120-150,000. What would happen if suddenly twenty-two-year-olds straight out of college would make 200,000 a month while their older and more seasoned colleagues would make substantially less than that? Presumably the entire salary scale would be racheted up. But surely this promise in the face of the oncoming austerity train is not realistic. Perhaps it's Hoffmann's way of trying to make herself a little more popular with the teachers. Because as far as I can see, although a lot of teachers most likely voted for Fidesz, by now they are not exactly thrilled with their lot.
The oddest announcements concerning education were made in connection with the Kálmán Széll Plan, a series of restrictive measures that are supposed to save a lot of money at the expense of the citizens. As it now stands, a child must remain in school until he either completes eight grades (which in my opinion is not enough) or reaches the age of eighteen. Out of the blue it was announced that from here on a child can decide at the age of fifteen whether he wants to stay in school or "wants to enter the workforce."
Almost everywhere in the developed world the aim is to extend the time spent in school because the better educated a country's population the more successful it is in economic terms. If there is any change in the rules governing school attendance, it is usually tilted toward raising the standards. And here is Hungary where the undereducated swath of half a million people is a huge headache for the country and comes the announcement, totally unexpected, to lower the age when a child can quit school.
Why? And why exactly at the age of fifteen? It is fairly difficult to answer this question, but there are a couple of guesses. One is that the change aims at getting rid of mostly Roma children who have difficulty finishing eight grades by the age of fourteen or fifteen and thus they spend an three extra years in school while their parents receive child support. By lowering the age limit the state can both save some money and relieve the teachers of the extra burden of trying to teach these very difficult pupils. But if the Orbán government follows through on this proposal, it will simply be sweeping a huge problem under the rug. Gypsy youngsters cannot find a job even at the age of eighteen. What on earth will they do at the age of fifteen? I guess they can always find a place in jail where the Orbán government is planning to put children as young as the age of twelve.
The teachers' unions simply don't know what to make of this announcement. Why exactly fifteen years when the mandatory eight grades is normally for children between the ages of six and fourteen? They are baffled, and professors of education are aghast. One such professor called it the Taygetos law. That is, if it becomes a law as opposed to being dropped like so many other madcap ideas of this government.
But one stupid idea is not enough. It is followed by another, this time by Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, who lately made quite a name for himself by mixing up balneology with whale breeding. (In Hungarian whale is bálna.) If the cutoff age for school attendance becomes fifteen, why don't they make compulsory education not eight grades but nine?
This is where we are now. The papers are full of articles about the pros and cons of a school system of 4+5 years before entering high school. Here and there one encounters sane voices inquiring about the physical possibility of extending elementary education by a year. The current schools were set up for eight grades and not nine. There is neither the physical nor the intellectual capacity to change the current system.
Most likely it would be better to have compulsory education up to grade ten or even higher, but such a change would require careful thought, money, and time. Right now there is nothing but idle and stupid talk.