Total confusion everywhere, but let’s just talk about education

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.

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Rigó Jancsi
Guest

With nine years, every child can repeat class once, but not more. I’ve seen children who were 15 years old while all their class mates were 12. But anyways, it’s a completely insane idea. Sounds like butaology is advancing…

Sophist
Guest
“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” There are large numbers of underemployed or mis-employed language teachers in Hungary. Most obviously teachers of Russian, nearly half of my colleagues qualified in Russian or English/Russian. The Russian teachers were “re-trained” as English teachers in the nineties as demand for English teachers exploded, but they function as round pegs in square holes. There has also been a collapse in demand for German, German teachers are now outnumbered 2 to 1 at my school, when I started ten years ago it was 1 to 1. As a parent of three bilingual Hungarian/English children – I am desperate to find a primary school willing to give my kids an opportunity to learn another language, but the answer is always the same – not enough demand for other languages: every one wants English. Nor is there a problem with the curriculum – just replace the excessive number of English lessons with other langauges. For example, half of the kids at my… Read more »
DMW
Guest

“The real problem here is the strangle-hold English has on the imagination of Hungarian parents as the path to future success.”
There is nothing wrong with learning German, but English can be used in pretty much any country – it makes sense for most Hungarians to want their children to focus on a second language with greater application.
“Let’s not trouble ourselves with the historical and cultural links between Germany and Hungary.”
🙁

Ron
Guest

Well here is an idea for Fidesz. Saving money and improving foreign languages. Stop synchroizing TV programmes and movies. Just subtitle them. Automatically people pick up foreign languages.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “Let’s not trouble ourselves with the historical and cultural links between Germany and Hungary.”
I certainly didn’t say that, but I still say that requiring three foreign languages from high school kids is unrealistic.

Sophist
Guest

Ron,
“it makes sense for most Hungarians to want their children to focus on a second language with greater application.”
Given the role Germany has in Hungary’s economy I would have thought German had greater economic application.
It’s true that English gives them access to international media – MTV, the internet – but English teachers decry this as much as anybody else. Jersey Shore is of no more economic advantage than Valo Világ.
There is another more complicated point to make about English – it’s an escape route for talent. Nearly all of my most capable ex-students are also ex-Hungary, rather than employing their talents in Hungary. A fact which makes me sad.

Sophist
Guest

Sorry, that comment should have been addressed to DMW
Ron, I agree entirely about subtitling.

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“requiring three foreign languages from high school kids is unrealistic.”
I can raise the ante on that, expecting all schools kids to learn one foreign language to the point it is economically useful is also unrealistic.
I also think Hungarians put a disproportionate value on foreign language knowledge – it sometimes seems like it’s a proxy for being intelligent or well-educated.
Putting my accountant’s hat back on for a moment, I think it would be far more cost effective to educate the capable to a higher level, (this was the case when I came here in ’93) rather than educate everybody to the same less demanding standard: each according to their talents, a division of linguistic labour.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “As a parent of three bilingual Hungarian/English children – I am desperate to find a primary school willing to give my kids an opportunity to learn another language”
Your situation is certainly different from an average Hungarian family where the children don’t learn English at home. I understand that you don’t want your children learn English in school from a Hungarian whose English is most likely not exactly perfect.
But the average Hungarian family most likely wants the child learn English first which I think is understandable. English can be used everywhere including Germany.

DMW
Guest

@Sophist
Well, agreed – economically viable if a Hungarian wishes to work/study in German in Hungary or Germany… but… the rest of the world?
The use of English on the web, the language as a global language, etc, make it the language of choice for most, and this makes perfect sense. This website uses English, no less 🙂
Your children are very lucky to speak English at home, but as pointed out above, this is not the norm for most Hungarian families. By the by, there is an interesting article in the latest edition of The Economist’s Intelligent Life about falling numbers of Japanese students learning English. Edo period thinking revived? 🙂

Member

I agree that English should be the number one choice, as anyone in Germany who is in the business of “trading” or politics do speak English. THe official language for many institution is English (International Criminal Court, International Labour Organization, World Bank, etc.). German and Russian (and even Chinese) are the two very important languages, as they are or become very important trade partners of Hungary. In the school one of my daughter attends in Toronto many kids are bilingual English/Hungarian, Serbian, Ukrainian, French, Chinese, Farsi are the most common bilingual children, and the mandatory second language is French (as Canada is bilingual country) from Grade 4. There are other means to immerse in French above the mandatory requirements all supported by the Public system. (having English already of course is a great advantage already for these kids, versus smaller countries where English is not the first language.)

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “I also think Hungarians put a disproportionate value on foreign language knowledge – it sometimes seems like it’s a proxy for being intelligent or well-educated.”
Unfortunately, speaking only Hungarian is simply not enough today. Never was enough to tell you the truth.

Member

@Sophist “I think it would be far more cost effective to educate the capable to a higher level”
I couldn’t agree more! And not just for economic reasons, it’s common sense. No use to torture the children with things they don’t like or want. I’m still not talking about the fact how ineffective it is usually: in the “ancient regime” (in the eighties in Planet Hungary) there was a semi-legal survey among college students (by then they had 10 years of Russian classes on their belt). Only one question: ask a glass of water in Russian … 🙂
Regarding what language should be the preferred my $.02 is this: listen to the PARENTS. By the way how is home schooling in Hungary? Is this something like the birth at home thing? Will we see parents dragged to court in shackles for teaching their own kids because they are fed up with uneducated government officials toying with our schools?

Odin's lost eye
Guest
The Hungarian language was and still is both the curse and in some ways a blessing for Hungary. It is one of the more difficult languages to learn. Unless one is a natural linguist it cannot really be learned unless it is spoken as a child. It is a curse because it isolates Hungarians from its Indo-European speaking neighbours. It inhibits the interchange of knowledge and ideas. It makes the Hungarian some of the loneliest people in Europe and has given rise to the idea the every non-Hungarian is stupid (well they cannot speak the language which is something our children can do so they must be stupid). What the Hungarian who can learn an Indo-European language easily cannot understand why an Indo-European language speaker has problems with their language. We use the same (or almost the same) alphabet but the letters do not make the same noises. Hungarian is a synthetic language, which is that the meaning of a word is modified by (generally) suffixes and there is no possessive case. My late wife used to say “I make xyz to you”, not for you. It was weird It is a blessing in that it preserves the best of… Read more »
Guest

Thank you, Odin’s lost eye! I admire your outline of the position of Hungary and its beautiful language. When I have visited the Sziget Festival, English was the common language. A Bulgarian friend says she can understand Romanian, Russian and other languages more or less, with out having studied them. This is, for better or worse, not true for Hungarians.

Sophist
Guest

Mutt Damon,
“Regarding what language should be the preferred my $.02 is this: listen to the PARENTS”
I think this is appropriate if the parents are paying for education but ALL taypayers pay for education in Hungary, so it should a democratic decision.

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“speaking only Hungarian is simply not enough today”
Enough for what? The majority of workers in American/British offices/factories in Hungary never have to use English. That was true in the nineties when there was a significant anglophone ex-pat business community in Hungary, it is even more true now, after they have gone home.
No one is denying that English is important, or that knowledge of a foreign language is important – I treasure my store of schoolboy Latin. I am only claiming that parents, hence schools and politicians give it a disproportionate importance. In my staff room you can regularly hear English, French, Russian, Italian, Finnish and even German. How long will this be the case?

An
Guest

@Sophist “I think it would be far more cost effective to educate the capable to a higher level”
Bad idea. Most people are able to learn a second language and speak at a conversational level. I agree that not everybody should become bilingual, but there is a certain proficiency level that is attainable for most people. If you have ever traveled in the Netherlands or in Scandinavia, you’ll see that a lot of people are quite capable in conversing in a second language. A lot more than in Hungary.
The problem is that language education in Hungarian schools is rather ineffective. And Hoffman Rozsa’s idea of having kids learn three languages will just make things worse.

Guest

Some of the stories here remind me of my youth. Since we lived in the “French OccupiedZone” of Germany, our first foreign language was French, then I had to learn Latin (our head teacher told my parents, this boy is so intelligent, he’s going to be a doctor, and latin was required for doctors) – an then came English, just a little bit of it …
But what did we do in our French classes: Read Molière or whoever …
So when I came to France the first time – I couldn’t understand the menue , I couldn’t talk sensibly to the people in the hotel and so on, I was really ashamed – after nine years of learning French …
Obviously English is now no 1 – but every student of “above average intelligence” should learn a second foreign language, whatever it is …

Member

@Sophist
Listening to the parents is the democratic way. What is very wrong in my opinion is a government sponsored curriculum that dictates English, German or French is the useful language. Here in the US if a lot of parents indicate that they would rather see their children learning German, the school will try to start more German classes. Of course this depends on a lot of things, the county school board, the principal, the availability of teachers. This is what I mean.
@An Yes, the mainstream education is ineffective. Children spend a long time on a language and can’t ask for a cup of tea. What I’m saying is give a chance to the “better” students. Create competition.

John T
Guest
All – School education should be about equipping people with the skills, knowledge and tools they need for adulthood. And to be honest, learning is lifelong anyway. But the key with schools is to give people the proper start. Some kids will go to University – others will take up apprenticeships or vocational training. Having enough places in each area should be the goal of any Government, so that everyone can fulfil their potential as much as possible. And NO child should be left behind, which may mean actually coming down hard on parents who don’t send kids to school or actively discourage learning. In terms of language, I would think that in 20 – 30 years time, technology will be able to help and we will have instant language translation devices. But for now, if I were giving advice, I’d say English first, as it is the nearest thing we have to a “global” language. If Hungarians want to go beyond their border in business etc, it is key. German would be my second choice – it is still the powerhouse of Europe and a key ally / partner of Hungary. French is still useful and Spanish is increasingly… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Sophist: “The real problem here is the strangle-hold English has on the imagination of Hungarian parents as the path to future success.”
I am afraid it is not entirely to the point but I feel reassured that the practical senses are still alive and that this traditionalist phase will turn out shorter than feared by some here.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kirsten: “Sophist: “The real problem here is the strangle-hold English has on the imagination of Hungarian parents as the path to future success.” I am afraid it is not entirely to the point but I feel reassured that the practical senses are still alive and that this traditionalist phase will turn out shorter than feared by some here.”
Rózsa Hoffmann who majored in Russian and French doesn’t like English very much and complained bitterly about the prevalence of English. If I recall the current law is that if the majority of parents insist on also teaching English the school must oblige. I think she doesn’t want parents to have any say in such matters. She is a really forward looking lady. Big smiley.

Kirsten
Guest

Éva: “Rózsa Hoffmann who majored in Russian and French doesn’t like English very much and complained bitterly about the prevalence of English.”
I did not want to write that explicitly before but English also has the big advantage that in the Anglo-American tradition there are relatively fewer texts that celebrate authoritarian rule (but perhaps that is not the focus of language teaching).

Sophist
Guest

Mutt,
“Listening to the parents is the democratic way.” – what happened to “No Taxation without Representation”, isn’t that the democratic concept?
“Create Competition” – there is already intense competition in the Hungarian School system. The absolute number of students is declining year on year, and the schools are competing to survive by attracting enough students to remain viable (schools are funded on a per capita basis) – and it is having a disastrous effect on educational standards.
“What I’m saying is give a chance to the “better” students” you can’t do this at the same time as listening to the parents. Each parent wants to maximise the educational opportunities of their own child. If you give opportunities to the “better” students, the parents of the “worse” students cry foul.

Sophist
Guest

John T,
“If Hungarians want to go beyond their border in business etc, [English] is key”.
I live in a county town, it has an car parts industry that is owned by Germany, it sells wine to Germany, and it has large numbers of Tourists from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. English maybe a global language, but business still has to act locally.
Schools should offer a broader range of languages, and since they are funded by the state, languages that offer a return on investment to the state not just to the student.
As I said, my best students are leaving Hungary and contributing nothing to the fiscal or other well-being of this country. The majority are doing work that doesn’t involve them in using English at all, and so their knowledge decays. The worst, after what must be a thousand hours of English lessons speak no English at all. Not a good return on the state’s or their own investment.

John T
Guest

Sophist – The key then for any Hungarian government, whether now or in the future, is to make the country attractive enough for its young people to want to stay there. That means decent values, a strong, joined up society, a good labour market and living standards and high quality health and education provision.

Member

Sophist: “I live in a county town, it has an car parts industry that is owned by Germany, it sells wine to Germany, and it has large numbers of Tourists from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. English maybe a global language, but business still has to act locally.” “The worst, after what must be a thousand hours of English lessons speak no English at all. Not a good return on the state’s or their own investment.”
Hungary is a small country as it is, and you think it is reasonable to ask that students will be trained for their future only in your county where there is no other language required?
The quality of language education has nothing to do with the students but has to do with the education standards, and the quality of the teachers. Yes, there are some kids that will never learn an other language but most of them capable to pick up a language on a basic level if they are taught right. If you have a problem with the quality of language education you should start to lobby the Ministry for better resources, and not offer the solution of cutting them altogether.

Guest

What is possible even with a bad (or no) education can be seen quite clearly here around Héviz:
By necessity almost everybody speaks some German – often you can tell that they had no formal schooling in that language at all (because of the funny “grammar” they use) – but at least they try …
Since my knowledge of Hungarian is also very limited (I know a lot of words, but again, the differences in grammar …) it must sound very funny for an outsider when they hear me communicating with some of my neighbours, the masseuse or someone in a shop.
Of course many people here speak quite good German – but for academics English is still no 1.

Member

@Sophist “languages that offer a return on investment to the state not just to the student”
My kid ain’t no state property!!
(I put two exclamation mark at the end. I could be more ridiculous writing in all caps.)
Children are not investments. You are a teacher, right? That makes you a what? A broker? Of course they need guidance, but the government should not tell them what language they should learn. The way I see it if a high percent of the parents want Bulgarian then that should be it. Unhappy children by the way the worst investment. They will hop on a train and move to another country. This is the EU after all.
Gosh, what am I supposed to tell my kid? “Little Joey, you gotta learn German ‘cuz that makes it easy to get ahead in the car part factory … Can you imagine a shift supervisor who doesn’t know Gutten Tag …” ?

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