Tag Archives: foreign languages

Foreign language teaching in Hungary: Progress is very slow

Hungarians’ subpar knowledge of foreign languages in comparison to other European countries becomes a hot topic in the media from time to time. The reasons for this periodic interest in the topic vary. There are times when an international poll is taken, from which the population can learn that Hungary is again the very last on the list. That piece of news is usually followed by some soul-searching and analyses of the probable causes of the problem. Second, at this time of the year we normally learn that thousands of new college graduates cannot receive their diplomas because in four years they didn’t manage to pass a B2 (intermediate) language exam. (Here are some sample English and German tests a student would be confronted with.) Or, the occasion may be a new government decree that would change the current requirements. It just happened that in the last few months all three of these scenarios converged. A new poll was published, news came about the thousands of graduates without language certification, and the government announced its intention to require the infamous B2 exam prior to entry to college or university.

HVG called the results of a graph published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation “shocking.” According to the graph, which the directorate general published on Facebook, the very last country out of 24 European countries is Hungary, where only 37% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 can speak at least one foreign language. The runner-up is Bulgaria with 39%. Among the poor performers–countries whose score is below the EU average–are Poland (62%), Italy (60%), France (59%), Belgium (58%), Greece (58%), Portugal (58%), and Spain (51%). These scores might place the countries toward the bottom of the list, but they are still way ahead of the scores Bulgaria and Hungary achieved.

Although the problem is great, it is only now that the government decided to conduct a scientific study on the probable causes for these poor results. Those who want to pass the buck try to convince themselves and others that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is the principal obstacle to learning Indo-European languages. But, according to a survey, 69% of Finns speak one or more foreign languages. So clearly, this theory can easily be debunked. One cannot complain about the number of hours Hungarian students spend learning languages. For example, Hungarian kids spend 936 hours over nine years to learn their first foreign language, compared to 537 in Poland and 472 in Romania. According to foreign language experts, to pass the B2 test 500-600 classroom hours are plenty.

If Hungarian speakers are not inherently handicapped when it comes to learning languages and if more than enough time is allotted to foreign language study, the problem must be either with the teachers or with the teaching methods. Experts specializing in foreign language education claim that the quality of the Hungarian foreign language teachers is satisfactory. That is, they are competent in the languages they teach. The problem lies with the methodology. Studies show that one-third of all language teachers still use methods that are responsible for the dismal performance of their students. For example, the primary language in the classroom is Hungarian. The classes are deadly because the students mainly memorize words out of context and picayune grammatical points are discussed, for example tenses that are rarely used in normal conversation. The mainstay of the classroom routine is a question by the teacher followed by a student answer, which is dissected and corrected right there. Once that is done comes the new victim. This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.

But there are structural problems in the school system itself that affects not only foreign language learning but learning other subjects as well. That is the 8 + 4 school system, which was originally designed for the time when compulsory education ended after grade 8. That meant that history, literature, chemistry, physics, geography, math, and a foreign language—in those days Russian—were taught on a very elementary level. Relatively few students continued their education in gymnasiums. And so, all these essential subjects were taught again, allegedly on a higher level, in high school. Since 40-45% of grade 8 students still don’t attain the expected level of competence in the foreign language they studied since grade 4, the level of instruction must inevitably be lowered in the first couple of years of high school. Some experts claim that in many schools foreign language teaching in grade 9 begins from square one.

Then there is the problem of overemphasizing the importance of the language tests, although we know there is no clear correlation between passing the tests and knowing the language. In the Kádár regime, once someone passed an official language exam, he was set for life. Whether he needed that foreign language in his work or not, he received extra pay for the rest of his working life. To some extent this is still the case. I read an article in which the author tried to find an explanation for those 10,000 or so students yearly who cannot receive their diplomas because in four or five years they didn’t manage to pass the foreign language exam. The author’s explanation is that in a great number of cases the diploma-less student finds a job without that infamous B2 exam. In her opinion, the motivation is still insufficient. But I suspect that the universities themselves are in part responsible for this state of affairs because students are rarely required to use a foreign language during their years in college. The inclusion of foreign-language articles in the list of compulsory readings would certainly provide some motivation to improve one’s language skills.

The latest government decision to require passing the B2 foreign language exam prior to entering university is a typical Orbán government move. Such a requirement would be fair only if students could learn a foreign language well enough to be able to pass this intermediate language test, but as things stand now this is not the case. In fact, according people familiar with the situation, in order to overcome this hurdle students need extra tutoring by competent teachers from language schools. These lessons are not inexpensive, and only better-off parents can afford them. This will mean that thousands of students coming from a lower socio-economic background will be barred from acquiring a college education. Although even the Orbán-appointed ombudsman has reservations about this plan, the government is bound and determined to introduce it by 2020. To give you an idea of the gravity of the situation, in 2016 39% of all entering college students didn’t have their B2 language exam behind them. The numbers were especially high among those who entered teacher’s colleges. Some smaller universities outside of Budapest also did very badly.

At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen by 2020, but the government decided in June that a nationwide survey should be conducted between now and February 2018. The survey of 17,000 students will be conducted in 70 high schools and 100 elementary schools. I must say that such a survey should have been done decades ago because the problems of foreign language teaching are at least a century old. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German. But especially after 1945, during a long period of linguistic isolation and the exclusive teaching of Russian, the situation deteriorated significantly. Unfortunately, opening the borders didn’t make a quick and appreciable difference. It would be high time to remedy the situation, but the Orbán government’s educational philosophy is antagonistic to modern teaching methods, so desperately needed in Hungarian schools.

August 7, 2017

Training skilled workers and teaching foreign languages in Hungary

My post today deals with two aspects of Hungarian education. One is the training of skilled workers and the other, the still sorry state of foreign language education.

The first topic was inspired by an article I read in Népszabadság, which relates the woes of a German firm that just established a factory that needs skilled welders. Although the company was enticed by government propaganda proclaiming that Hungary has a highly skilled workforce, the company at the moment can’t find workers who can perform the simplest of tasks.

The second topic is the age-old story of Hungarians’ inability to handle at least one foreign language. But this time the criticism comes from an academic, a professor of chemistry, who looks at the problem from a practical point of view. He proposes solutions that are pretty drastic. It is also worth mentioning that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s program contains suggestions for eventually moving to an educational structure built on bilingual instruction.

So, let’s start with training skilled workers. Anyone who knows anything about the zeal of the Orbán government should have guessed that the law regarding this aspect of education couldn’t have remained untouched. Until September 1, 2013 private firms could run their own training programs. But Viktor Orbán is a fan of nationalization: practically everything has to be run by the state. So, claiming that these private training programs became far too expensive due to the increase in the number of hours required for certification, the private companies will no longer get any applicants. After all, the state-run programs “within the walls of schools” will be free. While earlier one could get certification, let’s say, in six months, from here on the skilled workers of the future, including waiters and sales clerks in department stores, will spend two years in school. This sounds wonderful, but let’s see how well these state schools performed in the past.

The disappointed German firm is Europakraft GmbH, whose headquarters are in Metzingen, Germany. Not long ago the firm decided to open a new branch in Nagytarcsa. In addition to engineers, they are also in need of a skilled blue collar labor force. Europakraft is looking for qualified welders, pipe fitters, and disk roller specialists. And they can find mighty few. The manager of the Hungarian branch of the company, Stefan Körmendi, is terribly disappointed. The firm came to Hungary because they believed the Hungarian politicians, who said that a highly trained workforce exists in Hungary. “By now I know that not a word of that is true,” said Körmendi to the journalist of Népszabadság.

In the last few months they have been actively looking for welders and CNC-cutters. There were many applicants, but when they had to show their skills, most of them were unable to perform even basic tasks. Keep in mind that these people had a piece of paper that attested to their competence in these particular skills. The firm tested 600 people, out of whom 60% couldn’t weld at all. Fifteen percent of them were able to weld but could do so only with one particular method. A mere one out of ten was actually qualified to perform the kind of work Europakraft demands.

The building is there. Now what they need is skilled workers

The building is there. Now what they need is skilled workers.

The management was stunned. How is it possible that 90% of certified welders can’t weld? It turned out that some of them never welded at all because “the money ran out at school and they couldn’t afford buying the gas cylinders.” The management also found out that most of the experienced teachers left not just the school but the country and found good-paying jobs abroad. Moreover, those few who passed Europakraft’s test are actually half way out of the country already. While the firm pays 300,000 ft/month (which is 20-30% higher than the Hungarian average), abroad they can make more than double that. The firm now, at its own expense, has begun a month-long training program for those few, about 15% of all the applicants, who more or less passed the test. The firm cannot charge anything because it is not certified as a training center. If the firm were to receive a good size order today, they would not be able to fill it because they don’t have enough men who could immediately begin work in the Hungarian factory.

Zoltán Homonnay, the chemistry professor, talks about the same thing that the Germans encountered among welders. He complains about the authorities who, instead of demanding the best from students, simply want to lower standards. University students are required to know at least one foreign language before they can receive their diplomas. Thousands of students have finished all their coursework and written their senior essay but still don’t have a college degree because they couldn’t pass the language exam.

At first there was talk about lowering the standards: devise a new test that students could pass without much work. The easiest way out. That idea was eventually dropped. The new idea is to offer financial incentives to encourage those people who didn’t pass the language exam to work harder the next time around. If a college degree was not incentive enough, why does the government think that throwing a wad of cash at them will transform them into assiduous students of English or German? Hommonay calls this kind of interference “pampering.” Hungary is not globally competitive at the moment. In order to catch up, Hungarians need something extra: hard work, extra knowledge, whatever, but not coddling.

Instead of giving money to the laggards, the government should force people to learn a language by, for example, putting an end to the dubbing of films and television series. Homonnay would even get rid of subtitles after a few years. He would forbid the translation of software. He would introduce English-language instruction in certain subjects at the universities. If that can be done in German, Turkish, Czech, and Portuguese universities, why can’t it be done in Hungary?

The Demokratikus Koalíció’s program goes even farther than that. Its politicians advocate the gradual introduction of bilingual education from first grade on, not only in Hungary but in all European schools. DK, to the horror of the right, wants to have a United States of Europe, and the promotion of English and other languages fits in well with a more centralized United States of Europe.

The current Hungarian administration does not encourage bilingual education. In fact, one of the first moves of Rózsa Hoffmann was to reduce the number of subjects taught in a foreign language in bilingual schools. And who can forget the idea of promoting French and German at the expense of English?

Unfortunately, I fear there will be no change for the better in the next few years, either in producing more skilled–really skilled–workers or in having all final-year college students be truly bilingual. Meanwhile, Hungary is losing ground on all fronts, even among the countries of the region. The prospects seem quite bleak.

 

Yet another lunacy: Law on teaching foreign languages

The other day I happened upon a very funny 10-minute video. In Hungary bakers must put a big, ugly paper sticker on every loaf of bread before it goes into the oven. But only bread; other baked goods don’t have to have the sticker. So, a journalist wanted to know why the distinction between bread and, let’s say, brioche. No one the journalist asked could give an answer. People in the industry just shrugged their shoulders. At the end, he asked an official of the Bakers’ Association who naturally had no rational explanation for this idiocy either but said that “there must be order in this world.”

Every bureaucracy tends to overregulate, but what has been going on since the Orbán government came into power defies imagination. Regulation on top of regulation in all aspects of life, which naturally makes not only the individual’s life ever more complicated but also negatively affects business activity and hence economic growth.

As we know, Hungarian education suffers from overcentralization and useless bureaucratic constraints. More and more paper work to satisfy the authorities at the top of the pyramid overburdens the teaching staff. Striving for absolute uniformity of teaching material kills the individual initiative of both teacher and pupil.

After “reforming” public education, the Ministry of Human Resources began work on a new law governing higher education. This project, however, was recently put on ice since the proposed bill that had been hammered out by István Klinghammer, the newly appointed undersecretary of higher education, was torpedoed by László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Parragh has peculiar ideas about the purpose of  higher education–ideas, however, that Viktor Orbán finds attractive. Parragh’s “veto” meant that the entire draft had to be pitched.

Then there was the new law on adult education, a task that fell to the officials of the Ministry of Economics. This is the law, in effect since September 1, that prompted an outcry in the community of teachers of foreign languages. There are large language schools for which, it seems, the law is tailored because they are the only ones who can fulfill all the requirements stipulated in the law. The Ministry refuses to divulge the names of organizations that were consulted in connection with drafting this bill, but eventually it became clear that there were only three: the association that represents large language schools, Parragh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Chamber of Agriculture. There is an association that represents smaller language schools called Nyelvtudásért Egyesület (Association for the Knowledge of Foreign Languages) whose aim is to promote wider knowledge of foreign languages. No representatives of this association were invited to participate in the preparation of the bill. In addition, there are the thousands of private teachers who are either freelancers or who teach in high schools during the day and in the evening have a few pupils.

languages

According to the law, no distinction is made among these groups. All of them must put up 1 million forints as insurance that they don’t run away with the money of their pupils. All of them must follow the same curriculum, the same books, the same lecture structure. All of them, even private teachers, must have separate toilet facilities for the students. All such teaching facilities must provide daily data on the number of students entering their courses as well as school attendance and the number dropping out. The rules even dictate that the teacher must have a copy machine and a printer, two separate pieces of equipment. As one private teacher pointed out, since he has a multifunction printer he is not eligible. The same teacher complained that there is not one word in the law about teaching online, which constitutes a good portion of his teaching activity.

There is one exception to all of these rules: those teachers who concentrate on specific language competencies. For example, special vocabulary for doctors, for mechanical engineers, computer scientists or for that matter pastry chefs or bricklayers. Here I see the hand of Parragh who has no appreciation of anything that is not practical.

If this law remains in its present form, Hungarian foreign language teaching will receive another blow. Only very large language schools will remain, where apparently the classes are too large. According to some teachers, as many as sixteen pupils make up an average class. I know from personal experience that one learns nothing useful in such surroundings. It is possible that smaller language schools operating with only a handful of teachers will not be able to fulfill all the requirements because, as it is, they are struggling to keep their heads above water. They might have to throw in the towel, and their teachers will most likely go to work for the few large schools. As for the private teachers, they will either stop teaching or go “underground.”

The incompetence of the people who have joined the ministries since Fidesz won the election in 2010 is really staggering. First of all, I don’t know why the Ministry of Economics was entrusted with drafting a law that deals primarily with education. Yes, one could argue that the knowledge of foreign languages has something to do with business, but teaching is teaching. Moreover, not only adults turn to language schools or private teachers. Many high school students find that what their high schools offer is simply not enough to pass the language exams necessary to acquire a university degree.

These incompetent bureaucrats feel so powerful and knowledgeable that they don’t ask experts in the field to help but instead listen to lobbyists and leaders of business or agricultural trade associations who surely are unfamiliar with the topic of foreign language teaching. Moreover, I even doubt that they understand what the professions they represent actually need. Let’s hope that the outcry that this law spawned will result in some changes. If not, its consequences will be dire, the profession predicts.

New Hungarian “language strategies”

It’s time to talk again about one of my hobby horses, foreign language teaching in Hungary. Faithful readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall how often we talked about the shortcomings of the system. Everybody has horror stories about learning a foreign language in Hungary. Although there are some schools that excel in teaching foreign languages, most students leave grade 12 without a working knowledge of a foreign language.

The Ministry of Human Resources is planning to introduce new “language strategies.” These strategies, hatched by the two undersecretaries in charge of education, Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, are not designed to improve language teaching. Instead, they are designed to make Hungary’s dismal statistics look better.

Let’s start with Rózsa Hoffmann. It was about two years ago that the former high school teacher of Russian and French kept insisting that not one but two foreign languages should be taught in the schools and that graduating seniors should take their official state examinations prior to entering college. If they didn’t get that piece of paper they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. At that point critics of Hoffmann, who were numerous, argued that foreign language teaching in the public schools is not up to the task of preparing students to pass the Hungarian statewide exams.

Hoffmann had other fanciful ideas as well. Perhaps inspired by Viktor Orbán, who regretted learning English first because it was “too easy,” she wanted to shift the current emphasis on English to German or French.

Now, in a seeming about-face, this woman is supporting a system under which trade schools will offer a foreign language two 45-minute periods a week, down from three hours a week. With 90 minutes of classes a week there’s no way the student will be able to pass even the lowest level of the statewide foreign language examination called B1. And let’s assume that this student is actually learning a trade connected to tourism where knowing foreign languages is a must. For these students Hoffmann came up with a new, lower-level A1 examination which, according to most experts, might be enough to ask where the train station is but not enough to understand the answer.

It seems that it would be relatively easy to pass this A1-type of exam which, I understand, is no longer offered in other countries of the European Union. Its introduction would certainly not help foreign language fluency in Hungary. But, as commentators point out, the introduction of such a low-level exam would give a boost to the current dismal statistics. A site that gives a sense of the situation in Europe can be found here. Hungarian statistics are bad even in comparison to other countries in the region. If Hoffmann managed to introduce a new lower-level exam, perhaps the statistics would improve somewhat.

It's a;; greek to me

The other problem occurs at the university level. As things stand now, one needs to pass a B2-type exam in order to receive a diploma. Between 20 and 22 percent of students who completed all other requirements for a degree cannot receive their diploma because they are unable to pass their foreign language exam. István Klinghammer, who is in charge of higher education, came up with a solution “to rationalize the irrational requirements.” His solution would increase the number of graduates by 15 to 18 percent. In his opinion there are certain fields that simply don’t require the knowledge of a foreign language. Well, that’s an easy fix.

Indeed, one way or another Hungary needs more university graduates. According to the educational strategy of the European Union, by 2020 the percentage of university graduates in the 30- to 34-year-old group should reach 40%. Currently, the EU average is 34.6%; Hungary’s is far behind at 21.1%. Considering that the number of students entering university has dropped considerably since the introduction of very high tuition fees, achieving the desired number of university graduates by 2020 is most unlikely. But getting rid of language requirements in certain fields would improve the statistics in one fell swoop.

Here again ideas on foreign language requirements have changed radically since 2011 when the ministry wanted to demand that university students pass not B2 but C1 (advanced) language examinations from 2016 on. The usual chaos.

The inability of college graduating classes to pass their language exams is acute in all but the best universities. Top Budapest universities fare well: at the Budapest Technological Institute only 4.5% of the students leave without a diploma; at the Corvinus University of Economics it’s 11%. But elsewhere in the capital the numbers are grim. At the University of Óbuda 35% of the students don’t pass their language exams. At the National Közszolgálati Egyetem, the brainchild of the Orbán government where army and police officers as well as future civil servants are supposed to be trained, 35.5% of the students cannot get their diplomas. In the provinces the situation is even worse. In Kaposvár 50% of the students end up without a diploma; in Nyíregyháza 45% don’t graduate.

The reaction to the lowering of standards was immediate. Both the Association of Schools Teaching Foreign Languages and the Association for Language Knowledge protested. The problem is, according to the spokesman of the Association for Language Knowledge, that students are not required to use foreign-language materials during the course of their studies. Moreover, how can the quality of Hungarian higher education improve if students are unable to read the latest academic publications that appear mostly in English and German? It is a vicious circle. The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.

And finally, a few words about the B1, B2 and C1 exams. I tried a couple of sample tests and found that a few of the answers I gave were wrong. I asked an American friend of mine to take a look at a “fill in the blank” exam. This highly educated native speaker said that the test was “a mess.” I do hope that we just happened on an exception, not the rule.

Online learning opportunities for Hungarians

Today’s post will be somewhat irregular but, don’t fret, it still has something to do with Hungary.

During their discussion of yesterday’s post about teacher salaries, commenters ventured into the field of education in general. From there we found ourselves debating the pros and cons of online learning. There are several people, myself included, who see tremendous potential in the new technology and what it has to offer. Enterprising souls can take a wide range of courses given by professors at leading universities.

A few years ago I received an e-mail from the Yale Alumni Association calling my attention to the university’s first experimental lectures. A year or two later several new courses were offered. You can’t get credit for these online courses. Rather they are designed for people who are interested in learning something new out of intellectual curiosity.

I began with a course on the Old Testament which turned out to be absolutely fascinating and continued with Greek history. From there I moved on to Roman architecture. Every time I had an hour to spare I tuned in. I couldn’t have passed the exams because I didn’t do the reading, didn’t really take notes. But that wasn’t my aim either. I just wanted to know more about the subject than I knew before. I think I succeeded in achieving this modest goal.

I also discovered the benefits of online dictionaries. For example, The Free Dictionary gives not only the British but also the American pronunciation of English words. The Beolingus German dictionary does the same for German words. These are useful resources for people learning languages and they should be especially so for Hungarians living in Hungary trying to learn a foreign language.

After this glowing introduction I would like to make it clear that I don’t mean to replace the “college experience” with sitting in front of a computer and writing e-mails to the professor who apparently may have as many as 100,000 “students” on line and therefore is unlikely to reply. But I would highly recommend such courses to people who are interested in adult education and who think that learning should be a lifelong experience as well as to students who don’t have access to such courses in their own schools. And to those who would like to keep up their foreign language skills or even improve them. And since the Hungarian situation is pretty bad in this department, I looked around to see what the Internet offers to Hungarian speakers. While I was at it I also looked at offerings for those who would like to learn Hungarian.

oneline learning

We are all familiar with the problems of teaching foreign languages in Hungary. Naturally, there are some very good teachers who through tremendous extra work and devotion manage to teach their pupils the language, who learn it in such a way that they can both speak and write. But there are very few such talented teachers. This year 30% of college graduates in Hungary will not receive their diplomas because they failed their standardized language exams.

One problem is that there is not enough exposure to spoken languages. At the moment movies and soap operas are all dubbed although, I just learned, come August TV viewers will have the option of choosing whether they want to watch a program from abroad in its original language or in Hungarian. I hope that more people will take advantage of this opportunity than DVD viewers currently do. Movies on DVDs can be listened to in their original language but apparently very few people opt for this feature. As a result people rarely hear extended conversations in English or in any other foreign language. And this is where the Internet comes in handy–at least for those who are interested.

Admittedly, there is a lot of inferior, useless junk online. On the other hand Eduline, a Hungarian website on education, published a piece in August 2012 which gives a fairly respectable list of websites. And naturally there are many others, including the BBC’s English language course for foreigners.

I read an article about an enterprising young Hungarian woman who decided to sign up for one of the courses offered by an American or British university. Obviously her English had to be pretty good because she sailed through her first course. Emboldened, she signed up for another, more advanced course which she found much harder. However, she got through this one as well. What an opportunity for somebody living in Hungary.

As for foreigners trying to learn Hungarian, it is slim pickings, but one site looks promising. I haven’t tried it out myself, but I looked at some of their other offerings which were very good.

As for adult education, as far as I know there is only one possibility for Hungarians who would like to expand their knowledge. It is called Mindentudás Egyeteme (University of All Knowledge). I found some of the lectures truly outstanding. The problem with Mindentudás Egyeteme is that it offers only a single lecture per topic, not an entire course.

Anyway, I think that online learning has its place in the world of education. Of course, there are subjects that simply cannot be mastered online. For example, learning the natural sciences without hands-on lab work is pretty unimaginable. However, the internet is used extensively, for example, in courses on the history of art. By now practically all works of art can be seen online. More and more books and articles are available online and I’m sure that their numbers will multiply. It would be a terrible waste not to take advantage of these opportunities. Especially in a country where continuing education is an almost unknown phenomenon and where relatively few people can handle a foreign language.

The new Hungarian education system: The model was France

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. Rózsa Hoffmann, the Francophile, most likely turned to the French system when under her stewardship the whole Hungarian primary and secondary education system was turned upside down. Among other things, she wanted children to start their language education with a romance language (clearly she had French in mind) and wanted to discourage the study of English because it was too easy. At least it was very easy according to Viktor Orbán, who greatly regretted having focused on English as a student. I wonder what would have happened to him as a politician on the world stage if he had learned only Russian.

So, after all, it seems, Viktor Orbán was not the prime architect of the new system although most likely he and Hoffmann saw eye-to-eye. Surely, a highly centralized educational system must have appealed to Orbán who thinks that all problems, economic or otherwise, can be remedied by increasing centralization. Both might have recalled their youth when life was simple: the central government imposed a national standard so everybody was taught the same thing. And perhaps Rózsa Hoffmann sang the praises of French education, which is highly centralized. Whatever the precise scenario, Hungary will now imitate the basically nineteenth-century French educational system.

All educati0n programs in France are regulated by the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de la Jeunesse et de la Vie associative. The ministry is huge and the minister of education is “one of the highest-ranking officials in the cabinet.” The budget of the ministry is  €64.6 billion. The ministry is responsible for 15 million students, and the 1.5 million teachers and university professors are civil servants. The idea of enrolling all children in kindergarten at the age of 3 is most likely also borrowed from France where between the ages of 3 and 6 children attend “maternelle” classes which are normally attached to the regular schools that children attend between the ages of 6 and 11.

Rewind

Apparently, the French system hasn’t changed much since the 1880s when Jules Ferry, the minister of public instruction, created it. The curriculum is determined by the ministry. Classes are large and students have to take far too many subjects.  The question is whether this old-fashioned system is effective in the twenty-first century. If we look at international statistics, France is not exactly in the forefront of educational achievement.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes an annual report called “Education at a Glance” in which they use such metrics as educational performance, class size, and teachers’ salaries to rank countries. According to the 2012 report France and Hungary are neck to neck in the middle of the pack that includes countries like Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. In Europe Finland leads in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. In reading comprehension France is #21 while Hungary is #25. In mathematics France is #22 while Hungary is #29. In science Hungary is #22 and France #27. Well, if I had a two-thirds majority and if I were willing to turn the whole education system upside down, I wouldn’t imitate France. I would try to learn from the Finns. But Viktor Orbán would never turn to Finland because the Finns’ egalitarian attitude toward education would not align with the interests of his constituency, the upper middle class.

The Hungarian system may end up even worse than the French because while in France there are 26 districts in Hungary there will be 175. And to make matters worse, in Hungary a new administrative unit was established to serve as an intermediary between the schools and the ministry, the so-called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (Klebelsberg Center). Yet another layer of bureaucracy.

A few days ago a reporter from a Hungarian Internet newspaper talked to Nelly Guet, who has extensive experience with the educational systems of France, Germany, and Switzerland. She had little positive to say about the French system, and she emphasized that the European Union’s recommendations go against the kind of centralization characteristic of French education and just introduced in Hungary. Guet pointed out that the centralized system introduced in the 1880s served a kind of “nation-building mechanism” that would make a child from Bretagne the same as one from Paris. Moreover, at least that French reform was secular as opposed to what the Orbán government is doing by bringing religious education into the public school system and encouraging the churches to take over more and more schools.

Guet quoted a few “achievements” of the French system. Thirteen percent of students don’t finish high school because compulsory education ends at the age of 15. In Hungary the dropout rate is actually lower: 11%.  French children, just like the Hungarians, leave school without learning a foreign language. Although a European Union goal is that at least 50% of all students who finish high school get a college degree, that figure in France is only 27% while in Hungary last year it was 35%. (Hoffmann and Orbán are doing everything in their power to lower that number!) Interestingly enough, the best French students leave France to study, and they often work abroad. In France, just like in Hungary, life-long learning is an unknown concept.

A typical Hungarian story. The efforts of the last twenty years to make the Hungarian educational system more flexible and to prepare youngsters for the modern world have been overturned. The country is going back more than a century to find a model that will make its students less competitive both academically and professionally. Madness!

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I would like to call readers’ attention to a new Internet publication entitled The Hungarian Historical Review (http://www.hunghist.org/). The first double issue includes some studies dealing with urban history. I especially enjoyed “In the Web of Political Language. Verbal Warfare and the 1945 Change of Regime in a Residential Building in Budapest” by Ágnes Nagy. It describes the tensions between “the genteel” and gentile Aranka Richter and her Jewish neighbors before and after the liberation. A fascinating read.