Written by: Filip Pazderski, Institute of Public Affairs
Civic education in Poland: Discourse, challenges and opportunities
In the public education system in Poland, there has been a separate subject called Knowledge of Society since the 1980s. It covers civic education and education in social sciences, including social, political, legal and international issues. Its curriculum and subject range have changed over the years as a result of the actions of successive governments and the reforms of the education system, but in general, it has been taught to young people from the age of 13–14, in primary and secondary schools. Before further changes were made to the education system in 2017 (see below), these were compulsory classes for all students.
One would therefore expect that young Poles educated in this way would demonstrate a high degree of sensitivity to democracy and active citizenship. But the reality of public and social life over the past 20 years shows something different. In fact, young Poles, similarly to their older fellow citizens, exhibit a low level of trust in the institutions of representative democracy. They are also the group of citizens that is least interested in voting. This has changed only recently, in the 2020 presidential election, when 62.3% of eligible voters aged 18–29 took part (64.3% of all Poles). Young Poles emphasize that they are disillusioned with politics because of unjustified quarrels and disputes between politicians that deal mainly with “substitute issues” instead of solving important societal problems (Batorski, D., Drabek, M., Gałązka, M., Zbieranek, J. (eds.). 2012. Wyborca 2.0. Młode pokolenie wobec procedur demokratycznych [Voter 2.0. The young generation and democratic procedures]. Warsaw,
www.isp.org.pl/publikacje,1,559.html, pp. 11–14, 18–22). In one of the studies conducted 10 years ago, the young interviewees disturbingly often expressed the view that an effective government is better for society than a democratic government (Dudkiewicz, M., Fuksiewicz, A., Kucharczyk, J., Łada, A. 2013. Parlament Europejski. Społeczne zaufanie i (nie)wiedza [European Parliament. Social trust and (un)knowledge]. Warsaw, http://www.isp.org.pl/publikacje,25,610.html). Youth also do not trust intermediary institutions, especially political parties and traditional media outlets, which expose them to populist politicians, who claim direct representation of the people while bypassing public institutions (See report: Gyárfášova, O., Molnár, C., Krekó, P., Pazderski, F., Wessenauer, V. 2018. “Youth, Politics, Democracy: Public Opinion Research in Hungary Poland and Slovakia.” Washington, DC: NDI, https://www.ndi.org/publications/youth-politics-democracy-public-opinion-research-hungary-poland-and-slovakia.)
Studies focusing on Central Europe show that the youngest citizens there tend to value higher living standards and access to goods more than democratic values in their country (Ibidem, p. 6.). However, another survey shows that, when asked what features are more important to them personally when evaluating the current political system, Poles generally prefer democratic rights and freedoms to the quality of life and access to services. The same data shows, however, that Polish young adults stand out from this trend. People aged 18–34 are the only age group that values living standards slightly higher than the quality of democracy when the two values are paired. Democracy and freedom of speech were chosen in this context by 26% of this group, while quality of life was chosen by around 27% (with 37% indicating that both values are important, and approximately 10% unable to select any of these three available answers – which is another cause for concern) (Pazderski, F. 2019. “In the Grip of Authoritarian Populism. Polish Attitudes to the Open Society.”Berlin/Brussels: d|part/OSEPI, http://voicesonvalues.dpart.org, pp. 25–26).
The data thus reveal that people remain broadly supportive of representative democracy but their commitment to democratic governance and satisfaction with the way democracy works varies across Europe and – in some countries – paves the way for non-democratic alternatives. This can be the case in Poland. The wavering commitment to democratic values seems to affect younger voters in particular (See more in: Pazderski, F., Kucharczyk, J. 2020. “Democracy and Its Discontents: European Attitudes to Representative Democracy and Its Alternatives.” In Blockmans, S., Russack, S. (eds.), Deliberative Democracy in the EU. Countering Populism with Participation and Debate. Brussels: CEPS, https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/deliberative-democracy-in-the-eu/, pp. 37–59).
In order to explain youth detachment from representative democracy, we should note the poor quality and ineffectiveness of formal civic education. Schools lack the environment where pupils would be introduced to a culture of participation and where from an early age youth would be taught that participation in the life of the community is something natural and important (Bacia, E., Pazderski, F., Żmijewska-Kwiręg, S. 2015. Citizenship Education in Poland. Analysis of the Current Situation, Identified Needs, Opportunities and Barriers to Development. ENGAGE, http://www.engage-edc.eu/download/6_ENGAGE_Poland.pdf)
This is a fact, regardless of good Polish scores in international comparative studies, like the ICCS (International Civic and Citizenship Education Study) (Koseła, K. 2014. Nauka szkolna i działania obywatelskie [School education and civic activities]. In Kordasiewicz, A., Sadura, P. (eds). “Edukacja obywatelska w działaniu” [Civic education in action]. Warsaw: Scholar, pp. 88–91). These weaknesses of formal civic education in Poland are also evidenced by the low level of civic and social activity of young Poles, even if the opinion polls indicate a slight increase in young Poles’ social engagement in recent years. They also have the least open attitudes to cultural diversity and are the only social group within Polish society that prefers better living standards to better democracy (as mentioned above) (Pazderski, “In the Grip.”).
However, examples from recent years indicate that motivating the young generation to action requires time and favourable conditions that would allow them to grow to understand the value of democratic institutions (Szafraniec, K. 2012. Dojrzewający obywatele dojrzewającej demokracji. O stylu politycznej obecności młodych. Warsaw: Instytut Obywatelski, p. 17). The process of building young Poles’ public engagement seems to have gained new urgency in recent years, evidenced by increased involvement of young people in mass protests, especially on climate change and in defence of women’s rights.
Moreover, the debate around the system of formal education in Poland has recently been taken over by a new idea from the Ministry of Education, which plans to replace Knowledge of Society classes with a new subject called History and the Present (HiT) from 2022. In December 2021, the ministry released the first proposal of the core curriculum for its teaching (See https://serwisy.gazetaprawna.pl/edukacja/artykuly/8315487,podstawa-programowa-hit-problemy.html). It contains many themes with ideological overtones – including, among other things, no critical evaluation of recent history that coincides with the government’s historical policy, a lot of information about the role of the church and the Catholic religion, as well as criticism towards the European Union.
Formal civic education overview
Over the years, changes have been introduced to the Polish formal education system that also concerned the citizenship education sector. In 2009, the core curriculum of the general education was revised at all levels. Amendments were applied to the contents, working methods and the class timetables. From that moment on, greater emphasis has been placed on the learning outcomes that a student should achieve upon completion of a given level of education, rather than on the organization of the teaching process. Learning outcomes are described in a language of competences, which consist of knowledge, abilities, and social competences. In theory, this approach provided teachers with greater flexibility of choosing working methods and adapting the lessons’ structure to better meet the students’ needs.
Until 2016, the state’s guidelines for schools acknowledged the importance of education for democratic citizenship in the development of school communities. The core curriculum stressed the importance of fostering the development of social and civic competences. There were official means for students’ democratic involvement in the processes of school life. However, the 2017 education reform also affected formal civic education (carried out in schools as part of the subject Knowledge of Society – as mentioned above), reducing its importance. The civic education classes were moved to the last academic year of primary school, when pupils are focused on final exams, raising the potential for the topic to be neglected. For secondary education, civic education is a facultative course for the final exam, and only 6.6% of pupils chose it in 2020 (See https://cke.gov.pl/egzamin-maturalny/egzamin-w-nowej-formule/wyniki/). Beyond the inefficiency in promoting the topic, the curriculum has few indicators for the development of problem-solving skills, global literacy, creative skills and learning and collaborative skills, and the curriculum also lacks a practical component for learners. The passive model of teaching cannot meet current societal needs, leaving learners in a difficult position to adapt to the biggest current challenges, including climate change and the need to foster green transition. The only active component related to civic education adopted in schools – use of the educational project method – was abandoned as part of the 2017 education reform (See https://podstawaprogramowa.pl/Liceum-technikum/Wiedza-o-spoleczenstwie).
It is worth adding that the same reform introduced organizational chaos in education on an unprecedented scale. It has led to an even more pronounced overload of the core curriculum, and also overcrowded educational institutions by a build-up of three different pupil years. Among other things, this triggered a massive teachers’ strike in 2019 (not addressed by the government in any way).
The situation deteriorated further after the 2019 parliamentary elections. The new minister of education continued with reforms in service of political goals. He has increasingly pushed for even tighter control of education superintendents (the minister’s representatives in the regions) over the management of individual schools. A bill has also been proposed (called “Lex Czarnek,” after the name of the minister) which will effectively restrict access to schools for selected CSOs and similar entities.
These amendments to the education system would force organizations willing to undertake educational activities at school to undergo an extensive and lengthy procedure to obtain a permit. It would primarily involve the school management and parents, but the final approval would always be made individually by the school superintendent without a requirement to consider the opinions of other stakeholders. This could considerably hinder CSO work in schools. The current government’s approach to CSOs and statements by the minister of education suggest that school superintendents might be particularly reluctant to allow organizations focused on human rights, anti-discrimination and sex education. The relevant bills have already been introduced twice and vetoed in 2022 by president (See “2023 Rule of Law Report – Targeted Stakeholder Consultation,” February 2023,
https://hfhr.pl/upload/2023/02/report_2023_rule_of_law.pdf, p. 35). However, the minister of education claims he will submit the same bill again. And before the bill has even entered into force, schools have already been threatened with lawsuits for letting in educators from specific organizations, which not only affects cooperation but also creates an atmosphere of resentment towards these CSOs.
Non-formal and informal civic education
Quantitative research shows that 73% of formalized civil society organizations (out of ca. 100,000 such entities operating in Poland) indicate children and young people as their main target group. Slightly over half of the CSOs operating in Poland declare that education is one of the areas of their work, but only 14% indicate that the field of education and upbringing is the main area of their activities (Charycka, B., Gumkowska, M., Bednarek, J. 2022. “The Capacity of NGOs in Poland. Key Facts.” Warsaw: Klon/Jawor Association, https://api.ngo.pl/media/get/178891, p. 7; Charycka, B., Gumkowska, M., Bednarek, J. 2022. “Kondycja organizacji pozarządowych 2021 – najważniejsze fakty.” Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Klon/Jawor, https://kondycja.ngo.pl/). A small proportion of such organizations run educational institutions themselves (Charycka, B., Gumkowska, M. 2019. “Kondycja organizacji pozarządowych 2018.” Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Klon/Jawor, https://fakty.ngo.pl/raporty/kondycja-organizacji-pozarzadowych-2018). Recent years have not made it easier for CSOs to cooperate with Polish schools (as indicated above). Neither have they been easy for those CSOs that have tried to carry out various activities in the field of civic education in a non-formal or even informal way, especially when they concerned topics incompatible with the ideological profile of the government, e.g. raising issues concerning human rights, counteracting discrimination of minority groups, ecology or cultural diversity (See Pazderski, F. 2020. “CSOs Sustainability Index in Poland in 2019.” In “2019 Civil Society Organization (CSO) Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.” Washington, DC: USAID/FHI360). Since these issues and education about them are not prioritized by the government, CSOs find themselves in a climate where funding for work on these topics is reduced. Organizations operating in these areas have also been targeted by smear campaigns organized by government-controlled public media and other media outlets close to the ruling party. In addition, they have faced attacks from other organizations close to the government. Even in 2016 (shortly after the current ruling majority took power), there were already cases where organizations involved in anti-discriminatory education lost their existing public subsidies under an artificial pretext (See: Pazderski, F. 2018. “CSOs Sustainability Index in Poland in 2017.” In “2017 Civil Society Organization (CSO) Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.” Washington, DC: USAID/FHI360, https://www.usaid.gov/europe-eurasia-civil-society).
At the same time, the far-right, nationalistic, religious and conservative organizations linked to members of the parliamentary majority have been receiving increased governmental funding through a new governmental agency created in 2017, the National Freedom Institute, which was established to support civil society development in Poland (also by the means of education) (See Korolczuk, E. 2022. “Challenging Civil Society Elites in Poland: The Dynamics and Strategies of Civil Society Actors.” East European Politics and Societies: and Cultures, vol. 20, no. 10, p. 9; Pazderski, F. 2022. “Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index 2021: Poland.” Washington, DC: USAID/FHI 360, https://www.isp.org.pl/en/publications/civil-society-organization-sustainability-index-2021-poland, p.6).
The activities of CSOs unfavourably assessed by the ruling majority are also rather reluctantly supported by the private sector (especially by larger business). Thus, the only financial support for such CSOs comes from abroad and from individual donations. Private media, particularly those that are critical of the parliamentary majority, are also more favourable to these CSOs. As a result, however, the evaluation of the activities of individual organizations, including those dealing with non-formal and informal education, reflects the deepening polarization of Polish society.
On the positive side, however, there is a tendency for organizations facing so many difficulties to overcome prior distrust and establish more intensive cooperation with each other. This facilitates knowledge exchange, mutual support and the development of joint positions on issues that raise public debate and letters of protest against the actions of the government. CSOs are also able to undertake advocacy campaigns, often forming coalitions in order to oppose the government’s decisions that violate standards of international and European law – for example, to support independent education or refugees crossing the Polish-Belarusian border. Several coalitions have recently become active, including S.O.S. for Education (See https://sosdlaedukacji.pl/o-nas/), which launched the “Free School” campaign (See https://www.wolnaszkola.org/). The latter advocated for the reconstruction of education and opposed the “Lex Czarnek” reform. It is also an example of cooperation between CSOs, employers, local governments and education trade unions. Together, they work on a vision for change in the public education in Poland, so it can respond to the challenges of the 21st century (Participatory work directed towards such a goal took place, among others, at the Education Summit organizedat the end of January 2023 – see https://sosdlaedukacji.pl/szczyt-edukacyjny-partycypacyjnie-o-przyszlosci-edukacji).
The CIVICS Innovation Hub interactive map