Pre-primary education was not well-developed in Poland before the 1990s, when less than half of all 3- to 6-year-olds were enrolled in any type of preschool. In 2004, Poland made publicly funded kindergarten compulsory at age 6, to prepare children for primary school at age 7. In 2011, Poland shifted the compulsory ages to kindergarten at age 5 and primary school at age 6 but reversed the shift soon after. In 2009, Poland began requiring municipalities to guarantee preschool places for children five and older, and, starting in 2017, for children three and older. While the state provides funding for preschool, municipalities are also expected to contribute their own resources. This has proved difficult for some small municipalities, and sufficient places are not, in practice, available across the country. In 2017, 92 percent of children age 5, 85 percent of children age 4, and 67 percent children age 3 attended preschool. The majority of children attend public preschools, but there are non-public options as well.
Preschool in Poland is designed to prepare children for primary school. Poland developed a national core curriculum for preschool education in 2012 and updated it in 2017. The curriculum defines expected outcomes for children in terms of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. Play is the main form of activity. Children also begin learning a foreign language in preschool. Before students transition to primary school, teachers prepare reports on each child’s readiness in areas like motor skills, social activity, and independence. The assessments help teachers and parents identify individual children’s learning needs. Children who need additional diagnostic assessment or support can receive these services in one of Poland’s counseling and guidance centers.
Primary and Secondary Education
In 2017, Poland initiated major reforms to the primary and secondary education system, to be fully implemented by 2023-24. The new system:
- Shifts the starting age for compulsory school from age 5 to age 6;
- Establishes an 8-year primary school and phases out the 3-year lower secondary school put in place in 1999;
- Extends both general and technical secondary school programs by a year; and
- Replaces the basic vocational school program with a two-stage vocational program:
- “Stage 1” is a three-year program that leads to vocational qualifications.
- “Stage 2” is a two-year follow-on program that allows students to secure additional vocational qualifications and prepare for the matura university admission exam.
The 2017 reforms also established the Vocational Education Development Fund to direct more funds to vocational training for in-demand occupations.
While the public has shown broad support for the upper secondary and vocational school reforms, many people valued the lower secondary schools and felt they were not given a chance to be fully implemented. In addition, there were concerns that they were abolished too abruptly, leaving students and teachers scrambling to find places in new schools.
Standards and Curriculum
After Poland broke from Communist rule in 1989, the country initiated a series of national conversations about how to modernize the education system. A decade later, these talks culminated in the introduction of a new national curriculum and examinations. The curriculum specified the goals of teaching and learning and the knowledge, skills and competences students should acquire in each grade. It also specified the number of weekly teaching hours by grade and subject.
Poland has updated its national curriculum twice since 1999. In 2009, it enacted reforms designed to strengthen students’ problem-solving and analytic skills following weak results in those areas on the 2006 PISA. In 2017, Poland changed the curriculum to better align with the new structure for primary and secondary school. It also made changes to the history curriculum.
As of 2017, students in primary school study Polish language; modern foreign language; music and art; history; civic education; natural sciences; geography; biology; chemistry; physics; mathematics; computer science; technology; physical education; and safety education. Students receive counseling throughout primary school around their secondary school options.
Students in general upper secondary school take a similar set of courses: Polish language; two modern foreign languages; culture studies; history; civic education; introduction to entrepreneurship; geography; biology; chemistry; physics; mathematics; information technology; physical education; safety education; and electives.
Students in vocational upper secondary programs study the same core academic subjects taught in general upper secondary school. (More detail is provided in the CTE section.)
Within the framework of the national core curriculum, teachers are free to develop their own lessons, individually or in collaboration with their peers, or choose a commercial curriculum and adapt it as necessary. There is no required school-level curriculum. Teachers are expected to submit their curricular plans for approval by the school principal in consultation with the school’s teaching council.
Teachers may choose textbooks from a list approved by the Minister of National Education or use other resources instead of textbooks if they prefer.
Assessment and Qualifications
Through 2016, students took a national exam at the end of their six years of primary school. The exam, set by the Central Examination Board and administered and assessed by the Regional Examination Boards, was designed to provide teachers and parents with information about student achievements. The results did not affect completion or grades for primary school but could be considered for admission to secondary school. The exam was abolished as part of the 2017 school system reform.
The new eight-year primary school prepares students for a new exam at the end of eighth-grade. Until 2020-21, the exam included Polish language, mathematics and a modern foreign language. Starting in 2021-22, students will pick an additional subject from biology, chemistry, physics, geography and history. The examination results are one criterion among several used to determine students’ secondary school options.
The 2005 School Education Act first introduced the national matura exam as the final secondary school graduation exam and the basis for entry into higher education for students in both general and vocational upper secondary schools. Higher education institutions use matura exam results for admissions and do not have separate entrance examinations.
The matura exam uses written and oral components to test both compulsory and optional subjects. The written exam covers compulsory subjects at a basic level: Polish language, mathematics, modern foreign language, and a national minority language for students who study in that language. Additionally, students choose one to five additional subjects on which to be tested at an “extended” or more advanced level: biology, chemistry, philosophy, physics, geography, history, history of music, history of art, computer science, Latin and ancient culture, minority and regional languages, modern foreign language, Polish language, mathematics, and civic education. The oral exam, assessed by the school’s teachers, covers the same compulsory subjects as the written exam, as well as an additional language assessment (English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian, as well as ethnic or national minority languages). To pass the matura, students need to score at least 30 percent of points available for each compulsory subject on both the written and oral components, and take a written exam in at least one additional subject. In 2018, 20 percent of students failed the exam and 5 percent passed only one subject. Students may retake parts of the exam if they choose.
The Ministry of Education uses student achievement on grade 8 and matura exams as an indicator of school performance. The government makes school results available to the public. However, exams are not comparable across years, and the national government does not monitor trends.
Poland’s nationwide network of public counseling and guidance centers, which offer mental health services as well as education and career counseling, also assist in diagnosing and developing support plans for students with special educational needs.
It is the responsibility of the municipalities to provide special education services to students who need additional support. Recommendations are made at the individual school level, and the goal is to keep special education students in mainstream schools when at all possible. Barring severe intellectual disability, students are expected to follow the same core curricula as their non-disabled peers. Class tutors (usually homeroom teachers responsible for a particular set of students) or other designated staff are in charge of coordinating support, which can include educational aids and remedial classes; small classes for students with specific learning disabilities; specialized classes such as speech therapy; and guidance and counseling. At least twice during the school year, the teacher or team of teachers responsible for a particular student conducts an assessment of the student’s performance and revises the support plan as necessary. Gifted students also fall under special needs, and are offered enrichment programs, accelerated programs and skills tournaments. Parents receive a copy of their child’s assessment and may participate in the team meetings and give input into planning. In 2017, 3.2 percent of primary and 4.5 percent of lower secondary students were identified as special needs.
Digital Platforms and Resources
The Ministry of Education and Science has an online educational platform that includes curated e-textbooks, sample curricula, and lesson plans. Teachers can use the resources on the platform to create lessons and assessments as well as communicate in real-time with other teachers and students. During the coronavirus pandemic when schools first closed, the Ministry of Digital Affairs launched an online portal with suggested resources for each week of distance learning. The resources are organized by grade level with each day’s suggested schedule covering core subjects.
In 2020, the government allocated PLN 347 million (USD$92 million) in funding through a new “Active Blackboard” program to support school purchases of laptops and equipment to assist with distance learning and help students develop digital competencies. Availability of computers and broadband is a particular issue in rural areas, and the program is intended in part to address this. The program will be implemented in 2020-24 and will also provide upgraded computer equipment to institutions that educate students with special needs.