After failed negotiations with the government, a huge teacher strike began this week in Poland, at the start of the national exam season. With the majority of public schools predicted to strike, it’s the largest industrial action in Poland in over 25 years, since the time of the country’s democratic transition.
In my city a full-time teacher can expect to earn around £400 per month. With some of the highest energy prices in Europe and food prices comparable to Western Europe, this doesn’t go very far. Many young teachers I know are also on temporary contracts which restrict their benefits and which deny them pay during the long school holidays.
Unsurprisingly some teachers resort to moonlighting with private tuition and teaching jobs during evenings and weekends. There are many talented and committed teachers in the public system, but students complain of low staff morale. Some also have the impression that the system pushes some of the best teachers into other professions, leaving some that are attracted to the short working hours and job security. That said, Poland has seen huge improvements in its already strong educational outcomes since 2000, which are now roughly on a par with much wealthier countries such as Germany and Finland.
Industrial action is not unfamiliar in Polish history. A wave of strikes that began in the Lenin Shipyard of Gdańsk in the 1980s started the world-famous Solidarity (Solidarność) movement, which paved the way for democratic elections in 1989. Passion for the strikes does appear quite high, although there is already friction and division within the teacher community.
Certain teachers have already said they will invigilate exams during the strike season, which some feel will undermine the whole message of the strike. The surrounding politics are hugely complex and delicate too. The headteacher of a middle school (gimnazjum) I visited – not the school below – asked me not to take any photos of the school interior or striking staff.
This strike brings huge uncertainty to many of my students, particularly those aged 15 and 19 who are due to take GCSE and A-Level equivalents in the coming month. Some in Poland are angry with the striking teachers and side with the government, which had offered modest salary increases in return for longer hours and substantial redundancies nationwide. The government says that its options are limited and refused to meet the demands of a pay increase of around £200 per month. It’s true that public finances are not at all in good shape, partly a result of the controversial and expensive 500+ policy, which gives a monthly cash payout of around £100 per child to larger families.
Most of my students tell me that they support the teachers. Maybe their moods after one free day in the sun will start to head south, however, if the strikes last as long as some predict. With general elections later this year, it’s set to be quite a rocky and unsettled period for Poland.
Published on Londynek.net, the biggest and most popular online community for Poles in the UK: https://www.facebook.com/Londynek/