Head Start for Schoolchildren

The first grade will now be an obligation for six-year-olds after a PO education reform changed the legislation that previously made primary school compulsory for seven-year-olds.

After many months of debate, President Lech Kaczynski vetoed the education bill, as he’d promised to do at the outset, but a majority vote of 254 for, 146 against and eight non-voters, overturned the veto on the 23rd of January, bringing the Polish education system closer to that of others in the European Union.

The legislation also includes a three-year integration plan. As of September 1st, 2009, children born between January 1st and April 30th, 2003 will be eligible to attend the first grade, if their parents agree, and all six-year-olds will go to the first grade as of 2012.

The decision marks the end of many months of debate in the Polish parliament.

Since the start of the New Year a number of amendments were made to the reforms.

Formerly, the project stated that as of September 1st, 2009, six-year-olds would have to commence compulsory schooling, unless parents chose to hold them back for a year.

But this had the opposition up in arms. The leftist coalition criticised the reforms, saying they were damaging much-needed work.

The Law and Order party (PiS) accused the government of trying to force through the new legislation, which it says is in direct contradiction to the current education environment and the will of many parents, who have expressed their concerns about schools being ill-prepared and flooded with children.

But governing party PO altered the wording, and the new legislation states that it is now the “right” of every six-year-old to start their formal education.

PO also came up with a strategy to help absorb the hundreds of thousands of children who will become eligible for school virtually overnight.

They considered the option of giving schools a three-year period in which to prepare, so that the change would come into play in 2012. They also toyed with the idea of gradual integration, splitting the successive populations of six-year-olds into groups based on their dates of birth, so that those born in the first four months of 2003 would start in 2009, those born in the first eight months of 2004 would start in 2010 and so on. The third option was a period of optional attendance, that six-year-olds could join seven-year-olds in the first grade, if their parents desired.

The final decision was comprised of all three options.

However, previously Minister of Education Katarzyna Hall had noted that 2009 was the last opportunity to introduce such legislation because 2003 was the final year of a recession in births.

The relatively low number of children eligible for first grade later this year made the initial plan to send all six-year-olds to school this year possible, but schools would not manage to find places for children in the future.

Vice-Minister for Education Krystyna Szumilas denied the accusations that the changes signified that PO was backing down, stating that they were the intentions of the ministry.

Katarzyna Hall explains that the softening of the reforms was intended to assist the change.

“During the first year, information about the change might not reach the parents and schools might not be prepared in time,” she said.

“We also don’t want parents to be tricked into sending their children to unprepared schools.”

Ms. Hall also told journalists that the additional benefit of the time between now and the 2012 transition period is that at the 2011 election, the incoming government will be able to decide whether or not they want to keep the changed legislation, but she stays firm to her claim that she has not softened her approach.

A PiS representative recently said that the “softened” reforms differ little to the existing education act of 2004. Article 14 stated that six-year-olds physically and mentally mature enough could attend first grade, if their parents agreed. This is effectively the decision that was upheld in parliament.

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