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Earlier this month, the Deep End featured a report on Poland’s economic renaissance, but that’s not the only good news from Warsaw. According to Bill Hicks on the BBC news website, Poland is also enjoying an educational renaissance.

In the run up to the Euro 2012, the British press portrayed the Poles (along with the Ukrainians) as a bunch of knuckle-dragging racists. No doubt they’ve got their thugs too, but the bigger picture shows that we have no cause to feel superior – quite the opposite in fact:

  • “The most recent test results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) show that Poland is ranked 14th for reading, ahead of the USA, Sweden, France and Germany – and well ahead of the UK in 25th.”

This is a remarkable success story – and one that we should learn from:

  • “No other European country has climbed the international education tables quite so consistently as this nation, which emerged so recently from decades of totalitarian rule and economic hardship…
  • “While media attention focused on the scorching performances of Pisa chart-toppers such as regions of China and South Korea, it was Poland’s success which perhaps offered the more relevant lessons to the struggling post-industrial economies of western Europe.”

So, how are the Poles beating their much wealthier western neighbours? Well, it isn’t by throwing money at their schools:

  • “The OECD points out that Poland’s reforms have raised performance to the same or higher levels as those of the USA and Norway, ‘despite spending less than half of what those countries spend on education’.”

If money is not the explanation, then what is? Hicks describes a succession of far-reaching reforms that purged the curriculum of its communist-era content, raised academic standards and decentralised power.

But perhaps, the most interesting explanation is a cultural one:

  • “Dr Michal Federowicz, director of Poland's Education Research Institute in Warsaw, traces the roots of this success back to the dark years of martial law after the Solidarity era ended in 1981, when, as he put it, ‘educated people were suppressed’.
  • “For most of the 1980s, he said, Poland turned its back on education – so that when democracy finally arrived in 1990, a massive appetite for change in economic, cultural life was released. This soon translated into demands for better education.”

Or to quote the former education minister, Zbigniew Marciniak:

  • “It was the spirit of the people. The effort that parents and families put in for their kids to continue at school… society did it for us, we just created the conditions.”

Perhaps the most important lesson for us all is that nations only succeed when they are free to do so and want to do so.

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