• November 20, 2015
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Polish schools in Vilnius: reorganisation or disorganisation?

By definition, the aim of every reform is to improve the quality of many aspects of life. The approved educational reform and its slogans such as “reorganisation”, “accreditation” or “optimisation” evoke many negative feelings among the citizens of Vilnius. Today, we present two contrasting opinions on the ongoing changes of Vilnius educational system: of Mayor Remigijus Šimašius and of former Vice Minister of Education from Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania and currently a Vilnius Councilwoman Edyta Tamošiūnaitė.

Remigijus Šimašius: „Vilnius needs a good quality education”

An interview with the Mayor of Vilnius – Remigijusem Šimašiusem – about reorganisation, accreditation and optimisation of the network of Polish schools.  

There is a couple of important national documents which regulate the relationship between the state and the education of national minorities. These include a governmental programme which states “the execution of the educational reform needs to account for operation of the network of schools for national minorities” or the Strategy for the Development of Education for years 2013-2019 which declares “the state will ensure the care and support of the education of national minorities”. Before joining the European Union, Lithuania accepted an undertaking that the situation of national minorities cannot worsen. What is your, as the Mayor, strategy towards national minorities education? Do you account for these documents?

Documents remain documents, they may be formal, they anticipate for great aims, but, as a Mayor, I believe that we need to improve the situation and the quality of the schools of national minorities. In Vilnius, there is a vast network of schools of national minorities: Polish and Russian ones. There is also a Belarusian, Jewish, French and two private English schools, but the situation is different everywhere. I think that the quality of schools with Polish as a language of teaching could really be better. Only two out of 160 students in Vilnius got full score at their Matura exam. Why? Is it a question of language as the exams are not taken in the students’ native tongue? Do we need more stimulus for the Polish schools to be more effective? Part of the schools are truly dynamic, innovative, they are trying to acquire more students. However, many schools were only worried about whether or not they are going to be merged or reorganised. We had no other choice, we needed to conduct a reform in spring. I think it was a good choice, the long-discussed issues were finally addressed, now we can focus on the problem of the quality. I think that the Polish community will see that the reform aims for better quality.

The lowering of the quality of education was an effect of the unconsidered amendment to the Education Act which standardised the Lithuanian language exam. Therefore, the students had to attend 800 additional Lithuanian language classes which did not go without harm on the other subjects…

I am convinced that the amendment was not bad in itself, but the transition period was too short. It was not fair towards the students who had to adjust during those two years. In reality, both the students and the parent would like to know Lithuanian well, similarly Polish and English. The method was improper, but the principle was not bad. Considering the problems of the education of national minorities – I also have many friends who are either Polish or Russian – one can see that for instance Russian schools shifted to the new method of learning much earlier in order to integrate with the society and avoid problems at the university level.

The students of national minorities schools are currently taking exams in the Lithuanian language as their mother tongue. Can a student have two native tongues?

If a family is monolingual, they have one mother tongue. The question is what should be done to stop the discrimination of a minority language user.

The optimisation of schools assumes the creation of the most convenient network of schools. That way a school can be close to home. In the case of Lelewel School, the reform may cause the fact that a big Vilnius district – Antokol – may be left with no Polish school. Can you call that an optimisation?

I do not think so, no. To be honest, I think we are still the hostages of the partial compromises. It is very important for the children attending primary schools to have their school close to home. However, as the students mature, this problem becomes less valid. A junior high school student can travel through the city to go to the school of his or her choice. An 8-year-old student is not a 17-year-old-student. We want the schools for the youngest to be close to their homes and the older students to attend high quality schools. In the case of the Polish schools it has not been done yet, as the older students do not need to travel to the city centre and the younger students do. I must admit that it is a major problem which arose on the lack of rational decision-making regarding the creation of the school network.

I think the junior high school student can choose to which school they would like to attend. During many rallies, the school community declared that they want to learn in their school in Antokol District – until 12 grade…

Of course, but we are not talking about the possibility of choice, but about the attempt to survive at all costs, not because the junior high school students choose that or other school, but because the Council gives great funding. I think that the Council should finance even more, especially the national minorities schools, but it would be favourable if the effect was the higher quality. I think we can all agree on the fact that two junior high school classes in Polish are better than one. Vilnius needs a good quality teaching, appropriate for the big city.

Are you suggesting that the schools provide a low quality education?

I do not want to label, no matter the quality of the education. Every school can offer better education, every school, I think, offers appropriate education. I think that Polish schools need to make an effort and finally start to work for the benefit of the children instead of politicians to keeping the workplace.

How should we understand the Deputy Mayor Valdas Benkuskas’s proposition, who, in exchange for the acquisition of the building of the legendary Fifth High School and transferring the school to the Żyrmuna District, offered help in getting the status of the long-term junior high school for the school of Lelewel? Should we teach the subtlety of blackmail at schools?

On September the 1st, I visited the Russian Juventos Junior High School. I was asked why I am ignoring the national minority school network, putting on a crown and favouring the Lelewel School over the other schools. The Lelewel School has been made a long-term junior high school because of the urgent need of the school community. Two aspects proved to be important: accreditation – a matter of life and death for a long-term junior high schools. The chosen variant, in my opinion, hinders the education of the minority, but it is going to stay that way. Secondly, the junior high school has more rooms per child than on average in any other school.

One part of the school is located on one side of The Neris River, the other part on the other side of the river, although they are only half of kilometre apart. Lithuanian schools – one on the one side of the street, second one on the other, one part in one building, the second part in the other building, a building parted in half. It seems that the network of schools has been truly mixed up in this part of Żyrmun and Antokol Districts. Our goal was to divide it logically. Merging the Lelewel School into one building, no matter on which side of the Neris was essential to concentrate the rooms and renovate them. Another issue – on which side of the Neris should the school be located? The accumulation of junior high schools in the Antokol Disctict (with Lithuanian as the language of study) is visible. It seemed more logical for the Lelewel Junior High School to be located on the side of the Żyrmun District. It is because that part of the district is involved in the development of integrated territories programme. I promised more financing for the schools in that part of Vilnius. For the Lelewel School, it means the possibility of faster renovation and adjustment to the modern style of education. On September the first, students will meet in a completely renovated building.

Why does the City Council not allow for the accreditation of the high school education programme for the Konarski and Lazdynai Schools even though the Seimas agreed on the amendment which granted two more years for high schools to prepare for accreditation?

The amendment has been accepted after the Council had run out of the dates. (the amendment has been approved on 30 June, the Council voted on the degradation of 9 Vilnius schools on 29 July – from the author). According to the Act, we were supposed to decide on the 1st of May, but we did not manage to solve that problem then. The decision had to be made before 1st of May, I was elected a Mayor on 22nd of April. Today the Konarski School and Adam Mickiewicz Junior High School are close to each other, one can see that it is more favourable to have one better junior high school than two with not enough students, struggling for complete number of students. Lazdynai School is in turn close to the John Paul II Junior High School. The Konarski School is on trial with the Council. The school argues that the Adam Mickiewicz Junior High School is a protégé while the Adam Mickiewicz Junior High School is on trial with the Council about the exact same case. These schools are in fact on trial with each other about the complete number of students in fifth or ninth grades. It is an absurd situation, conflicts emerge.

This situation creates chaos at schools…

We are eager to cease this chaos, just to be clear. I visited the Konarski school myself, I wanted to clear up all the issues. I think that the decisions made were logical and parents are going to appreciate them soon.

Was not the decision of the Council too sudden? Schools had two more years to acquire the accreditation…

All the decisions concerning to reorganisation had to be made on the first of May. The principle of this process is “one step forwards, two steps back”. We need to act like adults, understand the real needs and make logical decisions. It is a chance for the Polish community to have the satisfactory level education. Having two junior high schools – Konarski and Mickiweicz schools – would not make any sense.

Why is the accreditation of the Vilnius Władysław Syrokomla School so prolonged?

It is being prolonged not at the Council’s fault. You need to ask the Minister of Education. The problem is that the Christian model of the school is not accounted for in the Lithuanian law. We do not want to implement drastic measures; the school has a required number of students. As the Council, we do not plan on taking radical steps.

Edyta Tamošiūnaitė „We can be proud of Polish schools”

An interview with the former Deputy Minister of Education of the Republic of Lithuania from the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, currently the Councilwoman of the City of Vilnius, about the condition of Polish education, Edyta Tamošiūnaitė.

The issue of the accreditation of the high school teaching programmes among national minorities evokes many negative feelings. The schools are being degraded to the level of primary schools while the politicians claim that it is for their own good. What is it really about?

I think we can see the lack of good will and the willingness of both the city authorities and the Ministry of Education. For example, Władysław Syrokomla High School must have acquired the accreditation a long time ago. The accreditation committee stated in June that the school fulfils all the requirements, is well prepared and everything is going to be fine. The accusations of the necessity of having the second founder of the teaching programme with the Christian elements was to stay, were refuted. The Ministry of Justice explicitly confirmed that there is no need for the other founder. Then, all the documents got lost, it is said that there is still time until the year 2017 to gain the accreditation for the teaching programme of the Syrokolma School. Recently, the School Council, parents and teachers met with the Minister of Education who ensured that everything is going to be fine, but she cannot say when. I think that the lack of good will and unwillingness is visible here. I am sure that the school is fully prepared because it has been its goal for the last couple of years.

Another Vilnius school – Joachim Lelewel School – just like the Daukšos School in which Lithuanian is the teaching language, has chosen the specialised engineering teaching programme. When the Minister Pavalkis demitted and his duties were fulfilled temporarily by Minister Bernatonis, the Daukšos School has been accredited without any problem in a couple of days. The Lelewel School was left with no accreditation. I think this example shows the lack of good will from the politicians, schools are not treated equally.

What is your opinion on the Vilnius school network optimisation reform?

I think it is a bad reform because the decision of the Council adopted on the 29th of July, a month before the beginning of the school year, and the degradation of the nine schools to the level of primary schools is unacceptable in the democratic country. Especially, since on the 30th of June, the amendment to the Education Act was accepted. The amendment gave high schools two more years to prepare for accreditation – until 1 September 2017. It also considered other Councils such as Kaunas where those problems have been solved. However, in Vilnius, the governing coalition of conservatives and liberals voted or the degradation of schools against the law, because according to the Act, the reorganisation of the schools can take place 4 month before the beginning of the school year at the latest. Meanwhile, the schools found out about the Council’s decision a month before September the first, during the holidays. Schools have been thrown at the mercy of fate, now children are learning in their building but belong to other schools. Similarly, teachers are working in one building, but they are working for the headmaster of other school. The consequences of that reform are negative, the teaching process has been disrupted. I think that the Council is purposefully creating chaos at schools. The Mayor did not assess the situation correctly; he did not want to listen either to the parents or the students. Today, the school communities are tackling the problem together. The trails are underway, but it is difficult to speak about justice.

The word „discrimination” has been used lately so often that it has lost its meaning. Especially, since the Lithuanian authorities do not react to it. What actions of the Lithuanian authorities do you think are unacceptable?

Diminishing the laws of national minorities, the situation from 2011 (the amendment to the Education Act has been accepted – from the author) and the fact that from 2013 students have to take standardised Lithuanian language test. The authorities cannot treat teenagers that way. Poles have 800 classes less,the precipitated introduction of the exam was unacceptable. What is also unacceptable is the covert intention of the authorities to admit no students from national minorities to universities financed by state. Nowadays, the requirement for admission is the high result of the compulsory Lithuanian language state exam. The students cannot meet the demands created by the state, even though they devote many hours to learn Lithuanian. The worst part is that students neglect other subject. If someone wants to study medicine, they have to take exams in biology and chemistry, but the Lithuanian language exam is also taken into account.

This exam is misguided, because the students of national minorities schools know Lithuanian well, but they do not possess a great knowledge of literature. Presently, exams check whether a student can accurately interpret a literary work. I think that students should be taught how to correctly speak and write, what is the most important part. Double standards are unacceptable, when two schools are trying to get the accreditation, but it is grated to the Lithuanian speaking school. It is illustrated by the example of the Lithuanian Daukšos School and the Polish Lelewel School.

The Lelewel School recieved the approval for accreditation in exchange for giving away the building in the Antokol District…

The „in exchange” principle is a complete nonsense. The school in the Antokol District is one of the oldest schools not only in Vilnius, but also in Lithuania. We cannot agree on the “in exchange” rule, because the school needs to be close to the student. If a first grade student from Dworczany District travels to Lelewel School today, his journey will be even longer after the change of buildings. Students from 249 streets commute to this school. Moreover, the proposed building on Minties Street in Żyrmuny District does not even fulfil the accreditation requirements, it is not big enough to accommodate all the students. The equipment of the building, of the chemistry or physics labs does not meet any criteria. In the same building there is a youth school, no one evicted it. Meanwhile, on Antokolska Street 33, the Lelewel School is located which is renovated and has a lot of rooms. There was a time when the headmaster of Lelewel School understood the problem of the Lithuanian school nearby and agreed to make a couple of rooms available for the Lithuanian school in the Antokol District. And since once you start you can’t stop, now the Lithuanian school needs a whole building. Another junior high school in Żyrmuny District will cause the overconcentration of schools because of the close proximity of the Syrokomla School, while the whole Antokol District will be left without Polish school. The Education Act assumes a regular distribution of schools. City authorities must know that, but stay indifferent to the needs of the community. I think a better solution could be found. The trail is underway, the first instance court rejected parents’ plea, but I am sure that parents are going to push for justice in administrative court of a higher level.

What is your opinion on the quality of teaching in Polish schools?

If someone thinks Polish schools are worse, they are clearly wrong. I think that one has to get acquainted with the school before formulating an opinion. Full scores at state exams are not the best indicator of the quality of teaching – such grades are given in high schools where there is a selection of the best students who often attend additional tutoring. The quality of Polish school is very high. It is enough to look at how many students go to universities. In 2015 in A. Mickiewicz Junior High School in Vilnius 93,5% of the students got accepted into university, even more in J.I. Kraszewski Junior High School – 93,8%, in John Paul II Junior High School – 84,9%, in Syrokomla High School – 80,3%. These are high numbers compared to national average which is 56,6%. We have the advantage of around 20-30%. What is more, the school passes on the knowledge, but a student learning in their native tongue masters it easier. The schools also teach tradition, family values, customs which are very important for Poles.

Should Polish schools exist?

Without a doubt. A school is a forge of knowledge but also values, traditions or love for the mother tongue. As St. John Paul II used to say: let us perceive a school as our family home. For that reason, it is important for the children to learn in the language they hear at home. Today we can be proud of Polish schools because of their high level of education, rich extracurricular offer, trips abroad, maintaining a close relation with Poland. Despite the chaos introduced by the authorities Polish schools work effectively, cooperate with the schools in Poland. For example, John Paul II Junior High School is one of a thousand members of John Paul II School Family. Teachers are professional, they do as much as they can to ensure they best quality of teaching.

Translated by Katarzyna Kosińska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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