The first day of school in Hungary

Although in the last half an hour several  short news items appeared about the Demokratikus Koalíció’s “offer” to the leadership of MSZP, I would rather wait a day until we know a little more about the details. Instead, I will talk about the beginning of the school year. It was at 8 a.m. this morning that the 2013-14 school year officially began. In most schools there was an opening ceremony, which has become something of a ritual in Hungarian schools.

In my days the beginning of school was not such a big deal. We packed up and went to school. That was all. But in Hungary it is now an all-national affair. Ministers, undersecretaries, mayors, and other politicians feel compelled to give long speeches to bored students and their teachers. This year even the prime minister honored a newly refurbished school with his presence.

One must keep in mind that the coming school year will be drastically different from what students and their parents have become accustomed to. Schools are no longer run by the municipalities but by the state. Teachers are employees of the state and new principals were appointed by Rózsa Hoffmann, the undersecretary in charge of public education.

The very structure of the educational process has also changed. From here on children cannot leave school before 4 p.m. That blanket rule would have made private lessons for children well nigh impossible. However, after some hesitation the ministry allowed principals to grant exemptions if they feel that the request is  justified.

The amount of material teachers have to cover was far too great even before, but from this year on students will have to memorize even more “stuff.” In first grade there used to be only four hours of classroom work, but henceforward six-year-olds will have to spend five periods learning the three Rs. In grade five children used to receive 22.5 hours of instruction, but from here on it will be 28 hours. In grade nine instead of 27.5 hours of instruction the children will receive 35 hours! I think that is horrendous. After listening to a teacher drone on hour after hour, who will be able to actually think about the course material? In addition, daily gym was introduced in grades one, two, five, nine, and ten although apparently there is not enough gym capacity in most schools to offer that many daily classes. And either religion or ethics must be taught in grades one, five, and nine. Why this particular four-year cycle, especially since it coincides in part with the physical education cycle? I have no idea.

There have been a lot of complaints about the newly centralized distribution of textbooks. According to government announcements, all went wonderfully. Critics of the system, however, talk about chaos.  The new distributor often just dumped the books at the gates of the schools, leaving it to teachers and students to sort things out. Apparently, they were not successful everywhere. I heard about a class of 22 where none of the kids managed to get the right books.

I also heard about one school where all the cleaning ladies were fired and the teachers were cleaning for a week to prepare the building for school opening. Naturally, Fidesz politicians and government officials are entirely satisfied with the results.

Here I would like to call attention to two speeches, one by Viktor Orbán and the other by Lajos Kósa. Each would deserve a full post, but I’ll just call attention to a couple of “highlights.”

Orbán, in his speech in Törökbálint, announced that “schools have become over the years no more than repositories.” I wonder how the teachers who have been working pretty hard to educate the children, often under adverse circumstances and with very little pay, must have felt listening to the great leader telling them that they did nothing. They just kept the kids locked up inside four walls. I for one would have been furious.

Those beautiful clouds  Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

Those beautiful clouds
Viktor Orbán in Törökbálint

I also found some of Orbán’s remarks about physical education amusing. He claimed that daily gym classes are necessary “in order to awaken in the students their desire to be in proper physical shape.” Perhaps the chief football player should go back to school to rekindle his own waning desire for physical fitness.

Lajos Kósa talked without notes for sixteen minutes in one of the best gymnasiums in the country, the Árpád Tóth Gymnasium in Debrecen. According to the Népszabadság‘s stringer from Debrecen, his speech was not exactly welcomed by either the students or the teachers. As is his wont, Kósa made some rather unfortunate remarks. His first slip was: “TÁG [as everybody refers to the school] is one of the country’s best high schools. For that I would especially like to congratulate the school’s principal who has decided not to continue as principal but uhum, uhum, yes, Mr. Szabolcs Szilágyi, who will continue his work as a teacher in this school.”

There are only two high schools in the country that offer what is called “international matriculation.” If a student passes, he or she can attend the 300 best universities “from Oxford to Yale” without any further entrance exams. Under the former principal TÁG managed to achieve this status, but as of this year he was demoted and his place was taken by Mrs. Fenyős, Amália Kircsi. She and her husband Zoltán Fenyős are the authors of textbooks for grades five to seven.

Another Kósa gem was: “Good children perform well if they are beaten, but even the most talented child, if no one holds his hands, will get lost.”

And no one seemed to be amused when Kósa reminisced about his own school years in another Debrecen gymnasium where the students tried to guess how many of their fellow students would faint because they had to stand throughout this joyous occasion. Normally, their number was no more than four. Kósa was happy that no one fainted during his speech. It seems, he continued, that today’s youngsters are in better physical shape. Nobody laughed.

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43 comments

  1. Also in Debrecen, Zoltan Balog started his speech like this:

    “A magic dwells in each beginning” said the famous German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

    Bummer. It was Hermann Hesse. Balog is in charge of the Hungarian education. What do you expect …

    Kosa as mayor by the way handed down all the city schools to the state. Also he was never be able to obtain a higher education diploma.

    Finally check out this picture. A real Hungaricum. A PR stunt from the police related to the new full time police presence in schools. Isn’t it cute? Blurred faces in the press. Just in case … 🙂

    http://bit.ly/1e8jOZ3

  2. Don’t knock them too hard on the gym lessons. It is a good idea to introduce plenty of gym into the curriculum, assuming that actually translates into exercise and sport.
    If Hungary can avoid the horrors of childhood obesity you can see in the UK, for example, it’s not a bad thing.
    It’s better the kids spending time doing sport than learning more useless crap in the classroom!

  3. I went to an inner city high school in the 1st district. On the phys ed classes we were always herded out to run a few laps around block. We were always hiding in the hallway of one of the houses, smoking, waiting for the end. Schönen alten zeiten.

  4. Mutt :

    Also in Debrecen, Zoltan Balog started his speech like this:

    “A magic dwells in each beginning” said the famous German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

    Bummer. It was Hermann Hesse. Balog is in charge of the Hungarian education. What do you expect …

    That is not the only problem. Rilker was not German. He was an Austrian born in Prague.

  5. James Atkins :

    Don’t knock them too hard on the gym lessons. It is a good idea to introduce plenty of gym into the curriculum, assuming that actually translates into exercise and sport.
    If Hungary can avoid the horrors of childhood obesity you can see in the UK, for example, it’s not a bad thing.
    It’s better the kids spending time doing sport than learning more useless crap in the classroom!

    James Atkins :

    Don’t knock them too hard on the gym lessons. It is a good idea to introduce plenty of gym into the curriculum, assuming that actually translates into exercise and sport.
    If Hungary can avoid the horrors of childhood obesity you can see in the UK, for example, it’s not a bad thing.
    It’s better the kids spending time doing sport than learning more useless crap in the classroom!

    Sure, I’m all for exercise. I preach it to my relatives in Hungary who pay not the slightest attention to it. As for myself I spend about 30 minutes a day doing yoga and working out on the stationary bike. I might add that I weigh 53 kg (117 lb).

    Living in a suburb what I see as being terribly wrong is that almost all kids are taken to school by bus. From door to door. If they just would deposit these kids half a mile from school and pick them up from half a mile from school, we wouldn’t have so many fat kids.

  6. Mutt :

    I went to an inner city high school in the 1st district. On the phys ed classes we were always herded out to run a few laps around block. We were always hiding in the hallway of one of the houses, smoking, waiting for the end. Schönen alten zeiten.

    I think we had gym once a week. It was a joke.

  7. A little OT, but can I just ask some questions?

    We’ve had quite a discussion on the new school times, my Fidesznik wife and myself. She, of course, supports the whole thing, but I was trying to counter her ‘justifications’ (kids need full-time school, teachers should work for their money) from the teacher’s point of view.

    However, my wife claims that things are not (as always!) as I understand them. First not all teachers have to stay, only those supervising children. Secondly, the teachers will still have the same time for lesson preparation, etc, they’ll just do it at school.

    Does anyone know if this is how it’s supposed to work, or are all teachers supposed to stay and supervise or teach, or do some still go home?

    Also, what do the kids do in the afternoon? Are they just doing their homework, as they used to if they didn’t want to do it at home, or are they now doing lessons instead? If the latter, then presumably they are still taking the same amount of homework (or more?) home?

  8. It’s the English language international baccalaureate (IB) which TÁG in Debrecen apparently offers, besides Karinthy and AISB (both in Budapest). IB is an international education metholology which is administered in Geneva.

    Pretty interesting given that Fidesz has been systematically smothering bilingual education with various new rules and went so far as effectively make the IB worthless in Hungary so IB students had no option but to go to study abroad.

    In the last 20 years the IB was accepted via a Ministry of Education decree as a Hungarian matriculation so there was no problem, but now Fidesz ‘realized’ that the content and skills one acquires under the IB program, gasp, are different from the state directives from which only 10% divergence may be accepted currently. (Of course special financing for the IB was also drastically decreased).

    I am not familiar with the current state of affairs, but it is surprising that it still exists in Debrecen. The IB progran is antithetical to the Hungarian rote learning based methods and prepares students for Western, college-style education.

    I am not sure what kids will learn under the new system, I have serious doubts, but many new rules had demand from among the teachers too. The daily sports class is kind of necessary, as the kids are significantly more unruly compared to even 20-40 years ago (eat much more sugar, grow up hormonally more quickly, respect authority much less) and also do much less exercise outside school. Daily sports aims to calm them down a bit, that is all.

    But It is true that now the beginning of the new school year is a such a big deal politically and media-wise, kinda weird.

  9. Important article (in Hungarian): the Hungarian Catholic Church is an active instrument of school segregation. Not that it is surprising in any way who knows a thing or two about rural education.

    Tip of the iceberg, I am afraid. The church is a reliable instrument for the existing white orderly middle (lower) class and it simply does not want to deal with problems. It would be too dirty.

    http://index.hu/belfold/2013/09/03/nem_szoltak_a_ciganygyerekeknek_az_uj_iskolarol/

    http://homar.blog.hu/2013/04/01/koldusmentes_unnepeket_kivan_a_pecsi_plebania

  10. “In addition, daily gym was introduced in grades one, two, five, nine, and ten although apparently there is not enough gym capacity in most schools to offer that many daily classes. And either religion or ethics must be taught in grades one, five, and nine. Why this particular four-year cycle, especially since it coincides in part with the physical education cycle? I have no idea.”

    It is just their way of “phasing in” the changes year by year, start with the students just entering a school or school cycle (1st–alsó; 5th–felső; 9th–high school). This way they can draw out the chaos of not having enough P.E. teachers available. They don’t have them now and they won’t in three more years when the new plan will cover ALL students. It is not a bad idea, really, to have more P.E. lessons, but there are few facilities for so many lessons, not enough new teachers coming in to meet the demand, and time is being taken away from other subjects in many cases. But if it is decreed that it will be done, it will be, regardless of the lack of planning clearly evident. And if it is decreed that everyone is happy with it, then…

    In answer to Paul’s comment, all teachers have to be physically present in the school for 32 hours a week. Since most of them teach 22-26 hours and don’t teach consecutive lessons, the net effect is not that bad–those “empty hours” in the middle of the day count as being there and could add up to 32 quite easily. But no one can count on using that time to prepare, since you also have to be available to substitute for another teacher if the director so decides. And that for no extra pay.

    Apropo payment: one teacher told me that since the extra pay for extra work was canceled, and since the required number of hours was increased, she will get exactly the same amount of money now as she did last year. The same amount of work, the same amount of pay: net pay raise = zero. It affects different teachers in different ways, of course, many will get more money, but this is one of the ways the government was able to fund the pay raise…

  11. The idea of gym class every day is good in principle, but as so often the case in Hungary, is not implemented well. At least in my child’s elementary school, most days they don’t go to the gymnasium(tornaterem) but stay in their seats(!) and stretch. Sometimes they go out to the hallway and do this. That’s not exactly going to solve anyone’s obesity.

    Apparently the reason they do this is because there isn’t enough gym capacity if every class exercises every day. What I don’t understand is why they don’t use the gym together with other classes if this is the case. But I guess that would take some work in handling the logistics and no one can be bothered to do it…

  12. Sad. They could shift the desks and chairs to the edge of the room, use a couple of tables on their side as goals and have a kick about. Lack of imagination?

  13. Paul: However, my wife claims that things are not (as always!) as I understand them. First not all teachers have to stay, only those supervising children. Secondly, the teachers will still have the same time for lesson preparation, etc, they’ll just do it at school.

    First: Yes all teachers have to stay (4 days from 8.00am to 16.00pm)., whether or not they have anything to do. Some supervise, and some give extra lessons.
    Secondly:Yes the teachers have the same time for lesson preparation, but they do not receive compensation for 5 hours.

    It use to be that teachers were teaching 21 hours, and 5 hours of preparation, for anything extra the received compensation. Now they work 32 hours.

    Now all teachers were fired by their previous employer and hired by the government. The government does not pay extra out, but in stead gave them all a (small) salary raise, and make them work extra for no compensation.

    Another problem (like with my kids), they can not do all of the extra curriculum, such as; basketball, English, other language, swimming. Only parts of it.

    We had to cancel swimming, and the other language, because they do not have enough time or energy. May be we have to cancel English and reduce the basketball training (4 times per week), but we need to wait, as the schools are not allowed the enter into contracts with clubs and/or language schools.

  14. Buddy: My kids are going to a school with own gym, and 18 classes of approximately 20 pupils each. The school had three testneveles teachers (all left at the end of last school year), and the school could find only one replacement teacher.

    This guy is required to give every day lessons to 18 classes (last year 6 classes per teacher) from 8 am to 15.00pm (5 days per week), as this is not allowed, some of the other teachers will give gym lessons from 13.00pm to 15.00pm. As there is not enough room to change to gym gear they need to do it in the class room.

    My girls and their fellow student hate this part of the day, and the fact that they cannot concentrate to make homework, because of other classes having gym in the hallway.

  15. Eva: “Ministers, undersecretaries, mayors, and other politicians feel compelled to give long speeches to bored students and their teachers. This year even the prime minister honored a newly refurbished school with his presence.”

    The message of the political opening ceremonies is that from now on the state owns the children.

  16. There is a great deal of confusion in schools. There are places where they think only the first four grades have to stay until 4 pm. We will see whether the Orban government will enforce their own stupid rules.

    ————-

    Lazar plans to lower the price of pork, literally, four months before the elections, by lowering the VAT from 27% to “below” 10%. Cheaper pork is a sure way to win the heart of the Hungarians, and it would not make a too large hole in the budget if it lasted for 6 months only.

    http://vasarhely.hir24.hu/vasarhely/2013/09/02/lazar-vasarhelyen-jelentette-be-november-1-tol-ujabb-10-is-rezsicsokkentes-jon/

    Another utility cut is also coming.

    I am going to the Budapest-owned utility company today to find out why my bills keep getting higher despite all the government propaganda (the company keeps raising a mysterious factor in their mysterious calculations)

  17. Tappanch only pork? Or also chicken. If it is only pork, has this to do with his friends? in the pork industry, such as Csanyi or the pig farmers with regard to Papai Hus. Btw Fidesz invested into this Company is it not?

  18. Ron, Csanyi’s non-grain agricultural business is very heavily loss-making (milk, meat, wine etc.) and has been so for years.

    (He is also heavily interested in the grain business which is very profitable, I heard rumors that through long-term leases and other contracts he controls 1/3 of the Hungarian maize business, and we talk about million tons here, and I find this a credible estimate).

    No sane Fidesz investor (whether Orbán or Simicska or whoever) would invest in the Hungarian pork/beef industry, it’s a kind of personal mania or hobby for Csányi.

    Everybody knows that it is almost impossible to compete with Danish, Dutch, German producers (yes, producers, as we talk about individual factories producing among others more urine and fecal matter than the whole of Debrecen for example).

    Csanyi might have lobbied for it, but I guess Pápai Hús, Kapuvár, Debreceni Hús etc. (all under liquidation or closure) are more likely sources of a lobby.

    That said, an extremely high percentage of the meat industry is black or grey, ie. without paying VAT and other taxes, and as a result it will not make a difference at all to the end consumer if the VAT will decrease from 27 to 5-10 per cents. (Just because the VAT decreases small slaughterhouses and small traders will not suddenly change and continue to operate legally given a host of other issues). Hungarian producers can perhaps increase their prices a bit (and thereby increase their margins, which they badly need), but the consumer prices will not and cannot decrease significantly or even measurably. In addition, I am not sure either how a decreased VAT for red meat fits into the EU VAT regime.

    It’s an extremely difficult business to operate in, and until Csányi finances it one way or another, it’s ok, but if he stops, it will collapse. But it shows Fidesz desperately tries to save bankrupt companies like Pápai Hús.

  19. @Feri:
    Thanks for the info on Hungarian agriculture – it’s always been a mystery for me, why they make losses and why their quality is so variable, sometimes really lousy (milk products, butter and cheese) and sometimes outstanding.

    For example, we really like the Gyulai and Csabai kolbasz and also bring a lot to our friends in Germany – earlier this year the Hungarian Aldi had them relatively cheap – maybe the company needed money fast …

    So we also hope that these companies will recover!

    PS:

    We get most of our other meat products (mainly chicken or rather some old hens which give a wonderful soup …) from our neighbours just like the wonderful “Bio-eggs” – and also take a lot to Germany. The neighbours get a good price and we get a good quality and sometimes I jokingly ask them if that price includes VAT – and they ask whether we need a receipt …

  20. Feri I agree VAT is not a real issue for the slaughterhouses, but for the farmers it is. And as result the farmers are not willing to reduce their meat prices.

    For example, the VAT is 27%, and by law debtors should pay the agrarians within 30 days. The slaughterhouses are paying on average within 60 to 90 days. And there is the problem.

    Since these debtors are not paying on time the farmer must finance the VAT payable *the 27%) by taking loans from Raifeissen, OTP and other banks. resulting in extra costs for the farmers, resulting in the aforementioned not reducing the prices.

    The slaughterhouses, like PICK (Csanyi), Herz (Csanyi), Delhus (Decrecen and Kapuvar) and Papai their need to finance their salami’s (90 days drying sometimes more), cured meats, and other products not able to sell immediately (storage) and small market (not able to sell to the USA, China, Russia),add to this the veterinarian costs (100% charge for the slaughterhouses) and you have together with the purchase price pigs, employees a very high cost price.

    The pig, chicken business is a numbers and/or percentage game, high turnover and low margins. The Hungarian system is not able to compete with the rest of Europe.

  21. Ron :
    Please find a link from a Budapest 10th district teacher thanking VO. (in Hungarian)
    http://www.10keruleti-hirhatar.hu/hirek/egy-pedagogus-halas-koszono-levele-orbanhoz

    Let me translate some of the teacher’s statements.

    His/Her net salary went down from 143-155,000 a month to 105.000 HUF ($5,500 a year) from September 1st. She has taught 30 years in school.

    There are 110,000 other teachers in the same boat.

    His/her required weekly hours went up from 22 to 32 hours.

    The government lies about raising the salaries, since it actually went down by 50% (with cancelled bonuses) for a lot of teachers like her.

    They learned about these facts only on August 29.

  22. Ron, right, I meant my comments in light of Lázár’s latest goodwill package. However Fidesz will do it re pork, it will not be like the electricity prices, so you won’t see your “savings” the government “gave” you. (At least I hope, as far as Fidesz is concerned they would fix the pork and beef prices like under communism). I doubt that the prices for consumers will change significantly, any VAT decrease will help the meat industry somewhat, and whether it will make the difference between survival or liquidation, it remains to be seen. Just because these changes nobody will invest in the meat industry, perhaps some companies will survive in one way or another (Csányi’s companies are another matter than Pápai and the smaller ones, though he will surely benefit). It’s certainly a smaller constituency than the natural gas or other utility users.

    But it’s not just the raw economics which are against then Hungarian meat industry, quality also. Try to compare a second rate Spanish or Italian or French product vs. a Hungarian one.

    Links to Hungarian sites about kolbász tests by the editors of the Gault Millau Hungary. (Nothing changes since 2009-2010 in this regard).

    http://buvosszakacs.blog.hu/2009/12/11/vastagkolbasz_teszt
    http://buvosszakacs.blog.hu/2010/06/09/kolbasz_ii

  23. The pieces of the new Hungarian educational puzzle started to fall in place. Let’s collect the nuggets together.

    Computer skill are thought only in 9th grade, one hour a week.

    I can’t believe it. Is this true ??

  24. Mutt :

    The pieces of the new Hungarian educational puzzle started to fall in place. Let’s collect the nuggets together.

    Computer skill are thought only in 9th grade, one hour a week.

    I can’t believe it. Is this true ??

    Are you surprised. As you know Orbán doesn’t really like computers, internet, and any of those things.

  25. I think everybody knows what happens next.

    The appointed, fidesznik principals will fire the politically not reliable teachers.

  26. You [Fidesznik public radio leaders] “do not need independent people”, but “soldiers and servants”.

  27. tappanch :
    Only fidesznik school principals are tolerated:
    http://nol.hu/belfold/nincs_igazgatoja_a_balatonalmadi_gimnaziumnak_
    The elected principal was dismissed yesterday.

    Non-Hungarians didn’t follow this. This is one of my favorite stories.

    This is the bi-lingual, English-Hungarian high school. The principal was bumped last year and got replaced by a female Holy Jo, some presbyter of the local Reformed Church. She was the one who created a scandal when she interrogated and documented the students and teachers who planned to participate in a demonstration critical of the government. After the scandal, when the school was actually fined for misconduct, … hold it … yes!, she stayed there as principal.

    She was the one who didn’t let Agnes Heller, the world famous philosopher to give a lecture on ethics in English (!) to the students. Didn’t like her views.

    Her name was Gránásiné Bácsi Tünde (In Balatonalmadi. Got it, Google?)

    At the end of the year, after being humiliated a few times (she didn’t get the English jokes at year end ceremony, that was funny) she couldn’t take it. She resigned. Victory!

    Now the empire strikes back … Keep an eye on them.

    PS: Don’t cry our Holy Jo. She was given another high school. She is still a principal.

  28. @Mutt

    But a Ms Anna Varkuti was supported by the teachers and parents, and she was fired yesterday from her post by the government. I am crying for her, not for Mrs Granasi.

  29. tappanch :
    @Mutt
    But a Ms Anna Varkuti was supported by the teachers and parents, and she was fired yesterday from her post by the government. I am crying for her, not for Mrs Granasi.

    Sorry, sorry … I wasn’t specific enough.

    When Granasi resigned, the “victory” was the election of an interim acting principal supported by everybody (but the Fidesz).

    She just got canned. This is the empire strikes back part …

    You are right!

  30. Marcus :
    It’s the English language international baccalaureate (IB) which TÁG in Debrecen apparently offers, besides Karinthy and AISB (both in Budapest). IB is an international education metholology which is administered in Geneva.

    SEK in Budapest is also IB. We’re in a prep year for IB after years of the Hungarian system.. and lets just say the culture shock from the new system has been significant. These schools care less about marks and more about results.. meaning IB lives in the real world where rote memory doesn’t really count for much.

    I don’t think anyone can seriously say they are against more physical activity. The problem here is that many of the schools I’ve seen have barely have enough space to handle PE on a once a week basis let alone everyday.

  31. Mutt :
    The pieces of the new Hungarian educational puzzle started to fall in place. Let’s collect the nuggets together.
    Computer skill are thought only in 9th grade, one hour a week.
    I can’t believe it. Is this true ??

    I’ve been watching the informatics from grades 5-8. The material was technically correct but behind the times, of no practical value and therefore very boring or taught at an inappropriate level.

    If you want to see a well thought out program that gets kids excited look at this (http://www.greenfoot.org/door). And here is an awesome program (http://www.bejug.org/confluenceBeJUG/display/BeJUG/Programming+for+Kids).

    These are free programs run by people who are volunteering their time. They also work to help other setup programs in their local schools. So, the resources are there to help with teaching but I fear that there is a lot of resistance in the Hungarian system to make it happen.

  32. buddy :
    The idea of gym class every day is good in principle, but as so often the case in Hungary, is not implemented well. At least in my child’s elementary school, most days they don’t go to the gymnasium(tornaterem) but stay in their seats(!) and stretch. Sometimes they go out to the hallway and do this. That’s not exactly going to solve anyone’s obesity.
    Apparently the reason they do this is because there isn’t enough gym capacity if every class exercises every day. What I don’t understand is why they don’t use the gym together with other classes if this is the case. But I guess that would take some work in handling the logistics and no one can be bothered to do it…

    Perhaps the lack of gym/field facilities will give them a good excuse to build more stadiums!

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