secondary education system

The new Hungarian education system: The model was France

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. Rózsa Hoffmann, the Francophile, most likely turned to the French system when under her stewardship the whole Hungarian primary and secondary education system was turned upside down. Among other things, she wanted children to start their language education with a romance language (clearly she had French in mind) and wanted to discourage the study of English because it was too easy. At least it was very easy according to Viktor Orbán, who greatly regretted having focused on English as a student. I wonder what would have happened to him as a politician on the world stage if he had learned only Russian.

So, after all, it seems, Viktor Orbán was not the prime architect of the new system although most likely he and Hoffmann saw eye-to-eye. Surely, a highly centralized educational system must have appealed to Orbán who thinks that all problems, economic or otherwise, can be remedied by increasing centralization. Both might have recalled their youth when life was simple: the central government imposed a national standard so everybody was taught the same thing. And perhaps Rózsa Hoffmann sang the praises of French education, which is highly centralized. Whatever the precise scenario, Hungary will now imitate the basically nineteenth-century French educational system.

All educati0n programs in France are regulated by the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de la Jeunesse et de la Vie associative. The ministry is huge and the minister of education is “one of the highest-ranking officials in the cabinet.” The budget of the ministry is  €64.6 billion. The ministry is responsible for 15 million students, and the 1.5 million teachers and university professors are civil servants. The idea of enrolling all children in kindergarten at the age of 3 is most likely also borrowed from France where between the ages of 3 and 6 children attend “maternelle” classes which are normally attached to the regular schools that children attend between the ages of 6 and 11.


Apparently, the French system hasn’t changed much since the 1880s when Jules Ferry, the minister of public instruction, created it. The curriculum is determined by the ministry. Classes are large and students have to take far too many subjects.  The question is whether this old-fashioned system is effective in the twenty-first century. If we look at international statistics, France is not exactly in the forefront of educational achievement.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes an annual report called “Education at a Glance” in which they use such metrics as educational performance, class size, and teachers’ salaries to rank countries. According to the 2012 report France and Hungary are neck to neck in the middle of the pack that includes countries like Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. In Europe Finland leads in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. In reading comprehension France is #21 while Hungary is #25. In mathematics France is #22 while Hungary is #29. In science Hungary is #22 and France #27. Well, if I had a two-thirds majority and if I were willing to turn the whole education system upside down, I wouldn’t imitate France. I would try to learn from the Finns. But Viktor Orbán would never turn to Finland because the Finns’ egalitarian attitude toward education would not align with the interests of his constituency, the upper middle class.

The Hungarian system may end up even worse than the French because while in France there are 26 districts in Hungary there will be 175. And to make matters worse, in Hungary a new administrative unit was established to serve as an intermediary between the schools and the ministry, the so-called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (Klebelsberg Center). Yet another layer of bureaucracy.

A few days ago a reporter from a Hungarian Internet newspaper talked to Nelly Guet, who has extensive experience with the educational systems of France, Germany, and Switzerland. She had little positive to say about the French system, and she emphasized that the European Union’s recommendations go against the kind of centralization characteristic of French education and just introduced in Hungary. Guet pointed out that the centralized system introduced in the 1880s served a kind of “nation-building mechanism” that would make a child from Bretagne the same as one from Paris. Moreover, at least that French reform was secular as opposed to what the Orbán government is doing by bringing religious education into the public school system and encouraging the churches to take over more and more schools.

Guet quoted a few “achievements” of the French system. Thirteen percent of students don’t finish high school because compulsory education ends at the age of 15. In Hungary the dropout rate is actually lower: 11%.  French children, just like the Hungarians, leave school without learning a foreign language. Although a European Union goal is that at least 50% of all students who finish high school get a college degree, that figure in France is only 27% while in Hungary last year it was 35%. (Hoffmann and Orbán are doing everything in their power to lower that number!) Interestingly enough, the best French students leave France to study, and they often work abroad. In France, just like in Hungary, life-long learning is an unknown concept.

A typical Hungarian story. The efforts of the last twenty years to make the Hungarian educational system more flexible and to prepare youngsters for the modern world have been overturned. The country is going back more than a century to find a model that will make its students less competitive both academically and professionally. Madness!

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I would like to call readers’ attention to a new Internet publication entitled The Hungarian Historical Review ( The first double issue includes some studies dealing with urban history. I especially enjoyed “In the Web of Political Language. Verbal Warfare and the 1945 Change of Regime in a Residential Building in Budapest” by Ágnes Nagy. It describes the tensions between “the genteel” and gentile Aranka Richter and her Jewish neighbors before and after the liberation. A fascinating read.