WARSAW, Poland — Teachers across Poland went on strike Friday to protest a sweeping educational overhaul by the populist government that will eliminate middle schools this fall. Many fear the change is a pretext for introducing a more nationalistic curriculum that will leave children less prepared for the modern world.
The education overhaul has become a flashpoint between the conservative ruling Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and liberal opponents who accuse the party chief of moving the country in an authoritarian direction.
The key change involves eliminating middle schools and returning to a pre-1999 system of eight years of primary school followed by either high school or vocational school.
Many parents kept their children home in solidarity with the teachers and to show their disapproval of the changes.
Teachers appeared at work but just sat around or chatted. At one Warsaw school visited by The Associated Press, only 23 of 580 pupils showed up. They were supervised by a nun and other employees but received no lessons, passing the day playing, drawing or watching cartoons.
The government says the current system isn't working well and that children will feel more secure if they remain longer in primary schools.
Opponents say everyone is used to the new system now, it has proven effective — citing international rankings where Poles do well — and that the changes will produce chaos.
The striking teachers also demanded pay hikes as compensation for their extra work in making the transition, and guarantees they won't be fired.
The Polish Teachers' Union, which organized the strike, said 37 per cent of schools nationwide participated. Union leader Slawomir Broniarz said more wanted to join but teachers faced political pressure from "the authorities, superintendents and pro-government labour unions."
The government disputed that allegation and also insisted only 11 per cent of schools took part. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said the political protest was taking place at the expense of school children.
The government also promised that no teachers will lose their jobs.
Authorities haven't revealed all the specifics of the curriculum overhaul, but teachers say they have been told that more time will be devoted to history and Polish and less time to science, computer science and foreign languages.
Joanna Kowalska, an English teacher at a middle school who lost a day's wages to take part in the strike, said the changes were made without input from teachers.
"I think that this is happening too fast," said Kowalska, 36, who spoke in an empty classroom. "They are not well prepared, and the teachers are not ready."
Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press