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Interview with Alicja Pacewicz, Vice President of The Center for Citizenship Education (CCE) in Poland

In October 2015, the Law and Justice Party won the elections in Poland and gained the absolute majority in the parliament. NECE talked with Alicja Pacewicz, Vice President of The Center for Citizenship Education (CCE), about the rapid changes in her country following last year´s change of government.

Demonstration in Łódź, January 23trd, 2016Demonstration in Łódź, January 23trd, 2016 Lizenz: cc by-nc-sa/3.0/de (Zorro2212)

It’s been eight months now since the Law and Justice has won the elections and gained the absolute majority in the parliament. Recent actions – inspired by Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party have been watched with concern by other member states of the EU and the European Commission itself. The disempowering of the Constitutional Court, new guidelines for control of the public media and a new civil service law that will allow the party to appoint its own people to high posts in state institutions have sparked controversies and protests all over Poland. What is your personal opinion regarding the rapid changes in your country?

Alicja Pacewicz: The main slogan in the election campaign of the Law and Justice party was "Good Change", but unfortunately most of the implemented changes are bad. The foundations of democratic rule of law – the separation of powers, the independence of the Constitutional Court, of the public media, and of the civil service have been shaken. The legislation expanding surveillance powers of the police and other laws potentially infringing human rights have been introduced at a great speed, without proper public consultations or hearings, often times during night sessions. The replacement of thousands of civil servants in many institutions was also a cause for concern as it undermines the proper functioning of the state. A number of public prosecutors resigned or were dismissed, so were military people, journalists from the public television and radio broadcasting networks, experienced civil servants, without even mentioning the boards of state-owned companies. The dismissal of two outstanding experts, long-serving managers of the world famous Polish Arabian horse studs has taken symbolic importance.

The parliament dominated by right-wing politicians practically paralysed the agricultural land trade granting the Catholic Church special privileges. The leadership of the Law and Justice party supports a total ban on abortion proposed by the episcopate. The mass demonstrations in defence of the Constitutional Court and the rule of law attract mainly people from the "Solidarity" generation. We are witnessing an interesting phenomenon, as citizens aged 50 and over stand up in civil protests are joining the demonstrations on abortion law. Thousands of people, including young militants of the left-wing Together party, were protesting against the tightening of the abortion law that is already very restrictive in Poland. On many issues the public opinion is growing increasingly polarised – political and social analysts are talking about a cleavage or even a break-up that will be hard to overcome in the future.

The government is implementing an expensive welfare scheme, consisting in direct payments for families with children. It will involve a several billion worth transfer of money that will be spent on consumption. Economic, social and demographic effects (and side-effects) remain yet uncertain, but it evidently helps low-income families and may eventually stimulate internal demand and economic growth. Some other social programmes have also been declared, including the higher of the minimum wage and cheap public housing. These projects are gaining strong support - Law and Justice comes ahead in opinion polls. Even for many opponents of the L&J party it is hard to criticize those steps meant to overcome social inequalities.

It is not clear if the protest movements will trigger a political change in Poland, if we are in for the Hungarian scenario or populist rule undermining the principles of democracy. The way EU institutions react and exercise pressure has a significant bearing on the development of the political situation, including the decision of the European Commission to activate the "Rule of Law mechanism" to monitor indications of systemic threat and to engage in dialogue with the Polish authorities to remedy the situation. The European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling upon the Polish government to implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concerning the constitutional crisis. The United States have also voiced their concern about the situation in Poland.

Meanwhile, the Law and Justice leadership is trying to downplay the criticism flowing in from abroad on the one hand, and on the other it is distancing itself from the EU and is looking for allies among populist and euro sceptical MEPs. The electoral manifesto of Law and Justice reads: "We are throwing away political correctness, that is the restrictions which are more and more painfully affecting many Europeans and which are imposed not only by cultural aggression, but also by means of administrative proceedings and penal repression. We do not accept the uncontrolled erosion of sovereignty of European fatherlands. This is our euro realism." The events that are taking place in Poland can also be seen as a warning to the Western world against populism and nationalism, which are gaining ground on the political scene in many countries (Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary). Global crisis of the neoliberal economy, growing inequalities, crisis of democratic participation, and finally the immigration crisis, everywhere around the world all this is escalating the risk that groups who promise dangerous "good change" will rise to power...

Could you briefly describe the possible impact for education in Poland?

Alicja Pacewicz: One of the first decisions of the new government was to repeal the regulation of the previous government that had brought down the age of compulsory schooling from 7 to 6. The cancellation of this measure will result in reducing the number of places available in public preschools and deepening education inequalities (parents who are better educated and live in big cities will prefer to send their 6 year olds to school anyway, while children from rural areas will probably stay at home longer). Other controversial changes are also expected – radical changes of the school system, centralisation of the supervision of schools and of the in-service teacher training system, and constraining teachers’ autonomy. This is what one of the educational experts of The L&J party declares: "I support one curriculum for everyone. I remember the enthusiasm that in the 1990s accompanied the idea of proprietary curricula. Teachers felt an enormous need for self-fulfilment, a need to present an individual perspective of the subject matter and to write one’s own textbook. But it created chaos in Polish schools. (...) It was a mistake to hand the teacher training in-service centres over to regional and local governments. They are not competent. Central administration should oversee this process." The ruling party planned to establish a National Institute of Education, School Curricula and Textbooks, whose remit would include working on the new national curricula and controlling the textbook market but it is unclear yet how the state control over schools and teachers will finally be implemented.

The ministry of education organized a broad debate about the future of Polish education. Across the country, meetings with over 1800 teachers and experts were held and dozens of problems were discussed. However, the status of these debates and the resulting recommendations are not clear - we do not know which opinions will be eventually taken into account by the government as the fundamental decisions will be announced on the 27-th of June. Many schools and experts fear the radical changes that will bring more chaos and arbitrariness into already troubled school system. Teachers are afraid of loosing their jobs - already more than 7000 were dismissed, the next thousands will follow.

Could you tell us more about the planned changes in teaching history? What are the key points of the new guidelines? How would a turn to a more nationalist/patriotic version of history affect the transnational/European outlook in citizenship education?

Alicja Pacewicz: The electoral manifesto of Law and Justice presents a clear-cut vision of the desired changes in the teaching of history, patriotism and citizenship.

"Education includes the patriotic and civic aspects, too. It will rely on restoring the importance of teaching history and literature, with a special focus on Polish history and literature. Such a model of education also benefits from the possibilities provided by existing and newly created historical and educational institutions with a broad popular offer, such as the Institute of National Remembrance or museums. Schools will have to take care of local national memorials on a permanent basis (...). Patriotic and citizenship education should also involve trips, with a special educational focus, to important historical sites, also those that today remain outside our borders, such as Lviv and Vilnius." And further on: "The Church is the custodian and preacher of moral teaching widely known in Poland. In the broader social context, it has no alternative. Hence, it is fair to say that in Poland the moral teaching of the Church can be opposed only by nihilism." Another ideological pillar of the "good change" is nationalism. Law and Justice wants to "introduce the youth to the cultural code that the Polish nation has developed in the course of its history" and reject "the syndrome of slave-like imitation" of western values and lifestyle. According to the L&J party experts, education in recent years disregarded "identity-related subjects", so now they want the school to "present patriotic education, knowledge of history and the mother tongue, attachment to the country and national symbols and the active attitude as true values".

As of today, it is impossible to say how these ideas will be put into practice. It requires deep reform in the school system and in the national curriculum, which - luckily - cannot be achieved overnight. For now, although no such changes have taken place yet, many schools and teachers lost the sense of security and are following the developments with concern. Many are holding their breath and, just in case, do not get involved in any additional educational projects, preferring to stick to the teaching curriculum and celebrating "safe" national anniversaries. Anti-discrimination education or teaching about refugees will definitely require even more courage and determination than previously. In one of Warsaw´s high schools the headmistress and teenagers who called their annual theatre school festival "Charm of communist Poland" came up against accusations that they were propagating and glorifying a criminal regime. A Law and Justice city councillor criticised the school arguing that "people who remember those times well can find it outrageous, and especially the victims of persecutions that took place in 1945–89" and to his motion he attached a letter he received from a local resident: "It is high time the youth of our neighbourhood began to be educated in the spirit of the Catholic tradition and true values."

How is the CCE affected by the new orientation and general climate created in recent months? Is there still room for controversy and alternative curricula in projects run by the CCE?

Alicja Pacewicz: The political situation in Poland is now creating a completely new, difficult context for the work of non-governmental organisations that deal with citizenship education, promote democratic values and human rights. Teachers are growing afraid of working with "inappropriate" NGOs and we do not know if the training we organise for teachers and schools will be evaluated by state supervisors as "ideologically correct". At the same time, some teachers and teenagers were "revolting" against the announced elimination of middle schools (gimnazja) or shortening of the elementary school – it is still unclear which model of the school system will be announced in June. A similar polarisation of opinions, in line with the political one, is happening in local communities and in schools. It concerns teachers, parents, and often students, too. It brings fear, conflict and lack of trust.

The authorities are funnelling public money into activities compliant with the ideology harboured by L&J, such as patriotic education in its narrow sense. For example, in the call concerning public diplomacy the subject was urgently changed to celebrating the 1050th anniversary of the christening of Polish Prince Mieszko. Some other calls for projects were recalled. For many years, CCE has successfully collaborated with the Polish parliament and co-organised a big national event, namely a model parliament. A few hundreds of pupils from the entire country debated about such issues as the activity of young citizens, local and school self-government or the places for young people in the public space. This year, our organisation was not invited to collaborate at the event, which was dominated by the young right wing activists (the topic of the debate were local memorials). Moreover, some politically neutral programmes such as the "Classy PE" project we have been running in 1500 schools for more than two years lost all its funding.

Luckily, there are also exceptions. CCE has gained support for our "Library Night" – a 3-year programme promoting readership. Just like other NGOs we don’t know what will happen next and if we can survive this difficult period. Different NGOs offer each other mutual support - we meet to discuss joint actions, we establish new coalitions and networks. A grassroots movement called Citizens for Education has been created, and watchdog organisations have founded the Observatory of Democracy – a platform by means of which on an ongoing basis we follow legislative changes and decisions of the government that affect the political system in Poland and we monitor if rights, freedoms and principles of democratic rule of law are respected. As the CEO of the Panoptykon foundation, Katarzyna Szymielewicz, put it: "We have always treated the government as our partner in dialogue. How can you recognise when your partner becomes your enemy? We can’t tell. We are not going to boycott the government or wait for an invitation. We are going to observe and judge." Ewa Kulik from the Stefan Batory Foundation adds: "No one is asking our opinion now. If the government refuses to listen, we will talk to the public opinion. This is what happened in the case of public hearing concerning six year olds. The Law and Justice government did not hold any public consultations, so with a number of organisations and individuals we created a public forum, during which all stakeholders could give their opinion."

What do you expect from NECE and other transnational networks in citizenship education with regard to the situation in your country?

Alicja Pacewicz: What matters to us is that offer moral support. If you see a possibility for collaboration – organise projects jointly with Polish organisations, help them look for support, voice your opinions openly. It is a legitimate concern that the Hungarian model that inspires the Polish government so much will also encompass the entities of civil society. The declaration of the European Civic Forum published in its newsletter says: „We stand with civil society and show solidarity with organisations and movements of citizens in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, taking to the streets in legitimate protest against their government’s reduction of civil liberty. Finally, we will continue to work in partnership with local organisations for the defence of a Europe of freedom and democracy."

Get informed about developments in Poland and don’t stay indifferent.


NECE Newsletter 03/2020

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