Poland’s religious education battleground: the ‘Secular School’ initiative and other issues with religious education

By Katarzyna Zielińska and Ben Koschalka

By the time they graduate from school, the average Polish student will have taken almost twice as many hours of Catholic catechesis classes as of biology, chemistry and physics combined. These religion lessons are funded by the state, at an estimated cost of around 1.2bn zloty a year. This is something that the ‘Secular School’ (Świecka Szkoła) initiative hopes to change, and this week it declared success in its effort to secure 100,000 signatures in support of an amendment to the relevant legislation. Yet, with a conservative government likely to be elected this month, and a Polish population keen for religion to play a visible role in public life, Poland’s secularists face an uphill struggle. In a guest blog, Katarzyna Zielińska and Ben Koschalka discuss the Secular School project, as well as broader questions regarding the presence of religion in Poland’s eduction system.

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Source: Piotr Sawecki/Reporter

On a baking hot first day of September this year, a new intake of Polish six-year-olds set off for their first day at school in their crisp best clothes, many of them heading for mass first. But what can they expect to learn in their school careers? The top four subjects in terms of hours, according to a 2013 Polityka article, are mathematics, Polish, a foreign language, and religious education. The average pupil will take almost 860 hours of catechesis, compared to just 160 each of biology, chemistry or physics. This is a status quo that is taken for granted by many parents. Increasingly, though, questions are being asked not just about the volume, content and form, but also about how this instruction is funded.

As the month wore on, the temperature became more autumnal but the rhetoric heated up in readiness for the October general elections; meanwhile, the organisers of the Secular School (Świecka Szkoła) initiative were redoubling their efforts. Their target was a hundred thousand citizens. A small drop in the ocean of Poland’s population, perhaps; but assembling the signatures (in ink, not online) of this number of people, the minimum required for a civic legislative initiative to be lodged for debate in parliament, is certainly a major undertaking. Justifiably, then, it was with some satisfaction that the initiative’s organisers revealed that they had reached that magic number (with the postbags still continuing to arrive) days before their September 30 deadline. While there is a good chance, especially given the likely victory of the conservative Law and Justice party in the forthcoming election, that proposed legislation will subsequently find itself cryogenically frozen, the very process of collecting signatures has again brought the issue of state financing of religious instruction in schools firmly onto the table. The media coverage it has attracted has reignited debate on the topic, both deepening and straddling the usual cleavages in Polish society.

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Logo of the “Świecka Szkoła” (Secular School) initiative

A “citizen’s bill”, or civic legislative initiative, is one of the tools of direct democracy guaranteed by the Polish constitution. To launch such an initiative, a committee numbering at least 15 Polish citizens must first be appointed on the basis of 1000 signatures. This committee then drafts a proposed bill or amendment and sets about the task of collecting the 99,000 further signatures required for it to be presented to the Marshal of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament (which Secular School will do on 5 October). In recent years, such initiatives have led to legislative action on both sides of the political spectrum, with the attempted introduction of gender parity measures and tightening of abortion laws being two prominent examples.

The Secular School initiative is the brainchild of Liberté magazine, and particularly its editor Leszek Jażdżewski, as well as Katarzyna Lubnauer, a candidate for the new Modern (Nowoczesna) party in the October elections, whose article “High time to get religion out of schools” was its direct inspiration. The actual initiative tones down her assertion a little, with the organisers at pains to point out that they are not anti-religion per se, but would like to see a change to the system that sees almost 1.4 billion zloty annually spent from the state budget on (mostly Roman Catholic) religious instruction. They argue that this money could be better spent elsewhere, citing the examples of additional foreign-language teaching, IT labs and support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Secular School proposes an amendment to Article 12 of the 1991 Law on the Education System, which states, “Public pre-schools, primary schools and lower-secondary schools organise teaching of religion at the request of parents, and public upper-secondary schools at the request of pupils themselves”. The initiative would add that “the costs involved in organising teaching of religion may not be partially or fully met from public funds,” and that the Minister of Education, in conjunction with the relevant Churches, is responsible for determining the way in which costs are covered and accounted for.

Of course, state-funded religious education is by no means confined to Poland. Religion classes of various kinds are found in curricula throughout Europe. It is interesting to note, in fact, that in Western European countries we can witness post-secularist claims for the return of religion to the public sphere. Poland, on the other hand, is at a different point: there is a rising tide of demands for greater secularity and removal of religion from the public sphere. The issue of funding of religious education from public money provides a good starting point for looking at other controversies associated with religious education in the public sphere in the country. Several issues are particularly problematic.

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Source: wsd.kielce.pl

The first of these is itself a strong argument for the aims of the Secular School initiative. Owing to the denominational character of religious education, in practice it is the only school subject over which the state does not have any control in terms of the curriculum and the personnel entrusted to teach it. The content of classes and way they are taught must be approved by the local religious authority of the relevant religious organisation, with the state authorities being informed only later. Furthermore, instructors, having fulfilled the required education and/or training, must be approved by the religious authorities in question – only then may they be employed by school/pre-school authorities. Of course, Poland’s mono-religious landscape makes the Roman Catholic Church the main beneficiary and executor of these regulations. Having said that, we should remember that those minority religions which are entitled to organise religious education in schools often also benefit (especially in the areas where religious minorities are concentrated), and would be similarly affected by any changes in funding regulations. Interestingly, however, a Polish Protestant magazine has lent its support to the Secular School initiative.

The second big question is the available alternatives. What do pupils who choose (or whose parents choose for them) not to attend religion classes do in those hours? By law, they are entitled to take a voluntary class in ethics. However, in practice the numbers of pupils interested in studying ethics has tended to be small: 98% of primary school pupils attend religion classes, for example. As a result, schools have failed to offer this option. The new ordinance of the Ministry of Education from 2014 (the result of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which viewed the lack of access to ethics courses in Polish schools as an infringement of the freedom of belief and prohibition of discrimination) states that such education should be organised for each pupil. To make this possible, classes may be taught to groups containing pupils from various year groups, or even schools. According to newspaper and NGO reports, however, owing to organisational constraints and the small number of pupils interested in ethics, what usually happens is that religious instruction is given in the middle of the day, with non-attenders not offered alternative lessons in ethics. Instead, ethics classes are on offer at different times (often as the last hour in school or early in the morning), making them the preserve of determined or desperate students and their parents.

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“…I’ll give you ethics” (Sorce: Newsweek Polska)

The third issue, again related, is that of the certificates awarded at the end of the school year, on which, to date, grades for religion (or ethics) have been included. Any students opting not to attend religion class and unable or unwilling to take ethics instead are thus left with a blank, which de facto could be read as an indication of their religious beliefs and convictions. This might infringe a citizen’s constitutional right not to reveal his or her convictions, or could serve as the basis for discrimination (such was the case with the grievance to the European Court of Human Rights mentioned above).

Finally, NGO reports have highlighted the overwhelming presence and promotion of Roman Catholicism in public, secular schools. Religious celebrations serve as a framework for the important moments and rites in a child’s education, such as the beginning and end of the school year. Religious services are organised during class time, with celebrations being centred on Catholic symbols and patrons. Classrooms often have a Christian cross hung permanently on the front wall. Some argue that the conditions this creates are disadvantageous, or even discriminatory, for children of other faiths and those not adhering to any religion.

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The cross in Poland’s parliament – possibly unconstitutional but approved of by the majority of Poles (Source: PAP / Rafał Guz)

Yet, while the prominence of religion in Polish schools may cause concern for secular activists, amongst ordinary Poles – among the most religious people in the EU, for whom the Catholic Church remains an important and respected institution – the issue is relatively uncontroversial. Recent polling data suggests that 82% of Poles have no problem with the teaching of religion in schools, while 88% don’t mind crosses being displayed in public buildings. These numbers have been consistently high in recent years. There does appear, however, to be greater concern over who foots the bill: another poll published this year found that only 16% think religion classes should be paid for by the state (as they currently are) while 62% favour churches themselves picking up the tab. Moreover, a large number of Poles reject direct interventions of religious authorities into the social and political spheres. According to recent polling data, the majority of respondents are against the Church expressing opinions on legislation and some 84% are opposed to priests telling people how to vote.

This all suggests that those behind the Secular School initiative have judged their approach well: not demanding the end of religious teaching in schools outright, but instead calling for it to no longer be funded by taxpayers. The drop in the ocean made by their efforts might bring only a ripple on the political scene, rather than making major waves, but they have certainly raised awareness of the issues involved and got people talking about them. And at some point, the signatures of those 100,000 citizens might have an impact on the way that the education of those smartly dressed six-year-olds is organised and, above all, paid for.

Katarzyna Zielińska is a sociologist at the Jagiellonian University, specialising in issues of religion and gender.

Ben Koschalka is a British translator based in Krakow.

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