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Hungary: New public education law takes a swing at alternative schools

Budapest, Hungary – New amendments to Hungarian public education laws were passed by parliament on 12 July. With the ultimate aim of further homogenising the Hungarian education system, the proposed reforms carry important implications for both state schools and privately funded alternative institutions, as well as homeschooled pupils.

Homogenising the Hungarian education system

Firstly, the new bill withdraws the power from state school staff and so-called ‘parent committees’ to nominate headmasters in order to increase the authority of the government in decision-making. On a practical level, this modification suggests that state schools will be under pressure to conform and that important positions are likely to be filled by Fidesz-related individuals only. Independent-minded teachers and staff will find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation in which professional advancement is only achievable through a potential compromise of values. 

Secondly, alternative and private educational institutions are also affected. Their independent operation is endangered by the new requirement according to which at least 70% of the structure of alternative education provided has to be based on national guidelines set out by the government. It is exactly the structural difference of alternative schools that distinguishes them from state school education. By prohibiting them from substantially differing from state school guidelines, their raison d’etre is undermined. 

Furthermore, a key element of the modifications concerns the option of homeschooling. While in practice, homeschooling will not be prohibited, a potentially important (and somewhat vague) change will take place: instead of headmasters, it will be now decided by an external, governmental authority whether a child can acquire the ‘student with an individualised curriculum’ – in other words, homeschooled status. Such a modification is aimed at dismantling so-called ‘learning circles’, as it is increasingly common that parents team up to educate their children in smaller, often more efficient, privately organised learning groups. 

On the one hand, the majority of these learning groups were established for children with learning difficulties or disabilities that are often stigmatised or rejected by the traditional Hungarian school environment. However, the homeschooling option has also provided a gateway for parents dissatisfied with the increasingly regimented atmosphere of state schools, which tends to hinder rather than to encourage the development of a critical mindset. This amendment thus intends to strengthen regulations over parental attempts to provide a more needs-based and individualised education for their children. 

education-hungary-protest
Hungary’s education system has been heavily critised in recent years for not encouraging critical thinking or creativity. Credit: VOA.

Taking away parents’ right to choose

The amendments in question have faced objection from various alternative schools and civic associations. The Parents’ Voice Community, a civil platform for Hungarian parents, teachers and students, released a public statement signed by more than 40 civil groups and supported by major political parties from various sides of the political spectrum, such as the Socialist Party (MSZP), the left-wing Democratic Coalition (DK), the centrist Momentum or the right-wing Jobbik. The statement emphasises that the new law takes away parents’ right to choose the most appropriate form of education for his child’ and that ‘it does not create the financial or personal conditions for schools to deal with children with special educational needs, learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities or disadvantaged children who have been forced into private school status and who are not yet in school’. They demand the withdrawal of the amendments and urge authorities to involve parents and teachers in education-related decision-making. 

Overall, while the new laws seemingly initiate only minor changes to the educational system, their impact on Hungarian education as a whole will undoubtedly be profound. As the education of those with learning difficulties or special needs cannot be fulfilled within the boundaries of the current Hungarian state school system, it seems contradictory to restrict access to alternative, needs-based ways of teaching. The law is a clear example of how Fidesz tries to police what and who counts as ‘normal’ in today’s Hungary; children who deviate from the ‘norm’ are likely to struggle to catch up with their peers in such a rigid system. 

As the Parents’ Voice Community put it, ‘the foundation of good education is the atmosphere of trust’. It is exactly this trust that is lacking altogether from today’s Hungarian education system. As neither teachers nor parents are trusted with decision-making, Hungarian students’ future increasingly lies in the hands of government officials only. Such an atmosphere of distrust ultimately affects learning environments and is in stark contrast with the democratic ideal of the open-minded, critical classroom.

By Zsofi Borsi

A Budapest-born politics and economics graduate of Durham University, UK, Zsofi Borsi wrote her thesis on conspiracy theories present in Hungarian online political discourse. Zsofi has worked as an intern at various political and non-governmental organisations in Hungary, such as Political Capital Research and Consultancy Institute, Tom Lantos Institute or Klubrádió. To check out her latest articles, it’s right here!

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