Hungary Insight

Hungary’s “pandemic generation” faces multiple challenges on the education front

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Budapest, Hungary – A pandemic-generation has been born not only in Hungary, but all over the world. Children, pupils and teenagers played their part in a life of constraint and restrictions, and will soon feel the consequences of their quickly changing lifestyle, not to mention the transition from traditional education to online teaching. Here is what teachers think of the present and future of the pandemic-generation, and how the Hungarian education system could adapt to the new situation.

Grades don’t tell the whole story

Hungarian schools switched to online teaching rather suddenly last March during the first wave of Covid-19. Most schools were unprepared, to say the least, but the first two months did not bring any significant changes in grades, and the number of pupils forced to repeat their school year decreased by 40%.

While Hungary’s Ministry of Human Resources prefers to highlight last year’s apparently positive figures, in reality, the months-long restrictions exhausted students, teachers and parents alike, forced to assist their kids’ development while working from home at the same time. The only help they usually received from schools in that unprecedented period of digital schooling was a list of exercises to be done by the student, forcing to multi-task and juggle the roles of workers, parents and teachers simultaneously.

In addition to this, as most of the people I talked to emphasized, a mutual agreement came into being between students and teachers in which both parties took the others’ difficulties into account, and teachers tended to give much better grades to students out of sheer generosity and in a – somewhat misplaced, some might argue – sentiment of solidarity.

This led to an improvement in the statistics, and an unintentionally misleading grading system that didn’t reflect the actual facts or progress made by students. One should add that most schools did not fully understand the concept of online teaching in the first place, and only the special or private institutions had an actual plan ready to switch to online education.

During the second wave of the pandemic, the government did everything it could to keep the education system running and schools open, and let parents work. In fact, closing elementary schools amidst the pandemic became in many cases extremely difficult for bureaucratic reasons. Many schools were thus operating with half of their staff or classes working offline, even though some of the contact-teachers were infected with the coronavirus. As cases surged, high-schools and universities went online in November 2020, and have been working this way since then.

Trust and soft skills: Education in the age of the coronavirus pandemic

Those special and alternative schools who’ve paid special attention to personal contact might have the best results in the end, but even they had a tough time getting there. “There’s a gradual ‘dumbing down’ of performance”, says Michael, a teacher at one of Budapest’s leading alternative schools. “Kids and teenagers are less active in the online classroom, and it’s not easy to get them interested”, he explains, adding that the testing system had to be changed as well, even though there hasn’t been any evidence – as one might have feared – of a surge in cheating practices among students, possibly thanks to the already well-established trust with the teachers.

“However, the topics had to be changed as well”, an idea that other educators tend to emphasise as well. “We talk about what’s going on, how they feel, what their expectations are.” This is precisely the same idea that Kata Kerényi, a teacher at another Budapest alternative school, brought up. Her progressive attitude and optimism are refreshing, but also rather unusual in a country dominated by an originally “Prussian educational system”, where pre-established rules take precedence over creativity, innovation and adaptation.

“This pandemic will not necessarily block our students’ future. They’ll learn a lot, but maybe not the curriculum. Is it really that bad? I mean, the love poetry of Sándor Petőfi, for instance, is extremely important. I can see that, but if our kids learn new communication techniques instead of poetic analysis, I’d venture to say that it was worth it,” she explained, adding: “Also, if we don’t talk about what is happening, they won’t be able to focus on the curriculum either.” Both teachers agree that reflecting on and talking about the current situation is essential, and that online education is the trial period to test and examine what they have achieved with their students so far: how much they managed, despite the extraordinary circumstances, to build trust and human connections with them.

A multi-speed education system accentuated by the pandemic

Kata Kerényi accentuates, however, that the question of end-of-high-school exams is an extremely delicate and stressful one, as they have no idea how to prepare the students. According to Hungarian authorities, there will be no change in the exams this year. But as no one truly knows how the pandemic will develop, and considering how much confusion and social debate was sparked by last year’s Matura exams, there is nothing really certain about this year’s prospects.

“Confusion and uncertainties bother us, and the children as well. It is especially important to those whose future depends on the results”, she adds. “We try to make it a challenge, tell them how exciting it is to be in the history books, but often it’s really difficult. We have to keep our spirits up, and console each other every time someone feels blue. That is not easy and a challenge for my colleagues and I as well.”

Michael depicts this new “pandemic generation” as children who know more precisely what they want than their predecessors, and emphasises that this teenage group is less willing to sacrifice their lives and future. “They have goals, a whole planet to lose, and many are already planning to leave the country. The moment they are able to travel, they’ll do it: for fun, for study and for work.”

This might be true for the middle-class, upper-middle-class students, but what happens to the less advantaged ones? According to the latest OECD education report, GDP could decrease by 1.5% on average due to educational fall out. This means that despite the seemingly good grades of last year and the special efforts of the few alternative schools operating mainly in the capital Budapest, many children have been – and will continue to be – hit hard by the side-effects of the pandemic.

This is especially true for marginalized students, poor children living in remote villages where, due to technical, social and financial difficulties, digital education for all is hard to achieve. Máté Lencse, head of a “tanoda” (special institution for after-school activities) operated by the Real Pearl Foundation in Told, a village close to the Romanian border, confirms the negative outlook and agrees with the claims of the two Budapest teachers, only from another perspective (the Real Pearl Foundation was established in order to help children living in undeveloped areas, under difficult social and financial circumstances.)

A lost generation of pupils?

“The first lockdown was rather unexpected, children and teachers were all unprepared. Many of our students had no computer at home, no desk, no private space, and had no real digital knowledge whatsoever”, he says. “Moreover, our pupils are not ready to work independently, that’s not what they’ve learnt at school. If they’re given a chapter to read and an exercise to finish, they’ll complete nothing. The parents usually can’t help them even if they want to, as they usually have a lower level of schooling,” he explains.

“Whoever comes to our place, is lucky, but there is no ‘tanoda’ in most of the villages. Here, we hold their hands and help them advance in their studies, but there are several moral questions involved”, he says. The balance between helping pupils in need and teaching them how to become more autonomous is a hard one to achieve. “For example, if I help them, they’ll get the best grades, if I don’t, then the worst, and if I help a little, they’ll be somewhere in between. What shall I do then?” Máté Lencse doubts whether we’ll see this educational lapse in the actual numbers anytime soon, even though it is already there.

Talking about the curriculum, he points out that being able to adapt knowledge to the current situation is a privilege. “As far as I can see, the schools want to convey the same material that they have conveyed for decades. There is no change, how could there be in such a short time? Yet our children are not ready to learn, let’s say poetry, remotely. It is one thing that they are familiar with every app on their mobile phones and can be social media experts, but it doesn’t mean they are able to use google classroom assuming they own a computer at all.”

He stresses that there are a number of children who lack the basic skills and knowledge, and in these chaotic circumstances they won’t be able to catch up. In consequence, there’s the possibility that these will eventually be lost to the educational system and fall out of the radar. Máté Lencse stresses that “we pretend everything is normal, but these dropouts have to have an effect, and the victims are those who are in the worst position. Whoever entered digital schooling with a bigger disadvantage, will come out with an even greater one. We try to back them up, but we can’t be everywhere all at once.”

By Vera Bendl

Based in Budapest, Vera is a Hungarian journalist and editor, as well as the writer of a short story collection and some children’s books. You can check out her other articles on Kafkadesk, or visit her personal blog and website!