The school education reform, regulated by two Acts of 14 December 2016, The Law on School Education (ustawa z dnia 14 grudnia 2016 r. – Prawo oświatowe) and The Provisions introducing the Law on School Education (ustawa z dnia 14 grudnia 2016 r. – Przepisy wprowadzające Prawo oświatowe), has re-established the model of 8-year primary education that was in place until the end of the school year 1998/1999. Primary / single-structure education is compulsory for all pupils, including pupils with a disability. Only children with profound intellectual disabilities follow full-time compulsory education in the form of so-called rehabilitation and education classes.
The Minister of Education and Science (formerly, the Minister of National Education) sets national standards for education in schools, while communes (gmina) are local government units responsible for administering primary schools (as so-called school administering bodies). Primary schools can be public or non-public institutions, but public schools can also be established or administered by private entities (natural persons or legal entities) under certain conditions. However, all non-public primary schools should meet the requirements set for public schools and, this, have so-called public-school status. Non-public primary schools are administered by legal entities (corporate bodies) (for example, associations, foundations, religious organisations) and natural persons. Public primary schools do not charge tuition fees.
As primary / single-structure education is compulsory, primary schools are most evenly spread across the country. Due to the demographic factors, rural schools are usually much smaller than those in urban areas.
In the school year 2020/2021, there were, in total, 14,297 primary schools, including special schools, for children and young people. They were attended by around 3.1 million pupils. The Polish education system also includes – very few – primary schools for adults (78 in the reference period). More detailed statistics in Polish and English are available in the Central Statistical Office’s publication ‘Education in the 2020/2021 school year’.
Access to public schools is ensured through catchment areas. These are areas designated by law within the jurisdiction of a given commune (gmina) (one or more localities or their parts). Children living in the catchment area of a given primary school have a statutory right to attend it, and this is taken into consideration in the regulations concerning the admission process (see below).
If the distance between the public school and the pupil’s place of residence (in rural areas) exceeds 3 km (grades I to IV) or 4 km (grades V to VIII), the commune is required to provide free transport or pay fares for public transport.
Admission requirements and choice of school
Since 1 September 2016, primary / single-structure education has been compulsory for all 7-years-old children. Six-year-old children are admitted to grade I at the request of their parents, if they have a positive opinion on their school readiness from a counselling and guidance centre and have completed one preparatory year of preschool education (either in a nursery school or in a preschool education class in the primary school).
Where this is justified by valid reasons, admission to the primary school may be deferred for up to one year. Only in exceptional cases, due to the pupil’s disability confirmed by a certificate recommending special education, can admission be deferred for a longer period, however only until the end of the school year in the calendar year in which the child reaches the age of 9. The school head takes the decision on admission or deferral of admission upon consultation with a counselling and guidance centre.
Heads of public primary schools are required by the Law on School Education (ustawa z dnia 14 grudnia 2016 r. – Prawo oświatowe (and earlier by the School Education Act / ustawa z dnia 7 września 1991 r. o systemie oświaty)) to monitor participation in full-time compulsory education for all children and young people aged 7 to 18 years. Thus, heads of public primary schools keep a register of children living in their catchment areas and send a reminder letter to parents (legal guardians) of children who are not registered in a school or do not attend school classes. A commune (gmina) applies administrative sanctions for failure to participate in full-time compulsory education despite a reminder.
Communes are divided into catchment areas in order to provide even access to schools. The division into catchment areas is based on a plan for the network of public primary schools administered by a given commune (Article 39 (5) of the Law on School Education). Any change in the boundaries of a catchment area involves a change in the school network, which requires a positive opinion from the head of the regional education authorities (REA) (kurator oświaty).
Primary schools are required to take children living in their catchment area. If places are available, the school can additionally take children living outside a given catchment area at their parents’ request. Admission criteria for vacant places in primary schools are defined locally by a resolution of the council of the commune, based on general statutory provisions (Article 133 (2) and (3) of the Law on School Education).
Age levels and grouping of pupils
A class (also referred to as ‘division’ in national legislation) is the basic organisational unit in the primary school (and in schools at higher levels of education) in Poland. It (nominally) groups pupils of the same age who jointly follow the same curriculum under the supervision of teachers. Roman numerals are used to designate classes.
Grouping into classes is based on the age of pupils as the basic criterion and, where applicable (at the education stage comprising grades IV to VIII), on the promotion of the pupil to the next grade. Each class is supervised by a class teacher or tutor. As a rule, the teacher / tutor holds this function throughout an education stage, that is separately for early school education (grades I to III) and for subject-based education (grades IV to VIII).
The legislation does not define the minimum or maximum size of a class. However, in some cases, regulations provide for an exception to the rule; for example, the number of pupils in grades I to III of the primary school is, as a general rule, limited to 25. However, in view of a mass influx of Ukrainian citizens seeking temporary protection in Poland, special provisions of the Regulation of 21 March 2022 on the organisation of education and care for children and young people who are Ukrainian nationals (see above) allow schools to increase temporarily the number of pupils in a class. Regulations for special and integrated primary schools (which take disabled or socially maladjusted pupils) may provide for other exceptions on the basis of the School Education Act (ustawa o systemie oświaty); for example, the maximum number of pupils per class in integrated schools and classes is 20, including up to 5 disabled pupils.
For some school activities / classes, pupils are further divided into groups. In grades IV to VIII of the primary school, this is obligatory in the following cases:
- for compulsory computer science and IT classes, where classes have more than 24 pupils; furthermore, the number of pupils in a group may not exceed the number of computers in the computer lab;
- for compulsory foreign language classes, where classes have more than 24 pupils; classes can be taught in a class group, cross-class group or cross-grade group of up to 24 pupils; pupils should be grouped according to the level of proficiency in a modern foreign language;
- for up to 50% of compulsory general education classes which, based on curricular contents, should comprise practical classes (including lab classes): in classes which have more than 30 pupils;
- compulsory physical education classes.
Detailed arrangements should be based on the statutes of a given primary school.
Organisation of the school year
The school year in Poland starts on 1 September and ends on 31 August in the next year (Article 94 of the Law on School Education (ustawa – Prawo oświatowe). It includes the period when classes are taught and holidays / summer and winter breaks and other breaks.
Classes in a school year run from the first working day of September until the first Friday after 20 June. Classes are divided into two semesters, separated by the winter break of two weeks.
The summer break begins on the Saturday following the final day of classes and ends on 31 August.
The dates of the winter break vary between the provinces. The break is set between mid-January and the end of February and lasts for two weeks. The exact timing of the break is defined by the head of the regional education authorities (kurator oświaty) in agreement with the governor of the province. Schools in Poland also have Christmas and Easter breaks of a few days.
Detailed information on the organisation of the school year (start and end dates of the school year, dates of summer holidays and winter breaks with geographical variations, as well as public / religious holidays) is available in the annually updated Eurydice publication ‘The Organisation of school time in Europe, 2021/2022’
Organisation of the school day and week
Pursuant to the Regulation of the Minister of National Education of 28 February 2019 on the detailed organisational arrangements for public schools and nursery schools (rozporządzenie Ministra Edukacji Narodowej z dnia 28 lutego 2019 r. w sprawie szczegółowej organizacji publicznych szkół i publicznych przedszkoli), the head of a school providing full-time programmes determines the number of weekdays on which classes are conducted. Classes are normally taught on five days per week, from Monday to Friday. Some schools, in particular those providing vocational education, are, however, explicitly allowed by law to extend the working week to six days where this is justified by specific working conditions. The school head takes decisions in these matters after consultation with the competent school bodies, including the teaching council (rada pedagogiczna) (composed of the head and all teachers) and the school council (rada szkoły) (composed of teachers, parents and pupils).
Classes usually start at 8 a.m. and finish around 2-3 p.m. in upper grades if the school works in one shift (they last longer if the school works in two or three shifts). Each lesson (period) lasts 45 minutes, but the duration of lessons in grades I to III of the primary school is determined by the teacher. Breaks usually last from 5 to 25 minutes. The duration of the school day also depends on the size of the school building, the number of classrooms and other facilities available for after-school activities.
The school weekly timetable is established by the school head after consultation with the school council and the teaching council.