Warsaw has plenty of history and culture for expats to get their teeth in to and has a thriving, adventurous and multi cultural expat community.
This is combined with an increasing number of wealthy and internationally minded Polish families who wish to see their children educated in English through an international system providing a future path to higher education abroad (with some prestige and kudos thrown in for good measure). The result is a few well-established international schools which serve the need for multi national, British or American-style education.
The Polish Education system
Expat families can opt to apply to the Polish public school system (non fee paying). However, many decide that this is not a suitable option for their children. The international schools are usually the preferred route for mobile expat children who have no or only a very basic knowledge of Polish and would find it difficult to keep up in a regular Polish school.
Even where children speak neither English nor Polish, families tend to select schools with the British/American curriculum if they’re looking for an education that’s recognised internationally and can be transferred between countries.
Despite the above, there are some expat families who may wish to immerse their children - in ‘the deep end is good for you, darling’ parenting style - in the free education of their host country and indeed some do. If the long-term career agenda has Poland in the 5 year + box, or a child is already competent in another language at home or maybe has a Polish parent or Polish connections, this can be a viable option, albeit more often for younger children.
The Polish school system has undergone a number of reforms and is increasingly moving away from the rote learning of communist times, but is not abandoning its focus on core subjects. Following the freedom and democracy post 1989, a huge appetite for change and progression in cultural and economic life evolved. Over the years this has translated into increased demand for and supply of better education.
A recent UK Telegraph article highly praised the Polish state education system as leading the way for England's schools’, thanks largely to various education reforms resulting in Poland advancing by leaps and bounds through the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings. Specifically, Poland is amongst the top 10 nations for reading and science, and the top 15 for maths.
Following the reforms in Poland, children spend more time studying core academic subjects and vocational study has been delayed until 16 years of age. Poles take great pride in their education and hold the belief that by doing well in school, their children can do more in their lives.
Children now start school age 5 in an introductory pre school year (Przedszkole).
This is followed by 6 years of Primary School. The first school years (I-III) are taught through integrated education system lead by one teacher. School years IV-VI are divided into subjects taught by specialized teachers. The six years of primary school end with the Certificate of Completion of Primary School Education.
The 3 years of Gymnasium include a more detailed curriculum. For example, science is divided into: physics with astronomy, biology, geography and chemistry. Social science is divided into history and sociology. The final exams taken after the 3rd year are then decisive for the further education. After Gymnasium school is no longer compulsory.
Liceum, Technikum and Szkola Zawodowa
Those who want to study after school can choose between a Liceum for three years or a Technical College Technikum for four years. Alternatively, students can attend a Vocational school (Szkola Zawodowa) for two years that focuses on preparation for manual professions.
Following the completion of education in a Liceum or Technikum, students can pass the maturity examination (Matura) to obtain a Maturity Certificate, which allows them to take entrance exams to higher education according to their choice, often a University, University of Technology or Medical Academy.
Private, fee-paying education is relatively new in Poland, having only been introduced in the late 1980s. Many private schools in Poland are run by religious or social organisations and can also rely on private or parent donations. These schools are independent of the government and not restricted to following the national curriculum.
Schools offering the IB Diploma Programme
A handful of Polish schools in Warsaw now offer IB Diploma Programme in English. Of note are four private schools which offer bi-lingual (Polish/English) classes for the Diploma years. This can be a good option for some of the top performing Polish students who wish to graduate from a Polish School with an international qualification in English. However, with tough entrance exams in Polish, these can be a tall order for expat children.
(Nazereth) Gimnazjum i Liceum Ogólnokształcące Sióstr Nazaretanek (private)
(Raszynska) Liceum Jam Saheba Digvijay Sinhji Bednarska (private)
(Batory) Gimnazjum i Liceum Stefana Batorego
(Kopernika) Kopernika Liceum im. M. Kopernika
British and American International Schools
There are many benefits of sending a child to one of Poland’s international schools: internationally recognised accreditations (IB, IGSCEs), a focus on small teaching groups and personal development, interesting and abundant extracurricular activities and diverse and multinational parent, teacher and student groups. These benefits, however, do not come at a low price with annual tuition fees in some cases reaching over 80,000pln (approx. 20,000 Euros) in the senior years.
For English speaking expats, the top two on the leaderboard for popularity are the British School, Warsaw and the American School of Warsaw (not to be confused with the International American School of Warsaw). Generally, the Brits opt for the familiarity, structure and rigor of the English Curriculum and the Americans prefer the American based curriculum and spacious campus facilities.
Other International Schools
With expat perks coming and going and reappearing again, the high fees of the British and American schools may not be manageable for all expat families. There are therefore a few Polish private international schools which offer an education taught in English for considerably less.
These schools in general have a high percentage of Polish children and a curriculum which, although taught in English, is largely focused on the Polish curriculum and are considered ‘second tier’ to the British and American Schools. Some families, however, prefer schools dominated by stable populations of local Polish children over the more transient international schools, with their expat families coping with 2-3 year corporate and diplomatic postings. Children are also more likely to pick up Polish as a second language from their peers in the playground.
The curriculum varies between the schools but usually has a focus on the Polish core curriculum as defined by the Polish Ministry of Education. Polish nationals are required to cover these core subjects including Polish language, Polish history and geography, Polish maths, Polish science - biology chemistry and physics. At High School level a more flexible approach can be adopted by the schools. For example, at the International American School different programmes are taught in tandem with 3 paths to graduation including the Polish Matura, American High School Diploma and IB Diploma programme.
This can suit a family seeking a flexible and international education. However, this may not appeal to a British family used to a more traditional structured Key Stage educational journey or looking to maintain continuity with a British System.
International American School of Warsaw www.ias.edu.pl
International European School www.ies.waw.pl
The Canadian School of Warsaw www.canadian-school.pl
Non-English Language International Schools
The French and German Schools in Warsaw appeal to English speaking families who wish for their children to leave Warsaw bi-lingual in one of those languages (and where Polish is not a preferred second language). The French (primary school), German and the British School, Warsaw are all located in the vicinity of the Sadyba/Wilanow area.
This provides families with an option to use different schools for children within the same family depending on what grades they are. In particular this approach is taken in the early years education. (Nursery through to year 2). For example where English is spoken at home, the French and German Schools will expose children to a foreign language and also have introductory Polish classes - a good and well used option in Warsaw if you are happy to move your children around to cement a bi or tri lingual education at an early age.
French: Lycée Français de Varsovie www.lfv.pl
German: Willy Brandt Deutsche Schule Warschau www.wbs.pl
There is also a Japanese School located at the Japanese embassy. www.japoland.pl
The School Commute
Warsaw is very much a driving city as far as the school run is concerned. Very few families brave a long walk along the cracked and often icy pavements, possibly sharing it vehicles who readily hump a kerb to shave a few minutes off their journey time. For families used to hopping on scenic ferries to school, walking along country lanes or cycling along canal paths, this part can be a bit of a downer. However, when it plummets to a chilly minus 20° in winter or rises to a sweaty 35°C in summer, the car becomes a hero. Traffic is never really an issue with wide three lane highways linking most of the city and a host of back lane ‘cut throughs’ to ring the changes or to avoid any roadworks.
Generally, families tend to keep school journeys short (approx 10-15mins) by choosing to live near their school, primarily around the Wilanow/Sadbya area. This wider area is home to the British, French, German, International European School and a host of pre school options. The British School run a bus service for the little ones between the main campus to the Early Years Campus a short distance across Warsaw. The thought of putting your little 3 year old on a bus can pull at the heart strings but if a parent can get over this hurdle, it is a practical and well used service.
The school run for the American School of Warsaw, located in Konstancin, an open area south of the city, is an exception given that a large proportion of families opt to live in the compound ‘bubble’ surrounding the school, making afternoon sports and activities as well as family events easy to get to. Older children can and do cycle or walk to school by themselves. The American School also arranges a door-to-door mini bus service at a fee.
All in all, the school commute at the international schools can be a sociable time. Children from 60 countries are being dropped off, saying their goodbyes in a range of languages and parting gestures. The eclectic mix of parents, some sporting stilettoes in the snow, some opting for a puffa over PJ’s, certainly brightens up a grey Warsaw day. Car pooling is also common as parents often have larger cars deemed suitable for the potholes and therefore have a capacity for additional children.
A down to earth city with a Warsaw Tourism motto of ‘Fall in Love with Warsaw’. Many do and it’s their secret. The well-coined phrase ‘Warsaw will make you cry twice – once when you know you are moving to there and secondly when you leave’ is very true. Tears at school graduations are often as much for the city and what it has brought to them as much as for their fellow peers.
Maybe Warsaw has realized this, hence the ‘Study in Poland’ programme. With costs of tuition and living high in other European cities, Poland presents an increasingly popular prospect. The future of education in Poland is looking rosy.