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Hungarians protest state’s grip on education

Budapest / AFP

Thousands of Hungarians angry at the state’s tight grip on public education rallied on Saturday in Budapest, in one of the biggest street protests against Prime Minister Viktor Orban in recent years.
Soon after coming to power in 2010, his rightwing government launched sweeping reforms of the public education system, which it said was too liberal and had failed children.
It brought schools under the control of a state agency KLIK, introduced a national curriculum, centralised teaching material, and imposed minimum hours for pupils.
But teachers have long slammed the changes for taking place without professional consensus, a charge often levelled at Orban whose powerful supermajority won six years ago allowed him to rewrite the constitution.
Among Saturday’s crowd —estimated at over 10,000 by an AFP photographer, despite pouring rain — demonstrators held banners reading “Free country! Free school!” and chanted “Orban get out!”.
The teachers’ movement began November 27 when the board of a prestigious high school in the eastern city of Miskolc posted an open protest letter online.
“The whole education system is in danger, everything has turned to chaos,” it read. Since then, more than 700 schools and 30,000 teachers and parents put their names to the letter.
Last week, some 5,000 teachers, parents and students marched through Miskolc.
“There are daily problems like not getting enough chalk, teachers are overburdened, as are the children, they have to spend more time learning than an adult does working,” Oliver Pilz, a teacher at the Miskolc high school, told AFP on Saturday.
The rally was the biggest anti-government demonstration since 2014 when street protests drew tens of thousands outraged by a planned tax on Internet usage.
The protests forced the government into a rare U-turn and led to a sharp drop in approval ratings for the ruling Fidesz party.
However, Orban now enjoys strong public support again mainly due to his hardline approach to the migration crisis, which included building fences on Hungary’s southern borders in 2015 to keep refugees out.
The 52-year-old strongman has nevertheless appeared rattled by the scale of the teachers’ movement.
Known for usually sticking with his loyal allies, he demoted the state secretary for education February 6.
He also allegedly accused the teachers of being directed by “external forces”, at a closed-doors party meeting last week.
The new state secretary has pledged to reform KLIK and invited teachers to talks, but unions have called the moves cosmetic, are insisting on a system overhaul and are threatening strike action.

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