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Hungary: The Renaissance of Church-Owned Schools

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Historically, Hungarian education has always been of high quality. However, it is impossible to sustain high quality education without money. Right now the country is seriously lacking financial resources for education and an old form of PPP – church-run schools – could well experience a renaissance. But a renaissance at what cost?

These past few months Hungary has been in the grips of an extended educational reform which has led to widespread discussions and protests. (Future Challenges blogger Kinga Szálkai described this reform a few months ago in her Local View.) Besides sweeping changes, there is a pressing need for money, and not only for the universities.

Ask a church to take it over

A high number of primary and secondary public schools are currently struggling with very serious financial problems. On top of this a new law coming into force in January 2013 states that all schools currently financed by local government (4169 to be precise or around 70% of all Hungarian schools) must become state-owned and state-financed. A lot of local governments consider this a very bad deal, saying that the state does not have enough money to maintain the current quality of education. Consequently, since the law allows it, local governments are now trying to find alternative solutions the most popular of which seems to be to find a church that becomes the maintainer (owner and funder) of the school.

School starts in September 2011 in the Saint Benedict School Center. Photo by Gergely Botár on

Church-run schools are not a new idea in Hungary. They have been around since the Middle Ages, and were allowed to revive in the ’90s in the post-socialist period . Now they will probably revive once more.

Last year’s numbers can prove it. At the beginning of the school year 2011/2012, the Catholic Church in Hungary took over 41 education institutions (mainly schools and kindergartens) from local governments while the Reformed Church in Hungary has 12 new institutions, and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church has taken over 6. These numbers will further increase in the coming years. As negotiations are still on-going, there is a lack of exact data but approximately 100 schools are expected to change hands this year.

Better for everybody?

These figures do not mean that Hungarians have suddenly become much more religious. What they show is that the takeovers seem good business for (almost) all the parties involved in this real form of public-private partnership. They are good for the churches because they can exert an influence on hundreds of children and try to convince them to follow their respective faiths. They are good for the schools too because by law church-run schools are entitled to significantly more public money than local government-run ones – in fact almost double the sum!

Local government also seems to be advantaged, because with present regulations a church takeover means that the local government can save a lot of money. The overall costs for national government are greater, because of the supplementary grants for church-run facilities. Yet on the other hand, the movement tailors well with the goals of the government’s education policy, namely to promote ethical and religious education. This goal is apparently worth the money for the ministry.

So who looses out on such a deal? The answer is those students/parents who have no choice but go/send their children to these schools taken over by a church. As many smaller villages have only one school and the closest neighbouring village is too far away, such a takeover can represent a violation of the right to unbiased, neutral education.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the mass inaugurating the school year at the Piarist Grammar School in Budapest, September 2011. Photo by Károly Árvai on

Sometimes the transfer is not good for the teachers either, because they have to agree to follow religious regulations at school if they want to stay in work, even if they are not believers. This might mean attending religious services or signing a statement about religious ways of living. Unless the teacher agrees, the only way out is to find another job.

The influence of churches in schools is exerted on very different levels, from a crucifix displayed on the wall to attendance at frequent and obligatory religious services. The national curriculum is unified and mandatory, but divinity and ethics will be a compulsory subject from the school year 2012/2013. In church-run schools this may lead to a great amount of preaching and much less factual education.

Some churches are more equal than others

The advantageous conditions underpinning takeovers do not apply to all churches equally. The new ecclesiastical law (aimed to benefit the churches with a higher number of followers and longer traditions) has split churches in several categories, the highest of which is the so-called “historical church”. Some religious groups have failed to be acknowledged by this law and will now also lose the supplementary public money needed to run a school or retirement home.

At the same time, the Faith Church, although founded as late as 1979, has managed to receive the “historical church” status. This church has quite a bad reputation among a part of the population, mostly because it is seen as a “business church”. The Faith Church also runs its own schools and recently two local governments have asked them for to take over schools. This caused a huge political turmoil in which the far-right opposition party Jobbik called the Faith Church an “extremely anti-Hungarian, Zionist sect” – referring to and maginfying existing rumours.

Kids in kindergarden. Photo by Csaba Pelsőczy on

To sum up, churches do indeed have experience in providing and finacing education and can therefore be partners in a PPP construction for education. However, their revival in Hungary is by no means straightforward. It is complicated affair to turn a school from a public to a religious institution, mostly because of children’s right to neutral education. It is even more complicated if the population is set against the church itself or if the issue turns from a question of education policy into a matter of political propaganda. Even so, since at the moment a lot of local governments have no better ideas for solving the financing problems of the schools they are responsible for, most probably they will continue to take these risks. The churches will run more schools, the government will pay – and what will happen to the students? Only God knows…

Note: The author has received permission from the copyright holder to use all photos for the platform.

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Anikó Mészáros Twitter: @dusmii

International Relations expert, in love with Central and Northern Europe, security studies and regional cooperation.