Shambolic public education in Hungary — PISA survey paints grim picture

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, showing a dramatic decline in the scores of Hungarian teenagers and an especially grim picture of just how poorly children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds fare at school. Every three years, PISA assesses the scholastic performance of 15 year old students in 72 countries, based on results obtained from 500,000 students. Hungarian teenagers fared much worse in the sciences and reading comprehension/literacy than they did in 2012, while math scores were unchanged. Hungary is well below the average of OECD countries in all three categories. Hungary’s PISA score has been declining since 2009, but the current drop is more dramatic than ever before. In the sciences, Hungary went from 494 to 477 points, while in reading comprehension the decline was from 488 to 470.

To put this into perspective:

Average science score: 493 points
Hungary’s science score: 477 points

Average math score: 490 points
Hungary’s math score: 477 points

Average reading score: 493 points
Hungary’s reading score: 470 points

Hungary finds itself in 40th place internationally, out of 70 ranked countries, when it comes to reading comprehension. In comparison, Canada is in 2nd place. The United Kingdom is in 21st place and the United States is 24th. Regionally, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia all performed better than Hungary.

More troubling for Hungary, however, is that unlike in most OECD countries, Hungarian public education has completely failed to integrate children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Schools with a higher concentration of children from disadvantaged backgrounds fared much worse than schools where students come from more affluent families. The gap between these two is among the largest of OECD countries. When asked to comment, the Ministry of Human Capacities, which oversees public education, highlighted that a child’s socio-economic background and the proportion of poorer students, played a major role in how different schools performed. The Ministry also claims that some student may not have been accustomed to taking these tests digitally, which may partially explain the low scores compared to other OECD countries.

The opposition Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is calling on Minister Zoltán Balog to resign over the disastrous results. “The result represents the total bankruptcy of the government’s dumbed down educational policies,” said Ágnes Kunhalmi, an MSZP MP who chairs Parliament’s Cultural Affairs Committee.

Hungarian teachers protest the Orbán government's education policies in Budapest earlier this year. The banner reads: I would teach. The future of our children is at stake." Photo: Népszava

Hungarian teachers protest the Orbán government’s education policies in Budapest earlier this year. The banner reads: “I would teach. The future of our children is at stake.” Photo: Népszava

The Orbán government is spending less on public education than almost any other developed state–and it is starting to show. For instance, in 2013 (the most recent year with comprehensive data on this subject) the government spent only 76% on public education of what it had spent in 2008.  According to researcher Péter Radó, Hungarians have known since 2000, that students are performing below the average of developed countries. The scores in the following decade stagnated, but then showed signs of improvement in reading comprehension in 2009. In 2012, Hungary’s scores dropped and part of the reason may have been the on-going economic impact of the 2008 financial crisis and growing poverty in Hungary. But the other reason was the fact that Fidesz, since returning to power in 2010, often communicated in a way that downplayed the importance of education, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to Mr. Radó, each year public education in Hungary produces an additional 25,000 young adults who are functionally illiterate. Some 26,000 young Hungarians leave school every year without having the most basic math skills needed in everyday adult life. But perhaps most alarming: almost one third of 15 year old boys in Hungary (32%) are functionally illiterate. Every year, public education in Hungary produces over 17,000 young adults who are unemployable.

It is abundantly clear that Fidesz, since coming to power in 2010, has denigrated a system of public education that had already been struggling. The fact that Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár recently said that “the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians” is a stark reminder of how one of the government’s most powerful ministers sees the state’s role in public education.



  1. Avatar Pierre Divenyi says:

    Mind you, reading/writing in Hungarian is a lot easier than in English: it has a phonetic alphabet with one symbol (=letter) connected to one sound, with few exceptions. So, the deplorable statistics of Hungarian 15-year olds would correspond to a lower score for anglophone teenagers.

  2. Pingback: Kimagasló eredmény: A PISA felmérés szerint a kanadai diákok második helyen állnak olvasásban

  3. Christopher, last week I gave a presentation titled: The Lost Logic of Elementary Mathematics. Perhaps it could/should have been titled: The Lost Logic of WESTERN Elementary Mathematics, as it traces the West’s relative decline compared to the East, back to 1570, just when China’s and India’s mathematics should have been embraced. Instead, the West got stuck with Euclidean arithmetic without either zero or negative numbers. I would be interested in your feedback and that of your readers.The article is at

  4. The state of education in Hungary from elementary level to university is deplorable. Instead of putting EU subsidies into health and education Orbán stuffs the pockets of his oligarchs, his family members and builds soccer stadiums on every street-corner. If there was a banana republic without bananas, Hungary under Fidesz is the place.

  5. It’s true but please note that this is not a localized Hungarian problem and the main reason behind this decline is not necessary Hungary or the Orban government. Of course it doesn’t acquit them from responsibility, but they only bear the the responsibility of they couldn’t help.

    But who could solve this problem. Sincerely, could you? Tell me how.

    There are countries where the government was forced to reduce the curriculum for the poor mental abilities of the new young generation. They were simply unable to learn the most basic things that was easy for the previous generations.

    I just wrote it to indicate that the game is bigger than it looks like and the reasons behind this is something the we cannot read about in news sites.

    Meanwhile, I agree with the writer, the responsibility of the government is unimpeachable but I don’t think any other government could make it right. Unfortunately, we are beyond the point when spending more on education could be helpful or could solve the problem.

    Also, congrats for CA and wish you good success for the future. It’s about survival. That’s he name of the game.

  6. I love Singapore. It is No. 1 in all areas of PISA.

  7. Shocked to read this – born and raised in Cluj, the education was outstanding in the 60’s – Russian, Romanian in school, while at home my beloved mother taught me to read, write Hungarian ( how on earth did she even do that??)
    I can’t even teach my own family Hungarian….

  8. Avatar Hu Man in Surrey says:

    I’m a Hungarian living in the UK. I agree and share the above explained discontent with the current school regime, but can’t blame these results only on the misguided approach of fidesz-KDNP… it is the result of multiple strikes on what used to be a very decent education system in my time. Decades of under investment, misguided liberalism preventing discipline and rigour in the class room led to contra-selection. From my generation (am 48) gifted people did not fill teachers courses at the Unis, sorry that is the hard truth Hungarian teachers… Largely mediocre people ended up in teaching who often chose teaching as their career because it was the only University course they were accepted at. Said… and the under investment continuous, so can’t see why and how the trend could change for the 2018 PISA. Brace yourselves, Hungary, the country once the biggest per capita exporter of home grown scientists is heading into the bottom third of PISA.

  9. Yes. Singapore, as an illiberal democracy, shows me the way, too.

  10. Hungarian education is anti-semitic.

  11. @ Chillcott, Donbass, Doskozil

    Wouldn’t it be easier if you used one troll name, or better yet, use your real name, which is Lovas István, Orbán’s faithfull media crusader, the one and only man who uses dozens of false names to spread falsehoods and hatred against minorities in Hungary ?

    Hungarian education is not anti-Semitic, but you ARE – Pistike 🙂 Wikkileaks knows about all your moves, you can’t hide behind false names, we got your number.

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