Thousands protest education system in Hungary

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Thousands of teachers, students and parents in several cities in Hungary protested Wednesday against the government's centralization of the education system and the increasing overburdening of pupils and educators.

A torchlight march under steady rain in the eastern city of Miskolc drew some 5,000 people, including trade unions, demonstrating against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies of increasing direct state control over ever more aspects of Hungarian life.

Protesters said the current system is taxing students with superfluous, mandatory content and increasing teachers' administrative duties, favoring factual knowledge over "real learning."

"I want to talk with the children and educate them, not just teach them," said Magdolna Nagy, who teaches history in the nearby city of Tiszaujvaros. "Students, parents and teachers ... experience the same oppression every day. The future of our children and of Hungary is at risk."

Teachers also complained about the lack of choice in textbooks and about new evaluations they must undergo that do not take into account their past achievements.

"The changes introduced by the government since 2010 have turned the clock back on education policies by 100 years," said Laszlo Mendrey, head of the Teachers Democratic Union. "The present education system reflects the future of the country."

Mendrey said that higher wages in the education sector had mollified some of the discontent, but that increases in the number of mandatory classes taught and the longer working hours neutralized the pay increases.

Reacting to Wednesday's rallies and plans for others, authorities promised to cut teachers' administrative burdens and launch consultations with teacher, parent and student representatives.

An analyst said that the government is trying feverishly to placate dissatisfied teachers, fearing it could lead a wider wave of demonstrations and discontent.

"There is potential for this protest to become the starting point of more rallies," said Csaba Toth, strategic director of the Republikon Institute think tank in Budapest. "It depends greatly on what will happen" at a similar demonstration announced for Feb. 13 outside Parliament in Budapest.

The lack of a charismatic, strong leader for the fragmented opposition, however, could prevent the discontent from really challenging the government.