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Hungary Trip Report March 2024

Neil Malherbe | ACSI Director

It was my great privilege to spend some time in Hungary in March, during which I visited several schools, attended the ACSI Europe International Educational Leadership Conference (IELC) in Budapest, and met with the ACSI Europe team to discuss the possibility of implementing their Christian School Improvement Platform (CSIP) in South Africa. It was a busy, yet fruitful time and I was grateful for the opportunity to deepen my understanding of Christian education globally, all for the benefit of expanding what we are able to offer our schools in South – and Southern – Africa. 

This report will give some details regarding the three aspects of my visit to Hungary, namely the school visits, IELC conference and the CSIP school improvement platform.

A. School visits

Fortuitously, a group of three members of the ACSI Global team was also attending the IELC conference, so I was fortunate enough to join them as we visited schools in Miskolc and Budapest. It was good to meet up with the ASI Global team of Mike Epp, Jerry Nelson and John Klingstedt, as we shared long discussions about all sorts of topics while travelling to the various schools. We were excellently hosted (and driven to all those schools) by ACSI Europe Director, Laci Demeter, who showed us great kindness and hospitality.

Over two days, we visited seven schools in Miskolc, the fourth largest city in Hungary, and Budapest, the capital. These ranged from a special needs school, to stand-alone primary or high schools, to combined schools. Each had its own unique identity and, as with our schools in South Africa, its own challenges.

One aspect which I found intriguing from a historical point of view, is that when the Soviets introduced Communism in the years after the Second World War, church schools were taken over the by the state. Prior to that, for example, it is estimated that church schools made up about two-thirds of all primary schools in Hungary.

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The photo above was taken in one of the schools we visited. When I asked about the coat rack, with umbrella and hat, I was told that it is kept there as a memorial of the day when state officials arrived at the school in the 1950s and told the principal to leave. He asked if he could get his few personal items, but they refused, and told him to leave immediately, hence the left-over hat and umbrella.

During the Communist era, Christians were not allowed to study teaching, and no professing Christians were allowed to be teachers. Thus, for about forty years, a vacuum was created, during which formal Christian education ceased to exist.

However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, churches once again started reopening their schools, or taking over those schools which they had previously run. In many cases, they were allowed (and even encouraged) to take over state schools which had not previously been Christian. This meant a process of consulting with parents from each school, with only a 50% agreement being sufficient for the school to be transferred to the church. So successful have the Christian schools become since the early 1990s that the state has requested the various church denominations to take over the running of even more schools.

The Christian schools in Hungary are largely run by the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic Churches. In 2020 it was reported that the number of Christian schools had doubled in Hungary over the preceding ten years. Because parents pay no school fees, they have the choice of whether to send their children to a church-run school or to a state school – and because the church schools are better managed, with oversight from whichever denomination they belong to, and because they promote Christian values and principles, these have become the choice of an increasing number of parents.

Finding suitable Christian teachers continues to be a challenge, even 35 years after the collapse of Communism. However, the church and faith-based organisations such as ACSI are working hard to train Christian teachers, to ensure that schools will be sufficiently staffed in years to come. Every school I visited had visible signs throughout the school of its Christian character, whether in posters, Bible verses and images painted on the walls, or crosses and other religious symbols displayed.    

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We were warmly welcomed into each of the schools, with refreshments being laid on at every school, which made for a busy two days of eating! One of the most heart-warming moments was to meet a young teacher who had been on the ACSI Student Leadership Summit a few years ago, and who had then felt drawn to serve as a teacher in an ACSI school. The Leadership Summit is yet another exciting opportunity that we are exploring for our Grade 11 students in Southern Africa – more of that in the months to come!

Below are a few photos from some of the schools we visited, each of which serves a wide cross-section of students, including many refugees who have come from both Ukraine and Russia, since the start of the war

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B. International Educational Leadership Conference (IELC)

The theme of the IELC conference was ‘Anchors of Hope for Christian Education’ and the main sessions looked at:

  • Anchors of Hope for Christian Education in the Midst of Storms 
  • Gender Ideology and the Christian School’s Response 
  • AI – Opportunities and Challenges for the Christian School 
  • Inspiring Hope as Christian School Leaders 

In addition, there were several discussion groups and breakout workshop sessions, which were really interesting.

The conference was attended by delegates from 30 countries, largely from Europe but also from Central and North America, Africa and Asia. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting many of them, but I found it particularly moving to speak with two delegates from Ukraine, both principals of schools, one near the Hungarian border and one from Kiev. Then there were two principals from Israel, a Messianic Jew heading up a Christian school in Jerusalem, and a Palestinian Arab Christian who is the principal of a Christian school in Bethlehem. What a privilege it was to speak with them and to be inspired by these individuals who strive to bring hope in seemingly hopeless situations.

Perhaps I should mention one of the workshops I attended, as it was one which touched me deeply. Presented by the principal from Jerusalem, he spoke about how to help children deal with trauma in our schools, and how to put systems in place for when some dramatic event hits our schools (as we know it inevitably will at some stage). Also attending the workshop was the principal from the school in Kiev, and to hear these two individuals speak of how their staff are helping the children in their schools to deal with the trauma they are so immersed in at the moment was incredibly powerful.

After the workshop, I approached the two principals and asked if they would be willing to lead an online workshop for our principals here in Southern Africa and I was really grateful that they agreed. I will be organising this in the very near future, so please keep an eye open for that announcement if it is something you would be interested to attend. I have no doubt that it will impact you just as profoundly as it did me.

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C. ACSI Christian School Improvement Platform (CSIP)

Prior to my trip to Hungary, Debbie-Sue Blanks and I had been speaking with ACSI Europe Assistant Director, Paul Madsen, about their School Improvement Platform (CSIP), which is an online platform developed by their office to help Christian schools deepen their focus on the Christian ethos of the school. To quote from their website: “The ACSI Christian School Improvement Platform (CSIP) is a community where ACSI member schools can engage in self-assessment, define strategic goals and contribute to strategic development in partnership with other schools as they implement a Christian vision of education. ”The CSIP has been implemented across Europe and is also being rolled out in Spanish for ACSI schools in South America. It is based on the ACSI International School accreditation processes of ‘Reach’ and ‘Inspire’, using similar terminologies, standards and criteria.
We are hugely excited about its implementation in South Africa, and I will officially launch it at the upcoming ACSI National Principal Conference in May. As I know a number of our principals will not be able to attend the conference, I will also send out correspondence to all principals in the week following the conference. I know that is going to make an enormous impact in each of our schools, as it is aspirational rather than punitive – it is certainly not an UMALUSI inspection, but is rather based on your own school’s self-assessment. More of that later, but for now I leave you with the teaser that it will be explained in more detail in May.
I leave you with this evocative wood carving which I spotted on the wall of one of the principals’ offices we visited. The absence of a body reminds us that we serve a Lord who is alive – and who calls us each day to honour him in the great calling of Christian education. What a privilege it is!