The National Core Curriculum and the Education for Democracy


In cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague, our partners at the Hungarian think-tank Political Capital published a new study on the current state of Hungarian Far-Right. This is the third part of English summary. For the full study in Hungarian, click here.

Demonstration at the Fidesz Headquarters, 2018.
Teaser Image Caption
Demonstration at the Fidesz Headquarters, 2018.

Introduced in 2020, the latest National Core Curriculum (NAT)[1], similarly to its previous versions, agrees that teaching core democratic values is important to maintain a functioning democracy. Although its text does reflect this aspiration, the procedures public education has been going through since 2010 hardly confirm that the governing Fidesz party would also shares these values.

Susceptibility to extreme ideas depends, to a large extent, on the stimuli that reach young people during their school years. They can develop their critical thinking, practice their scepticism skills which will help them make different decisions.

In our study, we examine how the concept of education for democracy, the transfer of democratic values appears in the new NAT. For a more comprehensive picture, we review the operation of the public education system and its problems since the regime change in 1989. In addition to the related literature, we examined the statements of various educational organizations and conducted interviews with practicing teachers, educational professionals, and social psychologists[2].

The significance of NAT in the light of the transformation of the public education system

Experts have conflicting views on the impact of NAT on the public education system as a whole. Some argue that its text lacks concreteness, it is rather theoretical or ideological, while practical implementation mainly happens at the level of framework curricula and local curricula. On the other hand, other experts say NAT is of enormous importance for highlighting the role of education and its key issues.

The truth is somewhere between the two opinions. The new National Core Curriculum, in a similar way toits previous versions, defines the civic and social goals to be achieved through education in a very comprehensive but quite vague way. The sublime goals range from understanding the social significance of moral norms through building democratic commitment to recognizing the importance of national identity, but only by the amount of extra resources allocated for either of the causes can it be guessed which one is in focus. For instance, if educators do not have the time and methodological knowledge to address certain topics on a meaningful basis, the approach cannot become part of everyday school life.

The changes, which have taken place in the public education system since 2010, have not been able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. The cardinal principle was to build a strong central control, a regulated education system with the task of being the mouthpiece of ideologies considered acceptable by the government.

Among others, the aim was served by:

  • the nationalization of textbook publishers,
  • the standardization of curricula and the textbooks used in schools,
  • the institutions drawn under state control,
  • the establishment of the National Teachers Chamber.

Resulting from these steps, the autonomy of schools was almost entirely abolished – both in terms of management and education.. Teachers have very limited latitude left, they can only deviate from the central curriculum to a minimal extent and are forced to teach from centrally defined textbooks that quality of which is often controversial..

The issue of national identity[3] and its interpretation gets more emphasis in the new NAT than ever before. The ideological direction set by the government is indicated by the fact that defence studies has become part of civic education, while the development of democratic values, the openness to discussion and the culture of argumentation do not appear with such weight.

The process of creating the new NAT

The NAT, which came into force in 2020, is the second such curriculum that was enacted during the rule of the current political course. The original draft also received a lot of criticism. Among others, the Presidential Committee on Public Education of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences[4] disapproved that the draft NAT presupposes such technical conditions in education which are far from being equally provided in every segment of public education. It was criticized for being overly prescriptive, especially in terms of social roles, as well as for barely addressing individual responsibility, solidarity and mobility.

Earlier, a meaningful dialogue was maintained between political and professional actors, but the current government preferred to avoid such consultations. In 2018, professional organizations did receive an earlier version for revision, but essential points in the material, which were finally adopted by the parliament, differed from the contents of the reviewed text. The government then validated its own concepts with organizations it called to life, e.g the National Teachers Chamber.

Evaluation of the new NAT

The original concept of NAT may have seemed to be more detached from the Prussian school model that still defines the Hungarian public education system. Although certain elements of this direction do appear in the text, the overall picture has not changed much.

The new NAT does not respond to the challenges of the 21st century. Acquiring the minimum levels of literacy and knowledge seems to be more important for the new curriculum than acquiring basic skills (it requires a vast amount of text memorization, there are no contemporary authors among the compulsory readings, the language of the texts is difficult to understand and it is also inconvenient for addressing today’s students).

The National Core Curriculum is centrally regulated. A modern core curriculum should define guidelines, competencies, areas of education, which can be covered with relevant content and put into practice by the educators, as our interviewees see it.

The required output specified by NAT cannot be met. They are only realistic in well-equipped educational institutions with a strong teaching staff and selected students. It is important to create regional curricula which take region-specific features into account.

Although teachers were apparently given extra freedom in teaching by increasing the amount of teaching hours allowed for topics outside the framework curriculum (20%), the practice shows otherwise:

  • In parallel with the decrease in the number of lessons, the amount of compulsory material has increased, so there is even less time to transfer topics and skills that are not directly included in the core curriculum.
  • The standardized framework curriculum also affects the local curricula, thus limiting the freedom of teachers in processing the required materials.

Its biggest disadvantage is that it does not allow for a critical approach in education. While in the 2002 version of NAT, critical thinking was included as a cross-curricular competence, it is no longer among the skills to be developed in the new NAT.

Various biases were systematically included in the standardized textbooks. The emphasis on the historical greatness of the Hungarian nation, the importance of a national ideology and the glorification of Christianity all appear uncritically and in an ideologically driven way. The role of Hungarians as a sacrificial nation is much emphasized especially in relation to the Trianon Treaty, which encourages students’ responsiveness to extreme narratives.

Commitment to democracy is not encouraged by those examples which glorify autocratic systems or evoke prejudice (e.g.: negative statements about Islam).

Democratization or radicalization - the legacy of NAT

Prevention may be a solution to stop the spreading of extremist ideas. Proper education of young people is the first step towards achieving this goal. Teachers emphasized that the transfer of democratic values is a complex process. According to their personal experience, students can learn that they have a say in decisions which affect their own lives and that they can learn to stand up for themselves and others at school. Many studies confirm that the young generation is already rather apolitical, and the tendency is expected to intensify as a result of the new NAT[5].

Since the Public Education Act requires party-related political struggles to be kept outside the walls of educational institutions, all topics of public life are taboos. Teachers are often unprepared to react to certain phenomena and topics – such as bullying, prejudice against different social groups, as well as sexism, racism – since they do not have a designated place in the curriculum. The vast majority of the overwhelmed, underpaid teachers choose not to take risks because they fear retaliation and conflicts within educational districts.

Involving external experts and NGOs may be a solution, but it is only enough to make up for the system-level shortcomings. Cooperation between schools and NGOs is mostly occasional, much of the methodological knowledge and good practices remain unapplied, while cooperation is further hindered by the government's long-term campaign against civil society organisations. Schools in underdeveloped areas are in an even more difficult situation as several other problems are also simultaneously present (segregation, school aggression, antigypsyism).

Fallback is nailed-on

The Hungarian education system is already a decade behind and the new NAT further confirms this fallback. Thus, it is feared that the generations socialized according to the new NAT will grow up without appropriate knowledge and skills related to critical judgement (of source), public problems, and in the absence of these they will become more docile, which may give way to the adaptation of extremist ideas.

It is only up to the courage and commitment of teachers what they can and dare to present in the classroom in order to educate citizens who are analytical, critical, and able to think independently.

This is the third part of English summary. For the first part "Observations on the current state of Hungarian far-right", click here. For the second part "Narratives of the Trianon trauma", click here. The study was made in cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague.


[1] 5/2020. (I. 31.) Government Decree on the amendment of 110/2012. (VI. 4.) Government Decree on The issue, implementation and application of the National Core Curriculum, in Magyar Közlöny, 31 January 2020.

[2] We conducted a total of 6 interviews; as requested by the interviewed professionals, their names are not disclosed in the study.

[3]Statement of the Association of History Teachers on the text of the new National Core Curriculum as published on 31 January 2020, Association of History Teachers, 2 February 2020..

[4] Opinion on the NAT concept of 31 August 2018 - Presidential Committee on Public Education of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2018,

[5] For example, a recent study by the National Democratic Institute, in which Political Capital also participated, in 2020: