Historically, Poland was home to ecclesiastical institutions that passed on scholarship through the centuries. Founded in 1364, Jagiellonian University in Cracow is one of the oldest in Europe. In 1773, Poland created a Commission of Education, the first "Ministry of Education" in Europe. The Commission introduced secular education and modern teaching methods.
By the 20th century, Poland had founded numerous universities. Government encouraged the growth of theoretical and applied research aimed at producing specialists. The results are evident today: Polish scientists and researchers have achieved international recognition as leaders in mathematics and many scientific fields. Polish technical innovations in numerous areas have influenced global practices.
During the Communist era, many students studied pure science and liberal arts subjects; however, the introduction of a free-market economy has led to applied sciences, economics and modern languages becoming more popular.
Poland has a literacy rate of 99%. Primary education is free and compulsory from ages 7 to 16. Before primary school, children have the option of attending preschools and kindergartens. Students in primary school learn a common curriculum. Because many parents work all day, children often attend after-school classes and clubs, where they learn photography, music, crafts, sports and other activities. Polish schools also include school trips to museums and other cultural institutions.
Reforms introduced in 1999 extended the duration of primary school from age 13 to 16, and made the three years of high school (gimnazjum) compulsory. Secondary students can choose from a general, basic-technical or vocational-technical schools; both general and vocational-technical schools can provide qualifications for university studies.
Until 1989 private schools were banned in Poland, but since the fall of communism a private system has sprung up rapidly. The Catholic Church, formerly forbidden to run schools, also has its own system now; as well, the government has introduced courses in religious instruction into the public school curriculum.
Poland has many post-secondary institutions, both public and private. From 1980 to 1995, the number of institutes of higher learning in Poland tripled. Women make up almost half the student population, and even more in medical academies and teacher colleges.