First of all, the Polish Educational System is based on the eastern model. This means that usually, it's no electives, must pass everything, FINAL DESTINATION. Poles, being who they are, have some tendency to overemphasize it. This system has been changing of late, however, but it's slow in coming. Education up to age 18 (legal age in Poland) is mandatory. Yes, the government will hunt you down if you don't send your kid to school.
Schooling is divided into tiers:
Basic School (szkoła podstawowa) - ages 7-13, six years (often translated as Primary School),
Gymnasium (gimnazjum) - ages 14-16, three years (ofter translated as Junior High School),
Intermediary School (szkoła średnia), which can be one of the following:
General Lyceum (liceum ogólnokształcące) - ages 17-19, three years (ofter translated as High School),
Technikum - ages 17-20, four years (High School with a science- and technology-based curriculum),
General Vocational School (zasadnicza szkoła zawodowa) - ages 17-18, two years.
Higher School (szkoła wyższa) - ages vary, duration varies (often translated as College or University).
Before enrolling to school, kids can sometimes be sent to nursery (ages 2-4) and then kindergarten (4-6), although this is optional. At the age of six kids sometimes go to "zerówka" (zero-class), which is either last year of kindergarten or first year at school. They learn there writing and numbers, with extent of basic maths depending on kindergarten or school.
More in the subject of schools
Basic School begins at age 7 (there are plans to make it start year earlier, but there is huge social resistance. Right now, starting at the age of six is voluntary). It covers pretty much everything the government expects the average Pole should know. On first three years schoolday is divided into general lessons, English, PE, Religion and eventual second language. Children stay in the same class all the time and come home at midday. From fourth year up, however, you start to have more subjects, with breaks system and different rooms for different subjects. Funnily enough, if one paid strict attention in Basic School, one'd learn nothing new in first class of Gymnasium, since much of those is reiteration of what they expected you to forget in Basic School. Basic School ends with a competency exam, which is sometimes considered along with your grades to determine what Gymnasium you can be accepted to. Called Sixth-Grader Exam, it's treated rather casually, as Gymnasiums pay more attention to one's final grades than SGE.
Gymnasium is, in Polish honorable deadpan snarking tradition, also called the repository for misbehaving children, since the attendees are all in a difficult age. Most Gymnasiums are public, but there are a few private ones. Some schools divide classes by subjects (mathematical class, English class), but result of this is often slightly expanded material. Basically the rule is that students with best grades in basic school go to subject classes, while others go to so-called general classes. Schoolday is divided into subjects (about seven a day), with most subjects taking part in different classes. Gymnasium ends with a competency exam, similarly to Basic School, but this exam is Serious Business, as it counts towards meeting prerequisites of any Intermediary School one would like to attend.
For graduates of Gymnasium June is something of a crazyhouse, as they must apply to Intermediary Schools of their choice. What counts there are points one gets by various variables. 200 points is maximum and this accounts 100 points from competency exam and 100 points from others. Among others are: grades in the subjects class of your choice teaches in expanded curriculum; social activities (charity, belonging to school parliament, student's exchanges); successes in national-level sports and scholar competitions; additionals some schools practice (there are schools that give you extra points for having other member of your family attend this school before you). 160 points is average result and over 170 is considered excellent.
Intermediary Schools offer a lot of variety. There are a lot of private and public Intermediary Schools out there.
A General Lyceum is mostly an expansion of what one has been learning so far, with maybe some more complex Maths (if one goes to a school that emphasizes mathematics) and new material in Polish class. There are exceptions, though - if you go to a real hardcore school, you might start learning the cool stuff, like Latin, Basic Philosophy, and so on. School is divided into subject classes, so-called profiles: traditionally, there's at least one Mathematical-Physical-IT class, one Biological-Chemical class, one Humanistic class (History and Polish; Butt Monkey of Polish Lyceum in the eye of general public), and variations on Maths and Biology plus something. In first year most classes have similar curriculum, but then most subjects that aren't in your profile name are left out or merged into one lesson. In Lyceum you're expected to make notes on your own, check for additional information after school and be generally an active student.
Technikum is a little less learning and more teaching people a job - at the end of it, you get to take a Technician's exam, which is if you pass, entitles you to title yourself a Technician. This is also a kind of school one usually chooses if he or she plans to study on the Technical University or doesn't plan to study at all. It puts more emphasize on practical side of subject, with more practical and lab lessons than Lyceum.
A General Vocational School is, well, for people who barely managed to scrape by or were interested in experimenting with drugs or the opposite sex a little bit too much. It teaches a job and little else. Standards are very, very low - showing up to classes regularly makes you a star student. On the other hand, main purpose of such school is not general education, but blue-collar professional training. Up to the 80s they were a common choice for people who simply wanted to get a job quickly, but since then they are considered by other a Butt Monkey of education system and dead end in your learning.
General Lyceum and Technikum end with a Matura exam (very rough equivalent to an A-Level or GCE). This is called THE most important exam, and was in the past the only exam of such caliber one took before Higher School. Passing the Matura exam means you've completed Intermediary Education, and entitles one to apply to attend a university. (You still need to pass the final year of your Middle School, however - there have been examples of people failing one or the other, thus failing to qualify for university at all.
Higher Education is the last level of ascension. It can be a decade's worth of vacation, or something that breaks a man's spirit. Public and private universities exist in Poland, the former being theoretically free to attend (but you can rack up quite the cost due fees on class/year resits). Private universities require tuition, but are generally lighter on having to take resits. Rather than being organized by school year, as in earlier schools, universities organize time by semester - this means failing a semester is a serious affair. Generally, Polish higher schools are divided into three kinds - universities, which put more emphasize on theory, technical schools (technikums) that emphasize practice, and medical schools, that take longer and have a lot of practical lessons. On each of them you take part in lectures (when you passively listen) and trainings (when you make exercises connected to the subject). Additionally, on scientific subjects on universities, as well as in technikums and medical schools, you have lab lessons and practical lessons, which are often the same. Moreover, during your studies you must work defined hours of practice in outside company, which is intended to teach you how does your work look in reality. There are currently three titles one can earn through Higher Schools - Engineer/Licentiate ("inżynier/licencjat", equivalent to a bachelor degree), Magister/Magister Engineer ("magister/magister inżynier", equivalent to master degree) and Doctor (doktor, equivalent of PhD). The first usually takes about three years, the second about six and the last one, being more academic, varies. There are universities (and divisions) where one gets an Engineer title after four years, and a Magister Engineer title after 5 years. Depending on school, it can also follow the regular 3/5 years curriculum common for most two-tiered Bachelor/Master studies.
Schoolyear and schoolday
Schoolyear starts on the first of September (1st of October in Higher Schools) and ends in the last days of June (between 21st-28th). It's divided in two semesters - winter semester (September-January/February) and summer semester (February/March - June). They are divided by two weeks of winter holidays (ferie). Exact date of ferie varies - different regions of Poland choose different dates to avoid drowning holiday centers with kids. Apart from that, there is one-to-two-weeks long Christmas & New Year break and one-week long Easter break, meaning that, if your lucky, you can catch a combo of Christmas & New Year break + ferie = four weeks of free time.
At the end of each semester there are final grades given. While in universities each semester is important, in other schools winter semester's final grades are considered rather as guidelines regarding the summer semester. As a general rule, grades in June are better than grades in January.
Schoolday varies. During years 1 to 3 in the Basic School schoolday starts at 8:00 and ends and 12:00, with kids spending their time in one room all the time, with few (up to five) teachers coming and going. From year 4 to the end of Intermediary School schoolday consists of 45-minutes long lessons with 10-minutes long breaks between them, with most lessons happening in different rooms, depending on whether special equipment is necessary for given lesson. Exact number of lessons per day vary - in Basic School it's 5-6, in Gymnasium it's 6-7, and in High School it's all between 3 and 9 - most often 7. Schoolday stays the same for the entire year, with minor changes between semesters, as some subjects come and some go.
At universities everything depends on availability of professors and rooms. Lessons can be practices, lectures or exercises and it's notable that you don't have to appear on neither lectures nor exercises as long as you appear on exams. Each lesson can take from 45 minutes to over hour and a half (lectures). It also differs depending on what type of studies you attend - there are day studies, with program and schoolday time similar to earlier schools, there are evening studies where you have two-three lessons in the evening, and then there are weekend studies, when you come to school on Saturday and Sunday every two weeks, but stay there from 9 o'clock AM up to 9 o'clock PM.
In the first three years of Primary School, you have only four or five subjects: general lessons (some Polish, some Maths, some Science Studies - very, very basic), English, PE, Religion (actually, catholic catechism - it's not compulsory) and, if your school practices it, second language (German, French or Russian, depending on region and school). Then, from years 4 to 6, you have the following:
Nature (mix of geography, physics, biology and chemistry, with more of biology)
Your Region (very loose subject - mostly history and tradition of schools administrative or historical region/city)
second language (not in every school; most often German, French or Russian)
Religion (not compulsory)
Education For Family Life (SexEd; again, not compulsory)
Then, in Gymnasium, it's expanded. Your Region goes away, replaced by Social Studies. Nature is divided into Chemistry, Geography, Biology and Physics. Second language becomes commonplace (French is rather rare; most schools teach German as second language). "Education For Safety" (EFS) comes, although this is very loose subject, treated mostly as expansion of Social Studies. EFFL is learned only for four semesters, as is IT. Again, Religion and EFFL are not compulsory, although you need parent's permission not to attend EFFL and you can leave Religion only if you're not Roman Catholic.
In first class of Lyceum you have the highest number of subjects. Those are:
Basics Of Enterprise
Religion and EFFL are not compulsory and it's your choice whether or not you will attend. However, on the second year most of those subjects go away. Those that stay are: your profile subjects, Maths, Polish and English (regardless of whether they are you're profile subjects), second language, PE and Religion. Additionally you have one lesson a week of merged subjects. They depend on what profile you are on. There's usually one lesson of mixed History, EFS Cultural Knowledge and Social Studies for non-humanists and mixed Science Studies under the name Nature for non-biological profiles.
At Higher Schools all depends on course you take and school you attend.
Everywhere except universities and first three classes of Basic School, grades are: 6 (celujący - lit. aiming [at the top]), 5 (bardzo dobry - very good), 4 (dobry - good), 3 (dostateczny - sufficient), 2 (dopuszczający - passing) and 1 (niedostateczny - not sufficient). Most teachers allow grades such as 3+ or 5-, to denote some kind of above or below average score for a grade, but such grades aren't actually legally recognized. It also should be noted that this grading system has been introduced in the late 80s, so people over 40 who do not have their own kids in school may still use 2-5 grading when talking about their school years, similar to university scores.
In universities, the scale is similar: 5.0 (very good), 4.5 (good plus), 4.0 (good), 3.5 (average plus), 3.0 (average) and 2.0 (fail). Some teachers also use 2.5, but it's not a legally recognized grade - it still fails. The only exception is the Medical University that uses the 1-6 grading, similar to one used in basic and intermediary schools.
It must also be noted that each school except for higher schools also evaluates your behavior and gives you a grade for this. Those are (from the top) - exemplary (wzorowe), very good (bardzo dobre), good (dobre), correct (poprawne), improper (nieodpowiednie) and reprehensible (naganne). Behavior grades are given at the end of the year, as well as final grades in every subject. Then, out of final grades, the average is counted. At least "very good" behavior grade combined with at least 4.75 average means you get certificate with honors (called popularily "with stripe", because certificate has white-and-red stripe on the side to mark it's special). Otherwise, you get regular certificate with your grades spelled out.
There are three basic exams Polish student writes.
Sixth-Grader Exam: this one is written by students at the end of year 6 of Basic School. Those are actually three exams: Polish, Maths and English, written on one day one by one. Maths has single choice part and open questions part, Polish has questions part and writing part and English has listening, questions and writing parts. The result is spelled in percents, but nobody actually cares. The only situation when SGE is considered is when Gymnasium must choose between two students with the same average of grades.
Competency Exam: this one is important. It's written at the end of year 3 of Gymnasium and consists of exams: Maths, Chemistry, Biology, Polish, Basic English and Advanced English. First three have single choice part and open question part. Polish exam has question part and writing (essay or characteristic). Both English exams have listening, question and writing parts and are generally somewhere below FCE level. Results are spelled in percents which are then counted into Intermediary School admission points (1 percent point is worth 0.2 admission points). As of now, Advanced English is not considered.
Matura Exams: oh, dear, Maturas. It's THE exam, generally considered the most important test of both your knowledge and nerves. The various individual exams that make Maturas are written during the entire May in the last class of Lyceum or Technikum. There are four compulsory exams: Basic Maths, Basic English, Written Basic Polish and Spoken Polish. However, you can take variety of others - which ones depends on what does the university of your choice wants and what do you want to look nice on your resume. Among others there's Advanced Maths, Advanced English, Advanced Polish, as well as Basic and Advanced exams in all school subjects (except for Religion, EFS and EFFL) and such wild exams as History Of Art, Spanish, Kashubian or Theory Of Dance. The results are spelled in percents, separately for each test, and to pass, you need to have at least 30% in every test. It may sound easy, but it's definitely not.
In schools that teach some subjects in English - in so-called bilingual classes - students can take bilingual matura, on which they write exam of their choice in English.
There are also schools that host IB classes and on which you learn for four years according to IB program. At the end of year four you write IB exam, of course, which is treated the same as Matura by both higher schools and employers.
Apart from medical schools, most higher schools don't execute entrance examinations, instead relying on your Matura results. However, at the end of each semester there are exams in every subjects. They are compulsory and you have to score at least 3 to pass.
While some Polish universities are really good (Warsaw's Higher School of Trade was rated 46th in 2013 global comparison of universities and Gdańsk's Medical Academy has very good international opinion), the popular opinion is that people who finish higher school are overqualified and can't find a job. This is, sadly, quite often true. Many people study just "to have a certificate", as it, frankly, looks better on the CV for employer, not to mention the peer pressure to have a degree. This means they often choose humanistic subjects, such as psychology and management, meaning that Poland has excess of humanists, while, at the same time, finite amount of jobs for them. On the other hand, however, technikums and science subjects at universities are notorious for flunking up to 50% of students after first year, meaning that there's strange situation where newspapers scream about unemployment and high-tech companies are desperately looking for employees.
This is also partly historical problem. After the fall of communism, many people pointed out that Poland has much less graduates that Western countries ('Western' being synonymous to 'better developed' at the time) so many people enrolled into universities thinking that education will automatically improve their living standard. Many of them were right, especially the engineers, programmers and scientists who were in great need during the computerization and technical development performed in the 90s. Many others (lawyers, economists, managers, linguists, journalists, doctors) also found the jobs fitting their education. Then the market was saturated with professionals but the people continued to attend universities. As for now, Poland sports the highest percentage of tertiary education students and graduates in the EU and pretty high unemployment rate among the same age group.
Thanks to a somewhat overly paranoid education minister, there was a period when Polish schools (excepting universities, which aren't subject to the Ministry of Education) have mandatory uniforms. Due to the some inconsistencies in the lawmaking process, there were no precise guidelines and many principals had little to no experience concerning school uniforms, so many schools ended up introducing haphazard vests just to fulfill the word of the law. Partly because of this, the next government made uniforms a decision the principal makes. Before, there wasn't anything such as a dress code - but rather if the teachers found your outfit rather too daring, you'd get all kinds of unpleasantness, starting with informing the parents what exactly their kid was wearing to school.
Some schools actually had a dress code before the uniforms became mandatory. This could range from guidelines such as: skirts shorter than so-and-so many centimeters are not allowed to actually having to wear a uniform.
On the other hand, good private schools (usually run by the religious organizations) usually have some kind of dress code, more often than not based on the British one.
In the communist era, school aprons (not uniforms, as they were made of thin material and worn 'over' regular clothes) adorned with the school emblem were mandatory for basic school students. They start to vanish in the late 80s and were universally considered butt ugly.
In universities, it depends. Some have strict dress codes, in others you can go to an exam wearing shorts and a stained T-shirt and nobody would comment.
It's more or less the matter of courtesy. Most universities does not have any dress code but many older professors consider exam a 'special occasion' and expect students to dress up as they would dress for any public function or job interview. This applies to oral one-on-one exam though and almost no one gives a damn what do students wear when attending written exams.
Passing and Failure
As a general rule, you need to get a minimum passing grade (2 in all schools up to High Scool; 3 in Higher School) in every subject in a given year in order to pass. If you fail something, which is rather difficult, since the teachers would rather not have to deal with you for another year, you have a bonus round - in August you write an exam to which you have to learn the entire year's material in the subject you failed. If you, however, fail the exam or fail the year in three subjects or more, you get to retake that year along with the class which is taking it the first time. If you continue failing, you continue having to retake the year - until you reach age 18, whereupon you can decide to stop going to school altogether.
In universities, it's rather harder. You still have to pass everything to pass the semester. If you fail, your first choice is to pay a fee (can be anywhere from an inconvenient amount to a totally absurd amount of money) to retake a failed class in a year's time, while continuing to study everything else normally - there are also strict rules on with how many classes you can do this (typically two or three classes at any given time). If you fail the second time, you get bumped down a year or even a few years (depends on university policy) - paying more fees. If you fail a third time, your final option is to write a 'commission exam' to pass the class. If you fail that, you're thrown out. Due to the large number of students and lax admission policy (at least in comparison to pretty difficult exams of the past) some universities or departments have very strict policy during the first semester or a first year - some do not allow freshmen to retake the failed tests, some state that more than one failure means expulsion. This results in crazy amounts of students flunked after first year - Gdańsk's Politechnika once kicked out over 50% in one course.
As a general rule, you get to decide what school you attend. The curriculum and the classes are decided by the Ministry of Education and the school in question. This also applies to universities, though you do get a limited choice of some groups of classes you'd like to take (note that in some the actual decision may be "made for you" by the university's higher-ranking staff, restricted to specific subjects or years, or even combinations of all three at once). Yes, you still have to pass everything in order to pass.
While this is rather an exception everywhere up to High School, at universities failure on your first try is common and to be expected of at least a large minority. Resits of pretty much everything are commonplace and nobody is surprised when more than half of test takers show up for a resit. Or the resit of a resit. Or the resit of the resit of the resit, if your professor is kind. There is typically at least one chance to retake any of the major exams at a later time either to improve your result or to pass.
It depends - 90% resit rate usually indicates that there is something deeply wrong with either students (who may be total slackers) or the professor (who may be unable to adjust the exam to the material he teaches). Of course, nearly every school and department has its Training from Hell adherent.
It varies depending on the subject, school and professor. Actual rates tend to be around 40%, usually for a mixture of both causes mentioned above.