Reuters International

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Staff of more than 1,000 Hungarian schools held a one-day strike on Wednesday to demand more freedom, more financing and lighter workloads for themselves and their students.

Teachers have been protesting for months against moves by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to strip schools of much of their autonomy and increase central planning and management.

Talks between government and unions have been unsuccessful and nearly 25,000 of about 150,000 teachers in some 1,200 of Hungary's 5,000 schools walked out on Wednesday, according to data from the Teachers' Union and the Central Statistics Office.

"The government seems determined not to give much more money to education. That spells bad times for us, and the children," Tamas Szecsodi, who teaches literature at the elite St. Stephen Grammar School in Budapest, told Reuters.

"Teachers are thoroughly exhausted and exasperated by now."

The government will dedicate an extra 100 billion forints (£255.3 million) for education in 2017, Human Resources Ministry state secretary Bence Retvari told broadcaster TV2. In 2016 the education budget ran to around 550 billion forints.

"That will ease nearly all financing problems," Retvari said. "Justified complaints about excessive bureaucracy have also been honoured."

He acknowledged the government did not see eye to eye with teachers about pay, saying the government had prioritised a health sector wage hike this year.

The government has offered a one-time bonus to education staff of 70,000 forints this year, which teachers said was too little.

Teachers said they would keep up the pressure.

"People understand now that this is not a teacher problem," said teacher Katalin Torley at Budapest's Kolcsey Grammar School, where she hung a patchwork "Strike!" sign on the fence.

"We don't just want better conditions for ourselves," she said. "We have shown how each demand of ours affects children."

Teachers complain that the centrally-prescribed curriculum overburdens school students.

Teachers' Union Chairwoman Piroska Gallo told the daily Magyar Nemzet that a stalemate was likely as recent talks only addressed minor issues and the government was unlikely to make crucial concessions.

"Regaining autonomy for the schools would be a great step forward," she said. "It would also mean the government admits the obvious: its education policy has failed."

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by Andrew Roche)

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