Part I. The recent Past
During 40 years of communism the education system in Poland had a simple to understand structure: 7 (later changed to 8) years of elementary school, 4-5 years of high school, depending on profile or 2-3 years of the school preparing for job (vocational school) and the university as the last step - 4-6 years. Everybody was supposed to complete at least 7 (or 8) years of elementary education. All schools were public, especially at the elementary level. A couple of private high schools owned by church existed and all universities in exception of a few theological universities were also public. School education was free of charge at every level although a student had to pay for his school manuals, books, tools and cloths.
The only foreign language obligatory for everybody was Russian
The only foreign language obligatory for everybody was Russian. Western languages were taught only in high school and higher levels. Russian lessons were starting in 5 grade of elementary school and lasted up to the end of the high school (and was continued at the university level also). From apparent reasons nobody really wanted to study Russian. Besides, lots of material was presented in propaganda style although some nice classic literature was also read and analyzed. Until now I can recite by heart more Russian poems than Polish .
In seventies a big discussion was unleashed on a project of modification Polish educational system. The project was based on modification of elementary 8-year school and 4-year high school into 10 -year elementary school and 2 years of high schools. Discussion lasted until the end of seventies but it suddenly stopped - because Poland was merged into big economical and political crisis and school reform was the last thing on people's mind. Besides the model of 10-year elementary school was based on Soviet school and the new political situation (formation of Solidarity Trade Union) made everything based on Soviet Union (still Brezhnev epoch) even officially less popular.
So, the old good system remained. Children were beginning their elementary education in the age of 7 (preschool at 6) and stayed in the same building among the same students until they were 14 (8 grade). After finishing elementary school some students were choosing high schools of general education (so called "liceum") preparing for universities, the others who wanted to start working sooner were finishing either 3-year vocational schools or 5-year technical schools (so called "technikum").
The maturity exam (called in Polish "matura") that consist of the final written and oral exams from selected subjects was and still is a final step of high school education. It is a big event in a life of a young man and woman. When I was finishing my high school a written test in Polish language and literature and in math was obligatory for everybody. The questions were prepared by the province school districts and they were the same for all the classes of the same profile in the same province. After accomplishing a written exam a student had to pass oral exams in two selected by him/her subjects. About 100 days before the maturity exams every class had its prom - called 100-days ball (in Polish "studniowka"), after the exam another party took place - so called farewell ball (komers).
Read more about recent changes in education system in the following article: Education after the reform (2 of 3).
I recommend a following book written by John Connelly Captive University: The Sovietization of East German, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945-1956