Thousands of Hungarian schoolchildren and university students protested outside parliament on Friday to demand reform of an education system they say fails to prepare them for life in the 21st century.

The students say the system is too rigidly focused on rote-learning and blind memorization of facts and does not encourage critical thinking or creativity.

In freezing rain, they held banners emblazoned with angry emoticons and messages such as “I can feel I am getting dumber” and “My brain is shrinking.”

“This is fundamentally a reform protest, but we can also call it a protest against the government as it criticizes the government’s work in the field of education,” said 17-year-old Balazs Fuzfa.

“I have come as I totally agree that the system of public education is in a bad state,” added Flora Kokendi, 21, a university student.

Critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government say it has failed to reform big state-run systems such as education and healthcare, which are also suffering from a big brain-drain of smart young Hungarians to western Europe.

“A just, democratic and modern education for all students,” said one leaflet prepared by the protest organisers which demanded a free choice of textbooks, a bigger student say in educational matters and a reduction in mandatory school hours.

Orban’s Fidesz party, in power since 2010, is expected to win a third term in a row in an election set for April 8.

Orban has used his time in office to rewrite hundreds of laws, the constitution and to centralise power. His reforms, such as those affecting the judiciary and the media, have triggered conflicts with the European Union.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones.

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