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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > How good is European education?
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image image image Date published : 05/11/2001
  image How good is
European education?
  Pupil skills, teacher training, use of new technologies, expenditure on education… How can the quality of education in Europe be measured? On what criteria can reliable international comparisons be based? And what lessons can be drawn? This exercise was conducted on the initiative of the European Commission. We focus on a report which merits attention, pausing to look at science education in particular.

'Subject areas are given different priorities in different Member States. Varying emphases are placed on the context of learning at different ages and stages. Methodologies differ. Teaching and learning is embedded in different structures. Countries diverge in their linguistic and cultural histories. These cultural patterns bring a depth and richness to the dialogue at European level. They provide a strong basis for Member States to learn from one another.'
This is one of the principal messages from the authors of the European report on the quality of school education. Published by the Commission in May 2000, this comprehensive document offers a comparison of Europe's education systems, in particular in science subjects. It follows two other studies carried out at the Union's initiative in 1999 and designed to define the indicators on which a qualitative evaluation of school education in Europe can be founded.

Choosing your indicators

Sixteen quality indicators were identified. They 'should be regarded as starting points, limited in their internal meaning but unlimited in their implications for raising standards for all.' They should be able to stimulate an open dialogue on the future, and be alert to the policy implications of the data obtained and to the avenues to be explored in the future. Although it is important to take account of socio-cultural differences, the comparative assessment of pupils' performances and education in 26 countries is a formidable tool for preparing education in Europe, which in effect means Europe's future.

According to its authors, this new report is the Commission's first response to the conclusions of the European Council which met in Lisbon in March 2000: 'The European Union had set itself the strategic objective of becoming the world's most competitive economy.' Ambitious to say the least! To achieve it the acquisition of knowledge - and the ability to keep up with its rapid development - must become an essential priority. This is why mathematics, natural sciences in general (physics, chemistry, biology, environmental studies, etc.) and information and communication technologies were priority concerns of the group of experts responsible for this mission. The sample population selected consists of pupils around 13 years of age in the seventh or eighth year of study (according to the school grades in most countries).

Central Europe is best at maths

Does the standard of maths education in Europe show an East-West divide, for example? The data used to find out were taken from an international aptitude test developed for the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Survey (TIMSS). This shows that pupils in central European countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia) are strongest at maths. Another important finding is that, as a general rule, there is a close correlation between the results achieved in the seventh-eighth year and in the fourth year, suggesting that a liking for maths develops very early. Performances fall nearly everywhere, however, when pupils arrive in the twelfth-thirteenth year. This begs the question as to why there is this falling off of standards? Is it due to the teachers, the pupils, or both?

This and many other questions (such as how to help pupils overcome a negative attitude towards mathematics) were asked by the report's authors, who stress the importance of maths in acquiring skills of analysis, logic and reasoning. Reference is made to a number of national experiences. In Cyprus, for example, motivating competitions are open to even the youngest pupils, while in Germany teachers have access to multimedia teaching materials (CD-ROMs, videos, etc.).

The role of ICT

Similar examples are also given for the natural sciences. For example, in 1999, Italy launched a four-year programme aimed at improving science education. One of the working hypotheses was the need to place the emphasis on developing experimental skills and interdisciplinarity. In the field of information and communication technologies (ICT), interpreting the results is becoming increasingly complex, not only because of rapid technological change but also as a result of their varied status in different countries. In most central European countries they are taught as subjects 'in their own right', whereas elsewhere - Norway, Sweden, Italy - they are seen as tools to assist in the teaching of other subjects. Furthermore, some teachers show a certain suspicion of such technologies which are sometimes regarded as posing a threat to their own jobs. Here, too, the response varies - Estonia, for example, has set up a system whereby older pupils tutor younger ones in ICT.

There is also, of course, the question of resources - or more specifically, the cost of computers. The report notes that their price is falling, but also that this is not the only factor. As living standards improve, so pupils in general spend longer in the education system. This is seen at both ends of the scale, with more nursery classes and more students in higher education. Indeed, the importance of learning experiences at a very early age are known to be crucial for the later intellectual development of individuals. The conclusion is obvious: there is a need for more and better trained teachers with the ability to adapt - this is a long-term investment which will determine Europe's future.


Sixteen indicators, four areas

Seven attainment indicators: mathematics; reading; sciences; ICT; foreign languages; 'learning to learn'; and citizenship. Three indicators of success and transition: drop-out rate; completion of secondary education; and participation in higher education. Two indicators of monitoring school education: evaluation of and guidance in school education; and parent participation. Four indicators of resources and structures: teacher education and training; participation in nursery education; number of students per computer; and educational expenditure per pupil.


RTD info special




European report on the quality of school education - Sixteen quality indicators

Published by the European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture.

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