'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.
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.