Countries strive to be the best

Yojana Sharma

International comparative studies are spurring governments to reform their primary systems. Yojana Sharma reports

EDUCATION reforms in the richest countries are being influenced more and more by international comparisons, as well as rapid globalisation, economic and technological change, according to a new study.

"There is an increasing tendency to refer to performance in international surveys to explain policy changes," said Joanna Le Metais, author of the National Foundation for Educational Research report on International trends in primary education covering 18 countries.

Large-scale influential studies act as a strong stimulus for reforms. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) in 1996 led to the UK government's literacy and numeracy strategies and a focus on numeracy in the United States and Australia.

A relatively poor showing in the 2001 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has led to proposals for new national standards in Germany and Switzerland. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (Pirls) released this year is also expected to influence reform.

There is a greater readiness to learn from successful countries or to overhaul systems that are underperforming. "Such snapshots of progress spur politicians into action," said Ms Le Metais."The view is: 'We want to be ahead'."

However, the main impetus for transforming primary education over the past 15 to 20 years has been globalisation and rapid economic change, with governments fearing their populations could be left behind.

All the countries covered say they are educating children for a global environment where transferable, employable skills must be emphasised.

Creativity, interpersonal skills and independent and lifelong learning skills have all become more important in primary education.

In the classroom itself there is a greater emphasis on group work and independent learning.

Such changes are closely linked to using information technology in the classroom and investment in equipment is evident everywhere.

There is also greater variation in teacher approaches including direct instruction, and exploratory learning as individuals or in groups.

Other trends include smaller class sizes and extending foreign language teaching to younger pupils.

Although there is no clear evidence of a link between forms of control and achievement, there is a trend towards increased local autonomy in school management, which is responding to individual pupil needs more effectively.

Centralised control over the curriculum has decreased in Italy, Japan, Korea and Spain, whereas in England, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the US it has increased.

Parents are also more influential. "We are moving towards more devolved responsibility with education becoming a more market-driven service," said Ms Le Metais."Parental choice has moved to the fore."

The report compares primary systems in Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland the US and Wales.

"International Trends in Primary Education", published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is available at

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Yojana Sharma

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