No Euro bond;Research Focus;Briefing

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Monetary union may now be in sight, but according to research by Alison Wolf, Andy Green and Tom Leney, a common education currency is as far off as ever

The world of European politicians and policy-makers is one of EU initiatives and common goals; of a shared vocabulary of reform, and an underpinning rationale for change. One might, therefore, expect educational change to echo the economic convergence embraced at Maastricht and Amsterdam. But should one?

Twenty years ago, the majority of EU states had highly-centralised education systems. National curricula, the hiring of teachers, and all forms of expenditure were tightly controlled by ministries and their outlying offices. Since then, a widespread belief in decentralisation has led to reforms in most states. The result is far more diversity in the governance of European education than a generation ago.

Our detailed review of education and training in all 15 EU member states found no evidence of overall convergence or of any emerging "European" system. Certain policy ideas have been influential across the Continent: but states respond differently, with varying enthusiasm. The result can often be greater diversity than before.

Decentralising reforms can mean nothing more then the passing of limited expenditure powers to a ministry's regional offices, as in Portugal. It can also mean the complete dismantling of a national system in favour of separate systems based around three linguistic groups, as in Belgium.

Some countries which were relatively decentralised to begin with have been among the most enthusiastic reformers, notably the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Their schools already enjoyed unusual autonomy, with powers over staff appointments which were not shared elsewhere: now, with 80 per cent of budgets devolved in England and Wales, the gap between these systems and others is greater than before.

In Scandinavia, the past two decades have seen increased powers for elected local authorities; in the UK, LEAs' powers have been systematically reduced; in France, Paris has passed powers largely to its own agents in a fanning out of the central civil service.

EU states share common pressures as well as policy ideas: not least a surging demand for educational credentials, itself a response to labour markets with little place for the unskilled, and a globalising economy with winner-take-all rewards for the successful.

European parents (and students) increasingly resist early selection and foreclosing of options: so one might expect a common move towards a generally comprehensive pattern of upper secondary schooling. In practice, though many countries have introduced ways of postponing choice andor "second chance" routes into academic options, one of the great divides in European schooling remains. Twenty years ago some selected for different tracks and schools quite early in children's secondary school careers, and others only in the last two or three years. This is still the case.

There has been even less change on the other great upper secondary divide, between states with externally-set national examinations, and those which rely on teacher assessment. Those who have used public, external examinations in the past continue to do so (and tend to multiply them apace): the French system, including that for the new baccalaureats, would be easily recognised by a mid-century time-traveller, and England, after a short flirtation with teacher assessment, is now introducing external examinations for the GNVQ as well as A-level and GCSE.

The Germans, the Spanish, and the Swedes have traditionally relied on teacher assessments for their certificates: they continue to do so. The policy rhetoric and academic advice would lead one to expect change, if it came, to be in the direction of more teacher assessment: in fact, the opposite is true in the very few countries involved.

Every EU state has experienced a rapid increase in numbers of university students since 1980, and all have introduced university reforms. But even growth rates have varied enormously - nearly three times as high in some countries as in others - and reforms have done nothing to standardise the sector. Only two member states - the UK and Sweden - have moved to create a single higher education sector: most others either reaffirmed a pre-existing clear divide between different types of institution or created one during the past two decades.

Labour market practices, however, remain stubbornly resistant to government interventions and exhortation as a survey of European apprenticeships makes clear. Some countries have highly prestigious, high-participation systems; some have modest-sized apprenticeship sectors, respected in some occupational areas and irrelevant in others; some use apprenticeship as a low prestige route for failing students; and some have no real apprenticeships at all. Twenty years ago the categories were the same, and they contained the same countries.

Why this continuing diversity? Partly because, if you start in different places, and move at different speeds, you may end up as distant from each other, even if you are moving in similar directions. But there is more to it than that.

Modern, national and nationalised education systems have never been simply about servicing the economy. They are as much to do with national identity, and key values: remember the debate over history in the English national curriculum.

In an age when they have decreasing influences over economic or foreign policy, education also offers EU politicians relative freedom of action. Educational diversity looks set to characterise Europe's 21st as much as its 20th century.

Andy Green, Alison Wolf and Tom Leney work at the Institute of Education, London University"Convergence and Divergence in European Education and Training Systems" is the latest in the institute's Bedford Way series and is available, priced pound;15.99, from its bookshop (0171 612 6050)

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