EUROPE: Raising education standards

The 27 EU member states will have to speed up their educational progress if they are to meet a range of self-imposed targets deemed necessary if the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs is to be successful by 2010. A report by the European Commission* acknowledges that progress has been made in five key areas (though not in low achievement in reading) and that long-term reform processes have been launched. "Although progress towards... targets is slow, it is mostly going in the right direction," said Ján Figel, Commissioner for Education. "But much work still needs to be done," he warned.

The Lisbon strategy is aimed at making the EU the world leader in technology "but as we develop as a knowledge-based society in an intensely competitive globalising world environment... millions of Europeans will find it increasingly hard to fully flourish, let alone find employment," Figel said. "Almost one-third of the European workforce has the equivalent of lower secondary schooling, and around a quarter of Europe's 15-year-olds have low reading skills."

The fifth annual "indicators and benchmarks" report, drawn up by the commission's Education Directorate General, along with Eurostat, the CRELL Research Centre and the Eurydice European Unit, examines each country's performances regarding completion of secondary education, early school leaving rate, low achievement in reading literacy, the number of mathematics, science and technology graduates, and the participation of adults in lifelong learning activities.

For the EU as a whole, the report claims that "overall performance is on a par with the best in the world". The paper highlights a number of achievements: about 3 million more European students are now in higher education and 1 million more students graduate each year than in 2000, with 13 million more higher education graduates in the EU's working-age population than in 2000.

It says that 60% of 15-29 year-olds are enrolled in schools and higher education, comparable with the US and 18% higher than in Japan. But almost 108 million people in Europe - about a third of the labour force - still have low educational attainment.

Six million young people (one in seven of all 18-24 year-olds) obtained only compulsory education or less. The study says that 25-64 year-olds are three times more likely to participate in lifelong learning if they have completed at least upper secondary education.

In general, boys do less well in reading than girls and have more special education needs but girls did less well in mathematics and under-performed in maths, science and technology.

Except in low reading achievement where, instead of a 20% decrease, the share of low achievers in the EU has increased by more than 10%, progress has been made.

Thus the number of maths, science and technology graduates has risen and now exceeds the 15% benchmark growth rate. The report says some progress has been made in reducing the number of early school leavers, increasing upper secondary attainment of young people and increasing adult participation in lifelong learning.

Who's doing well and who isn't? The survey reports that nine countries - Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, Slovenia, Norway and Iceland - have beaten the five benchmarks on average and are still progressing. Also, lifelong learning is becoming a reality in Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, countries that have developed comprehensive and coherent lifelong learning strategies.

In reading, the top countries are Finland, Ireland and Estonia, with Romania and Bulgaria at the bottom. In early school leaving, the best were the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia plus probably Slovenia for which reliable data were unavailable. The worst are Malta and Portugal.

Countries as a whole have done well in raising graduate numbers in maths, science and technology - the target was a 15% increase whereas the numbers actually rose by 29% over 2000, and the female share rose from 30.7% to 31.6%. Poland, Estonia and Ireland were the best-achieving, with Belgium, Slovenia, Austria, the Netherlands, Cyprus and Malta at the foot of the table.

A target of 12.5% of the working age population engaged in lifelong learning was set and the level has increased from 7.1 % in 2000 to 9.7% in 2006, with Sweden, Denmark and the UK at the top and Bulgaria and Romania at the bottom.