Ten years after the Declaration on Education
for All, what has been achieved in Europe and North
America in terms of the right to education? What guarantees
exist for the access of all to education and to quality
of education, and how are those guarantees enforced?
What means can be employed to enable everyone to fulfil
their potential in an economic and social environment
which has changed profoundly?
RECOGNITION OF THE RIGHT TO EDUCATION
Constitutionally and legally speaking,
the right to education in this region was achieved long
ago, and was reaffirmed at the beginning of the 1990s,
at the time of the institutional reforms undertaken
by the countries of eastern Europe, in their new constitutions
and in the reform of their education systems which followed.
The right to education as written into
these texts is initially given concrete expression in
two ways: by provision free of charge, considered
by the vast majority of parents to be the prime condition
of access to education for all children and a guarantee
of social justice. Free provision is offered in state-run
schools, although in certain countries there is a growing
tendency to charge for certain extra-curricular activities,
which often causes dissension among parents. In all
countries of the region, however, parents retain the
right to provide for their children's education in private
establishments, religious or otherwise, on a fee-paying
basis. This situation generates conflicting images of
quality between public and private schools, and can
in certain countries give rise to heated debate.
The second aspect of the concrete expression
of the right to education is legislative, and concerns
the relatively long period of compulsory education,
which is often equated with the duration of schooling
necessary to achieve those educational goals considered
fundamental in the country in question. Almost everywhere
in Europe and North America, this includes primary and
lower secondary education.
2.1.1 Duration of compulsory education
Over the whole region, there is considerable
variation in the way the duration of compulsory education
is determined for an entire age cohort. The age of entry
into the formal education system is generally around
6-7 years, less often 5 years, and the school-leaving
age lies between 14 and 16 years, and in some cases
as late as 18 years. The period of compulsory education
thus lasts for between eight and 11 years, the trend
being on the whole towards longer compulsory education
in the west of the region than in the east.
In the east of Europe, at the beginning
of the 1990s, the duration of compulsory schooling was
generally not more than eight or nine years. In recent
years, the tendency has been reversed, and half the
countries are either currently considering, or by 1999
had already put in place, a reform to extend the duration
of compulsory education. Some governments have stressed
that their intention in doing this is to move closer
to the European norm.
In the west of the region, during the same
decade, thought was given to the advisability of extending
the period of compulsory education. In rare cases this
led to the last year of pre-primary schooling becoming
part of the period of compulsory education (as in Norway),
or to an extension of the period of compulsory education
to the end of secondary education (in Italy, a reform
with this objective is planned for the year 2000).
By the end of the decade, the tendency
in Europe and North America was thus towards standardizing
the duration of compulsory schooling for children and
adolescents at around 10 to 11 years. This development
seems to correspond to a concern to provide a more intensive
form of early schooling, better able to meet the needs
of the labour market. Yet it does not explicitly address
the question of what is the appropriate duration for
a solid basic education common to all, the key to real
participation in society from the point of view of equality
of opportunity at the end of the compulsory education
period. There is much at stake, and it would be advisable
to explore further what is required today to bring about
truly democratic basic education.
2.1.2 Provision of universal access to compulsory education
The temptation to prolong compulsory education,
which has been noted in certain countries, can be partly
explained by the achievement in almost the entire region
of universal access to primary education and the first
cycle of secondary schooling.
Indeed, at least for primary education,
universal access has been an accomplished fact since
the 1980s in Europe and North America, while during
this period the countries in the east were already achieving
higher enrolment rates than the countries of the western
part of the region. Moreover, the reports submitted
by the governments of these countries for the Warsaw
Conference emphasize the high level of effectiveness
of the education systems of the time. However, as a
result of the changes in regime, reforms in many sectors
and economic upheavals, full access to education was
at times threatened. The drop in enrolment rates was,
however, relatively small, the rate remaining on the
whole close to 100%. The importance attached to education,
both by political leaders and by the whole population,
made possible rapid improvements which were discernible
by the end of the decade.
In parallel, over the same period, the
western part of the region improved access to primary
education, by reducing the numbers of late entrants.
In other words, the majority of children now undergoing
primary education in this region are of the required
age. The gap between gross and net rates has decreased
sharply, demonstrating the efforts which have been made
in this direction.
In the light of this assessment, it can
be considered overall that access to compulsory education
became universal at the very beginning of the 1990s,
but that the risk of pupils leaving school without minimum
qualifications increases when they enter secondary schooling.
Nowhere in Europe and North America is
equality of academic opportunity yet completely guaranteed.
Many are the country reports which stress the concerns
of decision-makers, teachers and labour and management
on this point. Three factors are particularly alarming:
School drop-out and academic failure:
as announced in the OECD document, the almost completely
universal provision of schooling makes the persistent
percentage of school drop-out and academic failure more
visible, leading one to the conclusion that they stand
in a direct relationship to the worsening of social
problems and the rise of exclusion. Although the phenomenon
appears to be quite real, the facts are difficult to
interpret: the extent of the phenomenon varies by country,
and its measurement (at least for academic failure)
depends on divergent definitions of the difficulties
encountered by pupils and the evaluation of how much
has been learned. The OECD statistics reveal persistent
problems in 15 to 20% of a given age cohort in the organization's
Member States. But at the same time, Italy declares
less than 1% of academic failure. Although the measurement
of failure differs according to the criteria employed,
it is reasonable to conclude that there is indeed a
real problem in the region.
Geographical disparities: certain
countries such as Poland mention inequalities of access
to primary and secondary schools between rural and urban
areas. In the rural areas, the schools are often fewer
in number, and transporting children to neighbouring
localities can prove too expensive for impoverished
families. Moreover, children must often work on the
farm in order to help feed the family.
Minorities: the children of certain
ethnic minorities are particularly affected by academic
failure, and may even be excluded from basic education.
Among such minorities, one may instance populations
of travellers (Gypsies or Romanies) whose way of life,
and the social exclusion of which they are victims,
considerably limit the educational opportunities open
to them in normal circumstances.
2.2 COMPULSORY SCHOOLING AND BASIC EDUCATION
An analysis of the "expanded vision" of
the World Declaration on Education for All has shown
that the concept of basic education is not identical
to that of compulsory schooling, whatever its duration.
The Declaration operates on the qualitative level of
the development of the human being, of individuals'
capacity to live, work and have relationships with others
in society. It is clear that the legislative data or
quantitative indicators alone can account only partially
for this dimension.
This discrepancy (many of the reports emphasize
the unsuitability of the indicators suggested) is very
probably at the root of the thinking in favour of a
de facto (if not de jure) extension of the period of
compulsory schooling, the better to pursue the "basic"
goals mentioned above. From this point of view, three
main aspects must be taken into account: early childhood
and pre-primary education; continuation of schooling
until the end of the secondary cycle, and the organization
of technical and vocational training.
2.2.1 Early childhood and the strengthening of basic
The attention paid to the early childhood
years and pre-primary education has attracted increasing
interest in the last 10 years.
It is difficult to gain a clear idea of
the situation over the whole region, since so many factors
vary: responsibilities, structures, incentive policies.
This situation arises from different trends in educational
thinking, and traditions and customs which are specific
to each country. It is, however, possible to point to
some fairly widespread tendencies.
The care of young children is usually undertaken
in the family, by family members. Where external resources
are called upon, the concern is to verify their competence
and to require proper training and a recognized status
for childcare personnel, as it is the case, for example,
in the United Kingdom. Where families turn to external
institutions, two cases are generally observed: creches,
usually operated under the responsibility of health
ministries, receive very young children, aged from 0
to 2 years, while kindergartens or nursery schools,
generally operated by education ministries, are responsible
for the social and cognitive development of children
from 3 to 5 or 6 years of age and prepare them for primary
In the countries of eastern Europe, participation
at this level has declined since 1990; and more particularly
since about 1995 (except in central Europe). This fall
is due partly to the closure of state-run enterprises
and the privatization of service industries, but also
to the frequent introduction of fees. The increased
costs borne by families was one of the barriers to the
expansion of this sector at the end of the 1990s.
In the western part of the region, whereas
early childhood education has tended to increase during
the last decade, the facilities, conditions and the
overall provision are highly diversified: no single
model dominates. A wide variety of institutions can
be observed, as well as many informal care and education
structures which are nevertheless often recognized by
the public authorities. Policies differ markedly from
one country to another: completely State-operated institutions
offering broad accessibility, family allowances or generous
parental leave to encourage parents to keep their children
at home rather than entrusting them to a communal creche
or an external care facility.
In spite of this diversity, there is a
remarkable measure of agreement on the importance attached
to early childhood care and pre-primary education. There
are two major reasons for this:
- the development of early learning, which
facilitates entry into primary education, as is generally
- risk reduction: placing importance on early
childhood makes possible early detection of any problems
connected with development, or the family environment,
making them easier to remedy. Thus, in France, in
so-called "educational priority areas", particular
efforts are made to accommodate children in nursery
schools from the age of two.
It is becoming universally accepted that providing early
childhood care to promote children's psychomotor, emotional,
cognitive and social development can reduce inequalities
at primary school and reduce the risk of later failure.
2.2.2 Access to higher education: a new dimension of
As the trend continues towards taking increasingly
early responsibility for the learning process, a tendency
is also developing towards extending schooling to the
end of secondary school (and sometimes even beyond),
in excess of the legal duration of compulsory schooling.
This tendency is bound up, on the one hand,
with the social demand for education, and, on the other,
with the rise in general levels of culture and qualification
required by increasingly complex societies, for which,
as we have seen, control of knowledge constitutes a
major driving force.
The tendency to extend the duration of
schooling and to raise the level of educational attainment
are not confined to general education courses, but are
found in technical and vocational training as well,
although the distribution of flows in the region are
The first tendency is primarily the prerogative
of the countries of the eastern part of the region.
The UNICEF report notes a drop in upper secondary technical
and vocational education, which may be explained by
three factors: the withdrawal of the State from these
areas, trends in the labour market (the decline in manufacturing
industry and fast growth of the tertiary sector), and
the disaffection of students for these courses in favour
of general studies. Meanwhile, prestigious elitist courses
have clearly gained ground, while the private sector
has grown, in particular in higher education.
The second tendency is characteristic of
the western part of the region, with some subtle differences.
The OECD data on the distribution of upper secondary
students among general studies and technical and vocational
courses in 1996 indicate three types of situations in
the region. A first group of countries, of Germanic
culture (Austria, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Switzerland), and also Italy, channels
most of its students into vocational and technical training:
more than 65% of their students are enrolled on such
courses. A second group of countries, those
of Northern Europe plus France and the United Kingdom,
attaches equal importance to both types of course: a
little over 50% of students take up courses in technical
and vocational subjects. Lastly, a third group of countries,
those of the south of the continent plus Ireland, gives
priority to general education: only 20% to 40% of their
students are enrolled on technical and professional
These differences nevertheless point to
a more general phenomenon: that of the extension of
the duration of schooling, related to a rise in the
requirement for general culture and qualifications,
and which tends to lend weight to the idea that, in
our societies, the whole of an age cohort should be
able to graduate from secondary school, whatever the
course of study followed.
2.3 THE FRONTIERS OF BASIC EDUCATION
Following this rapid re-examination of
the situations and their development in our region,
some conclusions are self-evident:
- the objectives of universalization and non-discrimination
in access to education at the primary and lower
secondary levels, which have for many years been equated
with basic education, are close to being accomplished,
despite the existence of discrepancies and a number
of persistent problems in terms of drop-out and academic
- The frontiers of basic education, defined as
a process of creating integrated, self-reliant people,
are shifting, both because of the stress laid on early
childhood and pre-primary education, and because of
the tendency to extend it to the end of general secondary
or vocational education. There is an obvious link
between the degree of complexity and the general demands
of a given society, and its conception of a "basic"
level of education. This clearly means that the very
concept of basic education must be related to a definition
of the levels and objectives to be achieved, which
may vary according to region and the developmental
needs of that society at any particular point in its
It is thus incumbent on
each country to define the levels required, and to write
these into its policies. We shall see how important
this is when we reflect on action plans at the European
or worldwide level.