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   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?


   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.

 2.1.3 Persistent difficulties

   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.


   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 education

   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 schooling.

   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 agreed today;
- 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 basic education?

   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 strongly contrasted.
   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 courses.

   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.


   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 failure.

- 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 history.

   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.

I.   The changes of the decade and their impact on education

III. The quest for quality: Strengthening basic education

IV. Persistent Problems
V.  Prospects for Action: Capitalising on and sharing Experience

  International Consultative Forum on Education for All, 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France. Tel: (33) 1 45 68 21 27, Fax: (33) 1 45 68 56 29, E-mail: Website:
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