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 III. THE QUEST FOR QUALITY: STRENGTHENING BASIC EDUCATION

  We have seen how the concern to integrate early childhood care and pre-primary schooling into basic education, or to extend compulsory schooling to the end of secondary education (by including vocational training), corresponds to a concern to reinforce and improve the quality of basic education. But the quest for quality in education, at all levels, is an ongoing concern, and is the aim of much innovative action. Some of these actions are particularly stressed in the country reports from the region.

  3.1 FOCUSING ON THE PUPIL

   One of the main purposes of the "expanded vision" of basic education is, as we have seen, to develop the full potential of the individual. This personal development dimension has long been emphasized by the educational community, decision-makers, researchers and teachers. In practice, this "focusing on the pupil" results in a diversity of content, teaching methods and modes of organization of school life.

   It is more and more generally admitted that the quest for a higher quality of education necessitates recognizing pupils' diversity and their different rates of learning, and hence taking account of each pupil's needs.

   This observation has given rise to many innovative practices in recent years, whose common point has been that they seek to introduce as much flexibility as possible into the curriculum and into the organization of school life. Thus in France, the concept of "cycles" is stressed, rather than a division of the educational process into school years, and the recent thinking on "the school of the twenty-first century" stresses the necessary flexibility of curricula, which must be perceived in terms of objectives to be reached rather than as a succession of rigid instructions, the thinking being directed primarily at workloads and the organization of school work.

   It is possible to see in the country reports the confirmation of a marked tendency to recognize how workloads and courses vary: from a situation in which pupils are forced to yield to the rules of the institution, we are coming to the idea that the institution must adapt to each pupil, by applying the principle of "differentiated teaching".

   In countries like Poland, Portugal, Italy and France, implementing this flexibility has meant developing the autonomy of individual schools. Each school is thus granted the right to adapt the national curriculum according to the specific characteristics of its pupils, their immediate environment, and the needs of their communities.

   Thus to the quest for quality is added the search for equity. Processes like these also aim to take account of the inequalities which exist at the start of a child's schooling, and to treat them in the most personalized way possible, so as to equalize opportunities. By differentiating pupils' school careers, it is hoped that all members of an age cohort will have been able to acquire, by the end of their basic education, a set of basic skills and knowledge, common values and those forms of behaviour and attitudes which are considered to be essential to the activities of social life. This dimension tallies exactly with the "expanded vision" of basic education as defined in the Jomtien Declaration.

  3.2 CURRICULAR REFORMS


   Among the various possible avenues of research into ways of improving the quality of education, curriculum reforms are one among the most significant. This movement began in the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1960s, and have become widespread throughout the world, albeit with considerable variants. The quest for quality in teaching by means of curriculum reform often involves determining teaching content, drawing up teaching guides which are fairly restrictive, or defining national standards - which schools are encouraged to attain, in particular by the application of financial incentives - as is the case in the United Kingdom, or in the United States with the "Goals 2000" programme. In the Latin countries, stress is more often laid on the acquisition of knowledge and skills by pupils.

   Beyond these cultural variants, the premises of this approach to quality by acting on the curriculum can be clearly seen: for any given society, it is a matter of determining the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are needed, and therefore the standards that it must enforce, in order to make possible the satisfactory integration of the individual.

   Most of the countries of Europe and North America either introduced curriculum reforms into their basic education systems in the 1990s, or plan to do so in the near future. Everywhere, the approach has been to rethink how children and young people should be taught in the aftermath of immense social, economic and political changes. It would be illusory to try to account for all the innovations introduced into all curricula in all regions. It is, however, possible to identify certain marked tendencies.

Personal development, individual potential and self-reliance

   The stress laid on individuals' self-reliance
is a key characteristic of the educational approaches of western countries. This tendency can now be seen in the reforms in progress in the eastern countries. For example, Romania's Education Act of 1995 stipulates that education must contribute to the free and harmonious development of the individual and the building of an autonomous creative personality. Elsewhere, as in Poland, the acquisition of self-reliance is translated into educational content as the need to develop abilities and skills in self-expression, communication and comprehension ("understanding the world"), using methods which emphasize exchanges, expression and communication.

   The aim includes teaching individuals to be good citizens
. Often limited in the east to civic education classes, this is much more apparent in the west, where it often underpins the entire educational process. It is a transverse concept with respect to the usual disciplines, and is transmitted to pupils not only through teaching common values, but also through teaching history, the mother tongue or foreign languages, economics, etc. The acquisition of civic attitudes can also be achieved by means of periods of self-expression, exchanges and meetings, between pupils and teachers or with people from outside the school.

   Acquisition of new knowledge and new skills for a modern society based on exchanges As societies become increasingly complex, the question arises: how can the acquisition of certain types of knowledge considered to be fundamental, such as knowledge of the environment or economic issues, be reinforced?

   In this connection, one may instance the introduction of new information and communication technologies, which can be effected either with purely technical training in the use of the machine, or more often, through a more broadly-based overall reform of content and methods leading to interdisciplinarity, using IT as a means of access to knowledge, exchange and communication, and a way of developing an analytical mind and the critical faculty. These reforms include the objective of reducing inequalities of access to knowledge and employment, and an attempt to avoid a new kind of illiteracy: "computer illiteracy". This approach is seen most notably in Italy, France and Romania.

   Early training in foreign languages is also being developed in primary education, to improve performance in later life. It is perceived as an issue of developing mobility, of European openness, but also of improved economic competitiveness. It is part of the training of the individual as an active participant in civic life, but also as a preparation for a more mobile professional life.

   Developing teaching methods which gradually leave behind the mechanical learning of concepts in favour of a rationale of understanding. It is a question "of learning to learn", as advocated by the UNESCO International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors. Although this process does seem to be the way ahead, it should not, however, let us lose sight of the idea of determining a minimum core of knowledge that would serve as a knowledge foundation common to all, valuable both for the individual personally and for the individual's participation in the world. In several cases, this basic aspect seems to be regarded as secondary, and poses a problem, namely, that schools must remain places for the acquisition of knowledge.

  3.3 WAYS OF MANAGING THE SYSTEM

   An examination of the country reports reveals a very strong measure of agreement and even a real consensus: the reinforcement of basic education and its quality requires a major redistribution of the roles of all its actors, whether they are public authorities, local communities, private actors or associations, including, of course, the parts played by teachers, families, and more widely, the social environment.

   The issues at stake are clear: we must mobilize all the actors, in order both to consolidate the central place of the school in society, and to ensure that, in return, education is perceived as a major component of society, not just one more public utility among others.

   The thinking in our region seems to have moved in three major directions:

  3.3.1 Decentralization

   Many of our countries possess federal structures, or have organized themselves into autonomous regions, or have introduced a high degree of decentralization. Others, particularly in the eastern part of the region, plan to do this within the framework of the institutional reforms currently under way.

   These policies correspond to a general trend which consists in giving more and more responsibility and initiatives to those actors who are "close to the point of delivery", whatever the sector, and therefore also in education. Let us simply note here that this tendency is deeply rooted in the very nature of democracy and its underlying values.

   These policies can present a real danger: that responsibilities may be transferred without appropriate accompanying administrative, and especially financial, provisions to enable the decentralized levels to cope with these new possibilities in a concrete way. This problem is quite real in the countries of the eastern part of Europe, as the UNICEF document emphasizes.

   But they also present the enormous advantage of proposing a framework in which the "res publica", that which belongs to the public - and in particular education - can become, by delegation of responsibility to the level of the reality of everyday problems, the "res omnium" or that which belongs to all.

  3.3.2 Autonomy and partnership


   Within the framework of the implementation of these policies, several marked tendencies become apparent:

- The autonomy of schools, as regards their financial management, their approach to teaching and their freedom to be creative and to take initiatives, which are entrusted to the teaching staff.

- Partnerships: these processes can lead to contractual relationships with local authorities, to partnerships with actors in the social sphere and sometimes with private companies, and to innovative projects often characterized by openness and transversality, as is the case with the "COMENIUS" projects encouraged by the European Commission.

- Cases of hardship: these partnership initiatives, moreover, make it possible to deal at close quarters with the difficulties encountered by a number of children and adults: the setting up of a culture of listening, decompartmentalizing the actions of public services, community actions undertaken by associations - all these initiatives can transform populations from being recipients of assistance measures to individuals in control of their own reintegration.

  We shall return to these points in more detail, illustrating them with examples of actions mentioned in the country reports, as this is doubtless one of the most innovative areas of this decade.

  3.3.3 Management and evaluation

   These highly innovative and flexible initiatives nevertheless raise the question of general management and how achievements should be evaluated.
   At this level, the strategies in place in the region are extremely varied, and this is undoubtedly a particularly fertile field for research. We shall content ourselves here with identifying two main tendencies: on the one hand, that of countries like the United Kingdom, which launches initiatives intended to stimulate and revitalize those schools which commit themselves to pursuing the goals defined in the action plans, which always include a financial incentive. On the other, the tendency observed in countries like the Netherlands or France, which have developed national systems for the monitoring and evaluation of pupils' results, the performance of schools and that of the education system in general, in order to be able to measure the progress made and to improve identification of obstacles.

   At this level of thinking, it is clear that the interdependence of objectives, standards, evaluation and certification will be a subject for considerable study and action in the years to come.

  3.4 TEACHER TRAINING

   The process of improving the quality of education cannot ignore the quality of service provided by teachers themselves, the central actors in the educational process. In this connection, stress was laid during the 1990s on teacher training for all levels of the education system, particularly for the primary and secondary levels. Two tendencies can be observed, one very clear, the other more diffuse.

  3.4.1 Improving the standards of primary-school teachers through training


   The overall goal of raising standards in our societies finds expression in the diversification of educational content, the inclusion at primary level of new disciplines such as foreign languages, the entry of computers into school and the drive to improve pupil's performance. This broad trend means that a wider range of knowledge and skills is required of teachers. For these reasons, most countries in the region have reformed teacher training, often simultaneously with the introduction of new curricula into primary schooling. This argument is generally the first to be advanced, as in the case of Portugal, where, since 1997, kindergarten teachers and those teaching in the three cycles of primary and secondary education are trained to degree level ("licenciatura"), i.e. five years of study at universities or colleges of higher education.

   The level of training required in the whole of the region to qualify teachers to work in the first years of basic education now amounts to two, three, four or five years after graduation from secondary education, either in higher teacher-training colleges, or at university level in specialist educational science courses. Meanwhile, continuing education for practising primary-school teachers has often been strengthened, at least in the west of the region, by more frequent sessions and the use of more diversified and more modern teaching methods and course contents, in particular using new technologies. In some cases, systems to support teacher training quality have been devised. In Italy, for example, since 1998 it has been the job of the coordinamento della formazione degli insegnanti to reform and renovate the whole continuing education system of the profession.

   The present trend in Europe is to train primary teachers in tertiary level institutions, either at universities, or at specialized teacher-training colleges.

  3.4.2 Courses linked to research in educational science

   A second tendency developed during the 1990s, essentially in the west of the region: that of linking teacher training with research in educational science, in universities or similar structures where such research takes place. The linkage has two related aims: to reduce inequalities among pupils and to combat academic failure by acquiring sociological insights into pupils, their environment and the school institution; and to disseminate and encourage innovations in teaching, for which the best vectors are teachers themselves. The example of the university-level teacher training institutes created in France in 1989 is in line with the spirit of these aims. Both objectives make it possible to combine the need for quality with the demand for equity.


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

II.  Inventory: Access to 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: t.murtagh@unesco.org Website: www.education.unesco.org/efa
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