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TRENDS AND CHALLENGES OF BASIC EDUCATION IN EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA AT WARSAW CONFERENCE
 
  Warsaw (Poland), February 6 - Trends in basic education and the many challenges on the road to ensuring the universal human right to education are at the heart of debates at the Conference on Education for All in Europe and North America which opened in Warsaw on Sunday. The 3-day Conference has brought together close to 250 participants, including 39 national delegations, non-governmental organisations and the five intergovernmental organisations in charge of the unprecedented global Education for All 2000 Assessment.
 
  The first day of the Conference featured the presentation of two synthesis reports covering Western Europe and North America on the one hand and Central and Eastern Europe on the other. Based on national reports on educational developments in the 1990s, they highlighted differences and common characteristics in the reform requirements of different countries experiencing various degrees of hardship. The President of the Warsaw Conference, Poland's Education Minister Miroslaw Handke, underscored some of the chief reasons motivating educational reforms across the region, notably: "the lack of capacity within the present education system to adapt to the pace and scope of economic, social and cultural change, the crisis of the educational role of the school resulting from the predominance of the transmission of information over the development of skills and the shaping of personality, the lack of equal opportunities in the access to education at all its levels."
 
  Speaking about the comprehensive reform programme Poland launched this year, Mr Handke underscored major problems facing countries in transition 10 years after the collapse of Communism, though some of them also concern the old and prosperous democracies: "the low percentage of young people completing secondary and higher education, the necessity to adapt the education system to the provisions of the Constitution and the system reform of the state, the necessity to adapt vocational education to the changing needs of the market economy, the need to establish closer links between schools at all levels and the family as well as the local community."
 
  The crying need to redress the balance in access to education between rural and urban populations was of particular concern to the Polish Minister, although the subsequent reports highlighted similar discrepancies elsewhere. "35% of the adult population in urban areas completed secondary education, while rural areas reported somewhat less than 15%. 10% of the population living in cities and towns completed higher education, the indicator for rural areas is below 2%. Approximately one third of the rural population under 24 years of age is unemployed; approximately 52% of Polish villagers have only completed primary school" and both the number and quality of schools in rural areas are, Mr Handke argued, inadequate.
 
  Unequal access to existing educational provision was also a major source of concern in the presentation of the report on 29 countries in Western Europe and North America by Malcolm Skilbeck of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) / and in the report on Central and Eastern Europe which covered 20 countries by education expert Albert Motivans. Mr Skilbeck particularly emphasised the influence of class on the educational and subsequent professional success of learners while Mr Motivans highlighted the issues of family background, ethnic origin and geographic location.
 
  "Fiscal constraints in Central and Eastern Europe have led to a decline in the mobilisation of resources for education in many of the region's countries and have had a negative impact on both access to, and quality of, education", Mr Motivans said. He singled out those countries which still have negative economic growth and those affected by war, notably the former Yugoslavia.
 
  Mr Motivans explained that "while schools generally continue operating in the region, fiscal constraints mean that they rely more on contributions from families to pay for supplies and extracurricular activities" but "rising unemployment and poverty mean that households [also] have fewer resources to devote to education." He further pointed to a decline in real-term expenditure on education among the star performers in the transition from Communism to a market economy. Mr Motivans argued that there should be particular concern about how the shrinking public resources for education are shared. He said that there is a growing gap not only between Eastern and Western Europe's educational achievements but also between those of different population groups within the region of Eastern and Central Europe with "worsening conditions for those experiencing the worst economic hardships."
 
  Early childhood education, whose importance for learners' later achievements was recognised by all speakers, emerged as a particularly fragile link in the educational chain. In Central and Eastern Europe, it is most commonly sacrificed to fiscal constraint. In the West, "with the exception of a few countries like France and Belgium", Mr Skilbeck said, early childhood education and care are generally insufficient. He also pointed to inadequate data concerning early childhood education in most OECD countries.
 
  Mr Skilbeck highlighted problems regarding the status and quality of vocational education and training and to uneven standards of performance among secondary education students, emphasising the need to make education "more inclusive; not only for reasons of justice but also for social cohesion." While stressing the need for education to contribute to economic prosperity, he argued that "the fruit of economic growth must be shared better" and pointed to increased inequality in the distribution of wealth over the 1990s.
 
  Although Western Europe and North America enjoy higher standards and longer education provision than most parts of the world, their education systems must be redesigned "in the context of lifelong learning for all," Mr Skilbeck argued, pointing to the constant need to upgrade and adapt skills in a changing world.
 
  The International Consultative Forum on Education for All, comprising the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank, is organising the 3-day Conference, hosted by the government of Poland. The Conference will adopt a regional Plan of Action to be presented at the World Education Forum in Dakar (Senegal, April 26 - 28). At the meeting, the international community will decide on a global strategy to achieve quality education for all, as pledged by 155 states and some 150 organisations at the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien (Thailand) ten years ago.
 
 
EFA Website: http://www.unesco.org/education/efa
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