Saturday, January 1, 2011

Europe needs better schools

The eurozone debt crisis and its economic and social consequences should not distract the attention on real problems that Europe is facing in terms of competitiveness. As indicated in Europe's 2020 strategy, the long term future of its economy depends increasingly in its ability to innovate and the quality of its education systems, particularly secondary school education.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) presented the results of its Program for International Student Association (PISA)'s recent testing on 28 million young people of 15 year old in 74 educational systems which account for 87% of the world economy*. These results are to be taken with great attention by all those who care about Europe's future.

There are important lessons that we can draw from them. First, the study shows that educational results can be significantly improved through government intervention. Poland is a clear example of how education reform has produced markedly better tests results. Germany - whose poor past performance was rated in PISA- show signs of improvement too as well as other countries such as Portugal and Hungary. Outside the EU, Chile shows improvements which can be attributed to government intervention.

The second lesson, which is double edged, is that relationship between public funds invested and results achieved is not straightforward. In general, the more is invested into education, the better for both individuals and schools; however, there are countries investing relatively less which perform better. Poorer countries cannot simply blame their below average results on their poverty. Nor can rich countries rely on their wealth to secure for their children their best possible education.

Finland spends a lot less on education than many European countries but has consistently ranked at he top in all PISA assessments over the past decade, and its performance has been notable for consistency across schools. Primary school teaching is, in fact, the most popular profession among Finnish young people and one of the most important lessons from PISA's evaluation is that raising the status of teaching has a powerful effect on results. After Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium are the most highest ranking EU countries for reading literacy, maths and science with Estonia and Poland above OECD average. Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Denmark, the UK, Hungary and Portugal are close to the OECD average. Bulgaria and just after Lithuania are the lowest ranking EU countries for reading. Greece is the second worst in maths and science.

Existing disparities in performance of education systems between Finland and other European countries cannot simply be dismissed. Political leaders should give due consideration to secondary school education as they have the power to affect the results and thereby change the daily lives of millions of young people and through them improve the growth potential of the European economy.

For Europe, education is a difficult issue because responsibility rests with national and regional governments. What is taught in schools and (how) is often politically and culturally sensitive. But the EU cannot ignore the issue , or just maintain the status quo. It has no choice, but persuade European nations to improve their educational performance for their economic survival.

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