Education is one of the most powerful weapons for humankind. It can give you the means to fight any problem in society, by identifying the causes and bringing up suitable solutions. According to the age of the pupil, education is different, because the needs are different. While a young child, school teaches you basic operations and activities. But as children grow, they start learning more specific things, building towards tertiary education, where they finally acquire the necessary skills to have his own profession.

Europe is a continent that boasts a variety of different education systems, each developing according to the society’s needs. But mostly to the cultural and political frameworks. At the tertiary level, the European Union tries to create a unitary system, with courses that have the same structure, with specializations that follow the same distribution, with different kinds of exchanges (between teachers, students or young professionals). In spite of this, at the primary and secondary level, the differences still persist. Assessing various educational systems, each with their own specific features and structures, is a difficult task. In order to do this, we can take two approaches.

The first one is used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a triennial international survey. PISA involves testing the actual skills that 15 year olds have at the end of compulsory education which can be applied to real-life situations. The advantage of the PISA test rests in its separation from the school curriculum, being adaptable to different cultural and social backgrounds. The questionnaire comprises open-ended and multiple-choice items organised in groups based on a real-life situation. According to the PISA 2012 results overview, around 510,000 students in 65 economies took part in the last session of assessment of reading, mathematics and science representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally. Of those economies, 44 took part in an assessment of creative problem solving and 18 in an assessment of financial literacy.

A different approach is used narrowly now, involving a comparative analysis of different educational systems, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages. For this purpose, I chose three European countries – Germany, United Kingdom and Sweden – which had PISA results close to the OECD average (514, 494 and 478 respectively). I decided to focus on four key variables that will allow me to understand the differences and similarities between them. These variables are funding, parents’ choice between public and private schools, structure of primary and secondary schooling and the training of teachers.

Teacher training is an important factor in preserving and improving the educational system of a country. Germany has two stages for training teachers at university, three to four years for primary or five to six years for secondary, and the two-year practical training at teacher seminars and training schools.

Germany

The basic framework for financing and funding is the yearly education budget of the Federation, the Länder and the local authorities in Germany. The methods of financing education in detail, for example teaching aids or transport of pupils, differ from place to place. The German education system is overwhelmingly public funded, but there are also private schools that offer the standard Abitur (final examinations) as well as other diplomas and certificates at the conclusion of studies. There are also Protestant and Catholic schools that offer schooling for children certified with the Abitur, the parochial schools, and also international schools. The law requiring students to attend public schools or approved private schools has been upheld despite challenges to it, so that home schooling is illegal.

The primary level in Germany, commonly known as Grundschule, begins at the age of six and lasts four years, six in Berlin and Brandenburg. Here the children learn fundamentals such as reading writing and arithmetic, but also basics of social science, history, geography, biology, physics and chemistry. There can also be creative courses, sports activities and foreign languages.

Johanna Wanka, the Minister for Education and Reseacrh in Germany. | Photo: Axel Hindemith, CC BY-SA-3.0

Secondary level is structured in three compartments and there are specifics that vary according to the states. Hauptschule, grade 5-9 or 10, prepares students for their entry into the world of work, continuing the theoretical approach, but also giving the pupils an introduction to the world of work – Arbeitslehre. Once students have obtained their leaving certificate at the age of 15 to 16, they can go into practical vocational training, start work in the public service at basic or secretarial level, or attend a Berufsfachschule, full-time vocational school.

During the six years of the Realschule, an alternative to the Hauptschule, pupils experience a broader general education, but still quite vocationally-oriented. At the end of their 10th year, successful pupils will obtain the Realschule leaving certificate. With this certificate, they have access to several training options: in-company vocational training, work in the public service at secretarial and executive level, further education in school at Secondary Level II or at a Fachhochschule.

The third option for the secondary level, straight following the primary education, the Gymnasium, provides students with an education which will enable them, once they have passed their Abitur, to study at a German university or equivalent. Students receive intensive specialised instruction to prepare them for academic work at a higher level. Secondary Level II, i.e. the last two or three years at the Gymnasium, consists of courses, which students select themselves, depending on certain conditions and on their own preferences.

There is also another option, the Gesamtschule, which combines elements from the Hauptschule, the Realschule and the Gymnasium. Children usually spend six years at the Gesamtschule, from the 6th to the 10th grade and they can obtain either a Hauptschule or a Realschule leaving certificate. Pupils wishing to sit the Abitur attend school for another three grades.

Teacher training is an important factor in preserving and improving the educational system of a country. Germany has two stages for training teachers at university, three to four years for primary or five to six for secondary, and the two-year practical training at teacher seminars and training schools.

United Kingdom

The system includes a variety of state-funded schools, academies, community schools and some faith schools. Some are grammar schools which only allow children in based on academic performance, but they are common mostly in Northern Ireland, with only 164 in England itself, which makes them rather elitist. The remainder are independently funded schools and receive their income through tuition fees and charitable donations. They can also receive a considerable amount of tax relief through their charitable status.

Nicky Morgan, the UK Secretary of State for Education as well as the Minister for Women and Equalities. | Photo: Nicky Morgan, CC BY-SA-3.0

Primary education can be structured in two stages: infant schools, two years, and junior schools, four years. The secondary schools cover the ages from 11 to minimum 16 and leads to General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or a BTEC first diploma which is vocational. Private schools are in a much stronger position both in terms of funding and in terms of parental support. Quite apart from the cash opportunities available to private school students they are usually viewed as a privilege to attend, meaning student behaviour is of a higher standard and parental input is very good. State schools vary a lot and there are some fantastic ones, but many receive the children that have been excluded from other schools and are put somewhere that doesn’t really have the resources to deal with them properly. The average grades for privately schooled children at GCSE is still far higher than the state schools.

Some GCSEs have a higher and foundation option and now the BTEC is available for less academic students. This has come under criticism as it only entails coursework and passing the examination is not necessary but the specification has become more challenging. The school will generally place the students in what they think is the appropriate class but parents can and do successfully contest this. Like many things, schools will tend to place students by what they think will produce the best statistics. So for example if you were to enter your top 50 out of 150 students for GCSE science and 48 passed you would have 96% pass rate which sounds excellent. An identical school enters all but 20 of its lowest ability students and 90 pass, giving only a 50% pass rate. That sounds awful; but 52 extra students are left with inferior qualifications so the school can look good.

Teachers’ training involves a first degree and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education, awarded by a university or a college of higher education. Alternatively, they must hold a Bachelor of Education (BEd) Degree and have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which can be obtained after successful completion of an approved course of initial teacher training (ITT).

In Sweden teachers do not feel the profession is valued, which can hinder teacher recruitment and retention.

Sweden

The financing of the Swedish educational system is among the basic services that the local authorities are bound by law to provide, the spending being covered from taxes and state funding. Many municipalities delegate budgets directly to individual schools. An amount of money is granted and follows each pupil to whatever school they choose, either municipal or independent. A school that receives grants from the municipality is not entitled to collect school fees. Education, at 42%, is the single largest item in municipal budgets.

Jan Björklund, Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister for Sweden. | Photo: Albin Olsson, CC BY-SA-3.0

Primary school, lågstadiet, which lasts for three years, is followed by another three years of middle school, mellanstadiet, and then two years secondary school (junior high school, högstadiet). All these are part of the compulsory school, which also includes the Sami schools for the learning disabled, which lasts for six years. The compulsory schools can be municipally run, with different profiles like sports, cultural, English and Montessori. Or they can be independently run by a company, a foundation or an association, although both types of school must follow the same educational content. Upper secondary school, gymnasium, is optional and free of charge, lasting for three years, and is followed by almost all students finishing compulsory school.

In 2010, Sweden underwent a process of reform for teacher training, when the degree of Bachelor or Master of Education was replaced by four new professional degrees: a degree in pre-school education, a degree in primary school education, a degree in subject education and a degree in vocational education. These four new professional degrees realise a greater clarity regarding teacher training, being structured around studies in the subject to be taught, a school placement and an educational science core.

The above overview is meant to clarify some of the differences between the countries. While in Germany and Sweden most of the schools are publically funded, in the United Kingdom the private schools can be more valued by parents, being considered a privilege. As we saw, all three countries have primary schools and secondary schools, but the latter are differently distributed. The curriculum according to the profile, vocational or academic, and the grading tries to value active involvement of the pupil, not mechanical learning.

According to some teachers I spoke to, the UK confronts itself with a deep culture of criticism, which is often not constructive because there is no official code of best practice, a fact that belittles the authority of the inspectors.

According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey, also provided by the OECD, in Sweden teachers do not feel the profession is valued, which can hinder teacher recruitment and retention. Moreover, principals in Sweden report having completed strong leadership training, but compared with the TALIS average, they have less working experience both as principals and as teachers.

While there can be always something to criticise, we should also think, when looking at these Western and Northern European countries, how the Eastern European countries could reform their educational systems. At a moment when the schools and the universities have just begun a new academic year, this is a perfect time for evaluation. Should there be also a unitary educational system at the primary and secondary level or is the Bologna process enough for tangible development? What can different experiences of learning teach us about the results in standardized international tests? Is there a best practice rule in educating children or should each country do it according to its own cultural and social background? These remain, at least for now, unsolved questions.

Cover photo: brewbooks (flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0

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