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Western Europe - Educational Roots, Reform in the Twentieth Century, Contemporary Reform Trends, Future Challenges

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Western Europe is a concept of rather recent origins, reflecting the post—World War II split between those European countries that fell under Soviet domination and much of the rest of the continent. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept may become obsolete. Contemporary western Europe includes France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), Scandinavia, Britain, and certain small states such as Liechtenstein. Almost all of the countries of the European Union (EU) are in western Europe, although certain countries such as Norway and Switzerland have chosen not to be a part of the EU. Greece, on the other hand, has joined the EU but is rarely considered to be part of western Europe.

At varying levels, western European countries are intent on giving a European dimension to their education systems. However, the concept of western Europe and a European identity is constantly transforming because many countries from central and eastern Europe hope to join the EU in the coming years and are also committed to a European dimension in education.

Educational Roots

The European educational tradition traces its roots directly to the establishment of universities toward the end of the Middle Ages. These universities generally emphasized special fields of knowledge, such as law, medicine, philosophy, and theology. Although the primary beneficiaries of medieval schooling were clergymen, separate schools were established where children of merchants and masters, and even females, could develop literacy skills.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the intellectuals engaged in a struggle to incorporate classical humanistic studies into the curriculum, known generally as the liberal arts. Secondary schools emerged at this time, serving the rising middle class and providing university preparation as well as a liberal arts curriculum. At the time of the Reformation, primary schools were established, which were separate from the universities and secondary schools, both in terms of the pupils they served and the programs of studies they provided. Consequently, a basic dualistic educational structure emerged, reflecting the highly stratified social structure in Europe: universities and higher schools served elites, while primary schools served the masses.

By the seventeenth century, classical ideals and religious loyalties gave way to educational efforts in the name of nationalism and vernacular languages began to prevail over Greek and Latin. Many thinkers saw the advantages of popular education to address national concerns, regardless of gender or class.

There was some variation as to the structure of the state-run education systems in different European countries. Germany created different educational tracks, which provided separate schools for future leaders of the state and for the common people. Its system tended to become the model for other countries that were establishing their own state systems. Following the French Revolution in 1789, France moved toward universal, popular education, where citizenship was to be emphasized over religious values.

By the nineteenth century, Germany achieved nearly universal literacy within the dualist system, due in part to compulsory schooling. In contrast to Germany and France, education in England was not nationalized until the twentieth century and has historically been one of the most decentralized systems in Europe. In fact, England did not create a Ministry of Education until 1944.

Even though the state gained control over the educational enterprise in all the countries, it recognized the importance of the private sector. The major issue in the struggle between church and state was not so much school sponsorship, but school control. In some areas, where there are strong religious cleavages, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, the state has continued to rely on the church to sponsor most of its schools. Consequently, more than 70 percent of the children in the Netherlands and 45 percent in Belgium attend private schools. In more homogeneous populations, such as Norway and Sweden, the state has monopolized schooling to such an extent that less than 3 percent of the children attend private schools. In contrast to areas such as the United States, which maintain a strong separation of church and state, all European states continue to provide substantial financial and regulatory support for private schooling. The level of state support is usually correlated with the level of state control. Private schools that receive support equivalent to public schools are usually under tight state control, while schools that receive less support have more autonomy. Another feature of state regulation concerns private school teachers, who must usually be certified in the same manner as public school teachers and whose salaries are usually defined by the state.

Reform in the Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century, the major school reform issue was social justice, as advocates of change stressed the need to achieve greater participation of all young people in schooling in order to prepare them to participate more fully in the economy of the state.

By the 1950s, all western European countries had adopted compulsory education requirements, and children were required to begin school from as early as age five in England to as late as age seven in the Scandinavian countries. School quickly became mandatory for seven or eight years in age-graded schools, although the length of mandatory schooling has increased in most countries. Compulsory education continues until age fourteen in Italy; age fifteen in Austria, Greece, and Portugal; and age sixteen in most other countries. In countries such as Germany and Belgium, students are required to stay in school on a part-time basis until the age of eighteen. The age requirements of compulsory schooling continue to be important, for it is in the state's interest that all citizens acquire a thorough basic education, though it is also important that the age when students leave school coincide more or less with the age when they enter the workforce.

As schooling became universal and the age requirement was extended, some structural reforms were necessary. The major cultural symbol of educational reform in western Europe has been some form of comprehensive school structure that can provide a common schooling experience. At the primary school level, Norway and Sweden adopted a common school even prior to the turn of the twentieth century. France mandated a common primary school in the 1930s, and just before the end of World War II, Great Britain joined most western European countries by adopting a policy of common primary schooling. Germany did not realize common primary schooling until democratization policies were adopted after World War II. By this time all western Europe maintained universal primary schools lasting from four to six years.

Once universal primary schooling was accomplished, the focus of school reform shifted to the secondary level. Sweden led the way in 1949 when it adopted a plan for a universal common nine-year school. Sweden was followed by other countries, such as Italy, Norway, and France, while other western European countries engaged in comprehensive school reforms with varying degrees of success. The German-speaking countries, for example, have been reluctant to move away from the dualistic tradition. Toward the end of the twentieth century, conservatives called the comprehensive school agenda into question, although in some countries the liberal reform agenda continued to take priority.

During the twentieth century, the curriculum debate, which had previously focused on the struggle between religious instruction and a study of the classics, was no longer relevant in societies that were becoming more interested in scientific and practical training. Questioning the classical curriculum was initially due to the humanist realism philosophies that emphasized the importance of experience and practice in education. However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, schools recognized the need for a more expansive curriculum. In 1974, Norway, for example, adopted eight branches in its upper secondary school structure: general education, manual and industrial studies, arts and crafts, fishing and maritime studies, sports, clerical and commercial studies, domestic arts and sciences, and social and health studies.

Some countries, such as Norway, have chosen to harmonize general studies and vocational studies by emphasizing the practical aspects of general studies and making vocational studies more academic and theoretical. What this means is that progress has been made in bringing the two worlds together by requiring that the vocational studies programs look more like the general studies programs. This trend has been accompanied by a substantial increase in enrollments of students planning on attending higher education.

All European countries offer vocational training in addition to the general curriculum. French students, for example, can opt for one of the vocational or technical tracks at around age fourteen or fifteen. Two major vocational education models exist. West Germany developed a dual-system model in the 1950s and 1960s, requiring upper secondary students to attend formal school for two half days or one full day and to be under supervision in the work environment for the rest of the week. In contrast, the French model places young people in formal schooling full-time until the end of compulsory attendance, when they may become full-time vocational students. The major distinction in the two models is that German youth are exposed to the work world at a much earlier age. In some countries, such as Norway, researchers and policymakers have structured their system so that a full range of options is available. In all systems, it is difficult for students to return to a university track once they move to vocational and technical training. As can be expected, countries have developed systems of orientation to deal with tracking issues.

Another debate that carried into the twentieth century from past centuries is one concerning the role of the central government in education. Contrary to previous efforts at the time of the Reformation and the French Revolution that favored an exclusively state-controlled school, the post—World War II movement has been toward decentralization of control from the state to local school authorities. Both private and state schools tend to be centralized in terms of state funding, but decentralized in the administration and management of schools. This enterprise has the aim of making schools more autonomous and democratic by encouraging parental and community involvement. This trend is especially evident in Denmark, England, Italy, Scotland, and Spain and can even be found in countries where education has been historically quite centralized, such as France and Sweden.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the different political forces in Europe began moving away from an emphasis on social justice and toward individual choice and economic advantage. The social-democrat position had attempted to be more inclusive of the needs of disadvantaged groups, including women, immigrants, and the poor, stressing cultural imperatives. In contrast, conservative efforts of the 1980s and early 1990s focused more on market-oriented policies, emphasizing school choice, privatization, and other economic imperatives. In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden, for example, the issue of choice has driven reform discourse into the twenty-first century. Conservative governments have tried to reverse past trends, and their reforms might be seen partly as an attempt to address discontent among parents, particularly among the middle classes, who have been dissatisfied with what they deem declining standards of state-provided education. In the United Kingdom in 1981, the Conservatives introduced an assisted place scheme, providing a state subsidy to poorer parents whose children were previously less able to gain entry to private schools.

Of course, the market-oriented trend was not identical across Europe. Furthermore, some may argue that there has not been a significant change in education due to the ideological differences of different governments. Nevertheless, European education systems at the end of the twentieth century experienced a general movement toward further decentralization and deregulation of state control.

Contemporary Reform Trends

With the creation and opening up of the European Union, educational systems are tending to become more alike. This tendency has been in process at least since the establishment of the Council of Europe in 1949 and of the European Community in 1967. In education, policymakers have thus far stressed the value of each nation's historical development by maintaining the linguistic and cultural diversity of individual European countries. Nevertheless, the Council of Europe is interested in developing a European dimension to education. The goal is not to abolish national differences in favor of a European identity, but to strive for unity in diversity. One way the Council of Europe has attempted to create a pan-European identity is by organizing teachers' conferences that focus on how to avoid national stereotyping and bias in curricula and textbooks. Educational reforms in the twenty-first century illustrate a move away from discovering how to be Dutch or English, and instead learning how to think of oneself as European.

In primary and secondary education, language has been one of the most important issues. As there are eleven different official languages in the European Union, most European schools have decided to teach more languages and to begin teaching them as early as possible–usually in primary school. Moreover, because many European schools are decentralized and some do not even have a central curriculum, language training is one of the ways to bring the European dimension into the curriculum. Such is the case in the Netherlands, where students must prepare for the foreign language and culture component of their exams. Language instruction in all EU countries must be developed for participation in academic exchanges in other countries, which will also contribute to creating a European identity.

These exchanges are an important part of the European dimension agenda in education, and they occur at all levels, from primary school to higher education and teacher and vocational training. The European Union project SOCRATES is useful in improving the quality of language training and school partnerships at the primary and secondary level with the LINGUA and COMENIUS programs (subsets of SOCRATES). Involving both EU and non-EU countries (about 30 total), SOCRATES promotes the buildup of European knowledge and a better response to the major challenges facing the contemporary world. To achieve these goals, it utilizes student exchange, cooperative projects, European networks, and research studies.

At the higher-education level, all national systems have grown massively in terms of student numbers, institutions, faculties, and courses. While university reforms in the twentieth century were few, limited in scope, and rarely applied, fundamental changes are beginning to occur in the early twenty-first century. The most far-reaching reform agenda is related to the Bologna Declaration of 1999, signed by twenty-nine European countries. The declaration aims to establish, by 2010, a common framework of readable and comparable university degrees, including both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. This framework will be relevant to the labor market, will have compatible credit systems, and will ensure a European dimension. In Italy, for example, the new higher-education system has a first cycle that lasts three years and leads to an undergraduate degree, a second cycle that lasts two years and leads to a postgraduate degree, and a final three-year program resulting in a doctorate. Within these general constraints, the universities are given great autonomy in terms of programs and administration.

Another major innovation is the development of a European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), meant to enhance cooperation between universities. It is embryonic and completely voluntary, but suggests the development of a process for determining curricular transparencies and equivalencies of grades, course credits, and degrees. ECTS enables students to receive credit in their home university or to transfer permanently to the host institution or to a third institution, mainly by generating transcripts that translate the different educational systems into an internationally recognized document.

Student exchange has also become a major policy issue. ERASMUS is an exchange project under SOCRATES that allows university students to participate in exchanges in universities throughout the European Union and receive credit at their home university. The creation of the ECTS renders such an exchange possible for students who may not have the time or finances to take courses that will not count towards their degree. This cooperation between universities does not necessarily mean that they will become identical, but it does suggest the importance of transparency, as well as trust that other universities are equal in quality to one's own. This trust must also be extended to a mutual recognition of diplomas at all levels of the education system, which puts pressure on the various countries to maintain acceptable standards.

One of the difficulties that has arisen regarding exchanges is that they often must be reciprocal, and people may thus be discouraged from taking part in an exchange in countries with less widely spoken languages, such as Dutch or Danish. While many people study English, French, or German and could fathom spending a year in a university where one of these languages is spoken, students may hesitate to study in a country where they are not proficient in the language. One solution at the university level is to offer some courses in a more widely spoken language. Such is the case at the University of Amsterdam, where 25 percent of the classes are taught in English. Another solution at the primary and secondary levels is to create bilingual programs, especially in the border regions of a country.

Future Challenges

Some of the immediate challenges for Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century include those surrounding educational mobility. Educational exchanges are sometimes not possible financially. Although in principle students can freely occupy available places in member states with identical fees and financial aid, grants from the home country are not always available for studies abroad, an issue that has arisen in the Netherlands. Furthermore, language skills will need to be further valued and developed if exchanges are to be reciprocally appreciated and practiced between the countries of the European Union and possibly with other countries on the European continent and elsewhere. Europeans will need to make special efforts to improve language skills in order to encourage the maximum success of exchange projects.

In addition to developing students' language skills, schools are also facing the task of dealing with societal and economic demand for people who are technology and information literate. The schools themselves must learn to cope with an ever-changing world, where people have to learn how to adapt rather than to learn a stable and firm body of knowledge. Schools need to remain current so that they can help students respond to contemporary exigencies.

At the higher-education level, open distance-learning universities exist in countries such as Britain, Spain, and Portugal to help students adapt to change by way of professional and technological training. These universities need to continue to be developed to accommodate people in the workforce who would like to update their skills, or students from other countries who do not have access to adequate universities, but who cannot necessarily live abroad or reside on a university campus for extended periods of time.

A higher-education issue that EU members must address more systematically involves greater compliance in the recognition of diplomas and certification between countries. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have even suggested the granting of double degrees between the national institution and an associated institution. University overcrowding and high unemployment throughout Europe are not simplifying the dilemma, and there is a concern that the costly expansion of the university may lower the quality of education and lead to the devaluation of degrees.

These issues need to be considered throughout Europe, because the greatest challenge for many countries, perhaps to even a greater extent for the smaller countries, is to preserve national differences in the creation of a European unity. As various countries from central and eastern Europe plan to become part of the European Union, and borders are fading on a global level, recognizing and respecting institutional differences may be key to the success in efforts to establish unity in diversity.


BEATTIE, NICHOLAS. 1985. Professional Parents: Parent Participation in Four Western European Countries. Brighton, Eng.: Falmer Press.

BROCK, COLIN, and TULASIEWICZ, WITOLD, eds. 2000. Education in a Single Europe. London: Routledge.

COUNCIL OF EUROPE PUBLISHING. 2000. Strategies for Educational Reform: from Concept to Realization. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe Publishing.

DALIN, PER, and RUST, VAL D. 1996. Towards Schooling for the Twenty-First Century. London: Cassell.

PECK, BRYAN T. 1998. Issues in European Education. Commack, NY: Nova Science.

POWER, EDWARD J. 1991. A Legacy of Learning: A History of Western Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.



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