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The Future of Secondary Education in the perspective of the Construction of the European Education Spaces

Louis DeVos
Universit Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Europe a complex mosaic

The complexity and the challenges Europe is facing today are enormous.

That why speaking in 30 minutes about education in Europe and more specifically in Belgium is a risky task, I am not quite sure to be able to face.

In Europe the structure and organization of primary and secondary education are quite diverse.  In fact they are the result of centuries of parallel but independent evolution of education policies. Basically there are as many systems as there are countries. In addition it should be kept in mind that the EU foundation was primarily established on economical and political bases and was dealing with, industry, trade, agriculture and so on) The concern about youth came much later and it is in more recent times only that European officials turned their attention on education problems, mobility of students and teachers, teacher training programs, etc….

Today the situation has improved a lot and big money is available for Europeans in order to foster all kinds of programs in a very broad series of areas related to education. Just to give you an idea of what the starting point is and what diversity means when we speak about Europe:

The actual EU is a federation of 15 countries ( “Europe des Quinze”) but we have another batch of 10 candidate countries waiting at our borders. Three additional countries have a special status and belong to the EEE (Espace conomique europen) namely, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

A few examples of the European diversity in the field of Education are given in the table below.

Education systems and policies in Europe

Primary school    
  From… To…
  Starts at 4 (L) Starts at 7 S, FIN, DK)
School days/year 160 ( ISL) 214 (A)
Hours taught/ year (at the age of 7) 500 h /year (S) 936 h /year (L)
Secondary school    
  From… To…
  Starts at 10 (D) Starts at 12 (B)
End of compulsory school At age of 15 (I) At age of 18 (B)
Duration (compulsory school) 8 years (I) 12 years (B, D, IRL)
Holidays 6 weeks (D, DK, NL) 13 weeks(IRL)


If, on the other end, one compares the organization diagrams of the various education systems big differences also appear. Europe has thus a long way to go to harmonize at least to some extend the education systems of the partner countries. In addition to the differences or characteristics I mentioned in table 1, I would like to point your attention to one in particular: the language diversity.

Europe the Babel tower

Europe has 11 official languages recognized and registered. That means that any official document is translated and must be available in those 11 languages. Many people in Europe are jealously proud and are willing to preserve this language diversity. But it is evident that when is come to education and mobility across Europe the multiplicity of languages constitutes one, if not the biggest, obstacle to overcome.

We all know that in secondary and especially in primary education all over the world curricula emphasize the importance of the mother tongue or native language. In all countries good knowledge of the native language is not only an essential tool for further education but it is a guarantee for the preservation and transmission of the cultural heritage from the past of a given land or region…That means that the harmonization (and don’t speak about uniformization) in Europe has been facing a double and apparently contradictory challenge:

  • On one side to keep, in each country, a high standard quality for the native language taught at school.
  • On the other end to increase mobility and communication across Europe and therefore allow all our youth to be able to use one or more foreign languages.

To address this issue Europe has introduced successively two main programs called Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci. Both programs constitute a kind of framework inside which a series of subprograms have been developed as for instance Comenius and Lingua.

Also national ministries of education have applied general recommendations adopted at the European level. One of these is aimed to let every student in Europe be “exposed” to at least two foreign languages during compulsory secondary school time.  The first results of these policies have been published by Eurydice an office of the EU. Data show that in some countries teaching of a foreign language starts as early as primary school at the age of 7. In most countries students today have the opportunity to learn one or up to three foreign languages in addition to their native language (even if the country is multilingual!). These very positive results need however some remarks and nuances

  • The fact that the kids in Europe have been “exposed” to one or more foreign language courses doesn’t mean that all of them fluently use these languages at the end of secondary school. It seems that the methodology used to teach those additional languages is not necessarily appropriate to provide them with the necessary skills to practice those languages.
  • Secondly it is obvious that all eleven European languages do not have the same status.

In the European Union it is spoken about “dominant” languages and “minority” languages.

One will not be astonished to learn that English is taken by 60-70% at average of the students in Europe with a maximum of more than 90 % in some countries. French comes in second position with 30% of the students while German and Spanish are respectively third and fourth with 15% and 9 %. In English speaking countries French is a first choice for a second language. Notice also that in several countries in Europe pupils learn in addition two more languages: Latin and ancient Greek.

Secondary school and science education

The position of science education in the different countries in Europe is comparable to that of language learning and can be very simply described under a single heading: diversity!

Data taken from Eurydice publications indicate how many hours of science (physics, chemistry, biology) are taught in secondary schools in the different countries. Usually “sciences” do not account for a large proportion of the curriculum: the number of hours of science taught per week in secondary schools varies between 2 and 4 hours on average, including the laboratory hours when they exist. For several reasons among which cost of equipment and infrastructure needed, we know that practicals (hours of laboratory work) are very few and the tendency is to reduce them even more. For instance in Belgium (French community) laboratory hours have been completely suppressed from the core program and are only available as an option in science oriented curricula. These considerations give only a rough idea about the kind of sciences or the way sciences are taught.

However if no direct evidence about science education is available for secondary education, other indicators can be used to appreciate the position of sciences.

When one compares the number of university diploma delivered in the E U in the different domains it appears quite clearly that sciences, including mathematics and computer sciences, account for only 5% (and sometimes much less) of the graduates. A number that should be compared to a 15% in engineering and up to 35 % in social sciences.

The Deans of the faculties of Science of our universities in Europe worry about the gradual decrease of the number of applications of students in sciences and it seems not clear whether this phenomenon is a consequence of the evolution of the society in general or if is due to the status of science education at secondary school level.

We all are aware that a kind of feeling is going down through the public about science saying that science is “bad”, science is “dangerous” in is various aspects, science frightens and finally science is hard and difficult to study. Just two personal comments before to close this second part.

  • One thing is sure: the few hours dedicated to sciences in secondary education curricula do not contribute in a positive way to the motivation of young pupils to study sciences and has a negative impact on the attractiveness for careers in science.
  • Since years all of us have observed that when sciences are taught or explained with hands-on activities to kids aged between 6 and 10 years it always arouses their interest and enthusiasm.

But this enthusiasm seems to vanish during the course of secondary school when things become more complicated and may be more mathematical…. Maybe we should reconsider the way sciences are taught after primary school in order to retain the initial curiosity and motivation of our students.

The future

In the recent time European preoccupations are now resolutely turned to a process of harmonization in higher education:

Since more than 10 years the grants allocated in the Erasmus program have fostered exchanges of academics (professors), and students in higher education, research programs, common teacher training programs, language programs and so on. Those big programs have had a wide success among and inside the academic world. These exchange programs have also emphasized the urgent need for some kind of harmonization of the curricula in higher education. Indeed, at university level, while language was less problematic in terms of communication, the concept of “ degree “,given the diversity of processes and curriculum, needed to be clarified.


The D claration de la Sorbonne in 1998 and the D claration de Bologne in 1999 are the two initial milestones of a huge process of harmonization that on its way in Europe. The aims of the process are comparability, compatibility, quality assessment and mobility in higher education. Many countries in Europe have adopted the process and a set of measures will be taken in several countries in the near future.

Briefly, the main objectives are the following:

  • All university curricula will be organized in three steps
    3 bachelor degree in 3 years
    5 master degree in 2 years
    8 doctorate degree in 3 years
  • In addition a European credit system has been set up called ECTS (European credit transfer system): a one-year study would roughly correspond to 60 credits.

Universities will have to convert or translate the contents of their curricula (whatever the units used up to now) into their ECTS equivalent.

  • The diploma will automatically be delivered with a “supplement”, an attachment listing the courses followed, the notes obtained, the credits gained and so on.

The aim of the entire policy is to increase the readability and comparability of the diploma delivered all over Europe in order to increase and facilitate mobility inside the different states in Europe. This big wave of changes is now reaching the universities (my university will be starting in 2004) and the entire process should be ready by the year 2010.

It appears to me that as far as Education is concerned European construction and harmonization is proceeding as a top – bottom process. Having started with the harmonization of professional activities we now go on with higher education and my guess is that the next step will be secondary school harmonization. A first attempt is already on its way with the problem of “failure in Secondary schools” that has been addressed in a series of conferences and meetings all over Europe. The failure issue, what it actually means, how we cope with it, how critical it is in the different countries could be one of the ways to address comparability in secondary education in Europe.

If we want to have our student, teachers and professionals to freely circulate across entire Europe we need to define and set up the tools that allow a minimum of comparability between systems that have evolved separately for centuries. In addition I personally am confident that the young generation is developing a strong and deep feeling of “European citizenship” and this will probably help us to have those new policies accepted by the entire population.


Regards sur l’?ducation. Les indicateurs de l’OCDE? 1995

Colloque AFEC:

L’ducation dans tous sestats. Influences europennes et internationales sur les politiques nationales d’ducation et de formation.Colloque Acta 9-12 May 2001

EURYDICE publications:

Les chiffres de l’ducation en Europe 1999/2000

La lute contre l’chec scolaire 1994

L’enseignement des langues trangres en milieu scolaire en Europe 2001