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Slow pace of educational reform a threat to Europe’s competitiveness - says EU

There is insufficient overall progress in Europe’s education and training systems towards the goals set in the Lisbon strategy for more jobs and growth, according to the European Commission.

This is the main finding of the 2007 edition of the European Commission’s annual report on progress towards the Lisbon objectives in the field of education and training, published yesterday. The report charts progress since 2000 in the light of key indicators and focuses on five education benchmarks agreed by the Member States. On the positive side, the number of tertiary-level maths, science and technology graduates continues to increase. However, progress was only moderate for the other benchmarks.

The Lisbon Strategy aims to make the EU into a dynamic, knowledge based economy with more and better jobs and growth. In the area of education and training, the Member States agreed to implement the Lisbon Strategy by working towards common objectives for their education and training systems. Their progress in this work would be monitored against a set of five benchmarks for improving education and training in Europe agreed in 2002. Every year, the Commission monitors the progress made by the Member States. The report published today shows that while some areas showed positive developments, overall progress was found to be lacking.

Ján Figel’, the European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, said that “Top-quality education and training is vital if Europe is to develop as a knowledge society and compete effectively in the globalizing world economy. Regrettably, this report shows that the Member States need to redouble their efforts to make the EU’s education and training meet the challenges of the 21st century. The message to policy makers in the Member States is clear: “we need more efficient investment in our human capital.”

The main findings of the report include:
- There are still too many early school levers: In 2006, about six million young people (18-24 years old) left education prematurely in the EU. This would need to drop by two million if the benchmark of no more than 10% early school levers is to be reached. The best performing EU countries were the Czech Republic (5.5%), Poland (5.6%) and Slovakia (6.4%).
- More graduates from upper secondary school are needed: In order to achieve the EU benchmark of an 85% upper-secondary school completion rate by 2010, an additional 2 million young people (aged 20-24 years) would need to finish upper-secondary education. In this area the best-performing EU countries are the Czech Republic (91.8%), Poland (91.7%) and Slovakia (91.5%).
- The EU has succeeded in meeting the target for mathematics, science, and technology graduates: If present trends continue, over 1 million students will graduate in mathematics, science and technology (MST) in the EU in 2010, compared to the present (2005) level of 860 000 graduates per year. These levels already exceed the benchmark. The best-performing countries in terms of MST graduates per 1 000 young people (20-29) are: Ireland (24.5), France (22.5), and Lithuania (18.9.
- There is insufficient participation in lifelong learning activities by adults: An additional 8 million adults would need to participate in lifelong learning within any four week period in 2010 if the EU benchmark of 12.5% participation rate is to be achieved. The best-performing EU countries are (2006): Sweden (32.1% in 2005), Denmark (29.2%) and the UK (26.6%).
- Improvements are needed in literacy levels of fifteen year-olds: About one in every five 15-year-old pupils in the EU is presently a poor reader. To reach the benchmark would need a further 200 000 pupils to improve their standard of reading. The best-performing EU countries are: Finland (5.7%), Ireland (11%) and the Netherlands (11.5%).

Other indicators – which are not benchmarks agreed by the Member States – indicate that the pace of reforms in education should be accelerated. For example, most EU school pupils are not yet taught at least two foreign languages from an early age, as requested by the Barcelona 2002 European Council. At present (2003 data), an average of only 1.4 and 1.5 foreign languages per pupil are taught in the Member States in general lower- and upper-secondary education respectively. Moreover, the financing and efficiency of educational systems remain of high concern.

Studies repeatedly show that the most effective area to increase investment is in pre-primary education. As regards higher education, although public investment in education and training as a percentage of GDP has grown markedly since the adoption of the Lisbon strategy (from 4.7% to 5.1% of GDP), progress has stalled in recent years and the EU would need to more than double the amount it invests per tertiary-level student (i.e. an increase of around €10 000 per year) to match the spending level in the US. This shortfall consists almost entirely of private investment. (