Minutes of Evidence:  30 November 2000



Alternative Post-Primary Education Systems



(Assembly Researchers Ms Alison Montgomery and Ms Sandra McElhinney)

Thursday 30 November 2000

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Gibson
Ms Lewsley
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh
Mr K Robinson

Ms A Montgomery ) Assembly Researchers
Ms S McElhinney )

The Chairperson:

Good morning everyone. This morning, we are going to consider evidence from the Assembly researchers, who will give us a presentation on post-primary education in Europe, including the German, the French, and the Scandinavian systems.

Ms Montgomery:

This morning, Ms McElhinney and I are going to associate Austria with Germany, because the two systems are quite similar, as well as France with Italy, because their systems are also similar. We have provided short briefing papers with space for notes and a comparative table of the education systems in those four countries. We will also focus on Sweden as a Scandinavian country. It is very different, however, as we have shown in the briefing paper.

Many of these education systems are presently going through some reforms, so some of the findings that we are presenting today should be treated cautiously. Some of the reforms were introduced in the early '90s, while some are currently being introduced, so there are many changes and fluxes within the systems.

Within Germany, you may be aware that a federal system of government exists, which means that each Land is autonomous in its educational and cultural affairs. In accordance with the constitutions in the Länder, the education system is the responsibility of the Länder Ministeries of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science. It is difficult to generalise with Germany. During the process of researching the country, we found that it is very difficult to draw one single conclusion, because there are so many variations between the Länder, and the regions in the north, south, east and west.

Education is compulsory from the ages of six to 15, after which students can continue their education on a full-time or part-time basis. The part-time basis is particularly useful, because some students may go into training or take up an occupation and continue their education while working. The four main phases within the education system are the pre-compulsory, the primary, lower-secondary and upper-secondary. In the primary school phase, the children attend the Grundschulen, which exist for the first four or six years of compulsory education. Again, there is much differentiation between the different Länder, and children can start school at the age of six and finish at 10 or indeed go on until 12. In the primary school, there is no formal examination until the third grade.

Children do not undertake any written exams until they go into third year. When teachers give feedback on report cards, they tend to give only positive comments, which is quite an interesting point. They believe that in primary schools it is more beneficial for children to receive positive feedback, and teachers do not write negative comments on report forms.

Homework is important in primary schools, as it is throughout the system, and teachers encourage children to take homework seriously and set a lot of it. At lower-secondary level various paths are open to pupils. First is the Gymnasium. This provides full-time general education for students from 10 or 11. This is basically an academically-oriented education process that is a prerequisite for university entrance. There are different kinds of Gymnasium. The curriculum can involve classical or modern languages, arts programmes and biological or physical science. The main exam taken in the Gymnasium would be the Abitur - the leaving examination - and this gives students the opportunity to enter university. The figure of 30% for pupils attending a Gymnasium should be treated with caution. Collecting national statistics is difficult, as there is variation, not just between regions, but between cities and rural areas. So those are tentative statistics.

The second type of school is the Realschule. This provides education for students aged between 10 and 12, transferring from Grundschulen. It is popular because it stresses maths, science and modern languages, as well as offering numerous vocational courses. It has been perceived as offering education between the Hauptschule (the next school we are going to talk about) and the Gymnasium - between a basic school education and a "grammar" type education. Again figures are tentative, but approximately 27% of pupils attend a Realschule.

A Hauptschule provides a basic general education. Programmes are geared strongly towards apprenticeships, but special components are included to prepare students for later careers, and they still do a foreign language. Over recent decades, as more and more jobs require higher levels of education, this type of secondary school has become less popular, and some now regard it as a school for second-class citizens. Germany has a lot of immigrants from eastern Europe, and research shows that they attend a Hauptschulen. They were formerly known as all-encompassing schools for everyone, but that has changed over the years.

Current figures show that around 24% of pupils attend this type of school. However, it is different in the cities - the figures for Hamburg and Berlin are only 6% or 7% - and so it is difficult to say exactly how many pupils attend this type of school nationally.

The fourth type of school is the Gesamtschule, which is a full-day comprehensive school that offers homework supervision, back-up courses and a range of other extra-curricular activities. A Gesamtschule offers disparate courses leading to a variety of qualifications, so you can study almost everything that is studied in a Realschule and a Gymnasium at a Gesamtschule. However, it is not a particularly popular choice, and only around 9% of pupils attend this sort of school. Generally speaking, parents tend to prefer the lower-secondary school to the comprehensive school.

At the end of this period - around the age of 15 - students can go on to choose an upper-secondary school. The first type there is the Gymnasiale Oberstufe, which provides a general education for young people, prepares them for the Abitur and takes them towards university entrance. The second type of school - and I have not listed them all in German - offers vocational education and training, and other schools offer a more general kind of education as well as vocational courses. Education continues in the Gymnasium until 18 or 19, and in a Realschule until 16, when pupils transfer to this upper-secondary section of their education.

Between the different Länder in Germany there is a lot of variation in the transition process from primary to secondary. In most Länder the type of secondary school a pupil attends is determined by his academic achievement at primary school, his teacher's view of his academic potential and his parents' wishes.

In central and southern Germany the decision is based on a teacher's recommendation and a specific grade point average - however, parents make the final decision. There are no set criteria for admission to a Realschule, and entrance to a Gymnasium is based on student grade - generally ones and twos. In Germany there is a grading system from one to six, one being the top mark. The Germans also look at the likelihood of a pupil's pursuing good work habits, behaving well and having parental support. It is slightly different in south-western Germany. Fourth grade pupils take a centrally devised exam in German and mathematics, and the results determine which school a pupil will transfer to. There are one or two issues about that, which I may come back to in the commentary - some of the difficulties posed by that particular transition system.

For the transition between lower-secondary and upper-secondary schools - from Hauptschule, Gesamtschule, Gymnasium or Realschule to the upper-secondary streams of the gymnasiale Oberstufe and the other vocational and training courses in schools - admission is granted as follows:

(i) Students at a Gymnasium or Gesamtschule who have reached required standards can move in to a gymnasiale Oberstufe at the end of Year 10;

(ii) Students who have obtained a Realschuleabschluß, a leaving certificate with a certain level of merit, can also transfer to a gymnasiale Oberstufe; and

(iii) Students who have obtained approved qualifications from full-time vocational schools can also transfer.

The gymnasiale Oberstufe route is really the one for university.

A Hauptschule leaving certificate allows students to transfer to vocational training. Some vocational training schools, such as biochemistry or information technology, may require a Realschule leaving certificate, so they place slightly higher demands on students. To summarise, in the central states there tends to be guidelines issued to teachers and they tend to administer a lot of the exams within the schools. In the southern states it is more centrally administered and there is a closer control of what teachers are actually doing.

I will cover briefly the examinations and qualifications actually on offer within the schools. In a Realschule pupils can choose a series of different option groups - maths and natural science, economics courses or art, music and design. The final exams are set centrally by the relevant Land Ministry. The figures for Bavaria in 1991 - the most recent we were able to find - showed that 94% of pupils were acquiring a Realschule certificate. When they have completed those exams at the age of 16 they can transfer to a Gymnasium via preparatory classes for an entrance examination or go on to vocational education.

At the end of 1994 1·4% were transferring to a Gymnasium from a Realschule, 68% were going into vocational training and the remainder were going to other kinds of vocational schools or to a Fachoberschule, which offers studies in specific subjects like music or art.

School leaving certificates in a Gymnasium include the upper-secondary entrance certificate - the Oberstufenriefe - and the general entrance certificate, which is the Abitur exam and allows them into university. The Abitur is the most well known exam throughout Germany and the one most often mentioned in research. For this, students are examined in four subjects, not unlike our A level exams. Two are taken at an advanced level and one must be taken as an oral exam. They are administered by teachers in the central Länder and by the Ministry in the southern regions.

There are variations between different Länder in the examinations. For example, Bavaria is perceived to place a premium on rigorous academic selection because the Abitur is set centrally so there is a widespread belief that it is more demanding in Bavaria than it is in other states. That is really an overview of examinations and qualifications.

In 1966, 14% of students went to universities throughout Germany. That figure in 1996 was 41%, so there has been a considerable increase in the number of students going to universities. Is the Abitur too simple? Is it too easy? Are too many students getting through this exam? Should it be more difficult? - those are some of the questions that have been raised. Another issue for universities is that they still offer free education by paying students' fees, and they are under some pressure to cater for the vast number of students who are now entering them.

The German system is tailored to meet the needs of a greater variety of students. That is quite clear from going through all the different routes, the different examinations and the different types of school. Secondly, a broad curriculum is sustained for the post-16 pupils in both the academic and vocational courses. So even if you are going on to train in mechanical engineering or catering, you will still take on science, maths and a foreign language at least half way through your education. The system does have a considerable degree of flexibility, and pupils can move between different schools at different stages. Research suggests that that has become slightly more difficult in recent years. It may not be just as simple to move and certainly, because there are differences within the Länder, it may be easier in some parts of the country to do that than in others.

Science and maths are strongly emphasised across all types of schools, which means that a considerable number of well-qualified students emerge in engineering and technology. Many of the lower-secondary schools are providing an increasing range of academic options by instituting a two-year orientation period that enables pupils, even those who are lower attainers, to remain in step with the vast technological and social changes and also gives them greater opportunity to access a Gymnasium.

In many schools pupils are given an introduction to the working world, including work placements, and often that is compulsory. So even if you are going along an academic track, you still have an opportunity to have a work placement at some stage in your schooling.

Finally, the Government regularly update the training regulations for almost 400 recognised trade and professional programmes which are offered through the technical and vocational schools. It is an important factor in the success of the education and training programmes that there is such a strong partnership between schools, employers, trade unions and the federal Government.

There are also less positive aspects of the system. At primary school level there have been complaints from teachers that they have too little control over the development of the curriculum and that the teachers who are developing the curriculum are somewhat out of touch with schools, so they are asking for a little bit more control and autonomy over what they teach. Secondly, the grading system, which I referred to yesterday, has been commented on again by teachers in a negative way. They have suggested that it is too general and imprecise; that a pupil gains one, two, three, four, five or six and that each of these numbers specifies something. There is not really a very differentiated grading system; it is quite basic in some senses.

I mentioned earlier that there are problems with the system of transfer. Figures have shown that in the central Länder, during one particular academic year, almost 30% of students who attended a Realschule or a Gymnasium did so against their teachers' advice. I said earlier that the actual transition from primary to post-primary school depends on a number of issues and that one of the most important is the parental perspective, the parents' view of what they want their children to go on to do.

One third of those children who changed schools had to change to another school after one semester because the schools were not suitable for them. There are many variations in state procedures which allow parents to push children into a Gymnasium. There are reports from teachers that not all Gymnasium students are able to cope with the academic demands and that some would be better suited to Realschule education.

In an increasingly competitive job market, pupils and parents believe that the Abitur guarantees a greater selection of highly paid academic and vocational opportunities, and so entrance to a Gymnasium is a preferred route in many regions.

Lastly, the decisions on a student's future career are made in some Länder at a fairly early age. Some teachers and parents believe the tracking process occurs too early and that late bloomers are at a disadvantage. That is basically Germany in a nutshell. [Laughter]

The Chairperson:

Hardly a nutshell.

Ms Montgomery:

A very big nutshell.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much, Ms Montgomery. Do members have any quick questions?

Mr K Robinson:

The thing that has always puzzled me about the German system is the opportunity for parental choice and it seems, from what you have said, that it has been abused recently and that parents are pushing their children. To a large degree this has been one of the problems we have had in Northern Ireland. Teachers are suggesting that it is better for a child to go in a certain direction, but parents are pushing their children elsewhere - sometimes with disastrous results down the line. You have obviously come across that in the German system too. Is that the reason the Germans are looking at reforming it?

Ms Montgomery:

It is certainly a factor in the system's review. There is a problem in that parents now perceive a Gymnasium as the sort of school to go to. This is not dissimilar, in many ways, from the perception of a grammar school here. The difference here is that our selection system is more structured. Children do not complete any kind of examination in any of the Länder, although some Germans are introducing an exam in the southern Länder in maths, German and English at the fourth grade.

Mr K Robinson:

They are relying on teacher assessment to a large degree? The teacher is being pressurised which means the profession is being pressurised by parental demands, and not always the proper demands sometimes.

Ms Montgomery:

I was surprised at those figures being so high that 30% of students are finding that they are not in the right school. It is very like Northern Ireland in the sense that the grammar school is perceived as the school to head for.

Mr K Robinson:

There is a social aspect to it as well as an educational one?

Mr McElduff:

One of the points that jumped out at me was the perceived failure of parental decision making in this matter. May I hear a bit more about the two-year orientation period, which is listed in the perceived positives?

Ms Montgomery:

This is something that has been brought in in the last two or three years. Basically whenever students are moving into the vocational-type schools, either a Realschule or a Hauptschule, there is a perception that has obviously increased throughout the country, that the children going to a Gymnasium are better placed to take the Abitur and go to university. The purpose of the orientation period is that they are trying to open up access to universities and say "Look, just because you have come into vocational-type education does not mean that a university is now ruled out". They are trying to broaden access to academic learning at that stage so that they maintain a broader education for a longer period.

I wonder too - and this is my perspective of it - if there is not some sense in some schools that if you did not get to a Gymnasium, you have not made it, as it were. I do not have a lot of research to back that up, but I am thinking about our situation here. Perhaps there is some perception of that in Germany since more and more parents are pushing children whatever way they can to get into a Gymnasium. Because there are so many variations within the country, parents have moved from one Land to another where the Abitur is easier. Their children will be more likely to get the Abitur and so get into university.

Mr S Wilson:

It is nice to know that the attempts to standardise examinations in the UK have overcome some of the discrepancies that you have mentioned.

First, it appears that even though there has been an attempt - for example, through parental choice - to try to give equal status to all of the different systems or routes that youngsters can go to, it has not been successful. The Gymnasium route appears to be the one which parents, at least, perceive to be better.

You have said that one third of the people who go to a Gymnasium go there against the wishes of the teachers and that about 10% - therefore, one third of the third - eventually fall out within the first semester. Is that a voluntary thing, or is there a mechanism by which the school advises them that they are not on the right route?

Ms Montgomery:

It is probably a combination of those. While it is not very widely documented in the research, there is much variation within the different Länder. Parental wishes are very important in Germany. They seem to direct and exert quite a degree of control over what happens.

Probably a teacher would approach the parents and say that the child was not doing well enough in the school, and they would come to some arrangement about a shift. Perhaps an additional comment is made like "OK, you have to move from a Gymnasium to a Realschule. That does not rule university out; maybe you will get there by another route".

Mr S Wilson:

Is there movement the other way from a Realschule to a Gymnasium?

Ms Montgomery:

Very little - there are a few figures that suggest some movement in that direction. We have more figures for Austria which suggest that the systems are quite similar in that way.

Ms Lewsley:

Is it an issue of oversubscription for schools in the same way as our grammar schools are oversubscribed? What happens there?

Ms Montgomery:

There is free and open education for all children, and if you want your child to go to the local Gymnasium, you apply. The only thing that would stop a child getting in is a numbers' limitation.

Ms Lewsley:

What happens then?

Ms Montgomery:

He is directed to another Gymnasium - presumably there are more then one in an area, or one may have to travel. It is not documented much in any of the evidence we found. We could look at that in more detail, but anything I have come across has suggested that the child would then go to the next nearest Gymnasium.

Mr Gibson:

You said that the southern Länder have a very rigid curriculum that seems to have a negative connotation - what is the reason for that? In your research, have you looked at the end results of universities and other qualifications? Does that bear a relation to the population, or is it related more to Bavaria, to BMW where you go for a technical world with good pay - a guaranteed job where they will educate you further?

Ms Montgomery:

In response to your second question, I have given you numbers of children attending a Hauptschule in the cities, and the figure is very low. A Hauptschule provides a broad, general education which leads to apprenticeships. In the cities there is not the same level of industry. For example, children are not moving into rural-related apprenticeships such as farming. Therefore, they are not pursuing education in a Hauptschule - they are going for a Gymnasium that will take them into university and to the professions.

So, it is definitely related to the different areas, and, as you have said, with Bavaria BMW is one example. A Realschule and a Hauptschule may be more popular options because such industries exist and the vocational training is as useful. I did not meant to imply that the southern Länder, which have a rigid curriculum, are any more negative. It was just a perception.

Mr K Robinson:

In the southern states, there is a religious connotation. Bavaria feels itself to be not quite German, and it is an historically Catholic area. It is very strictly controlled as a result of that. It is not negative, it is historical.

The Chairperson:

We are now going to get on the bus - metaphorically speaking, of course - and we are going to go the short distance over to the land of Maria von Trapp and others and look at Austria.

Ms Montgomery:

I will not sing.

The Chairperson:

The hills are alive. My recollection is that it was mostly nuns who sang. Christopher Plummer certainly could not.

Mr Gibson:

And some young children.

Ms Montgomery:

I will not labour Austria to the same extent as Germany. I will try to highlight some of the main differences between the two systems. They are very similar. They both have the differentiated secondary system. All children attend the Volkschulen, which are really equivalent to the Grundschulen, and they then progress to different types of upper-secondary schooling. The one main difference between Germany and Austria is that the federal Government in Vienna carry the main responsibility for the curriculum, and the BundesLänder have responsibility for school regulations. Unlike most countries, Austrian school law is part of the constitution, so any changes in the system require a two thirds vote in Parliament. Any changes or reforms have to be thought out very carefully to gain the two thirds vote at the highest level.

Pupils again attend a Volkschule, a primary school, for four years from the age of six. They then go on either to a Hauptschule, which is a lower secondary school, or to the first cycle of the general secondary school. I gave you the full name earlier, but its abbreviation is the AHS.

Mr S Wilson:

Say it.

Ms Montgomery:

Unterstufe der allgemeinbildenden höhren Schule.

The Chairperson:

The Deputy Chairperson is in some debt to you.

Ms Montgomery:

A Hauptschule is a lower secondary school, very similar to the Hauptschule and the Realschule in the German system. The purpose is to equip pupils with a general education to prepare them to proceed into post-compulsory education. Pupils are streamed for German, maths and a foreign language, and the performance level expected of the top stream is equivalent to that of pupils in the first cycle of the general secondary education, the AHS. There are only two school types.

Again, the figures really should be treated with caution because they vary throughout the country, but approximate 70% of pupils attend Hauptschulen. In the larger cities the figure can be as low as 30%, so perhaps some of the reasons we discussed in earlier questions feature in the difference.

A general secondary school is required to provide pupils with a broad-based education, and there are three types of the AHS. A Gymnasium offers a broad general education. A Realgymnasium is a technical school, and a wirtschaftkundliches Realgymnasium offers commercial education. Again - and these are very tentative figures - 30% attend this type of school. In the cities, the figure could be approximately 70%. For the first two years, the curriculum is identical so all pupils follow the same type of education until their third year. After their fourth year at the Hauptschulen, or the AHS, they choose what they are going to do next. That could be pre-vocational, secondary technical, vocational colleges, childcare or nursery teacher training colleges, or a general upper-secondary level college. The last of those is probably identified as the academic route. Pupils at the Austrian general secondary schools (AHS) can also continue within their schools and go to the second cycle. Therefore, there are two types of academic routes - in the AHS or in the general upper secondary colleges.

It is interesting to note that figures (Kern 1998) estimate that there are many more pupils in technical and vocational colleges than there are in the upper level of the AHS. In Austria, the figures certainly suggest that there is still a lot of emphasis on the technical and vocational route and on attendance at those colleges.

With regard to the transition process, the admission requirement from a primary school (Volkschule) to a Hauptschule and the AHS is based on the successful completion of the fourth grade. However, a slightly higher attainment mark is required for the AHS, which is the academic route.

The decision on the type of education to which a pupil is to proceed is usually taken one year before completion of compulsory education, at 15 or 16. An analysis of intake rates in the first year of any sector of upper secondary education indicates that considerable shifts take place. For example, one set of figures showed that 27% of all pupils starting apprenticeships came directly from the AHS - the "academic" route - and secondary technical and vocational colleges. The remainder came mainly from pre-vocational schools.

It is quite interesting to see that a rather high percentage of pupils coming from an academic route or a technical vocational route go into apprenticeships. They do not all come from the pre-vocational, apprenticeship route.

The transfer profile illustrates the degree of movement between different schools, and it will give you some idea about the kind of routes that students take. For the year 1995/96, in the first year of the second level of general secondary education 71% of pupils transferred from the AHS; 19% came from a Hauptschule, the lower secondary education (LSE). In the first year of vocational upper secondary schools (BHS), 64% of pupils came from the LSE and 23% came from the first cycle of the AHS, which is really intermediate.

In the first year of the vocational intermediate school, 77% of pupils came from the slower route - i.e. the LSE. In the first year of the pre-vocational course, most children come from the lower secondary educational route (95%), and in the first year of apprenticeships, there is much greater mix, since there are students coming from all types of different schools.

In 1995, 65% of pupils who completed their first cycle of lower secondary education in the AHS system transferred to the upper route. Twenty eight per cent of the pupils who completed their first cycle of lower secondary education in a Hauptschule, which is less academic, transferred to a vocational course. Some 47% went into vocational studies and only 7% transferred to the academic route. I am going to ask Ms McElhinney to read the rest of this because I am losing my voice. I apologise to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Ms Montgomery, we appreciate it and we thank you for making the effort to come to make that presentation. It has been excellent and the content is first class.

Ms McElhinney:

With regard to examinations and qualifications, teachers are responsible for all assessments. These determine whether a pupil is entitled to enter the next year. As in Germany, the final marks awarded are frequently marks from final examinations combined with school work or school examinations. Matriculation examination certificates are offered in the AHS and higher technical and vocational colleges.

The federal Government are responsible for the curriculum. Final or qualifying examinations are conducted by examination boards. Examinations are more or less uniform nationwide to ensure comparable qualification standards. Compulsory education is up to 15 or 16 years in Austria and up to 18 years in Germany. Vocational education is very highly differentiated. In addition to general education, pupils undergo an occupation related foundation course and acquire the ability to carry out specific occupational activities. This ability gives them access to regulated occupations.

Like other countries, Austria is already tending to grant greater autonomy to schools and other education and training institutions with a view to enabling them to gear their product and its contents better to the preferences and requirements of their clientele. The expansion of autonomy is a necessary pre-requisite for improving co-operation between education and training providers and others in the labour market.

The Chairperson:

Does anyone have a question on Austria?

Mr S Wilson:

Is the apprenticeship route different from the pre-vocational, secondary technical, childcare or upper general secondary college routes, or does it follow them?

Ms Montgomery:

It is one of the pre-vocational schools. A range of different apprenticeship based schooling is offered through them.

The Chairperson:

We shall now move on to France.

Ms McElhinney:

I shall go through this as quickly as possible. The French education system was decentralised in 1982 - 1983 with the decision to transfer certain powers and responsibilities to local authorities. That decision affected how the education system was subsequently regulated and organised.

Public education in France caters for over 80% of pupils, and the private sector caters for 17%. Private sector schools tend to be Catholic and have signed contracts with the state. This means that they must adhere to the national timetable and curriculum applied in public-sector education and be subject to state supervision.

Decentralisation means that several Ministries are involved in the education system. The Minister for National Education, who deals with schools, and the Minister for Higher Education and Research are the two main Ministers involved. However, other Ministries, such as Agriculture, which looks after vocational training in the agriculture sector, and the Ministry of Vocation and Training, which looks after other aspects of vocational training, are also involved.

As a result of decentralisation, each sector also has a different regulator. Primary schools are regulated by what are known as Communes, which are local government bodies, while collèges, lower secondary schools are regulated by départments, which have dual functions in that they are representative both of local authorities and the state, and lycées, the upper secondary schools, are regulated by the regions.

Compulsory education starts at the age of six and ends at 16. Like Germany, there are four main phases of education. The first phase is that of nursery or pre-school provision and is not compulsory. Although it is optional, 99% of children aged three attend some form of pre-school group. The second phase is that of elementary education - or primary, as we would call it - catering for children aged six to 11. The third phase is lower secondary, catering for young people aged 11 to 15. The fourth phase is upper secondary and caters for those aged 15 to 18. I shall cover the second phase in more detail.

The second phase is organised and administered by the Communes. State-funded primary schools are compulsory, co-educational, free of charge, and secular. School places are allocated strictly on a geographical basis, but some parents may request a preferred option from their local mayor. They may want their child to go to a particular type of school or to one offering a particular subject. They must ask their local mayor and also the mayor of the region where the school they wish the child to attend is situated.

The Chairperson:

The people of France will be heartened that they do not have Mr Wilson as mayor.


Ms McElhinney:

No comment.

Elementary schools usually comprise five year groups divided into two cycles. The first is the basic learning cycle, which has a common standard curriculum throughout. The final three years of elementary schooling are called the consolidation cycle. That also covers the common curriculum, but it affords the opportunity to study a foreign language. The only real differences between the two cycles are timetabling and the allocation of time to specific subjects.

There is no elementary school leaving examination for pupils in publicly funded schools. However, pupils from private schools may have to sit an entrance examination to enter college at about age 12.

In secondary education, both lower and upper, classes are numbered downwards from six, which is called sixième, to one, première, and the final year baccalauréat studies are called terminale.

Let us look at lower secondary education, which caters for children aged 11 to 15. It is organised and administered, as I said earlier, by the départments. The education is free, co-educational and secular. It begins in comprehensive institutions known as collèges, which admit all students for the first four years of compulsory lower secondary education. The first year, or sixième, completes the transition from primary school to post-primary education. Therefore, although a child is in the lower secondary sector, it has one full year to complete the transition from primary to secondary school.

Education is general, but there are some specialist options such as sport, bilingual, international and European colléges, so parents can select a specific school offering specialist subjects and courses. At the end of lower secondary education, after the third year, each district offers students a choice between a general and technological lycée (LEGT) and a vocational lycée (LP). Admission is usually automatic on completion of lower secondary education in collèges. However, the same does not apply to students attending private school, who may have to sit an entrance exam to transfer to upper secondary school.

Education is organised in three cycles, like the two cycles we saw in the lower secondary. They are called orientation, consolidation, and observation and adaptation. The main one is the final class in lower secondary school, which is known as the third, or troisième. In that year, students make their choices regarding the courses they wish to study and the qualifications they desire.

Upper secondary school caters for children from ages 15 to 18. It is organised and administered by the region, and only the first year - the second class of upper secondary school - is compulsory. Lower secondary college leavers usually attend a lycée in their own school district, unless the family opts for private education or a private school that specialises in a particular type of course.

There are three years in upper secondary school - third, fourth and fifth. They are called seconde, première and terminale. Seconde is the first year of upper secondary education when students are usually around age 15, and is known as the determination cycle. At the end of that year, pupils choose a course to follow or select specialist subjects. In première, which is the second year of upper secondary school, and terminale, which is the third year, both optional classes prepare pupils for the baccalauréat or specialist courses. The baccalauréat is generally equivalent to the first year of university and is the key to university admission.

We shall move on to the transition process. Generally, normal attendance at elementary schools is the only criterion necessary for promotion to the first class of secondary school. At the end of lower secondary school, each district offers students the choice of a general and technological lycée or a vocational lycée when they leave lower secondary after the troisième class. Admission is usually automatic on completion of collège education. Private students, however, may have to sit an entrance exam to transfer to upper secondary. The entire admission procedure is carried out by officials at the regional educational headquarters, and there is generally no participation from head teachers.

With regard to exams and qualifications, in the year before the end of compulsory education, the national certificate, the diplome national du brevet, is awarded to all pupils. Pupils' results from years four and three are taken into account for this award. The National Certificate is not really a key to admission. It is a certificate of education, but not a prerequisite for a pupil's future educational career. It does not determine where a student goes next. Particular schools are for particular courses and qualifications or for subject specialisms. In upper secondary, the general and technological lycée offers the general baccalauréat, of which there are three types - literary, economic and social and scientific. It also offers the technical certificate or the secondary school leaving certificate. Those who do not pass the baccalauréat are given a secondary school leaving certificate and, as part of their assessment and examinations, pupils throughout lower and upper secondary are given reports each term. Every pupil has a book of marks, and at the end of the year a mark is written in the book for each subject. It is not really a prerequisite for their final exams, but a form of continuous assessment so that parents and teachers can monitor the pupils. There are also many contacts and meetings, and regular parent-teacher meetings are held. Marks at the end of the fourth and third years are noted on the school report. Those are also noted on the national certificate, but it is not a pass-or-fail system if too few marks are awarded. Generally, however, it is perceived as a credit point system. Eight out of 20 points in the report book are necessary for a pupil to get the secondary school leaving certificate if he or she has not passed the baccalauréat.

The vocational lycée offers the vocational baccalauréat, which is primarily a vocational integration certificate leading directly to an occupation. It also entitles the holder to enter university, which is an important point.

The vocational study certificate confers the vocational qualification of a skilled worker or employee. The vocational aptitude certificate is designed to provide a qualification to exercise an occupation. The baccalauréat is required for admission to higher education and includes both compulsory and optional subjects for examinations. In 1996, 56% of pupils gaining the bac were awarded the general version, and 28% of those achieved the technological vocational bac.

The first year of secondary education in the French system provides the pupil with a year-long period of transition from primary to secondary. Pupils also have a year-long period at the start of upper secondary education in which to decide the appropriate track to follow. Immature children, or those who are intellectually late bloomers, may benefit from this. If parents do not favour local lycées they may encourage a child to select a subject which is not offered at a local school. If they do not like their local school, and it is not offering a particular subject such as Latin, but the school they like is offering that subject, they may pressurise the child and the teacher to put that child in for Latin, almost ensuring the child will go to the preferred school. Parents may participate at all levels and, as I said, they have a system where they have continuous parent-teacher meetings.

Their role is of an advisory, rather than decision-making nature, although they are also becoming increasingly involved in that. There is also the question of how impartial parents can be regarding the abilities of their own children, and how a child should progress in its future education. Both the LEGT (general and technological lycée) and the LP (vocational lycée) provide qualification routes suitable for university entrants, and since both of them provide qualifications suitable for university entrants, this positive certification does not discourage vocational participation.

In 1993, a law was passed called the "five-year-law" concerning work, employment and vocational training. It underlines the particular responsibility of the national education service to assure integration into working life and establish the principle that every young person must be given the opportunity to take up vocational training before they leave school so they recognise the importance of vocational training. Having vocational training is part of the education system, and if a person chooses a vocational option, they still have the option of entering university by sitting a vocational baccalauréat.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much indeed, Ms McElhinney. Are there any questions or points? How do you feel about allowing a pupil a year of transition from primary to secondary? Do children undertake tests and various other things during that year?

Ms McElhinney:

I am not sure. As far as I am aware, there are no specific tests, but they rely heavily on continuous monitoring of the children. It is good for children who are late learners, or who have not decided which track they will take. They also have a chance to make decisions on the track they will take in the first year of upper secondary. Very often, there are pressures on parents and students to make quick decisions, and I feel that those two years are a positive aspect.

The Chairperson:

There are no questions?

Mr K Robinson:

How is the teacher actually perceived by the parent and the system in France? Are they freer agents than they appear to be in the German and Austrian systems?

Ms McElhinney:

In the Italian system, they have legislated for teacher autonomy, despite their common curriculum, and the teachers can tailor the curriculum and subjects to the pupil. However, I am not sure whether this is also the case in France.

Mr K Robinson:

The French are generally very centralised. Everything is handed down from Paris. How much regional difference would the teacher be able to reflect?

Ms Montgomery:

It is hard to say from the information we have at the moment. They have different kinds of controls and so on, so even though it is a centralised system, it can become decentralised.

Mr K Robinson:

So we can reflect that?

The Chairperson:

We want to look at the Italian and Swedish models. Purely in the interests of time, which is in no way a criticism of your excellent presentation, could we perhaps concentrate in both the final commentary sections, since members have already the earlier details?

Ms Elhinney:

Italy has the same system in that it has four levels - pre-compulsory, primary and post-primary lower and upper secondary. At the end of primary school, there is a school leaving certificate examination at 11 years. Access to all forms of secondary is dependent on obtaining the lower secondary leaving certificate at 14. All students must pass the state examination to gain access to university and further education.

The maturia is the upper school leaving certificate. It consists of two compulsory written papers, an Italian language paper and a paper on a studied subject. There is also a multi-disciplinary oral examination. The role of the state, through the Ministry of Education, specifies only generalised aims and objectives: detailed but non-prescriptive content and a common format for recording children's achievements. Primary schools' curricula are planned locally. The process relies heavily on local teacher decision making, not only for its quality but also its pace. There are no national or local testing arrangements or school performance tables. However, there is direct accountability to parents.

One can envisage inequalities in the Italian system. Not only is there variation in teachers' abilities, but parents are not always best qualified to judge the criteria that constitute a good education. While 94% of pupils go on to post-compulsory education, 15% to 30% drop out. In an effort to combat this, it has been declared that the age for compulsory education is to be increased to 18. Only 98% of the 65% of all pupils who sit the maturia or the upper secondary leaving certificate pass. Italy has recognised the growing need for changes to take into account new demands from industry and business. For that reason, since 1988 vocational education has been part of an assisted experimental programme called 'Progetto `92', which means 'Programme `92'. The policy of renewal has been well received, gaining recognition, and has been adopted for general use. Importance is therefore being placed on vocational and educational training.

In September 2001, there will be many new educational reforms. One reform is that the scuola elementare, which is the primary school, and the scuola media, which is the lower secondary, will become one cycle. It is hard to determine the main effects, but we foresee major restructuring of the education system. The increase in the compulsory school age to 18 will also require major restructuring in the education and vocational training systems.

Italy is the same as France in that, from September 1999, changes in the length of compulsory education have meant that students will have to enrol in secondary schools. The last year of the new education period coincides with the first year of secondary education. The reform aims to reduce the high rates of school leavers.

The Chairperson:

Italy is already changing in that it appears to be moving to a primary school system that will carry it right through to the secondary age of about 14.

Ms McElhinney:

The age is six to 15.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps we might now move on to Sweden.

Ms Montgomery:

The reason for highlighting Sweden is that it has a different structure with an all-through primary and lower secondary system, then an upper secondary system. Children attend the grundskola from age seven to sixteen, and there are many different types of school in Sweden. Perhaps one of the interesting things in the system is that it caters for all kinds of children. Often in the same schools, special needs children are put in with children who have hearing or visual difficulties. There is a school with an ethnic emphasis for the Sami people of northern Sweden.

A child attends school from seven to 16 and then transfers to upper secondary education at the gymnasieskola. This system has been going through a great deal of reform since 1991. A new national curriculum was introduced in 1994, and the three-year period of education at the gymnasieskola was introduced in 1995 - 1996. It is a comprehensive system at that level, and students can start school up to the age of 20, if they wish to return to education.

The transition process is reasonably straightforward. All municipalities must offer places to all pupils. In principle, all students have the right to attend their first option school. In practice it may not always be possible, because there are caps on the numbers they are allowed to take. If a school cannot offer them a place, they go to the nearest school in the local authority.

A new system of examinations and qualifications is coming in. There are reforms in the marking system, and the new National Agency for Education determines the criteria for passes in national courses. For local courses, the same grades are determined by an education board, so there is a slight difference. The first national tests were administered in 1998 to year nine pupils. On completing that at the age of 15, they receive a leaving certificate.

Interestingly, at the end of post-compulsory education - which we might regard as the A-level stage - there is no examination. Pupils are assessed on each course they take, so the criteria for awarding marks are specified in the syllabuses. Twenty-five per cent of students progress to higher education, where they can either follow programmes of study or specific subjects.

The former education system had a very high drop-out rate. We suspect that was largely because it was a differentiated rather than a comprehensive upper education system. There was some element of selection. We believe that the introduction of the comprehensive upper secondary education system is credited with cutting the drop-out rate.

The new programme provides students with significant influence over content and methods. They can take 16 different courses when they get to the upper level. Two of those lead directly to university entrance, while the others are vocational. There is a food programme, a mechanical engineering programme and a travel programme - that is the way they are worded in the document. Two programmes, namely, social science and natural science, lead to university more directly than the others.

The various municipalities have greater responsibility for schooling and staffing since the changes. Interestingly, in higher education, apart from general degrees, there are 50 specifically professionally oriented diplomas recognised by the Government. For example, if one wishes to be a doctor one does not necessarily have to do a medical degree. One would be recognised after doing a diploma - I presume that, for a doctor, it takes at least five years - and then go on to train further. It is another way of going into the profession.

Mr S Wilson:

Do not get sick in Sweden.

Ms Montgomery:

It is a very quick overview. The main difference is that a different system operates from primary to secondary. Pupils are in one school right through from age seven to 16 something which has positive and negative implications. It is positive that teachers know pupils very well, seeing them through almost their entire education. They would perhaps know their positive and negative qualities and be able to recognise what route would be best for them.

I am not sure whether teachers focus on subject specialisms or take core classes the whole way through. We need to look at whether they take a class right through or have subject specialisms like a secondary school.

Mr K Robinson:

Unfortunately, we cannot do your presentation justice, since there is so much in it. Looking at your research, are the systems well financed in each country, or is there great variation? Sweden has a great deal of money to invest, whereas Italy probably does not and fragments its distribution.

Ms Montgomery:

I agree that Sweden has a great deal of money. However, considering their integrated, equal opportunity schools where children in the class may require one-on-one help, it is incredible the extent to which they attempt to include all children in the same classroom. Teachers can also attend special pedagogical courses in special needs. They may have special needs support in the class, and there are all kinds of funding implications. Even the facilities in the school must be paid. I imagine some of the Italian reforms are also funding linked.

The Chairperson:

It may be useful to have the comparative expenditure tabled.

Mr S Wilson:

Regarding the drop-out rates in Sweden, how much research was done into the explanation for the lower drop-out rate? It has happened over a short time, and changes in their economic circumstances, such as higher unemployment, and reforms to their social-security system may have affected the figures. Is that a mere impression, or was there actual research?

Ms Montgomery:

Much of it consists of impressions. The difficulty is that the countries themselves produce most of the documents, and obviously they are presented in a glowing way. We need further research into all these education systems to get more critical analysis. We bore that in mind when comparing these reports, and it is something we shall look at.

Mr McElduff:

At the public meeting in Omagh, there was a schoolteacher who actually taught my mother. She was teaching in 1948, and there she was in 2000 with views seen as being the way forward. She said that pupils should be able to remain at primary level longer if they felt it necessary.

Secondly, if pupils fail to achieve the necessary pass in every subject, no grade is awarded. In our system that would do away with the U at GCSE - A, B, C pass and then D, E and U - U would not be very good for one's confidence.

Ms Montgomery:

Our research saw that as a positive thing. Rather than recording a failure, they do not give any grade. I am not sure how they represent that, but they leave it blank rather than put a U. The parents go back to the teacher, point out that their child did not get a grade, and ask for a written assessment, so that they have something for each year.

Mr McElduff:

I do not think there is much value in saying D, E or U.

Ms McElhinney:

I want to comment on the age of children in primary school. I attended a meeting in Coleraine - indeed someone has requested that we give a brief overview of it - where the issue arose of how long children should remain at primary school. It was suggested that children should remain in primary school until they are 14. First, a female teacher and parent felt that there was a gender issue, since females would be at an advantage, so that needed to be considered. Secondly, another parent and teacher said that keeping children in primary school would be detrimental to them, since they are more open to learning at a younger age, and it is better to get them into secondary school. I make no judgement on either of those, but the question of primary school leaving age is a multi-faceted issue.

Mr Gibson:

You have had a quick look through all the systems in Western Europe. Which system do you feel least comfortable with?

Ms McElhinney:

The main thing that struck me was the proposal in the Italian system to increase the age limit for compulsory education to 18. That is questionable, since it poses a great many problems, such as the restructuring of all the school sectors and systems from pre-compulsory up, and the restructuring of training and vocational provision and university entrance. That is a very big issue and I am sure a decision would not be taken lightly, but if we were to consider it, there would be many implications.

The other item that struck me was an issue we mentioned earlier - the two years of transition at the beginning of primary and upper secondary. I felt that those were beneficial to some students, parents and teachers who were undecided about the track they should take.

Ms Montgomery:

From the outside, the German and Austrian system seems very positive in that the system is differentiated, and certainly the theory is that each student is regarded equally, whether he goes to the vocational, technical or academic sector. In practice, however, parents are pushing their children towards the Gymnasium or grammar school, and a selective element enters the equation.

The Swedish system is interesting. However, to change schools and extend them right through to 16 would mean a major overhaul in the system. There would also be a huge number of training implications. Since this new comprehensive upper secondary has just been introduced, we do not yet know how effective it will be. It has only been introduced within the last few years, so it is hard to say. The Italian and French system are not dissimilar from the Craigavon scheme, in that they use a delayed system of transfer. The danger is that there are two different types of school, and the whole issue of transfer is merely delayed. The transition procedure is central.

When you look at all these systems, the crucial question is: what does society value? Is it academia, vocational training or technical training? If all the structures within the system are set towards the academic route because we value university degrees above the others, the system is only a reflection of what is important to society.

Ms McElhinney:

In the French system, the baccalauréat gives students the opportunity to obtain entry into university at both academic and vocational level. This struck me as positive in that it does not discriminate against those pupils who prefer or are suited to a vocational option. In France, legislation is in place providing for a vocational strand and for teacher autonomy in schools. In my opinion, this is very positive, since alongside a common curriculum and standards which must be achieved there is the chance for teachers to tailor the curriculum and subjects to the needs of the pupils. It is a positive aspect that they would consider, especially in the light of the Council for the Curriculum Examination and Assessment, meeting the needs of industry. I believe it could be looked at further.

Ms Lewsley:

Did you see the Swedish system, which I have also seen in Italy, of all-inclusiveness, even with special needs children, as an advantage or disadvantage?

Ms Montgomery:

In terms of socialising children to the needs of others and creating greater awareness of an individual child's particular needs, it has been regarded very positively. The Swedish system is held up as an example in that regard. Children from all walks of life with all kinds of problems are brought together in one school. One of the issues we have not been able to look at in great detail is the impact it may have on ability - does it hold a class back if one has to cater for a range of needs? The research so far does not suggest this. The Swedish pupils do not seem to be emerging with lower exam marks or to have a lower level of attainment.

From the social perspective, of awareness and even the gelling together of society, it must be regarded positively. I imagine the implications for the teacher are much more wide-ranging, having to cater for such a differentiated class group.

Mr McHugh:

In relation to what the parents drive pupils towards and the fact that some pupils are more suited to vocational or academic options, how well are they suited to industrial or world needs with the drive towards grammar education? People in industry would say we are in many instances not fulfilling their needs.

Ms Montgomery:

Germany and Austria have a system with a very strong partnership between schools, trade unions, training facility leaders, training providers and the Government. Perhaps the one thing to say about all the systems is that on paper at least, they still open up the university option to all pupils in a much more positive way than ours.

The Chairperson:

On behalf of the Committee, I thank both Ms McElhinney and Ms Montgomery for their excellent presentation today. It was very detailed, and you have very considerable knowledge of all of the systems. We are grateful you shared that expertise with us. Thank you.

It might be useful if you could provide the Committee with a written impression of the public meeting you attended. That matter is with the Clerk.

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