Our European neighbours do education differently – with different starting ages, reading levels, varied approaches to the curriculum and assessment, extremes of class size and funding. What can we learn? Dave Weston shares his experience ‘The assumption that an early primary school starting age is beneficial for children’s later attainment is not well supported by research evidence.’

(Riggall and Sharp, 2008) With the development of school links and the growth of modern foreign language (MFL) teaching in primary schools, it is an appropriate time to look at how primary school education is organised in other European Union countries. This is particularly relevant with the extension of the early years curriculum and the emphasis on standards of attainment.

There are an increasing number of EU-wide research projects that evaluate the structure and outcomes of primary education. For example, the recent PIRLS (Progress in Reading Literacy) survey (2006) looked at the standards and attitudes in reading comprehension across 40 countries. This research now takes place every five years. The results are disappointing for England, dropping from third place in 2001 to fifteenth place in 2006. This will be of serious concern to the government, which puts great emphasis on outcomes and quantifiable results.

So, what can we learn by comparing primary education systems across Europe?

Starting age

In England, while the official starting age remains five, a dramatic increase in  the formalisation of nursery education is taking place alongside a structured Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum. This, together with assessment in the form of the Foundation Stage Profile (FSP), makes our early years education system the most formalised in Europe. This is in direct contrast to most other EU countries where the starting age for compulsory primary school education is normally six (France, Germany and Italy) or seven (Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Denmark). The Netherlands is the only other EU country where pupils start school at five. All of the European countries have a wide variety of pre-school education, often referred to as kindergarten or family education daycare centres. For example, in Finland each local area can decide how to provide the free pre-primary education, either in a family daycare centre or unit attached to a school. One of the key differences to our system lies in the content and assessment of this pre-school learning. In the very successful Finnish education system, pre-school education is based on the child’s own knowledge, skills and experiences. The focus is on play and ‘a positive outlook to life’. Pre-school education does not have an official evaluation system although special attention is paid to readiness for school life in terms of emotional, social and cognitive development. There is no formalised curriculum or assessment. A similar approach is taken in many other countries. The system in Italy is particularly interesting with the ‘scuole dell’infanza’ catering for pupils from three to six and offering learning based on the development of artistic, social and physical skills. In Germany pre-school education is organised by the social ministry and delivered by welfare associations and church groups showing an emphasis on the development of social skills and positive attitudes rather than explicit learning goals. We need to consider if an earlier starting age in primary schools has a positive impact on educational standards or if it is associated with increased childcare provision.

What does the primary school curriculum look like across Europe?

The majority of EU countries do not have a formal national curriculum identifying specific topics and precise content for primary schools. Most European countries set ‘general guidelines’ for younger pupils, which often focus on positive attitudes, play activities and social development. For example, in Iceland the objectives for the primary sector emphasise that: ‘school work is therefore to lay the foundation for independent thinking and to train pupils to cooperate with others’. (Eurydice, 2006) Individual schools develop their own work programmes based on national guidance and overall curriculum guidelines. In Spain, the primary curriculum is described in the following terms: natural, social and cultural environment, artistic education, physical education, Spanish language and literature, foreign languages and mathematics. In Finland, local areas design their own curriculum regulations that are sensitive to the local context. There is an emphasis on environmental studies, social skills, visual arts and crafts and foreign languages in addition to core language and numeracy skills. In the Netherlands social and life skills and healthy living are specified in the primary curriculum and individual schools are free to decide how much time is spent on the various areas of the curriculum. The primary school curriculum interestingly includes ‘society and civics’, while in Norway an almost totally thematic approach is encouraged for the delivery of the curriculum. The Danish primary curriculum (for pupils aged six to 14) is described in three blocks: the humanities (including several languages), practical/art subjects and sciences. While in most European countries there are overall ‘guidelines’, individual areas and local schools seem to have considerable control over teaching methods, key content and curriculum structure. The main difference between the UK and many other EU countries is the specific link between the curriculum and teaching styles and the direct accountability of schools through primary school testing and Ofsted inspections. It could be argued that the strong accountability agenda in the UK constrains the curriculum and impacts on attitudes and motivation of pupils and staff. My own visits to schools in England and Europe confirm the view that our primary schools are now some of the best equipped (especially in terms of ICT) and staffed schools in the EU.

Teachers’ qualifications
Generally there are high standards of qualifications for teachers across Europe. Most other countries expect a formal first degree teaching qualification for access to the teaching profession. This is in contrast to the increasingly wider variety of access courses (GTP/RTS) into teaching in the UK, especially with the developing role of higher level teaching assistants. It is interesting to note that the top performing countries in the recent OECD PISA report (Finland, Estonia, Sweden and Germany) have an all-graduate teaching profession. In Finland, primary school teachers normally need to have a Master’s degree as entry to the profession. The key question for our education system is whether the increasingly varied entry routes into teaching are having any effect on standards or educational outcomes. This may become more of an issue as the impact of schools looking at cost-effective ways of delivering PPA time to all teachers works its way through the system.

Staffing ratios/class sizes

It is interesting to look at average class sizes and associated national class regulations to see if there is any correlation between primary class sizes and educational standards. In 2005 the average class size across primary schools in the UK was 25.8 (OECD, 2007), which was generally larger than most other European countries. The EU average for 2005 was much lower at 20.3. Across the EU the lowest average class sizes were in Luxembourg at 15.6. There are legal class size limits in about half the EU countries, with a maximum class size in Austria of 30, Ireland of 29, Denmark of 28, Hungary of 26 and Spain, Italy and Greece of 25. It is important to remember that ‘primary schools’ in many of these countries include pupils from six to 13 or 14.

GDP spent on education

A major factor in comparing primary education provision across Europe is the proportion of GDP spent on education. The UK spent 5.9% of GDP on education in 2004 (OECD, 2007), which is slightly above the OECD average of 5.8%. The figure for the UK has significantly increased since the year 2000 when only 5% was spent on education. However, the very successful northern European countries are spending more on education as the following list indicates: Denmark 7.2%, Finland 6.1%, Iceland 8%, Norway 6.2% and Sweden 6.7%. These figures indicate the strong commitment of these countries to education. This is reflected in the high percentage of students obtaining a university degree and in the excellent results in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2006 survey. However, it is interesting to note that education spending in the UK is increasing at a faster rate than most other EU countries, albeit from a lower base.

Teachers’ pay

As teachers’ salaries are the largest single cost in providing school education, it is useful to look at average salaries across Europe. Generally, teachers in secondary schools are better paid than in primary schools and in most EU countries’ teacher salaries have increased in real terms during the period 1996 and 2005. This reflects an increasing acceptance of the key role of the teaching profession in developing the skills levels of any country. The average starting salary of a primary school teacher in England in 2005 was $29,992 (US Dollars equivalent), which was above the EU average of $28,311. Only Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland and, surprisingly, Spain had higher starting salaries than in England. Luxembourg at $49,219 and Germany $40,125 have starting salaries significantly above salaries in England. An interesting difference is that teachers in England only have to work for five years to get to the top of the basic salary scale, whereas in most other European countries, teachers have to work over 20 years to get to the top of the scale. Also, it is usual for teachers to be appointed by local councils rather than by individual schools in many EU countries. There does not seem to be a direct link between teachers’ salaries and the educational performance of a particular country.

Teachers’ working time

Generally across Europe, teachers work longer hours in primary schools than in secondary schools. In OECD countries, a primary school teacher ‘teaches’ an average of 803 hours a year. The hours taught by UK teachers are slightly above the OECD average at just under 900 hours a year. The 1,265 contracted working hours of teachers is also above the OECD average of 1,151 hours. Interestingly, the UK is one of a small number of countries that formally allocates teachers non-teaching time. Overall, there does not seem to be any correlation between teachers’ working hours and the quality of education achieved in European countries.

How do we compare on standards?

The two main international surveys on educational achievement are the PIRLS survey (2006) which compared the performance of 10-year-olds in 40 countries in reading comprehension and the PISA  survey which is carried out every three years and looks at the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. The recent PIRLS survey looked at reading for literary purposes and for informational purposes. The headline results showed that pupils in England in 2006 achieved above the international mean but below a number of European countries including Italy, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg and Belgium. England was also below several relatively poor eastern European countries including Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia and was overall fifteenth out of 40 countries. Disappointingly, this showed a decline from third place in the 2001 survey. Also the PIRLS survey showed that pupils in England had a more negative attitude to reading than children in many other countries and did not read for pleasure. This may come as a surprise to some after the considerable amounts of resources put into the National Literacy Strategy over recent years. Educational outcomes have become a core principle of government policy and much emphasis has been placed on targets, testing and summative assessment for the general public. Therefore the results from the PISA 2006 survey are equally disappointing with the UK ranked fourteenth out of 57 countries in science, seventeenth in reading and twenty-eighth in maths. Finland was first or in the top three for all areas of the curriculum. These results obviously raise a number of questions about our education system, its structures and curriculum. Our measurable outcomes are declining relative to many other EU countries and this brings forward issues around how we organise our primary education system. Several of theses factors have been confirmed in the new research for the Primary Review document (Riggall and Sharp 2008).


What can we learn?

The key issues for primary school heads and governors concern some of the following issues:

  • Our schools are now generally very well resourced and we have a well-paid teaching profession (relative to European averages), but in comparison our attainment (and pupils’ attitudes) in reading is not as good as many EU countries. Why is this?
  • Does the wider variety of routes into the teaching profession in the UK have any impact on educational standards?
  • Does our structured curriculum provide exciting and appropriate learning opportunities for young pupils?
  • Does the control and ownership of the curriculum have an impact on standards of attainment?
  • Does the recent development of an Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum and its associated Foundation Stage Profile (with its measurement of attainment and overall local authority targets) have any long-term impact on pupils’ progress and learning and social development? Are measurable Foundation Stage Profiles compatible with a child centred and ‘readiness for school’ approach to early years learning? Has our system differentiated between childcare and structured early learning and where does the primary school fit into this system?
  • Finally our system of starting formal school at the age of five is out of line with most of Europe and does not necessarily lead to higher standards.


David Weston is a school improvement partner

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