A tendency for divergence

May 7, 1999

European integration will not come about by talk of convergence alone, say Institute of Education workers

National convergence is at the heart of the European project and of much post-war social theory. European integration seeks the widespread convergence of national economies and partial convergence of other social institutions. In social science, much modernisation and globalisation theory has been predicated on assumptions about economic, social and even cultural convergence, with visions of a borderless global economy and a MacWorld of homogenous global culture.

Education and training systems are subject to all the forces shaping the global economy. Not surprisingly, some experts have predicted a widespread convergence, with the formerly highly national systems giving way to a global education and training market without national boundaries, peculiarities and missions.

Our research, however, suggests that this is not happening, at least within Europe. Some common contexts and pressures are indeed creating a cross-national policy rhetoric and some convergence in the broad aims of national policies. However, at the level of specific policy and, more importantly, actual structures and processes, education and training systems remain obstinately national.

Even where systems are going in the same broad direction, they are starting from different points and moving at different speeds. Across member states of the European Union there is as much diversity now as in the early 1980s.

The book, Convergence and Divergence in European Education and Training Systems, developed out of research conducted for the European Union Directorate General XXII in 1998. This analysed the trends in secondary and post-secondary education and training in the 15 member states since 1985 in four primary areas: participation and access, institutional structures, regulation and governance and curriculum and qualifications.

The research was based on a survey of hundreds of reports published by international agencies as well as research literature in various languages in many member states.

Our survey found areas of broad policy convergence and a common policy discourse on key topics, as well as some structural convergences. Common demographic trends and the effects of global economic restructuring have been behind much of this.

The ageing of populations across Europe is having multiple effects on education and training. Provision at each level has to be adjusted to reflect changing cohort sizes, growing populations of elderly and retired people are making new demands on education. Increased aged dependency ratios are putting pressure on public spending budgets and encouraging most governments to press for greater efficiency in education provision.

Global economic restructuring is changing the demands for skills. New technologies and changes in work organisation are requiring greater emphasis on key skills in IT, communications, foreign languages, teamworking and networking, as well as general aptitudes toward continuous adaptation and learning.

Above all, as globalisation increases national economic competition and forces more national economies to upgrade into high- skill, high-value areas of production and services to maintain standards of living, so there is a general tendency towards raising levels of skill throughout a wider section of the workforce.

Rising rates of participation in upper secondary education and initial training (converging) and higher education (not converging) are a response to these common demographic and economic trends, as is the ubiquitous policy emphasis on lifelong learning.

In crucial areas, however, national education and training systems remain quite different and show no signs of converging. Most countries are trying to decentralise, but this takes quite distinct forms: from regional devolution (Spain) to regional "deconcentration" (France), localisation (Nordic states) and quasi-marketisation (UK and Netherlands).

Most EU countries now have comprehensive lower secondary schools, but a range of countries, including Germany and its close neighbours, still have mainly selective lower secondary schools.

The majority of EU states now have post-compulsory systems, which are predominantly school-based, but there are a significant number, again mostly German speaking, where the apprentice system dominates at this level.

Education in England and Wales has come closer to the most common continental patterns, for instance, in the exercise of greater government control over curricula and qualifications. However, in other areas we are moving further away, particularly in the high-level managerial autonomy accorded to schools and in the measures to create market competition between institutions.

The implications for European policy-makers should be clear. National policy-makers may think and talk in similar terms about common problems and challenges and they can be encouraged to adopt similar objectives. However, education and training systems still work in very "national ways".

They are deeply influenced by their particular national traditions and peculiarities. They are also highly dependent in the way they work on their national contexts, and most particularly on political institutions and the structures of their national labour markets.

Andy Green, Alison Wolf and Tom Leney work at the Institute of Education. Convergence and Divergence in European Education and Training Systems can be obtained from the IOE Bookshop on 0171 612 6050.

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