Education Throughout Europe: A Cultural Context

Brian Holmes (1920-1993) joined the Institute of Education, University of London in 1953 where he was Professor of Comparative Education at the Institute, 1975-1985. This article is largely drawn from the work of Brian Holmes in National Government and Location in the European Context, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 382 – 393


Institute of Education
Institute of Education

Although European systems of education share common traditions whose origins can be found in the theories of man, society and knowledge formulated by Greek Roman and Jewish philosophers, education was not mentioned in the 1957 Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community (EEC). The necessity of free movement of workers made it necessary to pay attention to the provision of vocational training and the mutual recognition of academic qualifications to allow professional peoples to move from one country to another.


The Janne Report, presented to the European Commission in 1973, recognised that there was an educational dimension to the affairs of the community and that in 1971 the Ministers of Education from the, then, member states had agreed that educational policies, in addition to those dealing with vocational training and qualifications, should be considered under the Treaty of Rome. A formal decision along these lines was taken by the Commissioners in 1973 and the stage was set for co-operation in the field of education and adoption of specific EEC educational policies which would be binding to all members. Prior to 1939, Europe owed much to the highly centralized French system of administration.


In most countries bureaucrats in national Ministries of Education were at the heart of policy formulation and adoption processes. Variations on the French system of administration are found in the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. In the Federal Republic of Germany, each of eleven Lander is responsible for its own system of education based on a host of detailed regulations. Politics enters into policy processes in the various Lander.


In Belgium there are two Ministries of Education, one representing the Flemish linguistic group, and one representing the French speaking linguistic group. Switzerland has formed 28 separate Cantons, each of which is responsible for its own system of education. In Europe, whilst the size of administrative unit varies, the principles of administration laid down in the code Napoleon informs most of them. Cut off from the continent by the channel, the British never developed a national system of administration which aimed to ensure equality of provision.


Officials in the old Board of Education and of the Department of Education and Science had a monopoly on what power could be exercised from the centre with Her Majesty’s Inspectors being advisers. It is only relatively recently they became involved in national curriculum development. Teachers in individual schools, under pressure in academic secondary schools from the examination system, are still free within fairly broad limits to decide what is taught, how it is taught and, within a school, to whom it is taught. In 1939, university regulations laid down that a range of subjects must be studied, and successfully taken in examinations, if a student was to matriculate and thus meet minimum university entrance requirements.


In 1945, political party pressure reduced examinations at the end of compulsory schooling to passes in individual subjects. University academics reduced the number and range of subjects needed to gain admission to a university. It was only in the mid-1980s onward that these constrictions on school curriculum by university academics eased with governmental pressure aimed at broadening sixth form curricula. Brian Holmes contends that British leader may have received a liberal education in the Greek sense of the term, but compared with their counterparts in the rest of Europe, few of them have received a broadly based general education.


The common features in the European educational systems lend focus to the question of harmonizing policies throughout the EEC, or to establish for the EEC a pattern of policies. Diversity suggests an explanation to why attempts may be prone to failure. Similarly, curricular differences guarantee differences of outlook. The absence of well developed systems of vocational and technical schools sets Britain off from the rest of Europe.


Map of Europe

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have their own system of education. Local education authorities are legally responsible for the provision of education in their areas. Will member states, through their appointed Ministers, be prepared to allow the Commission of the EC to determine such matters as the structure of the school system, the content of education, and the way schools are administered ? It seems a very real factor that governments throughout the EC will be as reluctant to hand over power to the Commission to formulate educational policy as they will be to give over their national sovereignty.


At an international level there exist similar difficulties similar to those in most federal nations such as the United States of America. Within federal nations there seems to exist a constant tension between the rights of individual states to decide for themselves their educational policy; and the federal government, which wants to participate actively in many aspects of policy. The Constitution of the USA guarantees that individual states cannot pass legislation which runs contrary to clauses in the Constitution.


The Treaty of Rome laid down an institutional framework which included a commission, a council of ministers, a European assembly, and a Court of Justice. A structure thus exists within which it would be possible for the Community to pass legislation which is binding on all its members. It is possible that European Commission policies for the Community as a whole might be developed in those areas of activity which do not impinge on the spirit of national systems with long histories.


Curriculum reform in Europe is the responsibility of educationalists. In the centralized systems they are involved at the national regional and local levels in the formulation of reform policies. Their allies, and opponents, in Ministries of Education and the universities have been, or still are teachers. Inspectors are usually recruited from amongst the body of teachers. Industrialists and parents, whatever their concern about the appropriateness of the content of education, have few opportunities to participate in curriculum debates. Much less are they enabled to participate actively in the formulation and adoption of policy.


The content of technical education is subjected to different political pressures. In most European countries curricula in schools which prepare pupils for the world of work rather than the universities are administered by national agencies other than the Ministry of Education, and industrialists are able to influence the content of technical courses. The creation in England of the Manpower Services Commission went some way to meeting this requirement, a National Council for Vocational Qualifications was also set up to monitor training courses for industry and commerce.


This said, these organisations have little power to insist that nationally prescribed syllabuses are followed in the many trades which constitute industrial enterprise. In final analysis, what goes on in the teaching environment lies in the hands of the teacher, the examination syllabuses and question papers, and the textbooks. There is relatively little Ministry of Education officials can do to ensure that individual teachers carry through effectively the intentions of those who draw up syllabuses. At one time inspectors selected from among the best teachers, were expected to fulfil these tasks.


Present day climates of opinion tend to support the view that inspectors should be advisers rather than policemen; however at local level the inspectorial function has been increasing in some education authorities. An issue which has gone undebated in the EC has been the relationships between national, regional and local governments. As administrative arrangements are pivotal to notions of sovereignty it is inconceivable that an EC directive should require governments to devolve some of its authority; or require the Department of Education and Science, for instance, in the United Kingdom to reduce the power of local education authorities.



The distinction made between centralized and decentralized systems of educational administration is useful but too simplistic. The complexity of the processes involved in the formulation, adoption and implementation of policy, and the range of people taking part, are too great to justify an assertion that a National Ministry of Education anywhere is responsible for all educational decisions, or that in decentralized systems all policies are formulated, adopted, and implemented at the local and school levels.


The difficulties of introducing structural innovations in education are illustrated by the situation in Netherlands where the rights of parents to establish schools in accordance with their wishes are fundamental to the administration of education varies.


Generally speaking, those countries where historically the power of the central government has been considerable, attempts to devolve power are now being made. In countries where the authority and power of the national government have been weak, proposals are under consideration to increase the role of the national government in policy making and its implementation. Brian Holmes suggests it unlikely that an EC policy on administrative arrangements could be formulated in a way which would satisfy all the conflicting opinions throughout the Community.


He goes on to say that none of the problems facing educationalists in Europe since 1945, have been solved to the satisfaction of all the protagonists. Debates seem to have become more party politicized in ways that make compromise difficult. Educational establishments are divided into those who seek to return.


European traditions and those who seek to increase equality of opportunity and provision so that the rights of all children can be promoted. New problems have also made their presence in debate including living logistics such as accommodation, which has an educational dimension. Increases in the number and proportion of unemployed school leavers is a common phenomenon. Adult unemployment and changes in industry have raised questions about the reeducation and training of people through some form of recurrent education.


The free movement of labour within the EC in accordance with the Treaty of Rome implies that technical and professional qualifications should be recognised as valid throughout the Community. The identification and education of children with special needs have received more and more attention in recent years. The more extensive employment of mothers has created the need for preschool facilities. The explosion of knowledge induced by scientific developments, the development of mass media of communication, improvements in printing techniques have all contributed to the rise of masses of available documents, data banks, libraries and archives.


The dissemination of this knowledge suggests that there should be increased co-operation and interchange between personnel in the universities and institutions of higher education throughout Europe, and the documents should be brought into collections and the information therein disseminated as widely as possible. In terms of general aims, emphases vary, but in all cases the provision of free and compulsory education is regarded as a major aim. Belgium mentions free primary and secondary education without discrimination. In the Federal Republic of Germany every Land guarantees everyone the right to education without distinction according to his or her talents.


In Italy the rights of ethic minorities are protected. Luxembourg makes specific mention of the equal rights of all residents to free and compulsory education regardless of race, religion, sex, and social class. The right of parents to bring up children in accordance with their own convictions is stressed in the stated aims of the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. France regards an essential free education which prepares all citizens for life-long learning as the aim of education. The aim of Danish education is to provide compulsory comprehensive education to ensure the same educational opportunity for all young people.


The overriding aim of education in England and Wales is to provide for the well-being and progress of individual pupils, and the aim of education in Northern Ireland is not significantly different. Education in Greece is to create self-sufficient and responsible citizens, and the second stated aim in the Netherlands is to satisfy manpower demands. In no case is knowledge for its own sake regarded in modern Europe as a major educational aim  though once it might have been. There is implicit and even explicit agreement that the all round potential intellectual, spiritual (moral), aesthetic, and physical potential of all children should be developed.


There are enough statements to confirm that the kind of society to which education should contribute is, in Western Europe, democratic. The desired economic life or world of work is not stated. It may be inferred from the aims laid down by the founders of UNESCO that education should contribute to raised standards of living and to the maintenance of peace. On relatively neglected aspects of education, namely the education of adults who have left the formal system of education, Community seminars have been held under the auspices of the Commission.


The need for adults to have another chance to re-enter educational programmes, whether they are designed to fill the gaps in their general education, or to retain them for jobs in agriculture, industry, commerce, or the professions, is recognized by the Community at the level of general policy as worthy of a great deal of attention.


Biographical history: Brian Holmes (1920-1993) trained as a science teacher at the Institute of Education, University of London in 1946. He went on to classroom teaching in grammar schools in London, 1946-1951, and was then a lecturer in science teaching at Durham University.
He joined the staff of the Institute of Education, University of London in 1953 and was Professor of Comparative Education at the Institute, 1975-1985. He was instrumental in the development of a number of national and international comparative education societies and had wide interests in international and comparative education and alternative philosophies of education.