Who decides on education?

Education has increasingly become an issue of public debates and an increasingly disputed societal value. The research project Governance of Educational Trajectories in Europe therefore asked how educational trajectories of children and young people evolve and how underlying decisions are being made.

This meant asking:

  • How is access to education regulated?
  • How do students cope with the demands of education?
  • How is it negotiated what education means and what good education means?

GOETE has been funded between 2010 and 2013 by the European Commission with 2.7 Million Euro. Researchers from Germany, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom involved around 12.000 students, parents, teachers and other experts by means of questionnaires and interviews. Focus was placed on the educational trajectories of children and young people (10-16 years) between the end of primary school and the beginning of upper secondary education or training.

Overview of key findings

  • Educational decisions are the result of complex negotiation processes. They are neither isolated choices of students and parents, nor are they determined by the education system.
  • Students are primarily concerned with keeping options for choice open as long as possible and reject early adaptation to „realistic“ educational and occupational goals.
  • Students find parents and friends more important than teachers, counsellors and school social workers as sources of support; parents do not feel respected by the school system.
  • Teachers are not prepared adequately for their role of accompanying and counselling students through their educational trajectories.
  • State Educational policy loses influence. The regulation of education systems occurs more and more through complex interaction of multiple actors and is governed through discourses.
  • Permeability, flexible support and higher expenses for education are the conditions of success for more inclusive education systems
  • Competition, cooperation and networking gain in importance.

Educational decisions are neither made by students and their parents alone nor are automatically determined by the education system. They are the result of complex negotiation processes involving not only teachers, counsellors and social workers but also politics, administration, the economy and the media.

Everybody recommended me to choose gymnasium … In fact, I was quite confused and then I just went to gymnasium (female student, Slovenia)

Guidance in school needs to provide students time and space to reflect on the different perspectives and aspects involved in decision-making without pressure.

Wishes of students: 71% of interviewed students want to continue with fulltime education after lower secondary education, even in differentiated school systems such as Germany in which such possibilities are limited. Young people mainly are interested in keeping options for future choices open. They reject early adaptation to “realistic“ educational and occupational goals.

They should ask us, what we want to do, simply encouraging us (female student, Germany)

Attempts of young people to postpone educational decisions need to be recognised as legitimate entitlements of participation. Competencies and placement rates in subsequent education or training must not be the only success criteria of guidance.

Little trust in formal support: 79% of all young people seek for school related support primarily with family and friends.

Student answers

Parents' answers

For students recognition of their subjective wishes and plans is at least as important as factual information. At the same time, parents – especially migrant parents – do not feel taken seriously from school representatives and often disrespected in their efforts related to the upbringing of their children. Throughout the whole research, we found hints of a continuing “blame-game” and misunderstanding between families and school professionals that risk jeopardizing smooth trajectories of pupils. Support measures need to recognise individual interests and needs of students. This requires trustful relationships. Supporting parents and peers need to be involved in a more respectful way. Parents need better opportunities to participate in transition decisions of the school.

“Silo” professional cultures – that is, working strictly separated – with poor collaboration among some of the most relevant professionals in the school and welfare systems is still a major problem, notwithstanding a formal praise for interdisciplinarity and multitasking measures to attend to complex needs.

The training of teachers is incomplete regarding the guidance and counselling of students as well as regarding individual support in heterogeneous classes with students of different origin. The training does not provide future teachers with sound knowledge about the implications of knowledge societies and their consequences for schooling.

While diversity and plurality of experiences and trajectories is more and more an everyday experience in schools, training doesn't take yet it into account as “normal” practice. The complains of many teachers of doing „more social work than teaching“ points to the lack of staff in many schools but also to the lower status of school social workers.

I am a knowledge provider. We are not trained for dealing with these difficult kids (Teacher, Germany)

Teacher training needs to provide more knowledge on children’s and young people’s life worlds as well as counselling skills. School social work needs to be expanded and valued.

Permeability, flexible support and higher educational expenditures: In some countries young people from disadvantaged families have better educational chances than in others due to the institutional and organisational arrangements of the education system. Drawing from different typologies of education systems and of transition regimes GOETE distinguished among three different types of education systems that provide varying levels of access (and accessibility) and display differing degrees of selectivity:

  • high-level comprehensive systems (FI, SI) where organisational differentiation and degree of selectivity is low and no transitions in compulsory education exist;
  • low-level differentiated systems (UK, IT, PL), where there is a medium degree of organisational differentiation, a low degree of selectivity and the existing transitions are ‘smoother’ than those in
  • high-level differentiated systems (FR, DE, NL), where there is a substantial organisational differentiation, a medium to high degree of selectivity and transitions exist which represent a medium to high threshold from one education level to the next.

Educational opportunities for all young people require less transitions and selection, flexible support and higher expenses for education.

The governance of education – i.e., how education policy-making is shaped and how education systems and thus educational trajectories and transitions are regulated – takes place more and more through a complex interaction of multiple actors and increasingly less through state educational policy. For instance, employers elevate „employability“ to the prime goal of education, international organisations promote competition among national school systems in terms of achievement levels, municipalities are delegated and held responsible for the well-functioning of education within and outside schools without receiving adequate financial compensation, and youth welfare agencies suffer financial cuts while also having to compete for funding for extracurricular activities. In terms of policy agenda, while education policies in all GOETE countries are far from uniform and vary substantially, they are at the same time influenced by common transnational discursive frameworks – such as the Knowledge-based Economy, Lifelong Learning, New Public Management, Competence, Disadvantage, Human Capital, Employability, Autonomy or Activation. One main insight from GOETE is that these discourses fundamentally set the limits to what the aims and objectives of national policies could be. To be sure, these discourses do not determine policies, but they do set common limitations on their stated purposes and objectives providing powerful discursive opportunity structures that operate proscriptively and on a basis of exclusion rather than inclusion, i.e., to rule out policies that do not conform to the KBE/LLL discourse, rather than to prescribe particular policies.

Education policy needs to acknowledge this complexity and multiplicity of actors and stake-holders and enable an open dialogue on education. Particularly, students and parents need spaces and rights for participation in decision-making on educational issues. Without proper coordination arenas, any top-down reform risks to fail, conversely any participatory, bottom-up measures risk being ineffective.

A series of Thematic Reports and GOETE Working Papers provide in-depth coverage of the findings of the project: available for download on the Working Papers page