Education is the most empowering force in the world. It has the potential to solve societal inequalities, give us tools to combat climate change, and foster peace and harmony in our world. As such, a robust delivery of education is crucial in helping young minds to grow into responsible global citizens and future leaders. Despite the universality of this service, educational practices in various parts of the globe differ depending on the culture, socioeconomic conditions, religion, politics and climate. As a result, many different educational systems are operational worldwide. Each country’s attitude towards education serves as a key indicator of the nation’s development, quality of life and international standing. Knowledge about a country’s education can, therefore, inform our global perspective and evolve our mindset so that we may strongly advocate for the universal provision of accessible and equitable education.
(top row: from left to right) Flags of Canada, South Africa and South Korea
(bottom row: from left to right) Flags of Australia, Brazil and Finland
(Credit: Google Images)
Since it would be a tad tedious to define the characteristics of all the different school systems globally, for the purpose of this article, I have narrowed down the list to 6 distinct systems based on geographic locations. As such, the following excerpts each provide an overview of educational approaches in individual continents of the world:
- Finland: In Finland, education is accessible to everyone for free. Even though the country draws inspiration from North American education research and philosophy, it has statistically outperformed the United States in science, math and reading performance in recent times. Some definitive qualities of Finnish schooling are the shorter school terms (190 days/ year), freedom to choose one’s educational path and emphasis on equitable learning for all. The latter is perhaps the most significant contributor to the country’s nurturing learning environment. Students of varied abilities learn together in the same classroom; each school draws from the same pool of qualified educators, and students are never compared to each other through assessments. There are no mandated tests in schools except for a single exam at the end of the final year of high school.
- South Korea: Dubbed as the ‘most educated country in the world’ by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it is no surprise educational attainment is of paramount social importance in South Korea. Schooling in this country is meritocratic, physically taxing and authoritarian. By some accounts, students in this country spend about 16 hours or more in their educational pursuits each day. The public system is divided into 3 parts: 6 years of primary school preceding 6 years of middle school with 3 years of secondary school. The standardized curriculum consists of 9 principal subjects including language, social studies, science, arts and music. High schools are divided into academic and vocational streams. Admission into post-secondary institutions (the most common pathway in Korea with 70% of the population possessing a tertiary degree) is brutally competitive with graduates of the country’s top 3 universities dominating the economic landscape.
- Australia: The Australian school system is tailored around its seasonal changes. The school year typically runs from late January to early December to coincide with the warm months between December and February. Keeping the focus on equity, Australian schools offer a strong welfare structure to financially support their student populations. National and state testing programs are implemented to maintain good standards of learning. Both public and non-governmental schools operate on the same curriculum standards administered by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. Education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16 (Year 1 to Year 10) and students sit for exams at the end of Years 11 and 12 to receive an official certificate of qualification. This certificate is recognized by all Australian universities, higher education and vocational institutions. According to 2011 census data, 36.6% of the nation’s 20-year olds attend university.
- Canada: Even though the Canadian education system is administered provincially — which means that it varies depending on the students’ zip code — there are several unifying qualities that characterize the country’s school system. Much like in Australia and Finland, education is universally accessible and pupils typically begin school at the age of 6 and continue schooling until the ages of 17 or 18. English and French serve as instructional languages. Due to the absence of a national curriculum, the provincial Ministers of Education join forces in the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to establish best practices and national standards. While each province has different assessment criteria, numeracy and literacy exams are prevalent forms of standardized testing in the country. It is worthwhile to note the unique practice in the Canadian province of Quebec where students have the opportunity to go through CÉGEP – a 3-year-long vocational experience which provides additional education between high school and university. Depending on their educational objectives, students may either enter the workforce with strong technical skills or move onto university to pursue further studies after CÉGEP. Nationally, life beyond high school looks different for each student due to the availability of various pathways. Many enter the workforce, some go to college, some take an additional year of high school while others choose university. According to 2016 data, the national graduation rate in Canada is 83% and its post-secondary attainment rate is 60.6% among 25-34 olds — the highest among OECD countries.
- South Africa: As one of the strongest economies in Africa, South Africa had emerged as a leader in education within the continent. With 19.7% of its budget dedicated to education in 2013, the country evidently invests a substantial amount in this sector. The school system is divided into elementary, secondary and tertiary levels. It employs a National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which defines benchmark requirements and goals for all levels of the education system. Elementary education lasts 7 years and secondary education lasts 6 years (until Grade 12). As a final exit qualification in secondary school, students must pass ‘The National Senior Certificate’ (NSC) exam. Despite the reality that the nation still has a long way to go when it comes to the provision of quality education to all, years of sustained government investment in education have had a considerable impact on the country’s educational landscape. Given that racial inequalities are one of the biggest issues facing the nation’s educational system, it is promising that between 2004 and 2014, the number of black graduates in the country increased by about 137 percent (compared to 9 percent for white graduates), while the black population grew by about 16 percent.
- Brazil: In Brazil, education is a shared responsibility between the federal, state and municipal governments. The national curriculum sets the core content and modalities of public education for the entire country. Primary education lasts 9 years and high school consists of 3 years. A secondary education diploma is awarded to students at the end of their secondary education. Students are required to stay at school and receive a free education until the age of 17, i.e until secondary school completion. As for the private sector, international English-medium schools are gaining ground in major cities. These schools cater to the expats and wealthy Brazilian elites with monthly fees averaging at USD 2000. To put this in context, the average nominal monthly household income per capita in Brazil was USD 400, in 2016, according to government statistics. This underscores the fact that Brazilian education is characterized by wide disparities in resources, access, and quality based on geographic location, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Dropout rates from elementary education have been measured to be up to 24% in some impoverished areas. In recent years, the enrolment rate in secondary schooling has been low among underprivileged populations. Even though Brazil has implemented a range of reforms to tackle these issues within the past decade, recent budget cuts in the public education sector by president Jair Messias Bolsonaro has strained the delivery of education in the nation.
From the above descriptions, it is easy to draw the conclusion that poverty (stemming from racial inequality) is one of the largest contributors to the inaccessibility of education. Ironically, education happens to be the very service that can support impoverished populations by enabling upward social mobility. It is the key to ending world hunger, civil strife and overall, ensuring a harmonious global society.
Therefore, if we are to solve pressing global issues and sustain the world for centuries to come, we must advocate for the access to quality education for all, regardless of their race, location, gender, religion or income.