The agreed goals in the 'Europe 2020' strategy – reducing the share of early school leavers to 10% and making sure that at least 40% of 30-34 year olds have a degree or diploma by 2020 – are EU-wide averages. National targets are to be agreed with the European Commission, meaning that lower results in certain member states can be balanced out by above-average ones in others.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are leading the way when it comes to school dropout rates – all three are well within the EU-wide goal of 10% – although neighbouring Hungary could struggle to meet its national target of 8.4%, as proposed by the European Commission.
As for the higher education goal, the Poles have set themselves an ambitious target of 45%, while the Czechs and the Slovaks are aiming for lower – and for them seemingly more challenging – targets of 32% and 30% respectively.
For Bulgaria and Romania, the EU's newest arrivals, reducing the proportion of early school leavers will be a difficult task. Particularly in Romania, many children leave school before finishing their education, a trend which has not been aided by the onset of the global economic crisis.
The higher degree of poverty in those two countries, the Roma factor and the difficult rural environment - especially in Romania - appear to be holding back progress in access to education.
On 17 June, the European Council committed itself to the EU education targets but explicitly stressed that national education goals and education systems are the responsibility of member states. Germany and Austria, both of which are federally-structured countries, had initially resisted the EU-wide goals owing to concerns about their federal competencies.
Poland aiming high
Poland is one of the leading member states when it comes to education statistics. Its authorities have welcomed both the 'Europe 2020' education targets and have set themselves even more ambitious national goals.
Currently, just 5% of pupils in Poland do not finish secondary school – the lowest rate among the EU's 27 member states – and its education authorities are aiming to reduce it by a further half percentage point.
As for tertiary education, Poland wants to reach a higher level than the EU-wide goal, and is aiming to see 45% rather than 40% of 30-34 year olds with a degree or diploma by 2020. In 2008, 29.7% of 30-34 year old Poles held such qualifications (EurActiv 29/07/10).
However, Poland is performing less impressively in other areas of education. The share of Polish 3-5 year olds attending kindergarten stands at 60%, compared with an EU average of over 90%. Another problem is lifelong learning among adults: the EU average is 9.5%, while in Poland it is only 4.7%.
Czechs confident about both targets
The Czech Republic is not worried about the EU's 2020 education targets and is confident of attaining its goals regarding both school dropouts and tertiary education.
The number of early school leavers in the country stands at just 5.6%, second only to Poland. The Czechs are thus well within the EU-wide target, although education expert Eva Richterová believes that the rate can be improved further with more parental support and better student performance (EurActiv 30/07/10).
Meeting the second goal – ensuring that at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds have a degree or diploma – could prove more challenging, yet the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports is confident that the national target of 32% will be achieved.
The new centre-right coalition government is planning major reform of the education system – it plans to raise teacher salaries and introduce university fees – yet the country's targets are unlikely to change.
Slovakia: Two different stories
Slovakia is a front-runner when it comes to early school leavers, but will have to double the proportion of 25-34 year olds with tertiary education qualifications to meet its agreed national target.
The rate of school dropouts in Slovakia is 6%, only slightly higher than in Poland and the Czech Republic. According to the Slovak Ministry of Education, the country ''has very good results in this indicator, since graduation from secondary school has significant social value and the acquisition of at least the vocational certificate is a prerequisite of being able to get a job''.
OECD statistics show that only 13% of 25-34 year olds in Slovakia hold a university degree, though higher education enrolment rates have significantly improved in the last few years – to just under one in three secondary school leavers. The Slovak target is 30% and the education ministry is optimistic it can be achieved (EurActiv 17/08/10).
Hungary's targets 'unrealistic'
Hungary's national education targets based on Europe 2020 will be difficult for the country to meet: while the higher education goal may be achievable, the proposed early school leavers one is "not realistic," according to the Ministry of Education.
The higher education target proposed by the European Commission for Hungary is 33.8%, which would require a significant increase from the current rate of 22.4%. Yet the Ministry of National Resources believes this goal can be attained – as demographic trends predict a positive effect in the coming years.
''The Ministry [for National Resources] takes on the challenges of the EU target,'' an official in the office of Rózsa Hoffmann, state secretary for education, told EurActiv Hungary when asked about the early school leavers' target.
As for school drop-outs, the rate has stagnated in the last few years following a steady improvement since 2000. In 2009, it stood at 11.4% and the Commission has proposed 8.4% by 2020, but Hoffmann wants it to be a more modest 10%.
''Because of probable future demographic trends, the target of 8.4% - according to the current situation and extrapolated from the trends regarding the national goals - is not realistic,'' stated the official (EurActiv 21/07/10).
Bulgaria, Romania face challenge on school drop-outs
Bulgaria and Romania, the last members to join the Union in 2007, both face a real challenge to reduce their numbers of early school leavers – though the latter is confident of reaching the EU's higher education target.
In Bulgaria, 93.4% of all 7-10 year-olds attended school in the academic year 2009-10. Yet the figure falls to 82.4% for children aged 11-14 and only 78.6% of all youngsters actually completed secondary school, according to research by the National Statistical Institute.
This means that currently 21.4% of young Bulgarians do remain in secondary school for the duration – more than double the EU-wide goal of 10% by 2020.
However, Bulgaria is well-placed to attain the target of increasing the proportion of young people with a degree or diploma to at least 40% by 2020. In the 2009-10 academic year, 33.1% of 19-23 year-olds attended university or specialised higher education schools. Another 3.9% were college students and 0.8% studied in education institutions providing vocational training for high school graduates.
Bulgaria is currently preparing its national goals as a means of achieving the education targets set out in the Europe 2020 strategy, according to Maria Petkova, press officer at the Ministry of Education.
Romania appears to be the most difficult case among the EU's Eastern countries, with the rate of early school leavers on the rise. During the period 2000-7, the number of early school leavers increased threefold, according to the Ministry of Education, Research, Youth and Sport.
According to the country's Institute for Statistics, in 2008 more than 436,000 children aged between three and 17 were not enrolled in any kind of education institution, be that kindergarten, school, secondary or professional school. The economic crisis, which hit Romania hard, appears to have worsened the situation.
According to NGOs, the number of early school leavers sharply increases after the age of 13 and reaches a peak at 16-17 years. Only a quarter of children from rural areas make it to secondary school, as many of them are already working instead of studying.
Oana Badea, state secretary in the Ministry of Education, Research, Youth and Sport, said that the draft National Education Law provides for solutions to decrease the number of early school leavers.
According to UNICEF's representative in Romania, Edmond McLoughney, the difficult situation with early school leavers can be explained by the fact that the country is undergoing an economic crisis and that the situation is currently worsening.
He said that the reasons for abandoning school are families – which tend to keep children at home for various reasons (poverty, or to send children to work) – and schools in Romania, which in his words are not attractive to children at present.