European Schools Offer Contrasts and Similarities Nations Vary in Beginning Ages, Years of Compulsory Schooling, and Numbers Going on to Higher Education Series: WORLD MEDIA EDUCATION. SPECIAL REPORT. One of 8 Articles Appearing Today

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AS the demand for more training grows and the required levels of qualification keep going up and up, Europe's schools have had to take in a growing number of pupils for a greater number of years.

Today, compulsory schooling generally spans nine or 10 years, and as many as 12 in Belgium and Germany. Southern Europe is slowly bringing itself up to date: Although Turkey and Italy still have only five and eight years of compulsory school attendance, respectively, Portugal and Spain are catching up with their northern neighbors: Portugal requires nine years of schooling, and Spain, which currently requires eight years, will have 10 years of compulsory schooling beginning in 1996.

With the creation of all sorts of educational centers and the recognized importance of the education of young children, it is no longer the law that determines at what age a child starts school. Children start very young even though it is still optional (except in Northern Ireland and Luxembourg): usually age 3 or 4, and sometimes as young as age 2 or 3, as in France and Belgium. Northern countries, on the other hand, where the role of the family in the small child's life is greater, put off school until much later (age 5 in Denmark and Norway, for example).

Even if they agree with the principle of early education, not all southern European countries have the capacity to cater to the young child. In the countryside, for example, preschool education is often a luxury few can afford.

All the same, it is true to say that the majority of children start school at least a year before they are obliged to by law. The striking exceptions: Only 50 percent of Greek children, 40 percent of Portuguese, and a mere 5 percent of Turks preempt their summons to school.

Countries that require their young people to stay in school the longest also turn out the most university students: On average 30 to 40 percent of their 18-to-24-year-olds go to university. Yet some of these countries are so selective that university attendance rates fall to the level of countries such as Turkey: fewer than 15 percent for England and the Swiss canton of Zurich. In the United States, by contrast, more than half the 18-to-24-year-olds are in higher education.

Systems may differ, but European elementary-school classrooms look much the same. Coeducation, an average class size of 20 to 22 pupils (except in Turkey, where it can reach 45), and one teacher for all subjects per age-group (except in Scandinavia): All Europe's primary schools are built on more or less the same pattern.

The choice of the basic subjects to be taught varies little: reading and writing, mathematics, an introduction to the sciences, sports, and art. One difference is in the importance given to foreign languages. At first, only the Anglo-Saxon countries went for it, but it is growing steadily throughout the European Community.

As for the new technology, it has not found its way into all European schools. France and Belgium allow only a minimum of educational television programs, and Greece has just banned them completely. Northern and central European countries have included the ABC's of computers in their general educational aims (especially at secondary level) and have equipped most schools. Southern Europe, along with France and Belgium, uses the computer simply as a teaching aid. …