Still, national reforms are "going in the right direction", said Education Commissioner Jan Figel. The Communication, which will be forwarded to the Council and discussed by EU Education Ministers meeting in Brussels on November 15, also underscores that progress has been made in boosting mathematical and technical skills.

With findings based on 32 separate national reports, it serves as the second annual stock-taking exercise of the "Education and Training 2010" programme, which integrates all actions in the fields of education and training at European level. The overall objective is to make education and training systems across Europe a "world quality reference" by 2010, as part of the wider Lisbon Strategy. Once the Council has conducted its own evaluation of the draft Communication, a final so-called "Joint Interim Report" from the Commission and Council will be submitted to the European Council in spring 2006.

The Nordic countries have done well for virtually all indicators and benchmarks used in the exercise. But in most southern member states, bar Portugal, where some progress has been made, the picture is far less perfect. Part of the reason, according to one Commission expert: "In the southern member states there are many family businesses which young people start working at right out of school - their parents tell them that studying is a total waste of time".

In the new member states, by contrast, such traditional business structures are few and far between and the transition from Socialist to market-oriented economies has spawned a new generation of highly educated and dynamic young graduates with all the right stuff for the 21st century, he added. "Up to 90% of people there have some form of secondary education and there are very high rates of tertiary education", he said.

Slovenia, moreover, stands out as a shining star in this context. "They have shown a willingness to reform their educational system by really focusing on the competences that their children will need in the future", the expert said.

The Nordic countries meanwhile invest the most money. "They have really developed coherent strategies from cradle to grave", said another expert. "These are not focused only on...

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