Indicator D1. How much time do students spend in the classroom?

Both annual instruction time and the length of compulsory education have an impact on the total instruction time during compulsory education. In some countries, the duration of compulsory education is shorter, and students could bear a heavier annual workload based on statutory requirements. In other countries, the workload is distributed evenly over more years. This indicator focuses on compulsory education at primary and lower secondary levels. However, in 19 OECD and partner countries, at least one year of pre-primary education is also compulsory, so the starting age for compulsory education is younger than the age at which primary education starts (see Figure X3.D1.1 in Annex 3 for more details on the number of years of compulsory education). Moreover, in around three out of five countries and economies with available data, at least one year of upper secondary education is part of compulsory full-time education (Table D1.1).

In around three out of four countries and economies with available data, students are required to start primary education at the age of 6. In most other countries, students are not required to start until they are 7, as in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Federation and Sweden. Only in Australia, England (United Kingdom), New Zealand and Scotland (United Kingdom) does primary education start at age 5.

There is also substantial variation in the duration of primary education. On average across OECD countries and economies, primary education lasts six years, but it ranges from four years in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic and Turkey to seven years in Australia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Scotland (United Kingdom). Lower secondary education averages three years, but ranges from two years in Chile and the Flemish and French Communities of Belgium to five years in Germany, the Russian Federation and the Slovak Republic, and six years in Lithuania (Table D1.2). However, the number of grades allocated to each level of compulsory education may differ within countries, across subnational entities, for example in federal countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States (Box D1.2).

Countries allocate annual instruction time differently over the year. The number of instruction days and the way they are distributed across the school year can vary significantly between countries, as countries organise holidays differently (Box D1.1). The distribution of instruction time during the week also varies between countries. For example, whereas students go to primary and lower secondary school five days per week in most countries, in Belgium and France, students typically do not go to school on Wednesday afternoon (see Box D1.2 in OECD (2019[2])). Countries also vary in the way they organise recess and breaks within the school day (see Box D1.2 in OECD (2018[3])).

Intended instruction time is the total number of hours during which schools are obliged to offer instruction in compulsory and, if applicable, non-compulsory subjects. However, intended instruction time could be different from actual instruction time.

In most countries, total statutory number of hours of intended and/or compulsory instruction time is defined at the national level (i.e. uniform across the country). Total statutory number of hours on intended and/or compulsory instruction time are defined at the subnational level in some federal countries (e.g. Belgium, Canada, Germany, the United States) and in some countries with a decentralised education system (e.g. Spain, the United Kingdom) (Box D1.2).

Instruction may also occur outside compulsory school hours and outside the classroom or school, which is not covered in this indicator. In some countries, lower secondary school students are encouraged to take after-school classes in subjects already taught in school to help them improve their performance. Students can participate in after-school lessons in the form of remedial catch-up classes or enrichment courses, with individual tutors or in group lessons provided by school teachers, or in other independent courses (see Box D1.2 in OECD (2017[4]) and Organisation of the School Day in Annex 3 for more information).

Compulsory instruction time refers to the amount and allocation of instruction time that must be provided in almost every public school and must be attended by almost all public sector students, as per public regulations.

Across OECD countries and economies, total compulsory instruction time in primary and lower secondary general education averages 7 638 hours spanning across 9 years on average. This ranges from 5 334 hours in Poland (in 8 years) to 11 060 hours in Australia (in 11 years) (Figure D1.1). In England (United Kingdom), New Zealand and Scotland (United Kingdom), the regulations do not prescribe compulsory instruction time in schools. However, schools are required to be open for instruction for a minimum number of hours per day (New Zealand) or to allow sufficient instruction time to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum that includes all statutory requirements (England and Scotland [United Kingdom]).

On average across OECD countries and economies, students receive 4 590 hours of compulsory instruction over 6 years of primary education and 3 049 hours during 3 years of lower secondary general education. The average annual number of compulsory instruction hours tends to increase with level of education in most countries (from 807 hours in primary education to 923 hours in lower secondary general programmes on average across OECD countries and economies), except in Costa Rica (2% decrease), Luxembourg (9% decrease) and Portugal (8% decrease) (Table D1.1).

Compulsory instruction time per year generally increases with age (e.g. 783 hours at age 7, 843 hours at age 10 then 928 hours at age 13). In Korea, Latvia, Mexico and Poland, the average annual number of compulsory instruction hours increases by more than 40% between ages 7 and 13 (Table D1.5, available on line).

Compulsory instruction time, by definition, only captures the time spent by students in formal classroom settings (as established in public regulations). However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisation of instruction was adapted in some countries to allow distance learning. In more than two-thirds of OECD countries and economies (21 out of 33 countries and economies at primary level and 25 countries and economies at lower secondary level), instruction was delivered via distance learning during school closures in 2020 (OECD/UIS/UNESCO/UNICEF/WB, 2021[5]). In some countries, statutory requirements on the organisation of the school year were adjusted. For instance, in Brazil, it was not mandatory for schools to cover the minimum statutory number of school days, but only to provide the minimum annual number of instruction hours required by regulation.

In about three out of five countries and economies with available data, there is no non-compulsory instruction time, so intended and compulsory instruction time are the same (i.e. intended instruction time is fully compulsory) for primary and lower secondary students. In another two-fifths of the countries and economies, intended instruction time includes both compulsory instruction time and a specified amount of non-compulsory instruction time (which must be provided in almost every public school, but which is not compulsory for almost all students in public schools): six countries at primary level and seven at lower secondary level (Table D1.1).

Among countries with available data, non-compulsory instruction time represents more than 20% of compulsory instruction time in a few countries. At the primary level, non-compulsory time accounts for 21% of total compulsory instruction time in Slovenia and 53% in Greece. At the lower secondary level, non-compulsory time accounts for 31% of total compulsory instruction time in Greece, 29% in France and 23% in Slovenia (Table D1.3 and Table D1.4). However these values need to be interpreted with caution. In France, for example, lower secondary students enjoy a wide variety of courses in non-compulsory curriculum, and they cannot physically attend all the subjects and hours indicated.

On average across OECD countries, 42% of the compulsory instruction time is devoted to providing students with fundamental skills in literacy and numeracy: 25% on reading, writing and literature and 17% on mathematics. In particular, France, Israel (in Israel, it also includes time devoted to natural sciences, social studies and other languages), Lithuania, Mexico and the Russian Federation specifically allocate more than a half of compulsory instruction time on reading, writing and literature (first language), and mathematics (Ireland and Luxembourg could also be included in the list as instruction time on second language includes other national languages). Together with arts (10%), physical education and health (9%), natural sciences (7%), second and other languages (7%), and social studies (6%), these seven study areas form more than 80% of compulsory instruction time on average across OECD countries where instruction time per subject is specified (Table D1.3 and Figure D1.3).

Religion, ethics and moral education; information and communication technologies (ICT); technology; practical and vocational skills; and other subjects make up the remainder of the non-flexible compulsory curriculum at the primary level, representing about 12% of the compulsory instruction time on average across OECD countries (Table D1.3).

At the lower secondary level, the seven major study areas at the primary level continue to represent the major part of the curriculum (79%), but with a significant shift in the allocation of time from primary education as the curriculum generally becomes more subject-specific. On average across OECD countries and economies where instruction time per subject is specified, reading, writing and literature (14%) and mathematics (13%) make up 27% of the compulsory curriculum: 15 percentage points lower than that in primary education. Proportions of time allocated to physical education and health (8%) and to the arts (7%) also decreased from those at the primary level. Conversely, the proportions of compulsory instruction time in natural sciences climbs from 7% to 12%, in social studies from 6% to 11%, and in second and other languages from 7% to 15%. Religion, ethics and moral education; ICT; technology; practical and vocational skills; and other subjects make up the remainder (about 14%) of the non-flexible compulsory curriculum for lower secondary students (Figure D1.4, Table D1.3 and Table D1.4).

At the lower secondary level, there is substantial variation in how countries allocate time to the different subjects within the compulsory curriculum. For example, reading, writing and literature account for 12% or less of compulsory instruction time in Australia, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Japan and Sweden, but more than 25% of compulsory instruction time in Greece and Italy (in Italy, this also includes time devoted to social studies). In Ireland, reading, writing and literature are taught in two national languages, and therefore the combined instruction time of the two languages could reach around 15% of the total compulsory instruction time. Natural sciences account for 10% or less of compulsory instruction time in Iceland, Luxembourg and Norway, but 20% or more of compulsory instruction time in Estonia and Korea (in Korea, this also includes time devoted to ICT, technology, and practical and vocational skills). Compulsory instruction time devoted to second and other languages also varies widely between countries. Second-language instruction accounts for 7% or less of compulsory instruction time in Costa Rica and Greece and 13% or more in the French Community of Belgium, Iceland and Japan. In addition, more than four out of ten countries with available data allocate some compulsory instruction time for lower secondary students to instruction in another language in addition to a second language (Figure D1.4, Table D1.3 and Table D1.4).

As the difference between the primary and lower secondary levels shows, there are significant differences in how time is allocated to school subjects as students grow older. For example, on average across OECD countries, 28% of instruction time is devoted to reading, writing and literature for 7-year-olds, 19% for 11-year-olds and 12% for 15-year-olds. In contrast, while an average of 4% of instruction time for 7-year-olds is devoted to a second language, 11% of instruction time for 11-year-olds is spent studying a second language and 1% studying other languages, while for 15-year-olds, the percentages are 10% and 5%, respectively. The proportion of instruction time devoted to other subjects also changes in a similar way across ages (Table D1.6, available on line).

In most countries, central and state authorities establish regulations or recommendations regarding instruction time and the curriculum. However, local authorities, schools, teachers and/or students also have varying degrees of freedom in organising instruction time or in choosing subjects.

In about one-quarter of countries with available data, the allocation of instruction time across grades is flexible in primary and lower secondary general education (i.e. instruction time for a specific subject is defined for a certain number of grades or even the whole of compulsory education, without specifying the time to be allocated to each grade). In such cases, schools/local authorities are free to decide how much time should be allocated for each grade (Table D1.2).

Setting compulsory subjects within a flexible timetable is the practice for most subjects in a few countries and economies. In Portugal, more than half of the compulsory curriculum at the primary level is organised within a flexible timetable, and the proportion exceeds 80% in the Flemish and French Communities of Belgium and in Italy. In England (United Kingdom), the Netherlands and Poland (in each of the first three grades), the entire curriculum at the primary level is organised as a flexible timetable. At the lower secondary level, similar patterns are found in the Flemish Community of Belgium, England (United Kingdom) and the Netherlands. In these countries and economies, compulsory subjects and/or total instruction time are specified, but not how time should be allocated to each subject. Local authorities, schools and/or teachers are free to decide how much time to allocate to each compulsory subject. In Scotland (United Kingdom), at both primary and lower secondary levels, some compulsory subjects are specified, but there is no regulation on total instruction time, which is the responsibility of local authorities and schools themselves. Excluding these countries and economies, compulsory subjects with flexible timetables account for 1% of the compulsory instruction time at both primary and lower secondary levels, even if they are a significant part of the curriculum in some countries (Table D1.3 and Table D1.4).

Flexibility in the choice of subjects is less common across OECD countries. On average, 4% of compulsory instruction time is allocated to subjects chosen by schools at the primary level. At the lower secondary level, 4% of compulsory instruction time is allocated to subjects chosen by schools and another 3% to subjects chosen by students. However, some countries allocate a substantial part of the compulsory instruction time to flexible subjects. For example, about 10% or more of compulsory instruction time is allocated to subjects chosen by schools in Chile, the Czech Republic, Estonia (primary), the French Community of Belgium (lower secondary), Hungary (primary), the Slovak Republic (lower secondary) and Spain (primary). At least 20% of compulsory instruction time is allocated in this way in Australia (29% at the primary level and 22% at lower secondary level), Ireland (62% at lower secondary level) and Spain (24% at lower secondary level). In Australia, Iceland, Norway and Turkey, 15-20% of compulsory instruction time is allocated to subjects chosen by lower secondary students (Table D1.3 and Table D1.4).

Flexibility in the curriculum may allow more agile interventions to minimise the impact of learning interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in Israel, the latest change in instruction time regulations in primary education and lower and secondary education illustrate different types of flexible allocation of compulsory instruction time to accommodate for unexpected changes in the organisation of instruction. At the primary level, compulsory instruction time for each grade is recommended to be distributed across a few clusters of similar subjects. Schools and teachers are then free to decide how much time to allocate to each compulsory subject within each cluster. At the secondary level, compulsory instruction hours for each compulsory subject are allocated across multiple grades. Schools and teachers are then free to adapt the education programmes for a period longer than one year.

Compulsory instruction time/curriculum refers to the amount and allocation of instruction time that has to be provided in almost every public school and must be attended by almost all public sector students. The compulsory curriculum may be flexible, as local authorities, schools, teachers and/or students may have varying degrees of freedom to choose the subjects and/or the allocation of compulsory instruction time.

Compulsory flexible subjects chosen by schools refers to the total amount of compulsory instruction time indicated by the central authorities which regional authorities, local authorities, schools or teachers allocate to subjects of their choice (or subjects they chose from a list defined by central education authorities). It is compulsory for the school to offer one of these subjects, and students must attend.

Compulsory options chosen by the students refers to the total amount of instruction time in one or more subjects that pupils have to select (from a set of subjects that are compulsory for schools to offer) in order to cover part of their compulsory instruction time.

Compulsory subjects with a flexible timetable refers to the total amount of instruction time indicated by the central authorities for a given group of subjects which regional authorities, local authorities, schools or teachers allocate to individual subjects. There is flexibility in the time spent on a subject, but not in the subjects to be taught.

Flexible allocation of instruction time across multiple grades refers to the case where the curriculum only indicates the total instruction time for a specific subject for a certain number of grades, or even the whole of compulsory education, without specifying the time to be allocated to each grade. In such cases, schools/local authorities are free to decide how much time should be assigned for each grade.

Instruction time refers to the time a public school is expected to provide instruction to students on all the subjects integrated into the compulsory and non-compulsory curriculum, on school premises or in before-school/after-school activities that are formal parts of the compulsory programme. Instruction time excludes breaks between classes or other types of interruptions, non-compulsory time outside the school day, time dedicated to homework activities, individual tutoring or private study, and examination periods (days for non-school-based examinations, e.g. national examinations).

Intended instruction time refers to the number of hours per year of the compulsory and non-compulsory part of the curriculum that students are entitled to receive in public schools. The intended curriculum can be based on regulations or standards of the central (or top-level) education authorities or may be established as a set of recommendations at the regional level.

The non-compulsory part of the curriculum refers to the total amount of instruction time that public schools must offer on top of the compulsory instruction time, but which is not mandatory for all students. Subjects can vary from school to school or from region to region and take the form of optional subjects. Additional activities before/after classes offered by the school are not per se part of the non-compulsory curriculum; for instance, if there is no obligation upon public schools to provide this instruction time or it is not part of the official curricula. In particular, non-compulsory education excludes morning care classes or after-school care classes, even if they are officially regulated.

This indicator captures intended instruction time (as established in public regulations) as a measure of learning in formal classroom settings. It does not show the actual number of hours of instruction that students receive and does not cover learning outside of the formal classroom setting. Differences may exist across countries between the regulatory minimum hours of instruction and the actual hours of instruction received by students. Given such factors as school timetables, lesson cancellations and teacher absenteeism, schools may not consistently attain the regulatory minimum instruction time (see Box D1.1 in OECD (2007[6])).

This indicator also illustrates how minimum (and/or recommended) instruction hours are allocated across different curricular areas. It shows the intended net hours of instruction for those grades that are part of compulsory full-time general education. Although the data are difficult to compare among countries because of different curricular policies, they nevertheless provide an indication of how much formal instruction time is considered necessary for students to achieve the desired educational goals.

When the allocation of instruction time across grades is flexible (i.e. instruction time for a specific subject is defined for a certain number of grades, or even the whole of compulsory education, without specifying the time to be allocated to each grade), instruction time per age or level of education was estimated by assuming equal distribution of the total number of instruction hours between grades.

For more information please see the OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparable Education Statistics (OECD, 2018[7]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance/EAG2021_Annex3_ChapterD.pdf).

Data on instruction time are from the 2020 Joint Eurydice-OECD Instruction time data collection and refer to instruction time during compulsory primary and full-time (lower and upper) secondary general education for the school year 2020/21.

References

[1] OECD (2021), The State of Global Education: 18 Months into the Pandemic, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/1a23bb23-en.

[2] OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en.

[3] OECD (2018), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en.

[7] OECD (2018), OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Statistics 2018: Concepts, Standards, Definitions and Classifications, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264304444-en.

[4] OECD (2017), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2017-en.

[6] OECD (2007), Education at a Glance 2007: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2007-en.

[5] OECD/UIS/UNESCO/UNICEF/WB (2021), Special Survey on COVID Database, https://www.oecd.org/education/Preliminary-Findings-COVID-Survey-OECD-database.xlsx (accessed on 17 May 2021).

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