Indicator D1. How does time spent by students in the classroom vary over the years?

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 face a heavier annual workload based on statutory requirements. In other countries, the workload is distributed evenly over more years. This indicator focuses on changes in compulsory education at primary and lower secondary levels. However, in some countries such as the Netherlands, pre-primary education is also compulsory, so the starting age for compulsory education is below the age at which primary education starts (see Annex 3 for more details on the length of compulsory education). Moreover, in around three-fifths of countries and economies with available data, compulsory full-time education includes at least one year of upper secondary education (see Figure X3.D1.1 in Annex 3 for more details).

On average across OECD countries the compulsory curriculum in primary and lower secondary education was defined over six grades at primary level and three grades at lower secondary level in 2019 (Table D1.1 and Table D1.2). Even though there may be differences among countries, the number of grades in primary and lower secondary levels does not change much from year to year. Between 2014 and 2019, only a few countries with available information changed the total number of years of compulsory primary and lower secondary education. Only Australia and Spain changed the total number of grades in compulsory primary or lower secondary general education (Tables D1.5 and D1.6, available on line).

In Australia, the number of grades in primary education changed from six grades in 2014 and 2015 to seven grades from 2016, which contributed to an increase in total instruction time in primary education of more than 15% between 2014 and 2019 (Table D1.1). However, the number of grades in primary and lower secondary education that are part of the 10 years of compulsory education varies across jurisdictions in the country (6-7 years for primary and 3-4 years for lower secondary) and the figures reported for 2014 and 2015 referred to the minimum number of years of primary education, whereas they referred to typical values for other reference years. In Spain, the total length of compulsory lower secondary instruction time fell by 26% between 2014 and 2019 (Table D1.2). Most of this reduction resulted from the fact that Spain had four lower secondary grades until 2015 (Grades 7 to 10) and only three from 2016 when the final grade was moved to upper secondary level, although it remains compulsory.

Poland has also decided to change the distribution of grades across compulsory education. A major reform of the country’s national education system was begun since 2016/17 and is still ongoing as it is implemented in a process covering several years. This transition will entail a major change in the number of grades in each ISCED level.

In most countries, official documents define compulsory and non-compulsory instruction time either by level of education or by grade in each level of education. Neither the curriculum nor the number of instruction hours is expected to change each year in any given country. As a consequence, only few countries show changes in compulsory instruction hours between two reference years. However, the pattern changes when a longer period is considered, as more countries are likely to have changed their regulations at least once over this time.

Between 2014 and 2019, the total number of instruction hours in compulsory primary and general lower secondary education has changed in three-quarters of the countries with available data (28 out of 38 countries and economies). Six of these countries showed significant changes in instruction time (more than 5%) during this period: Australia, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania, Portugal and Spain (Figure D1.1).

In Australia and Spain, the significant changes in the total number of instruction hours in compulsory primary and general lower secondary education resulted mainly from the changes to their grade structures discussed above. However, the number of hours of compulsory instruction time per year also changed slightly (by less than 5%) between the years when the number of grades changed.

In the other four countries, new regulations implemented between 2014 and 2019 resulted in a significant increase (10-36%) in total number of compulsory instruction hours in primary and general lower secondary education.

The increase in compulsory instruction time resulted from an increase in the number of instruction days in a school year in Lithuania (by 15 days at primary level and 17 days at lower secondary level between 2016 and 2019) and in Portugal (by 5 days in Grade 6 at primary level only between 2014 and 2019). Since the compulsory instruction time is defined weekly in these two countries, increasing the number of instruction days directly translated into an increase of the total annual instruction time (Tables D1.5 and D1.6, available on line).

An increase in compulsory instruction time can also result from increasing the number of hours of compulsory instruction, without any change in the number of instruction days per school year. This implies longer instruction days on average. In Denmark, a reform of its Folkeskolen (integrated primary and general lower secondary school) implemented for 2014/15 and 2015/16 extended the average length of a school day. Although instruction time increased by 36% between 2014 and 2019 in total across these levels, the typical number of instruction days remained at 200 days per year. In Hungary, during the four-year phased transition to the new Framework Curricula, compulsory instruction time increased by about 13% in both primary and lower secondary education although the number of instruction days remained at about 180 days per year (Table D1.1, Table D1.2, and Tables D1.5 and D1.6, available on line).

Total intended instruction time is the estimated number of hours during which schools are obliged to offer instruction in compulsory and, if applicable, non-compulsory subjects. Most of the OECD countries and economies only have compulsory instruction subjects and so did not have non-compulsory subjects over the period 2014-19. In these countries, all the changes in total intended instruction time between 2014 and 2019 can be explained by the change in compulsory instruction time between these years.

However, one-fifth of the OECD countries and economies include non-compulsory subjects in their intended instruction time, which is another factor that could explain the change in total intended instruction time between 2014 and 2019. Among these countries, instruction time devoted to non-compulsory subjects increased by 10% or more in five countries between 2014 and 2019: Canada (lower secondary but non-compulsory instruction time amounts to less than 10 hours per year), Finland, France (lower secondary), Greece (primary) and Slovenia. Non-compulsory curriculum hours have been increased for various purposes, from remedial/supplementary classes (Greece) to optional subjects such as second and other languages (Finland, France and Slovenia), or for classes working on projects (lower secondary education in Greece). Only Portugal recorded a large decrease in non-compulsory instruction time of 32% (359 hours) in primary education (Table D1.1 and Table D1.2).

Changes in the compulsory instruction time devoted to some subjects may affect the total number of hours of instruction, but also the distribution of instruction time by subject. Countries can also make changes in the distribution of instruction time by subject without changing the number of hours of compulsory instruction time.

The distribution of compulsory instruction time by subject may change over time due to the combination of multiple instruction time regulations (see Box D1.1). This combination of different regulations may result from the existence of different levels of governance responsible for education as in federal countries like Canada, Germany and Spain. Different regulations may also apply to different types of schools. This is the case in Austria (at lower secondary level), Chile, Greece (in primary education before 2017), Israel, Latvia and Turkey (lower secondary). Similar issues can also arise in countries undergoing transition between two sets of regulations, as in Poland (for more information, see Annex 3).

Other than the instruction time on specific subjects set at central level, instruction time can be allocated in ways that allow local authorities, schools, teachers and/or students to have freedom in organising instruction time or in choosing subjects. Changes in the proportion of compulsory flexible curriculum (compulsory instruction time set for subjects within a flexible timetable, or subjects chosen by schools and/or students) signal how much freedom schools or students are allowed in organising instruction time or choosing subjects. Between 2014 and 2019, this change was notable (exceeding 5 percentage points) in Australia, Denmark (lower secondary), Hungary, Ireland (lower secondary), Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Spain (lower secondary) (Table D1.3 and Table D1.4).

At primary level, most of the 31 countries with available information made changes to the distribution of compulsory instruction time devoted to different subjects between 2014 and 2019 (Table D1.3). However, only in nine countries did the changes in the proportion of instruction time devoted to any specific subject exceed 5 percentage points (Figure D1.2).

In four of these countries (Australia, Denmark, Hungary and Portugal), the number of hours of instruction devoted to some compulsory subjects increased (together with an increase of total compulsory instruction time) with some impact on the distribution of compulsory instruction time by subject. In these countries, the changes led to an increase in total compulsory instruction time of 12-39% (Table D1.3).

The number of compulsory instruction hours in primary education increased the most in Denmark (by 39% or 2 080 hours) as a result of an additional 510 hours of instruction devoted to a number of compulsory subjects (reading, writing and literature; mathematics; natural sciences; second and other languages etc.) and 1 570 hours to various compulsory learning activities (included in the “other subjects” category). This led to a large change in the distribution of instruction time by subject, with a reduction of 13 percentage points in the proportion of time devoted to reading, writing and literature; mathematics; natural sciences; and the compulsory flexible curriculum, counterbalanced by an increase in the proportion of compulsory instruction time devoted to other compulsory curriculum subjects (Table D1.1, Table D1.3 and Figure D1.2).

In Australia and Portugal, there were also large changes in the distribution of instruction time among subjects in parallel to the significant increase of instruction time between 2014 and 2019 (Table D1.3). However, while the proportion of instruction time devoted to the compulsory flexible curriculum increased by more than 50 percentage points in Portugal, it decreased by more than 70 percentage points in Australia. In Australia, the change resulted from the introduction of a national curriculum that provides guidelines on the time to be spent on specific compulsory subjects. Previously individual schools had full autonomy over how to organise the instruction time for a set of compulsory subjects. In Portugal, a decree-law in 2018 provided more autonomy to individual schools: compulsory instruction time is no longer allocated to specific subjects (except reading, writing and literature; mathematics; and physical education and health in some grades), and the majority of compulsory instruction time is allocated to flexible arrangements such as subjects with flexible timetables and compulsory subjects chosen by schools.

In Hungary, the implementation of the new Framework Curricula increased the proportion of compulsory instruction time devoted to physical education and health, arts, and compulsory flexible subjects chosen by schools. As a result, the proportion of compulsory instruction time devoted to the flexible curriculum and to other subjects increased by more than 5 percentage points, balanced by a decrease in other subjects, mostly in reading, writing and literature (Table D1.3).

In three countries (Ireland, Poland and the Slovak Republic), there were changes in the proportion of instruction time devoted to a specific subject which exceeded 5 percentage points and total compulsory instruction time decreased slightly (by 1-5%). In both Poland and the Slovak Republic, the main changes in the distribution of compulsory instruction time by subject relate to the reduction in time devoted to the flexible curriculum (by 9-13 percentage points). This was balanced by increases in all other subjects except natural sciences in Poland and all other subjects except second and other languages in the Slovak Republic. Unlike in Hungary and Portugal, schools in Poland and the Slovak Republic have seen a reduced degree of autonomy in choosing subjects. However, for Poland, comparing the distribution of instruction time between these two reference years should be done with caution, due to the gradual implementation of its ongoing reform, as discussed above. The instruction time allocated to compulsory flexible subjects chosen by schools fell by nearly 9 percentage points as of 2019, with minor changes (less than 2 percentage points) in various compulsory subjects. In addition, the reform accounted for about a 5% decrease in the number of hours of compulsory instruction in primary education (Table D1.1 and Table D1.3).

In the two remaining countries, Canada and Spain, the total number of hours of compulsory instruction time stayed generally constant between 2014 and 2019, but the distribution of instruction time by subject changed significantly, especially in some compulsory subjects. In these two federal countries, the changes arise from varying proportions of subnational-level regulations on instruction time being taken into account, as discussed above (Table D1.1 and Table D1.3).

Other than these large changes between 2014 and 2019, there were also small changes in the number of instruction hours devoted to new or existing subjects (in the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, Latvia, Norway, Portugal and Slovenia) and changes in the distribution of instruction time by subjects resulting from changes in the combination of multiple instruction time regulations over time (in Chile, Germany, Greece, Israel, and Latvia) (Table D1.3). Changes were also implemented in how some subjects are classified in the subject categories in Greece, Ireland, Japan and Luxembourg (see Box D1.1).

In lower secondary general education, changes to the distribution of compulsory instruction time by subject occurred in the majority of the 31 countries with available information (Table D1.4). However, the proportion of instruction time devoted to a specific subject category changed by more than or equal to 5 percentage points in 9 of these 31 countries (Figure D1.3).

In Denmark, Hungary, Poland and Portugal, new regulations on instruction time implemented in lower secondary education increased the total number of instruction hours (by 2-29%) as a result of significant changes in the number of instruction hours devoted to many subjects. The distribution of instruction time by subject changed significantly in these four countries. The variation in the proportion of instruction time devoted to a specific subject only reached or exceeded 5 percentage points for a few subjects, but in all four countries there was a significant change in the time devoted to compulsory flexible curriculum. In Denmark and Poland, the share of the compulsory curriculum devoted to the compulsory flexible curriculum fell by 9-11 percentage points, whereas the proportion increased by 7 percentage points in Hungary and 58 percentage points in Portugal. As a result, Portugal has the fourth largest proportion of instruction time devoted to compulsory flexible curriculum among OECD countries and economies in 2019, while the proportion does not exceed 10% in the three other countries (Table D1.2 and Table D1.4).

Spain is the only country combining a significant decrease in the total number of hours of compulsory instruction (by more than 2%) and significant changes (by over 5 percentage points) in the distribution of instruction time devoted to specific subjects. The distribution of instruction time by subject in Spain has mainly changed following the move of one grade from lower secondary level to upper secondary level (as indicated by the 26% reduction in total compulsory instruction time at lower secondary level). As this grade had a very different distribution of instruction time by subject compared to the other grades that are still part of the lower secondary level, moving it into upper secondary level had a significant impact on the distribution of instruction time by subject. Changes in regulations regarding compulsory curriculum chosen by students and compulsory flexible curriculum chosen by schools have also had an impact (Table D1.2 and Table D1.4).

In Australia, Greece, Ireland, and the Slovak Republic, the total number of hours of compulsory instruction did not change by more than 2% between 2014 and 2019, but the distribution of compulsory instruction time by subject changed significantly, and by at least 5 percentage points in a few subjects. The changes in the distribution are especially large in Australia and Ireland. In Ireland, subject selection and the competence to decide instruction time has been significantly delegated to individual schools at lower secondary level since the school year 2014/15 (from 12% of compulsory instruction time in 2014 to 60% in 2019). Thus, similar to Portugal, the level of autonomy of individual schools on the organisation of instruction time and on the choices of subject increased between 2014 and 2019, leading to an increase of 48 percentage points in the share of the compulsory curriculum devoted to compulsory flexible subjects. The changes in the distribution of instruction time by subject were in the opposite direction in Australia. As for primary education, the share devoted to compulsory flexible curriculum decreased by more than 60 percentage points. However, in 2019 Australia and Ireland remain among the few countries devoting at least 40% of the compulsory curriculum to compulsory flexible curriculum at the lower secondary level (Table D1.4).

In Greece and the Slovak Republic, the changes in the share of compulsory curriculum devoted to specific subjects changed to a lesser extent. The largest changes (by 5 percentage points or more) occurred in one or two categories: compulsory flexible curriculum and other compulsory curriculum for the Slovak Republic, and other compulsory curriculum for Greece (Figure D1.3). In Greece, a reform rearranged compulsory instruction time for numerous compulsory subjects in order to reduce students’ weekly study load by 9% since 2016/17 (Table D1.4). However, this change did not reduce total compulsory instruction as this reduction was offset by 9% increase (13 days) in the number of instruction days in the school year at lower secondary level (Table D1.6, available on line).

In addition to the significant changes above, four countries had small changes in the categories other compulsory curriculum and compulsory flexible curriculum: France, the French Community of Belgium, Korea and Mexico (Figure D1.3 and Table D1.4). Combinations of multiple instruction time regulations resulted in small changes over time in the distribution of instruction time in Austria, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Latvia, Spain and Turkey (Table D1.4). In Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg, there were changes in how some subjects are classified into subject categories (see Box D1.1).

In one-quarter of countries with available data in 2019, the allocation of instruction time across grades is flexible, i.e. the instruction time for a specific subject is defined across a certain number of grades or even the whole of compulsory education, without specifying the time to be allocated within each grade. Between 2014 and 2019, only four countries have made changes in the flexibility of the allocation of subjects over multiple grades (Luxembourg (primary only), Poland, Portugal and the Slovak Republic). For example, in the Slovak Republic, since 2015/16, instruction time on compulsory subjects is no longer allocated across multiple grades in primary and lower secondary general education (Tables D1.5 and D1.6, available on line).

In Finland and Sweden, although instruction time for most subjects continues to be flexibly allocated in primary and lower secondary education, new regulations changed the grouping of grades in which instruction time of a specific subject can be flexibly arranged at the discretion of individual schools. For example, in Sweden, instruction time for most subjects was once allowed to be flexibly allocated across all grades in primary and lower secondary education, but now is allocated within two 3-year stages in primary education and one 3-year stage in lower secondary education (Table D1.1 and Table D1.2).

In these countries, it is not possible to estimate the impact of these changes on the flexibility of the curriculum on the number of annual hours of compulsory education, because individual schools/local authorities decide how to allocate instruction hours across multiple grades.

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 (OECD, 2007[8])).

The 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[9]) and Annex 3 for country-specific notes (https://doi.org/10.1787/69096873-en).

Data on instruction time are from:

  • the 2012 OECD-INES Survey on Teachers and the Curriculum and refer to the school year 2010/11.

  • the 2013 to 2018 Joint Eurydice-OECD Instruction time data collection and refer to instruction time during compulsory primary and full-time lower secondary general education for the school years 2013/14 to 2018/19.

References

[2] European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice (2019), The Organisation of School Time in Europe, Primary and General Secondary Education - 2019/20, Publications Office of the European Union.

[5] Ministère de l’Éducation nationale et de la Jeunesse (2020), Ma classe à la maison : mise en œuvre de la continuité pédagogique [My class at home: implementing educational continuity], Ministère de l’Éducation nationale et de la Jeunesse, France, https://www.education.gouv.fr/ma-classe-la-maison-mise-en-oeuvre-de-la-continuite-pedagogique-289680 (accessed on 20 April 2020).

[6] Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs (2020), Mathainoume sto spiti [We learn at home], Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Greece, https://mathainoumestospiti.gov.gr/ (accessed on 20 April 2020).

[7] Ministry of Education and Vocational Training (2020), El Ministerio de Educación y FP y RTVE lanzan ’Aprendemos en casa’ para facilitar el aprendizaje de todo el alumnado durante la suspensión de clases presenciales [Ministry of Education and FP and RTVE launch ’learn at home’ during school closure], Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, Spain, https://www.educacionyfp.gob.es/prensa/actualidad/2020/03/20200321-mefprtve.html (accessed on 20 April 2020).

[3] OECD (2020), Key country policy responses, https://oecd.github.io/OECD-covid-action-map/data/CoronavirusUpdate_AllCountries_Public.xlsx (accessed on 25 June 2020).

[9] 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.

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

[4] Schleicher, A. and F. Reimers (2020), Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought: How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing education, OECD, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=133_133390-1rtuknc0hi&title=Schooling-disrupted-schooling-rethought-How-the-Covid-19-pandemic-is-changing-education (accessed on 3 June 2020).

[1] UNESCO (2020), COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse (accessed on 25 June 2020).

Table D1.1 Instruction time in compulsory primary education (2011, 2014 to 2019)

Table D1.2 Instruction time in compulsory general lower secondary education (2011, 2014 to 2019)

Table D1.3 Instruction time per subject in compulsory primary education (2014 and 2019)

Table D1.4 Instruction time per subject in compulsory general lower secondary education (2014 and 2019)

WEB Table D1.5 Organisation of compulsory primary education (2011, 2014 to 2019)

WEB Table D1.6 Organisation of compulsory general lower secondary education (2011, 2014 to 2019)

StatLink: https://doi.org/10.1787/888934165149

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