30 July 2010

Review of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED)

The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) was developed by UNESCO in the 1970s as a framework for the international comparison of national education statistics and indicators. The current version of ISCED was adopted in 1997. The text of the classification is available on the website of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) in the six official UN languages.

Figure 1: Cover of ISCED 1997 in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese
Cover of ISCED 1997

Table 1 lists the seven levels of education defined in ISCED 1997: pre-primary (level 0), primary (level 1), lower secondary (level 2), upper secondary (level 3), post-secondary non-tertiary (level 4), first stage of tertiary (level 5), and second stage of tertiary (level 6).

Table 1: Levels of education in ISCED 1997
ISCED level
0 Pre-primary education
Initial stage of organized instruction, designed primarily to introduce very young children to a school-type environment.
1 Primary education
Normally designed to give pupils a sound basic education in reading, writing and mathematics.
2 Lower secondary education
The lower secondary level of education generally continues the basic programmes of the primary level, although teaching is typically more subject-focused, often employing more specialised teachers who conduct classes in their field of specialisation.
3 Upper secondary education
The final stage of secondary education in most countries. Instruction is often more organised along subject-matter lines than at ISCED level 2 and teachers typically need to have a higher level, or more subject-specific, qualification than at ISCED 2.
4 Post-secondary non-tertiary education
These programmes straddle the boundary between upper secondary and postsecondary education from an international point of view, even though they might clearly be considered as upper secondary or post-secondary programmes in a national context. They are often not significantly more advanced than programmes at ISCED 3 but they serve to broaden the knowledge of participants who have already completed a programme at level 3. The students are typically older than those in ISCED 3 programmes. ISCED 4 programmes typically have a duration of 6 months to 2 years.
5 First stage of tertiary education
ISCED 5 programmes have an educational content more advanced than those offered at levels 3 and 4. ISCED 5A programmes are largely theoretically based and are intended to provide sufficient qualifications for gaining entry into advanced research programmes and professions with high skills requirements. ISCED 5B programmes are generally more practical/technical/occupationally specific than ISCED 5A programmes.
6 Second stage of tertiary educationThis level is reserved for tertiary programmes that lead to the award of an advanced research qualification. The programmes are devoted to advanced study and original research.
Source: UIS, 2009, Global education digest 2009, Annex C

To assign national education programmes to internationally comparable ISCED levels, ISCED mappings are produced by the UIS in collaboration with national authorities in UNESCO member states. As an example, Figure 2 shows the ISCED mapping for Mozambique. The columns on the left half of the table list national education programmes, and the right half of the table lists the corresponding ISCED levels, from pre-primary to tertiary education. The information on ISCED levels is used to generate internationally comparable data on primary or secondary school enrolment and other indicators. For example, UIS estimates on the number of children out of school are produced by referring to primary and lower secondary school ages defined by ISCED.

Figure 2: ISCED mapping for Mozambique
ISCED mapping of Mozambique
Source: ISCED mappings, UIS, July 2010

Changes in national education systems since the adoption of ISCED 1997, as well as problems with its implementation, made it necessary to review the existing classification. At the UNESCO General Conference in October 2007, the UIS was appointed to lead such a review. In 2009 and 2010, an international panel of experts discussed the current classification and drafted a new ISCED. The most important areas under review were the classification of post-secondary and tertiary education, criteria to define the orientation (general or vocational) and destination (labour market or further education) of secondary education, the coverage of early childhood care and education (ECCE) and of technical and vocational education and training (TVET), the definition of educational attainment, and the classification of non-formal education.

A global consultation on ISCED began in June 2010, with the distribution of the draft of a new ISCED to national statistical offices, education ministries, policy makers, and experts working in the field of statistical classifications. The feedback from this consultation will be incorporated into the final recommendations that will be submitted for approval to the UNESCO General Conference in 2011.

More information on ISCED and on the current review is available on the ISCED web page of the UIS. The page offers background documents on the review and reports from meetings that took place between 2009 and 2010.

Related articlesExternal links
Friedrich Huebler, 30 July 2010, Creative Commons License
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