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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 28 March 2024

Portugal's history

Portugal is the oldest nation-state in Europe. Founded in 1143, its current borders were established in mid-13th century, making them some of the most ancient in Europe and the world.

From 1415, Portugal began an expansionist movement that took its language and culture to the five continents, extending the country’s territory to the Azores and Madeira archipelagos and establishing a colonial regime in several African countries, East Timor and even India. 

Education policy, which would take shape in the 18th century, was overseen by the Marquis of Pombal, who began reforming the different levels and designed a network of public primary school covering the country’s main areas.

The 19th century was a period of emerging liberalism in Portugal, which provided a growing belief in the importance of school for the general population, leading to reforms that organised and structured education. However, the severe economic crisis ravaging the country and troubled political atmosphere during this century, which would culminate with the monarchical regime being replaced by a Republic in 1910, meant that many of these educational reforms and liberal-inspired "public education" endeavours were frustrated.

The creation of the 1st Republic (1910-1926) saw several reforms in the education sector: educational provision was diversified (infant education, "higher" primary education, normal education; and the creation of Lisbon and Porto universities). The first attempts at decentralisation were made, and syllabus content and pedagogical methods were changed.

The new regime found itself incapable of calming political tensions, and the country remained unstable for the following decade and a half. Portugal's participation in World War I alongside the Allies also exacerbated the political and financial crisis, making the results of the policies implemented in the meantime unclear.

This situation led to the military taking power in 1926 and setting up a dictatorial regime. António de Oliveira Salazar was appointed Minister of Finance by the new regime in 1928, and in 1932 he became President of the Council (Prime Minister). A year later, the constitution that established the Estado Novo was approved. Salazar’s fascist dictatorship lasted until 1974.

The disqualification of teachers and devaluation of education upon which the Salazar regime's policy was based meant that Portugal was unable to keep up with the expansion of schooling happening throughout Europe. This is one of the reasons for the structural shortcomings of the Portuguese education system, made worse by a weak economic sector (poor industrial and commercial development, underdeveloped agriculture, and an underqualified workforce).

The entrenchment of a closed and single party regime was another reason the education system developed little. While Europe debated whether to extend compulsory schooling to ten or 12 years in the 1960s, Portugal increased it from three to four years at the beginning of that decade. What little reform occurred during the 1960s was largely due to international pressure associated with becoming part of the European Free Trade Association and the work of the OECD and its Mediterranean Regional Project, which defined the conditions Portugal had to meet to become a member of the OECD, which occurred in 1961.

From 1961, the totalitarian regime began to crumble, largely due to the colonial war, which stemmed from independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and in Portuguese India, places to whom Portugal refused to give independence. Social opposition to the regime increased and opposition movements become stronger and more organised. At the same time, Portugal’s isolation worsened, as the international community condemned the country and pressured it to resolve the issue of its colonies.

On 25th April, 1974, a military movement led by young army officers, known as the Carnation Revolution, put an end to the Estado Novo and kick-started a process that culminated in a democratic regime. After this, all the former Portuguese colonies were granted independence.

In 1976, parliament was elected and the first constitutional government formed, establishing a modern democratic state, guaranteeing citizens’ rights and freedoms. The economy was founded on the coexistence of three sectors of property and economic activity (public, private and cooperative), a semi-presidential governmental system, the autonomy of local authority, self-rule of the Azores and Madeira autonomous regions and subordination of the armed forces to political power.

On 1st January, 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community (EEC), which was the predecessor of the European Union, before leaving EFTA. In 1999, it was part of the first group of countries to adopt the Euro as its national currency.

To strengthen cultural and economic links with Portuguese-speaking countries, alongside Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe, Portugal founded the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP). These members were joined by East Timor after it became independent from Indonesia in 2002. Recently, the CPLP offered membership to non-Portuguese speaking countries, and Equatorial Guinea joined in 2014. It also has associate members and observers including such countries as Japan, Georgia, Australia and Macao, among others.

In 2002, a political cycle began, distinguished by the idea of a European challenge and the start of the Bologna process in higher education. The Lisbon Strategy forms a foundation for policies that focus on the transition to a knowledge-based economy and society, where reducing early school leaving is an indicator of success of education policies.

In April 2011, against a background of serious economic-financial and political crises caused by the Stability and Growth Programme (SGP) being voted down, the government asked the European Commission for external assistance, which led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Portuguese government, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF ("troika”)

This was followed by a period of crisis and austerity marked by wage suppression and public spending restraint. At the end of the programme, after elections, a new government took office. Once again, accelerated growth boosted supply and demand for education. New investments were initiated, which brings us to the current situation.

Evolution of the education system

In 1948, Portugal participated in the second Paris conference that created the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the initial convention that gave rise to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). At the time, it presented a plan for a funding programme in five areas: energy, mining and irrigation, transport, manufacturing, agriculture, and health and education. The country reached the post-war period with a fledgling educational system. Official early childhood education had been abolished, compulsory schooling had been reduced to three years, and primary schools had been closed, as schoolteachers were considered not to need much preparation. Then Portugal began moving closer to international policies that, based on theories of human capital, defended the expansion of education. In 1959/60, the OECD analysed national education policies. The Minister of Education, Leite Pinto, asked for the OECD's support in defining the parameters of educational reform, the Mediterranean Regional Project was devised, and various changes implemented.

The Mediterranean Regional Project report was made public in April, 1964, and the Quantitative Analysis of Portuguese School Structure (1950-59) was also published. This was done with a view to training the people needed to meet the demands of the economy. From there, several changes were initiated by the Ministers of Education, Leite Pinto and Veiga Simão, among others. This established a certain continuity from 1960 until the approval of the Education Act, which democratised and expanded school education.

On 9th July, 1964, Decree-Law no. 45/810, made schooling compulsory for six years, targeting those up to the age of 14, starting with primary education (four years) then one of two new pathways: complementary primary education or a preparatory cycle of secondary education (two years). In the same year, an alternative way of completing compulsory schooling was devised: Telescola. This second pathway, which operated until 2003/2004, is based on distance learning via television, was key to schooling in Portugal and across Europe as a whole.

Despite the development of education policy in Portugal in the 1960s, the country’s illiteracy rate was still over 25% in 1970. Only after 1974 did educational indicators begin to change and the country catch up with the rest of Europe. However, this substantial and speedy recovery caused structural problems, which cane be caused by rapid growth.

The desire to make education more democratic and universal occurred at the same time as a major increase in the demand for school and a huge growth in the number of students at all levels of schooling. An increase in the birth rate, alongside a climate of optimism and hope regarding the future, the end of the colonial war, with the return of Portuguese nationals who had previously lived in the African colonies (primarily from Angola and Mozambique, but also Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and Guinea-Bissau, in addition to East Timor in the Pacific) imposed great demographic pressure on the country in general and the education system in particular.

After what was, in political terms, a very agitated post-revolutionary period regarding education, there followed six interim governments in two years. Priority started being given to curricular, technical and professional aspects. At the same time there is a growing fear of the perverse effects that an expanding educational system may have, particularly regarding quality. In addition to this, the Portuguese economy’s problems delayed structural educational reform.

Between 1974 and 1986, a series of changes to the educational system were implemented, moving it ever closer to the model embodied in the Lei de Bases do Sistema Educativo (Education Act): a comprehensive model of long schooling. 

New programmes were created in basic education and from 1974-75 the first four years (ISCED 1) were organised into two-year phases, on an experimental basis. School evaluation was undertaken at the end of each phase, with it being impossible to fail the first and third years of schooling. The fifth and sixth years (CITE 2), which are part of compulsory schooling, are divided into three branches (complementary primary cycle, direct preparatory education and TV preparatory education), with a view to extending attendance to more students, many with major economic difficulties, and also to take advantage of existing resources. The effective implementation of compulsory education was supported by several measures, such as school transport, school canteens, food supplements, accommodation, meals and, whenever needed, economic support for families.

The 8th and 9th grades of secondary education were created for the general course. The complementary course of unified education was divided into five areas, which included a common set of subjects, a specific and vocational component. The complementary course (10th and 11th grades), which was set up in 1978 following the general course, now ensured vocational training in the chosen area, with a view to continuing respective studies.

The introductory year was set up in 1977 to substitute community service. This was a third year of distance secondary education with five subjects, of which two (Portuguese language and a foreign language) were compulsory. With this measure the state brought its system in line with other European countries, establishing 12 years of pre-university schooling. This year also saw the introduction of the numerus clausus policy, which stipulated the number of students that could be admitted in the first year of each higher education course annually.

In 1980, this introductory year was replaced by the 12th grade, which completed the final cycle of secondary education and functioned as the foundation year before entering higher education. This year was divided into two pathways: the teaching pathway, geared towards study at higher education institutions, and the vocational path, which provided access to a polytechnic.

In 1977, the higher education diversification process resumed, with the creation of short higher education courses for technical specialists and professionals in higher and intermediate education. Normal schools for pre-school teachers and primary teaching were reconverted into teacher training colleges. From 1979 onward, university autonomy and the teaching career statute in higher education began being defined.

Progress was made in meeting the population's aspirations regarding access to higher education, however, there were difficulties in the preparation of technicians and mid-level professionals to meet the growing needs of Portuguese companies, which were expanding and modernising, and of foreign businesses in Portugal.

In 1983, the need for qualified workers and an employment policy for young adults led to the creation of technical-professional courses, which were taught after the 9th grade, providing equivalence of the 12th grade, vocational certification and access to higher education.

The syllabuses of the technical-vocational courses created generally followed the model used in complementary secondary education, including general training, specific training, and technical-vocational training, the latter replacing the vocational training component of the other areas and may include internships that ape working life, after school, or included periods of schooling.

Artistic education was also restructured. In 1983, the teaching of music, dance, theatre and cinema was restructured in general basic, upper secondary and higher education. In 1999 and 2000, provision was extended in general courses, specialised artistic education, technological courses, vocational courses and recurrent education courses.

In 1986, the year Portugal entered the European Economic Community, the Education Act (Law no. 46/86, 14th October) was approved. The objective of basic education project, as laid out in the Education Act, was to guarantee “general education for all Portuguese” for nine years.

The model defined was comprehensive, equal for all, geared towards integrated training and offering contact with different knowledge areas, encouraging different skills to promote informed vocational choices at the beginning of upper secondary school.

The preparation and negotiation of the legislation was a landmark in the history of educational policies in Portugal. Presented and debated with a minority government, it was the result of joint and multiple efforts of several parties, various pedagogues and education specialists. It gained the consensus of most parties with parliamentary seats and of society in general.

The new general framework for the Portuguese education system included pre-school, school and out-of-school education. Basic education - universal, compulsory, and free - was defined as nine years (from six to 15 years old), made up of three sequential cycles: the 1st cycle of four years (ISCED 1), the 2nd cycle of two years (ISCED 2), and the 3rd cycle of three years (ISCED 3). Compulsory education became nine years, with compulsory attendance until 15 years old. A post-compulsory education is established, which, on one hand, was the continuation of the 3rd cycle and, on the other, offered the transition to higher education or the labour market.

The third cycle saw an important increase in the number of students attending until the mid-1990s (between 1987 and 1995, there was an increase of enrolled students of more than 130,000), a period when the impact of a decrease in the birth-rate started to show.

In 1989, the curricular plans for basic and upper secondary education were defined (Decree Law no. 286/89, 29th August). This formed the basis of the curriculum until the end of the first decade of the 21st century: a balanced number of structural subjects and areas of personal and social development, project work and interdisciplinarity. The changes affected the teaching-learning process (Despatch No. 98-A/92, 20 June), flexibility and pedagogical differentiation. In 1993, the legislative framework was reorganised regarding educational support activities and measures, with educational policy more focussed on the teaching-learning processes, establishing bases for differentiated pedagogical methodologies. From this came "differentiated teaching and formative assessment"; "temporary level groups"; "compensation programmes" and "updating"; "tutoring programmes"; "alternative curricula", among other teaching-learning process measures of adaptation and adjustment.

In 1995, Portugal achieved 100% schooling rate at 14 years old. That said, retention and dropout rates were very high and 35% of students did not finish the 9th grade.

In 1997, the Pre-School Education Framework Law, one of the main changes of the period, was unanimously approved.

After a long process of public consultation, which began in 1997, curricular reforms for primary and upper secondary education were published in 2001. In upper secondary education, the focus was vocational education. In basic education, the reform revolved around a set of principles found in the "Basic Education National Curriculum" document, which formed the foundation for programmes, goals, tests and exams until 2012.

While the dropout rate fell from 12.5% to 2.7% between 1991 and 2001, early school leaving - the non-completion of upper secondary education - increased (from 40.1% in 1996 to 46% in 1998, the same as in 1993). It would be another seven years before this figure dropped below 40%.

During the political cycle initiated in 2002, the major focusses of educational policy change were higher education (Bologna) and upper secondary education diversification through the reformulation and qualification-level of technological courses, as well as vocational ones. Decree-Law No. 74/2004, 26 March, was part of upper secondary reform that anticipated, albeit not explicitly, intentions to extend compulsory education. In 2005, learning evaluation guidelines for basic education were established, creating a new external summative evaluation mechanism for students in the 9th grade: national Portuguese and mathematics exams, replacing the global exams.

The retention and dropout rate fell for all years of schooling, except for the 9th grade, where it reached 19.9%. From 2002 to 2005, there was a negative variation of less 1.8 pp. in basic education and 5.3 pp. in upper secondary, bucking the previous upward trend at this level of education. That said, the failure rate in technological education was very high, reaching 44.3% in 2003/04. An analysis of the PISA 2003 results (GAVE, 2004) indicated persistent poor performance, even after adjusting for per capita income and adult qualifications, and the excessive explanatory nature of socioeconomic

From 2005, policy focus changed again and focusses on extending compulsory schooling to 12 years and 18 years of age. This was instituted in 2009, based on Law no. 85, 27th August, which also enshrined universal pre-school education for children from five years old. This was a period of major investment in education, with a wide range of reforms in pre-school, basic, secondary and higher education. Over 300 primary and secondary schools were renovated under the Parque Escolar programme.  

Among the changes caused by the financial crisis and austerity, particularly from 2011, included a set of subjects in basic education being supressed (civic education, supervised study and ICT in grade 9), the institution of national exams in grade 4 (ISCED 1) and the adoption of new vocational courses in basic and upper secondary education, bringing vocational choice forward to 13-year-olds.