Modernising education and training: a vital contribution to prosperity and social cohesion in Europe
This is the second report on progress under the "Education & Training 2010" work programme. Even though national reforms are going in the right direction, the pace of reform must be speeded up. Investment in pre-school education is of paramount importance for preventing school failure and social exclusion, and for laying the foundations for further learning. The report concludes that, unless significantly greater efforts are made in the areas of early school-leaving, completion of upper-secondary education, and key skills, a larger proportion of the next generation will face social exclusion.
2006 Joint Interim Report of the Council and of the Commission on progress under the "Education & Training 2010" work programme [Official Journal C79 of 01.04.2006].
All citizens need to acquire and continually update their knowledge, skills and competences through lifelong learning, and the specific needs of those at risk of social exclusion need to be taken into account. This will help to raise labour force participation and increase economic growth, while ensuring social cohesion.
These considerations are highly relevant to the EU's current reflection on the future development of the European social model. Europe is facing enormous socio-economic and demographic challenges associated, in particular, with an ageing population, high numbers of low-skilled adults and high rates of youth unemployment.
PROGRESS UNDER THE " EDUCATION & TRAINING 2010" WORK PROGRAMME
The analysis is based primarily on the 2005 national reports of the Member States and of the countries belonging to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which together make up the European Economic Area (EEA), as well as those of the accession and candidate countries.
Nationally, reforms are moving forward. Many countries have established, or are establishing, their own targets that relate, to varying degrees, to the reference levels of average European performance for education and training (reference criteria). This is also particularly important for the implementation of the European Employment Strategy.
Since 2000, as far as total investment in key sectors of the knowledge-economy is concerned, the gap has not narrowed between Europe and competitor countries such as the United States. What is more, some Asian countries, such as China and India, are catching up fast.
Nonetheless, public spending on education as a percentage of GDP is increasing in nearly all EU countries. The average was 5.2% in 2002 as compared to 4.9% in 2000.
As regards lifelong learning strategies, many - but by no means all - countries have now developed policy statements, such as strategy documents or national action plans. Others have put in place framework legislation.
It is still the case, however, as demonstrated in 2003, that strategies are imbalanced. They focus on either employability or re-engaging those who have become alienated from the systems.
Too little attention is paid and too few financial resources are allocated to increasing access to adult learning opportunities. Older workers, whose numbers are set to increase by around 14 million by 2030, and the low-skilled are particularly affected.
The persistently high numbers of young people leaving school without basic qualifications and skills are a worrying signal that initial education systems are not always providing the necessary foundations for lifelong learning. This concern is reflected in the new Lisbon integrated guidelines and in the European Youth Pact. Several countries are responding to this by reforming curricula and study programmes, aiming to ensure that key, transversal competences are acquired by all, and that young people - especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds - do not slip through the net.
As for the reforms of higher education and vocational training, funding remains a key challenge and an obstacle to implementing the modernisation agenda for many countries.
Strengthening collaboration between higher education and industry is recognised by most countries as a basic requirement for innovation and increased competitiveness, but too few have a comprehensive approach to this issue. Part of the problem is that national innovation strategies too often do not incorporate higher education reforms.
National priorities for the reform of vocational education and training seem broadly to reflect those of the Copenhagen process. Countries have begun to implement the common principles and references defined at European level (e.g. for quality assurance for validation of non-formal learning), but they emphasise that it is too early to present concrete results.
Despite this, vocational pathways are still often less attractive than academic ones. The improvement of the quality and attractiveness of vocational education and training continues to be a key challenge for the future.
A large majority of countries express concerns about the needs of low-skilled people, currently numbering almost 80 million in the EU, highlighting the importance of labour force participation and the role of vocational education and training systems as key means of ensuring social inclusion.
Most countries concentrate on target populations in this context, in particular on young people, as vocational education and training programmes have a positive effect on reducing dropout rates. On the other hand, too low a priority is still placed on adults and older workers.
The professional development of vocational teachers and trainers also remains a real challenge for most countries.
With regard to the European dimension in the national systems, all countries consider it important to increase participation in mobility in education and training. However, despite some promising initiatives, for example as concerns quality of mobility, the national strategies are not enough.
Many countries underline the importance of language learning. Policies and actions tend to be scattered, however, and ensuring that all pupils leave secondary education with the knowledge and skills they will need as European citizens remains a major challenge. This was an objective underlined in the 2004 Joint Interim Report.
CONCLUSION: SPEEDING UP THE PACE OF REFORMS
National reforms are moving forward. However, it is particularly worrying that there is too little progress against those benchmarks related most closely to social inclusion, despite the fact that the benchmark the EU had set itself on increasing the number of maths, science and technology graduates was quickly reached. Unless significantly greater efforts are made in the areas of early school-leaving, completion of upper-secondary education and key competences, a larger proportion of the next generation will face social exclusion, at great cost to the economy and society.
Strengthening the implementation of Education and Training 2010 nationally
Member States should in particular ensure that:
- education and training have a central position in the national Lisbon reform programmes, in the national strategic reference framework for the Structural Funds, and in the national strategies on social protection and social inclusion;
- mechanisms for coordinating the implementation of the work programme at national level are in place in all countries, involving the different Ministries concerned and the main stakeholders, especially the social partners;
- national policies contribute actively towards achieving the Education and Training 2010 benchmarks and objectives. National targets and indicators should be further developed, taking account of these European references;
- the evaluation of policies is improved, to enable progress to be better monitored, and to create a culture of evaluation, making full use of research results. The development of high-quality statistical instruments and infrastructure is therefore indispensable;
- the various European agreements adopted in the context of the work programme are used as important reference points when designing national reforms.
Strengthening the implementation of Education and Training 2010 Europe-wide
In order to strengthen the implementation of the work programme, particular attention will be given to:
- the development of a well-focused and relevant programme of peer learning activities in the framework of the new Programme for Lifelong Learning and in light of experiences and policy priorities agreed throughout 2005;
- enhanced monitoring of the implementation of lifelong learning strategies in all Member States;
- reaching agreement on a recommendation for a European Qualifications Framework, as well as the draft recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on key competences for lifelong learning, and taking forward work on the quality of teacher training;
- better information and exchanges of experiences regarding the use of the structural funds and the European Investment Bank (EIB), to support education and training development, with a view to better exploiting these resources in the future.
In their 2004 Joint Interim Report the Council and the European Commission called for urgent reform of Europe's education and training systems if the EU is to achieve its social and economic objectives. They undertook to review progress on implementing the Education and Training 2010 work programme, which includes the Copenhagen process on vocational education and training, and action for higher education every two years. This report is the first in this new cycle. Education and Training 2010 is also a key contribution to the implementation of the new integrated guidelines for jobs and growth, including the European Youth Pact.