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Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Opening speech: "Ten years of the Grundtvig programme"

Gruntvig Tenth Anniversary Conference on "European Cooperation in Adult learning – Shaping the Future"

Copenhagen, 23 September 2010

Minister Nedergaard, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today, to celebrate 10 years of the Grundtvig programme and the progress we have made in adult learning. I want to thank the Danish Ministry of Education and the Danish Agency for International Education, for the excellent collaboration in preparing the conference.

I am particularly pleased that we are marking this event here in Copenhagen, where Nikolaj – N.F.S. - Grundtvig studied and worked.

N.F.S. Grundtvig was a man of many talents. But for us, he was first and foremost an educator - the father of Danish folk high schools. His vision was for a unique school that would serve people of all ages and all social backgrounds.

He understood the life-long and life-wide dimensions of learning. He knew that learning enriched life; that life enriched learning; and that education was a path to active participation in society and the community. That is why even today Grundtvig remains the greatest mentor for adult learning. His legacy lives on in Denmark, and across Europe, through our adult learning programme.

Denmark has one of the longest and strongest traditions in adult learning. Here, "alternative pathways to learning" are a full and equal part of education, enabling adults to re-engage with learning at all times in their lives. While the crisis has hit here as elsewhere, Denmark is coping better than many other countries, and this has much to do with the country's commitment to learning throughout life.

The lessons of lifelong learning hold true for Denmark – and they hold true for Europe too. In each of our countries, education is the master-key that unlocks all the doors – to better skills; to personal development and active engagement in the community; and to economic growth.

And yet, despite Europe's overall excellent record in education and training, too many people slip through the cracks in the system. For example:

  • One in ten Europeans has literacy problems.

  • One in seven young people leaves school early.

  • One in three workers has only basic skills.

At a time of economic and social crisis; when life has become more complex; when the pace of change continues to speed up, people without solid skills are living ever more precarious lives.

But we cannot accept such waste of talent and potential – either for the individual or for society as a whole. We must, like N.F.S. Grundtvig, make education a lifelong opportunity for everyone, whatever their age or situation. As President Barroso said recently, no one should be left abandoned at the side of the road.

Ladies –Gentlemen,

At European level, we are sparing no effort to put this message across. "Europe 2020" – the European strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth – puts education and training at the centre of our recovery.

Education and skills are essential ingredients of the flagship initiatives driving the Union's economic and social strategy for the next decade - Youth on the Move, the Agenda for new skills and jobs and the European Platform against Poverty.

We stress that education is not a one-shot opportunity. Especially today, in a rapidly changing world, and in a Europe where people are living longer, learning must continue throughout life.

This is where the Grundtvig programme comes in. It takes over where our other education programmes leave off, and gives people a much-needed chance of going 'one step up' in their education, whatever their situation.

  • It provides second-chance learning opportunities for people who did not obtain a qualification first time round.

  • In what is a special priority for us this year, the European Year against Poverty and Social Exclusion, it reaches out to marginalised and disadvantaged groups in society - urban youth, people with disabilities, people from ethnic minorities, people in prison or ex-offenders.

  • And it engages with older citizens to promote learning later in life – a growing concern of social policy, as the numbers of active, older people increase across Europe.

The programme continues to innovate. Last year, we added new opportunities for senior volunteering and mobility, and new actions for adult education staff.

This year, we have opened parts of the programme to worldwide cooperation, in keeping with our European strategy of engaging with education partners around the globe.

Even though it has the smallest budget of all our education programmes, Grundtvig has generated a whole range of positive impacts – and for this anniversary year we intend to make these successes better known.

To mention just one success: every year, nearly 2000 organisations from over 30 countries join hands in the Grundtvig "Learning Partnerships" to work on projects directly involving adult learners. These reach out to over 80,000 local participants; for most of them it is their very first taste of cooperation with another European country.

More broadly speaking, the programme is a very useful test-bed for innovation and creativity.

Grundtvig brings a European dimension – often for the first time - to organisations directly involved in adult education; it helps develop networks of professionals for exchanging good practice; it fosters social cohesion and inter-cultural dialogue. And it helps to forge a Europe of the citizens, giving adults - especially less advantaged adults - a sense of how engaging with Europe can improve their lives.

[These impacts often have very moving results. The icon of N.F.S. Grundtvig over there was produced by a former inmate in a Bulgarian prison. Now, after an arts degree at university, he is a professional icon painter. When presenting us with the picture earlier this year, at the European Conference on Prison Education organised by the programme, he told us that participating in Grundtvig quite simply changed his life.]

The success of the Grundtvig programme has been felt in many individuals' lives. But the programme has also stimulated European policy initiatives on adult learning. 2006 saw the Commission Communication, "It's never too late to learn", followed a year later by the Action Plan on Adult Learning which ends this December.

Thus today we not only look back and celebrate a decade of the Grundtvig programme. We also look forward, to the future policy agenda for adult learning. This is a joint effort involving the Commission, people on the ground, and the Member States.

This is why we invited senior officials for adult learning in the Member States to come together yesterday, to take stock of progress with our policy, and to define the future priorities, so that policy and programme evolve hand-in-hand.

I would like to finish, therefore, by looking to what lies ahead for adult learning in the European context.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If Europe is to succeed in the next decade, we must improve the knowledge and skills of the entire population. And we must make it possible for all our citizens to engage with society, to participate in making the choices for their communities.

Yes, we must continue our efforts to raise the quality of our young people's education. But we must also broaden our approach, embracing adult learning in all its forms as a full and equal partner in the process.

Our Europe 2020 flagship, "Youth on the Move", has set down the challenges of raising the numbers of Higher Education graduates to 40%, and reducing to under 10% the number of young people who leave school early.

In combination with these baseline targets, adult learning will have a vital role - it offers a second chance to people who enter adulthood without any qualifications or with low reading and mathematical skills; and it helps counter social exclusion, encouraging people to engage actively and critically with society.

This is why EU education ministers have agreed to raise the European target for adult learning to 15% of all adults by 2020. Some countries, such as Denmark and Germany with over 30%, have outstanding rates of adult learning. But the EU average is still only around 10%, so much work remains to be done.

Europe will also continue to need highly motivated and qualified people from all over the world. Here again adult education is essential, helping to integrate migrants and people from ethnic minorities in society and the labour market.

The Grundtvig programme itself has contributed strongly. It has helped develop innovative good practice models, strengthened cooperation between training providers, and improved the training of staff working with migrant communities.

The ageing population will itself bring new challenges and opportunities for adult learning. On the one hand, helping older workers up-skill and adapt to change and on the other, lifelong learning will have a vital role in improving the quality of life of older people and contributing to active ageing – both a social and an economic imperative. In an ageing society, inter-generational learning will help cement the solidarity links between young and old.

Not that Grundtvig focuses only on older learners. The programme also provides second-chance learning opportunities for younger adults. This will remain a key priority over the next decade, giving these actions an important role in the Youth on the Move initiative.

And within the next year, the Commission will present proposals both on the follow-up to the Adult Learning Action Plan, and for the future programme to succeed the Lifelong Learning programme, including Grundtvig, after 2013.

Let me say without ambiguity: adult learning, in all its facets, will be a crucial part of our future plans.

The Commission is fully aware that an effective adult learning sector is vital to our economy and society for the next decade. Over the past ten years we have taken a strong lead in encouraging Member States to make lifelong learning the basic principle underlying education and training.

We remain as committed to this as ever. I know that some of you have been concerned that Youth on the Move might seem to suggest a change of focus, but let me put your minds at rest.

It is not a question of one or the other, but rather a coherent and interlocking set of policies and programmes to meet the challenges of the future.

Youth on the Move, with its emphasis on mobility and young people, is a vital part of this construction – and one which a programme like Grundtvig, with its activities for young adults, can really enrich.

But our goal is to deliver on our lifelong learning objectives as a whole, so all facets of education and training remain in the spotlight.

Adult learning will thus continue to play a prominent role in our future programme. Translating this commitment into concrete programme design will be the focus of discussion over the coming months.

We want that discussion to be open, transparent and involve all the stakeholders. Last week we launched a public consultation on the future programme. I encourage you all to take part: help us to get the planning right in order to meet your needs. We need your personal experience, we need your input.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to say that we are gradually laying the foundations for a sustainable tradition of European cooperation in adult learning, thanks in large part to the Grundtvig programme. The European Commission is proud to be involved. But the programme's success is down to the commitment of all those who embrace its aims and help to make it a reality.

I look forward to the steps ahead.

We have to develop adult learning so that we preserve our values and social fabric while shaping the future, in a spirit of self-esteem and mutual respect.

We have to develop adult learning to prepare young adults for their careers and to develop a passion for new challenges; to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers and lifelong learners.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, nearly a century and a half after his death, we continue to strive for the ideals which were dear to N.F.S. Grundtvig himself. Those who predict a 21st century of adult learning, just as the 19th and 20th saw the development of schools and universities, may not be far from the truth. Grundtvig's vision is helping to shape our future.

Thank you.

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