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Speech: The challenge Europe must not shirk: delivering quality education for all and skills the labour market needs

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/13/370   26/04/2013

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European Commission

Androulla VASSILIOU

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

The challenge Europe must not shirk: delivering quality education for all and skills the labour market needs

24th Council of Europe Standing Conference of Education Ministers/Helsinki

26 April 2013

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon for this 24th session of the Council of Europe standing conference of Education Ministers. I would like to thank the Council of Europe and our Finnish hosts for making today's event possible.

Today we are here to discuss governance and quality education and reflect on the best strategies to address the educational challenges facing us.

The European Union has placed education at the heart of its efforts to put the EU back on the road to economic recovery. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high, with more than one out of five out of work. At the same time, employers are trying hard to fill over 2 million vacancies for high-skilled jobs.

I do not need to convince you that our educational systems need to better match the instruction imparted with the needs of the labour market: the skills being taught and the skills being sought.

The European Union has no power to enact binding legislation in this field. But it does have a crucial role in supporting Member States to carry out the reforms needed to modernise our schools and equip students with these skills.

Education and the Europe 2020 strategy

Efforts to improve the quality of education have received fresh impetus in recent years. The economic crisis has brought to the fore the importance of investing in education as a key driver for sustainable growth and jobs.

Evidence shows that, in contrast with their low-skilled peers, higher education graduates have consistently fared better, even in the most crisis-hit economies, with lower rates of unemployment across the continent. High-skilled jobs have proved more resilient in the downturn, and high-skilled individuals have been better able to cope and adapt in a difficult employment environment.

That is why the EU strategy for the future, Europe 2020, includes a double target in education, reflecting the aim both to widen skills and to raise their level: by 2020, fewer than 10% of young people should be leaving school early, with few or no qualifications; and 40% of young people should be completing higher education. The Commission has been closely monitoring the efforts made by the Member States to improve their education systems. I am pleased to say that the latest figures show some progress on the headline targets.

Still, the road ahead is far from having cleared. We are building momentum but this is no time to relent.

In November 2012, I presented a new strategy on "Rethinking Education" to encourage Member States to take immediate action. A set of priorities has been quickly endorsed by EU Ministers such as the need to: reduce the number of early school leavers and low-skilled adults; improve the acquisition of transversal skills; better support teachers; and ensure strong investment in education and training.

In addition, other key actions to be developed at the EU level were agreed, such as initiatives to improve work-based learning, entrepreneurial skills and the use of ICT and open educational resources.

Perhaps even more importantly, we have strengthened the governance at EU level. Each year the Council, at the level of Heads of State, adopts Country-Specific Recommendations. These are proposed by the Commission to support Member States and to give them focused guidance, as part of the so-called "European Semester" within the Europe 2020 strategy.

The Country-Specific Recommendations issued by the Council in 2012 related to challenges such as early school leaving, equity, access to and quality of early childhood education and care, and the integration of migrant-background learners.

Member States were asked to report back on their steps to address the challenges identified in the 2012 country-specific recommendations by mid-April 2013, with their National Reform Programmes. EU Member States are more and more committed to implementing solutions to tackle these challenges.

Quality education for all is the overall objective.

Yet, the reality is that in most European education systems, quality is uneven and budgetary constraints add to all the other difficulties in access to quality education. Currently, all European education and training systems are, to a greater or lesser extent, marked by inequalities - in access to quality education as well as in outcomes. These inequalities have severe consequences for the individuals concerned, for the economy, and for the cohesiveness of our societies.

No compromise between efficiency and equity

Making quality education available to all citizens should be a key objective for implementing reform and managing our educational institutions. We know from countries like Finland -which consistently tops the international rankings- that quality is perfectly compatible with efficiency and with equity.

Good governance should also create enabling conditions within learning institutions. Putting in place empowering curricula is essential but not enough. Our children and young people learn about democracy and about social relationships not only through books but also through their daily experience of school life and routine.

And this is where many of our schools do not pass the test. Because many learners experience violence, racism, lack of respect, lack of democratic dialogue or discrimination within the school itself.

For millions of children and young people, their school routine is not simply preparation for life; it is life itself. It is therefore necessary to make our schools places that respect, inspire and empower the key actors of their daily life. This is an essential dimension of quality. And this is also the job of good education governance.

Promoting quality education for all requires political commitment and sustainable investment backed up by decision-making based on solid evidence. It also needs continuity and long-term planning, concrete and measurable targets, and tools to monitor progress.

And a good amount of pragmatism about the limitations of what education policy can do alone.

Synergies are required to link education policies with what employment, youth, health, justice, housing and welfare services can offer. A new report with the title "Alliances for Inclusion" published by my services this week shows examples of how this objective might be achieved in practice.

European funding is and will be available to pursue these goals.

The new European education programme "Erasmus for All" will have a significantly higher budget than the current Lifelong Learning programme for the period 2014-2020. This programme, already well known for the mobility of students - everybody knows Erasmus - will be extended to other kinds of mobility and to strategic partnerships to help EU Member States to rethink education, and this at all levels of education.

In addition, the European Structural Funds can underpin education reform and also finance education infrastructure. The Commission is currently discussing with Member States investment priorities for the period 2014-2020. In this context, Member States have the opportunity to plan to mobilise substantial resources from the Structural Funds to support the improvement of their education systems. This is a tremendously important moment, an opportunity Member States should not miss.

An exemplary cooperation with the Council of Europe

I am also pleased to report excellent cooperation between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of education and training.

2013 is the third year of the ROMED Programme. In 2011 and 2012, this joint venture allowed us to train more than one thousand school, culture and health Roma mediators.

Our “Human Rights and Democracy in Action” project is ready to take off. Our aim is to identify successful practices and key success factors for sustainable human rights education and education for citizenship activities.

We have also been working closely together on the implementation of European Qualifications Frameworks towards a real European Area of Skills and Qualifications.

A three-year partnership agreement is ready to start between the Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of multilingualism.

Finally, I would like also to mention an efficient and long tradition of cooperation between the two institutions in the field of youth.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In our Europe 2020 Strategy, the primary objective of economic prosperity goes hand-in-hand with social and civic objectives aimed at establishing a tolerant Europe that is socially inclusive and supports active citizenship.

We must avoid the risk that short-term imperatives overshadow social justice, human rights and civic concerns in education and training governance. Education and training should impart a good preparation for the labour market.

But they are also about socio-cultural and civic goals -which are just as fundamental as economic growth for the cohesion, success and well-being of our societies. In fact, without them there can't even be long-term sustainable growth in Europe. Therefore, it is also the job of good governance to ensure a good balance in the objectives of learning.

In a nutshell, it is the job of good education governance to enable the formation of the "European learning citizen".

This "citizen-model" informs our choices for education and training; for the present and future of Europe.

I look forward to the inspiring ideas that will come out of this conference on these issues.

I thank you for your attention.


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