Skills development and citizenship education: topics of the first Education Council under the Dutch Presidency

Following the Paris attacks and the arrival of migrants and refugees in Europe, citizenship education has become key to combat radicalization, to foster social cohesion and more active participation by citizens in social and political life in all European countries. The development of social, civic and intercultural competences can be a strategic tool that empowers citizens and can make a substantial contribution to personal development. Therefore, civic education should be a lifelong learning process and start at an early age. At the same time non-formal and informal education settings are equally important in the provision of citizenship education than formal education systems. While numerous NGO’s and civil society organizations across Europe already promote citizenship education through non-formal education, the validation and recognition of acquired skills in informal learning environments is still problematic. The announced New Skills Agenda for Europe is supposed to focus on this issue.

On the occasion of the Education Council on the 24 February 2016 the 28 Education Ministers met in Brussels to discuss, amongst others, the above-mentioned issues. Besides adopting a resolution on socio-economic development and inclusiveness in the EU through education, they held a policy debate on skills development that will feed into the New Skills Agenda and discussed the follow-up of the Paris Declaration. The Council was hence devoted to education issues only and was preceded by a working lunch during which ministers addressed the subject "Education and the refugee crisis", focusing on the role of citizenship and language education.

The resolution on promoting socio-economic development and inclusiveness in the EU through education focuses on possible measures to ensure targeted investment in education and on how to address skills gaps and anticipate future skills requirements in order to restore jobs and achieve sustainable economic growth in Europe. At the same time, it highlights the equally important role education has to play in meeting the many socio-economic challenges facing Europe today, as also acknowledged by the 2016 Annual Growth Survey (AGS). It is noteworthy to mention that this resolution constitutes the contribution of the education and training sector to the 2016 European Semester.

Subsequently, in public deliberation, ministers held a policy debate on "Connecting education, the labour market and society", with a view to raising awareness and underlining the urgency of the many issues relating to skills development. The debate will provide input to the Commission for its forthcoming initiative "A New Skills Agenda for Europe". The Norwegian Minister for Education and Research, Mr Torbjørn Røe ISAKSEN, who was invited as a guest speaker outlined the main features of the national skills strategy Norway is developing in collaboration with the OECD*:
-* Pace and unpredictability of changes make it difficult to foresee what kind of skills will be required in the future
-* Education should not be linked with age;
-* Skills strategies targeted to helping people individually;
-* Development of programs to teach basic skills to the adult population;
-* Promotion of lifelong training at the workplace;
-* Validation of formal and non-formal competences;
-* Increased tailor-made measures and flexibility, in particular for refugees;
-* Improved coordination at all levels, national, regional and local, involving also representatives of workers and employers.

In general ministers agreed with the main ideas presented by the speaker and also underlined the following features: academic and digital skills complement each other, no distinction should be made; validation of formal and non-formal learning should be further developed; the attractiveness of vocational training must be increased, essential to develop partnerships in this sector; lifelong learning should be systematically implemented; better use of transparency instruments in the education field, such as the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and Europass; there is a need for a cross sectoral approach.

Finally, during the exchange of views on promoting citizenship and fundamental values through education, the ministers from three member states presented briefly a concrete example of a policy or project in their country related to one specific aspect of the Paris Declaration (France addressed the issue of media literacy; Czech Republic talked about citizenship education; and Spain proposed empowering teachers). The aim of the Dutch Presidency is to ensure that the declaration remains a dynamic and living document and to prepare the ground for possible future steps.

At this point, it is interesting to mention that SOLIDAR members have also been active in terms of citizenship education and have developed a couple of projects to promote civic education. A good example to showcase is CONECT (Formerly known as ADO SAH ROM) who is offering services for third country nationals to help ensure their fair treatment and integration into Romanian society, as well as services that prevent the marginalization and social exclusion of people in vulnerable situations (see case study).

SOLIDAR welcomes the outcomes of this Council and is pleased to see that the Dutch Presidency wishes to keep the discussion around the Paris Declaration alive. Now however, it is of greatest importance that concrete actions follow words and that this document will not become another document that is more hype than substance. SOLIDAR calls on the member states to fully implement the Paris Declaration on national level and therefore to promote citizenship education in order to enable the peaceful coexistence of different cultures, religions and ways of lives true to the motto ‘United in diversity. To that end, Member states should develop partnerships and work in close cooperation with NGO’s, Civil Society Organizations and other stakeholders working in the field. The provision of civic education should furthermore go beyond formal education systems and also be promoted within non-formal and informal education settings. Moreover, SOLIDAR appreciates the education features that the Council agreed with during the policy debate on skills and encourages the Member states to stand by their statement and, again, to follow-up their words with actions by implementing the policies on national ground. * The coming OECD Skills summit will be hosted by Norway in June

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