Briefing Note: European Education Area – Can the European Commission deliver on its vision?

On 30 September 2020, the European Commission updated its vision of the European Education Area (EEA) setting out the roadmap on achieving this by 2025. SOLIDAR Foundation welcomes the coherent and comprehensive vision put forward by the European Commission but it expresses its worries at the unclear means through which the goals would be met. The vision for the European Education Area is constructed on six dimensions: quality, inclusion and gender equality, green and digital transitions, teachers and trainers, higher education and the geopolitical dimension. For each, the Communication acknowledges the current issues and sets forward the goals for the coming years, while presenting the means and milestones for achieving them. The Communication ends with a vague presentation of the enabling framework, which shall be used to coordinate the efforts of the Commission and of the Member States in achieving the EEA.

A European Education Area that identifies educational needs but misunderstands the mindsets for the 21st century education

The Commission accurately identified the issue of over 22% of EU pupils underachieving in basic skills in 2018, which is coupled with many learners missing basic digital skills as well, as reflected by the current COVID-19 crisis. SOLIDAR Foundation also welcomes the discussion on the importance of acquiring transversal skills such as critical thinking, entrepreneurship, creativity and civic engagement through transdisciplinary, learner-centred and challenge-based approaches. Most importantly, we welcome the acknowledgement that, first and foremost, education serves as a driver for personal fulfilment and active citizenship. However, in addressing these challenges, as well as in an interest to position the European perspective as complementary to the local and regional ones, the European Commission misses the opportunity to consider the role of Global Citizenship Education (GCE). Furthermore, GCE is not referred to at all when discussing the Green Transition, revealing a missed opportunity but also an obliviousness from the Commission’s side on the need to address the paradigm by which people guide themselves in their daily activities. For EU citizens to be able to obtain the soft skills that would make them responsible citizens at global level, education and training policies have to foster their global thinking  and ability to link their actions related to sustainability to what is happening in other regions.

The Commission’s perspective over the Green Transition is reduced to hard skills related to environmental sustainability revealing a lack of ambition for changing people’s perceptions. Moreover, the Commission surprisingly does not focus at all on the whole-school approach when discussing inclusion. As SOLIDAR Foundation’s Monitor revealed, by involving all education stakeholders in education policy-making and implementation, there are better chances to ensure an inclusive environment, but this eludes the current EEA vision.

The Commission seems ready to strengthen the link between non-formal and formal education, however, it falls short on addressing the needed mindset for the 21st century regarding what exactly this means, as it limits this only to volunteering and even more shocking only to mobility in volunteering. The work of the CSOs on non-formal learning for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds is ignored, revealing an elitist position over who has access to education. This is especially problematic as the current societal inequalities have prevented many from accessing education and an acknowledgement of the full-range of support that non-formal education providers can offer to those who are the most disadvantaged in society cannot be glossed over. There must be more linking among non-formal and formal education in order lower unjust thresholds and ensure that all can access education.

More responsibility on Member States at a time of polarization

Across all dimensions, the European Commission is encouraging Member States to take action and it reiterates its support for them in this. Though education remains a competence of the Member States, the Commission’s support, especially in the context of COVID-19, seems insufficient. The Commission proposes new ways in which Member States can access European Structural and Investment Funds, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, European Social Funds and the Erasmus+ funding but with limited guidance on how this can be done. In addition, there is no certainty over the long-term budget that the Member States can access given the current negotiations for the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). MFF negotiations point towards an increase of only 50% to the Erasmus+ budget, even if education stakeholders, experts and European lawmakers pointed out a need for at least a tripling of this, it remains to be seen if this funding is sufficient. The European Semester, the Commission’s framework for coordination of economic policies, is mentioned as a tool to monitor the progress of Member States, however, given its current timeline changes it remains to be seen how stakeholders can participate in the process and how exactly the process will be reformed to focus on the new education targets.

Even if the resources for implementation are problematic, SOLIDAR Foundation acknowledges the value of the proposals put forward in this Communication. The fostering of transversal skills through the Erasmus+ programme is essential, while the commitment to scale up the implementation of the Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching is necessary. SOLIDAR Foundation will follow with interest the elaboration and implementation of the Pathways to School Success initiative, which is set to build up basic skills and provide policy guidance for reducing low-achievement and for increasing secondary education attainment, while preventing early school leaving.

SOLIDAR Foundation is looking forward to joining education stakeholders in the process leading to the 2021 Council Recommendation on education for environmental sustainability and to the European Competence Framework to help develop and assess knowledge, skills and attitudes on climate change and sustainable development. Though encouraged by these initiatives, there is an uncertainty over why the whole-school approach does not feature in relation to these initiatives, as it also begs the question over the role the European Commission foresees for the CSOs. SOLIDAR Foundation calls for a commitment to ensure the participation of CSOs in the Education for Climate Coalition, which is to be launched by the Commission by the end of 2020 to mobilise expertise, provide resources for networking and support creative approaches with teachers, pupils and students. SOLIDAR Foundation’s GCE Policy Paper has stressed the importance of having CSOs’ experience and knowledge considered during any endeavor related to GCE. The work of CSOs will serve as a significant aid for targeted policy-making that can make education for climate effective while also supporting all learners, regardless of their socio-economic or ethnic background to build up the skills needed for a meaningful societal participation.

The Commission has recognized the pressures experienced by teachers during the pandemic, but also in general, given the reported shortages in the profession, the teachers’ feelings of being underappreciated and their constant feeling of a need to be better trained on using digital tools and on working with learners from culturally diverse backgrounds. However, the current communication on the EEA seems to only place more burden on teachers and trainers as the Erasmus Teacher Academies will become an addition over their regular workload, and would rely on teachers supporting each other.

A case of loose threads unravelling

The Commission has ensured that the current communication builds on its previous proposals in the education area and on the European Pillar of Social Rights, providing coherence to their vision by anchoring it in its previous efforts. However, SOLIDAR Foundation is concerned about the current conceptualization of the enabling framework. The successor to the ET2020 framework seems to be hollow and uncertain. It mentions the usage of tried and tested mutual learning arrangements of the ET 2020 without clarifying which exact processes will be kept, what other tools for thematics that have been acknowledged in this communication are needed, and does not come up with indicators to monitor achievement of the above goals. An EEA Steering Board, together with working methods, will be set in place only at the end of June 2021, running the risk to lack the proper structure to keep all the positive threads of the EEA proposal together, and to miss the possibility to have an impact on the Recovery phase. The indicators related to early childhood education participation, to attainment of basic skills and to enrollment in other levels of education have been extended until 2030 with very unambitious targets, that simply aim to achieve slightly more than what was not achieved by 2020.

SOLIDAR Foundation welcomes the European Commission’s recognition of the current issues in education, as well as its EEA goals, but calls on more clarifications on how this will be funded and on the enabling framework. There is a need for the Commission to take greater initiative in guiding Member States as the reliance on them given the current health crisis, given the increased pressures that teachers and trainers are experiencing across Europe and given the current MFF negotiations that run the risk of securing insufficient funding for education, is misplaced. Moreover, given the vast undertaking of creating the EEA and reforming education for all, it is surprising that the Commission did not insist on including all stakeholders, especially CSOs and non-formal education providers, in the efforts to achieve the EEA. SOLIDAR Foundation pleads with the Commission to use the expertise on the ground in all member states instead of burdening teachers further or instead of placing everything in the responsibility of national governments. 

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