How the EU could improve our education system

On 23rd June, Britain will go to the polls to decide whether to remain in or leave the European Union.  If you live in the UK, make sure you get out and vote. And vote to remain — there are many reasons to stay in the EU, and in our opinion they far outweigh the reasons to leave (we’ll have an article up listing some compelling reasons to stay before the referendum arrives).  In the meantime, though, we thought we’d take a look at ways in which the EU not only benefits us now, but could benefit us in the future.

The benefits we’re looking at are all to do with the idea of a ‘Social Europe’.  Social Europe is a new group of European policy based around people — their health, wellbeing and potential.  So far you could say we’ve witnessed an Economic Europe (policy centred around economic concerns) and an Environmental Europe (policy concerned with, you guessed it, the environment).  Social Europe is a relatively overlooked aspect of EU policy, and one that could improve everyone’s lives if properly nurtured.

This time around, let’s look at how a Social Europe could improve the quality of Britain’s education system. Not, you understand, the thing we normally think of as our education system — how adequate Britain’s primary schools, secondary schools, sixth form colleges and universities is for another website to explore.  What we’re concerned with is the education system for people who we rarely think of as needing education — early years and adults.

Early years education — education for children in the years before they start primary school — has been shown to be hugely important.  The OECD runs a programme known as PISA, which allocates a score depending on how well a student does in a series of tests.  In the UK, students who had no early years education on average got a PISA score of around 440; those with 1 year of education before starting primary school achieved a score of around 480; and those children with more than 1 year of early years education reached a score of almost 510.  This shows there is a correlation between teaching a child early on and their academic achievement later in life.

However, in the UK (as in other EU countries) early years education is mainly the preserve of children with relatively wealthy parents — there’s certainly room for the government to do more to open up early years education, so that it is available to everyone.


At the other end of the spectrum, we have the education of working-age adults.  This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the education system, and that’s probably to be expected — after all, why should someone who qualifies to work need to go back into education?  The answer to that question, friend, is skills mismatch. In the UK, the unemployment rate sits at around 5%.  Yet, at the same time, the government has a list of jobs that have a drastic shortages of workers — they include engineers, secondary school teachers and nurses.  Surely, we hear you cry, the 5% of people out of work can do the jobs in these areas?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that — the reason (you guessed it) is skills mismatch. In the UK there are lots of job shortages and quite a lot of unemployment, but the unemployed people don’t have the right skills to do the jobs that we need filled. That’s because there isn’t a handy system for unemployed people to get the skills needed for them to move into another area — unless they spend a lot of money on a degree, diploma or other qualification, they’re pretty much stranded with the skills they have, and the limited amount of opportunities that offers.  The answer to this conundrum could be a system of lifelong learning, in which people can easily slip between education and work, in order to ensure their skills are up to date with what is required at that time.

And remember, such a system would not just help the 5% of people who are out of work, or indeed the many more people in dire need of a teacher or a nurse.  If those 5% of people were in work, then they would also be creating economic growth for the country, which means greater prosperity for all — everyone in Britain gains from investment in education.  It’s like a well-oiled machine…

So — more early years education, and lifelong learning. Sounds good.  But, we hear you ask, where does the EU come into this?

Well, in terms of improving education, the EU’s main role could be holding member countries’ feet to the fire.  Of the EU’s 28 member states, a lot of them have quite poor records in providing early years education or lifelong learning opportunities.  They mainly come in three groups: relatively recent arrivals to the EU, such as many Eastern European countries; countries that have been through turbulent economic times recently, like Spain and Greece; and… erm… the UK. While other EU countries are quite far ahead in their education programmes, these countries languish behind. The EU could be a way to level the playing field, so that an unemployed Brit or their children have the same opportunities as their German counterparts.

Now, the EU has already made some steps towards pushing its member states to provide better education systems. The Lisbon Treaty (which came into effect in 2009) set out a Social Investment Package, which suggested a series of reforms EU members should take in order to improve people’s education. However, these weren’t compulsory — member states were given the opportunity to introduce such programmes, but they didn’t have to.  As a result, many of them just ignored the Package and chose not to. So, we suggest the EU act with strength on this, and come to a legally-binding agreement — through diplomacy with the EU member states and the European Parliament — which ensures every state introduces some form of early years education and lifelong learning programmes. It would benefit the EU economy and the economy of each member state.

Now, we know what you’re thinking — the UK referendum is a clear sign that the EU is a tricky issue at the moment, and a great big legally-binding treaty isn’t going to dispel fears that the EU is some sort of power-hungry monster.  However, politicians need to communicate the fact that that’s not the case — we all need to get used to the idea that policy-making takes place at different levels of government, whether that’s local, regional, national or supranational.  In addition, if it takes a great big legally-binding treaty to get the UK started on providing an education system which creates a fully-working market economy, then so be it.  It could also have the happy side effect of dispelling myths about immigration — after all, you can’t say that immigrants are taking British jobs if British people have the skills they need to do the British jobs in the first place.

Finally, a maintenance of an adequate level of education should be a defining priority of the EU — the EU is about promoting freedom, real freedom, and there can be no greater opportunity to grasp real freedom than a good education.  If the EU is serious about levelling the playing field and reducing inequalities between different European states, then this would be a good start.

The EU should show some strength on education policy and investment.  On 23rd June, the British people will (hopefully) show they sees their future in the EU. It’s time the EU showed it sees its future in its people.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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