Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Puppet on a string?


The European Union wields more power over British education policy than school and college leaders may realise. Ian Bauckham analyses education targets set by the EU and how they affect decisions in the UK.

In the political wrangling over the influence - or interference - of the European Union in British domestic policy, we don't often hear education mentioned as a particular bone of contention. There tends to be an assumption that education is a matter left to member states. It certainly was not considered in the founding Treaty of Rome in 1957 as an area for cross-European activity or policy. Dig a little under the surface now though, and a different story begins to emerge.

Although the implementation of education policy is left to individual states, the emphasis and direction of that policy is very much shaped and influenced by treaty-level and heads of government agreements within the EU. At a March meeting of the European School Heads Association (ESHA), to which ASCL is affiliated, this was a hot topic for debate.

Five targets

At the European Council summit in Lisbon in March 2000, with Tony Blair very much in the driving seat, Europe's then-leaders agreed five benchmarks which all member states would move towards with a target date of achieving them by 2010.

In doing so they had in mind issues such as the unstoppable economic rise of China and the Pacific Rim economies, and social unrest in economically and socially deprived cities across Europe.

The five benchmarks were:

  • reduce numbers of early school leavers

  • increase upper secondary school completion

  • reduce low achievers in reading at age 15

  • increase the number of maths, science and technology graduates

  • increase lifelong participation in education

The agreement of these educational objectives is considered a turning point in European social development. In addition there were priority areas outside the formal strategy itself, including improving language learning and increasing participation in early years education.

It's not hard to see how these obligations have influenced UK government priorities over the past decade. Although we would rarely hear a government minister talking about the European backdrop to domestic education policy, any government will want to be seen to be in the lead within Europe and would be wary of allowing the UK to slip too far down the Euro-rankings in these key areas.

So, 10 years on, how has Europe done? The only objective actually hit or exceeded convincingly has been the proportion of maths, science and technology graduates, which across Europe has risen in the decade by more than 30 per cent. By contrast, the number of low achievers in reading has actually increased since 2000 and in the other three benchmark areas progress has been generally flat and still well short of targets.

TargetUK position in 2007EU Target for 2020
Early leavers from education and training 14.8% Less than 10%
Early childhood education (age 4 start) 90% At least 95%
Early childhood education (age 4 start) 90% At least 95%
Low achievers in basic skills in reading, maths and science 25% Less than 15%
Tertiary level attainment in 30-34 year olds 29.9% At least 40%
Adult participation in lifelong learning 9.7% At least 15%

EU sanctions

So what next? Undaunted by the limited success of its first strategic foray into education, the EU has now agreed a new set of objectives for the decade 2010 to 2020. It's worth looking at these in some detail, as they will certainly inform policy formation in each of the member states, including the UK.

So far there have been no sanctions for member states which failed to meet targets. Now Brussels thinks that sanctions may be necessary, and this is likely to take the form of exclusion from additional funding for initiatives for member states which cannot demonstrate convincing progress in the EU benchmark areas. The 2020 targets are outlined in the chart above.

There should be no surprise if the next phase of UK education policy, from whichever political party, reflects these priorities quite closely.

Euro-policy on education does not stop at these five binding targets. Having been slow to get off the ground before 2000, there is now a series of initiatives which will impact on all of us in due course. Some of these are heads of government agreements, some actually spring directly from binding treaty agreements.

Search the internet for Lisbon Treaty, now ratified of course by the UK, and go to Articles 165 and 166. The first is on the promotion of Europe-wide communication and cooperation on education at student level, including the promotion of the learning of European languages.

The second is about the promotion of a vocational training strategy in Europe to supplement what member states are doing. These areas will continue to attract significant funding for projects and initiatives from Brussels.

Further priorities have been identified and linked to forthcoming EU presidential periods in a thematic way to raise their profile. Spain, which currently holds the presidency, has social inclusion and 'key competencies'; Belgium, in autumn 2010, gets a project called 'schools for the 21st century' focusing on personalised learning, assessment and learning to learn; and in spring 2011 Hungary is asked to focus on early childhood education, active citizenship and leadership for teachers.

Monitoring progress in this plethora of initiatives and towards the five central benchmarks is a daunting task across the whole EU and all its 27 member states. There is strong interest in the models used in England - the country which in the eyes of many in Brussels has the most robust and developed systems for measuring national educational performance. In many states these systems are either absent or in embryonic form.

Other governments will be under pressure to ensure that they too are able accurately to evaluate and report progress in their own countries.

Incremental progress

Understanding why our own government does what it does is sometimes hard for those of us in schools and colleges who have to implement what seems like a barrage of 'good ideas' from Whitehall. Perhaps we are sometimes less aware of the background to the latest initiative and the targets our own government works to in the context of the wider EU.

Would promised Conservative education reforms giving successful schools more autonomy mean that monitoring progress towards these targets will go down the priority list? Unlikely - more freedoms for schools is unlikely to mean government taking its eye off incremental progress towards European goals, and the pressure will still be on for schools and colleges not playing their part.

Perhaps it helps to have someone else to blame - especially if it's Brussels - next time Ofsted come knocking at the door!

Ian Bauckham is head of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells and chair of ASCL's International Committee.

© 2021 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT