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The ‘Europeanization’ of schooling: what is a European education?

In an ambitious future, education as a common good means an education enjoyed by the whole community, built by citizens culturally capable of influencing, acting and imagining alternatives.

March 17, 2017 Students and teachers protest in Palermo, Italy. A nationwide strike called by unions against implementation of the Law 107, better known as the “good school” law. Antonio Melita/ Press Association. All rights reserved. Whether we are specialist or not, we all know more or less where the education system of our countries stands. We are all aware that our school systems are coordinated, monitored and assessed according to some vague “European” standards or criteria.

In general we don’t object to that: we consider the Europeanization of our education systems as a guarantee of quality, of good functioning and also as a sign of that international cooperation, of European integration, which we increasingly need to fend off provincialism and nationalism.

Everything fine, then? No, not exactly. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than they appear. Let us see why.

The Europeanisation of education systems is a recent development. Theoretically, education should be the responsibility of member states: education in European countries has always been a national affair, functional to the consolidation of the identity and culture of a community. Each educational system has had its own history, linked to the evolution of its policy, geography, traditions, language and society. 

As it happens, however, although education formally remains a national competence, since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, a new 'orthodoxy', based on the comparison of education systems, has been gradually introduced into the educational policies of the whole continent.

This new orthodoxy brings two problems. 

First of all, it has been imposed as a matter of fact rather than a concerted policy.  Some refer to "government without government" to characterize the process which, from the Lisbon Strategy of 2000 to the Rethinking Education Communication of 2012, up to the current ET2020 strategy, has always moved along the same line: education must be "reshaped" in terms of skills that generate employment (employability), productivity and competitiveness.

Secondly, it is evident that the new orthodoxy has been guided by extremely clear and powerful ideological assumptions. Education policies are often formulated on the urging and with the significant contribution of such international organization as the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) – which isn’t European only – the Council of Europe, and the EU. These organizations pursue education policies in accordance with their goals, which are for the most part in support of market economies and the principle of competition between societies and in all aspects of society.

This is true in particular for the OECD (which has the highest media profile, as it is the organisation that issues the PISA reports) and for the European Commission, albeit in a more ancillary role compared to the OECD. As for the Council of Europe, its remit is the promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, but its power in implementation is not comparable to that of the EU or of “the markets”.

To sum up, today we can speak of a real European education space, built by different social actors: political decision-makers, technocrats, lobbies, academics, private agencies, associations. This international area of development and decision-making in the field of education and scientific research has to be placed in an even broader framework, as we have recently been reminded by the OECD report "Strategy for skills": this place of decision is characterized by an inevitable reference to neo-liberal ideology.

Neo-liberal education and ‘gigantic laboratories’

In this perspective, education does not have as its objective the development of human beings and citizens of a community (whether national, European, global or intercultural) with an objective of emancipation, nor the autonomy of teaching from any other economic and political power as established in our Constitutions. In this perspective, education serves to improve human capital at the service of the economy and to make it internationally competitive. At best, in this perspective, education is functional to finding one’s place in existing structures thus avoiding discrepancies and inefficiencies.

As Rossella Latempa has shown, this ideological position underlying educational policies is imposed by the Ministries on schools through two powerful means: an economic blackmail and the spread of storytelling celebrating “pedagogical innovations”, often contemptuous of traditional approaches.

Let's take the Italian example: the granting of European funding, which is supposed to be an entitlement and is in fact indispensable, has been subordinated since 2014 to the implementation in school of a series of extracurricular activities, the so-called PON projects. These PON projects are aimed at a limited number of students and they are to be carried out necessarily through what the Ministry calls "innovative approaches". These innovative approaches are defined as "experiential dimensions [characterized by a] recomposition between the language of the school and that of socio-economic reality". Teachers and trainers – it is clarified in the various actions – must structure "learning situations" aiming to solve concrete problems and "working methods useful for life and professional development". In other words, an innovative approach is defined as an approach that orients education towards professional learning.

In this perspective, the dominant discourse in school is dotted with words inherited in an approximate and uncritical way from the pedagogical sciences.  Methodological and didactic choices which are often functional to the dominant model and logic are often passed off as stable scientific acquisitions: metacognition, project based-learning, cooperative learning, learning by doing, flipped classroom, formal and informal learning, digital storytelling, brain-storming, outdoor training, enterprise theatre, e-learning". In this perspective, highly ideology-driven concepts are presented as inescapable educational discourses in an overused narrative about the need for innovation for the "salvation" of our schooling.

To aggravate the manipulation of the dominant discourse, there is, at least in Italy, the self-celebratory, redundant and arrogant rhetoric of the Ministry.

In an independent evaluation report (2007-2013), which the Italian Ministry of Education entrusted to the private consultancy firm Deloitte Consulting srl, it is written, with the typical pomposity of those proud to have contributed to a turning point for the country, that the PON projects have paved the way for what "aims to be a substantial change in collective behaviour which we consider restrictive and harmful to a modern education system" and that they (the PON projects) "transformed the South into a gigantic territorial laboratory" where "innovation has been made".

Although the programme's contribution to the development of human capital in schools is still in the making, the report stresses the "driving force for change" and the need to sediment results, to give "a coherent direction [...] and govern it". With little prudence, in this document, they speak of "Schumpeterian creative destruction", of "revolution of the scientific paradigm à la Khun" (!):  in short, we are assisting in the profound deconstruction of ‘the School’ in terms of formation and organization. In clear terms, they recommend "less emphasis on discipline-specific content training" and new care in the construction of the right "cognitive maps" of the actors involved in the renewal process: that is, teachers.

The document defines them as "old-school professionals" still convinced "that not only educational certificates are useful, but are of value" who find themselves facing "a change in the same brain synapses that govern their routine behaviour", to meet the training needs of "digital natives".

The combination of financial blackmail and contemptuous rhetoric humiliates the institutional sovereignty of the school and humiliates the professional sovereignty of teachers. The perception that this dominant discourse comes from the European institutions creates, as we are used to seeing in every area, suspicion, irritation and annoyance with the restrictions imposed by the Eurocrats. 

Quite interestingly, Rossella Latempa shows  that the irritation and annoyance due to the restrictions imposed by the "Eurocrats" lead the professionals of Education to claim their sovereignty by referring to a (re)nationalisation of their institutions. 

Multidimensional education and national sovereignty

It is now clear, though, that institutional sovereignty and national sovereignty are two separate things that do not coincide. If education cannot be separated from the former, the latter no longer makes sense today. 

Indeed, as Rossella Latempa points out, a new and more ambitious European identity could be released precisely by reformulating the ideas of education, research and development in the sense of an  ideal and subversive cultural potential.

Let us think for a moment about what European citizen we might want schools to help create. Thinking about what kind of education we want means thinking about what kind of European citizen we want in our future: a transnational citizen, not just an individual who lives in constant mobility. We want a European citizen who is not required to develop one work project after another, to continuously renew her or his skills in a process of continuous choices and decisions. We want a person, with her own wishes and fears: not just a problem solver, flexible and ready to represent Europe in the World Championship of progress and innovation.

If, as in the utopia that the DiEM25 movement is outlining, the Europe to be formed is to be a federal Europe, but also a Europe of states, regions and cities, a multidimensional and networked Europe, in which the memberships and identities of each one are necessarily multiple, why not imagine a multidimensional education, in which certain issues and methods remain European: those which serve to strengthen the awareness of a European citizenship; others focused nationally, others regionally and so on?

In this perspective, with respect for the various sovereignties – and first of all with respect for the freedom of teaching, which should be built into any plan, we repeat, starting with our Constitutions – we could redesign a school where the concept of innovation is not crushed by that of profit.

Education as a common good

Let us now stop and think about what model we want for education. Education, we believe, should be conceived as a European common good: a "collective enterprise"; a form of "citizenship", a space for action and definition of political objectives that do not renounce the cultural, social and civic dimensions of education. 

Thinking of education as a common good does not mean to imagine – as some ministerial and European documents seem to suggest - a "civic-centred" school, possibly open all year round, for projects meant to make up for structural and political shortcomings.

On the contrary, it means thinking of education as a good that the whole of society must be ready to feed and protect: in this way schools would play their part (and only their part) at the centre of a complex civic fabric, composed of libraries, cultural and sports centres, places dedicated to continuous education, or entirely dedicated to education and culture.

But thinking of education as a common good also means imagining that this good can be enjoyed by the whole community in a future designed with a long and ambitious gaze. We think that this design can be built by citizens who are culturally capable of influencing, acting and imagining alternatives.

That is why we propose that DiEM25 members and to anyone who cares about these issues discuss the school we want for Europe, in a perspective that is already transnational. Operationally, this means that we propose to create a transnational thematic DiEM spontaneous collective (DSC), in which at least the following issues are addressed: 

1. An assessment of the current situation

  • -  Which reforms of the Educational system have been introduced into your country in recent years?
  • -  To what extent has the introduction of these measures been agreed with stakeholders, students, teachers, families?
  • -  To what extent is your country's education system capable of removing the economic, social and personal obstacles to the full intellectual and cultural development of students?
  • - Has any form of “education to work” (i.e. something more general than “practical training” in technical education) been introduced lately?
  • - Do you think education has become more performance-driven and focused on competition by results?
  • - Have you noticed a change in public perception of the role of teachers? More specifically, do you share the impression that teachers are increasingly being given the role of instructors and transmitters of knowledge rather than educators? 
  • - Do you think spaces for critical thought and practices are opening or closing in the education system of your country?
  • - To what extent do industries “own” education?

2. Proposals for an education model as a common good

2a. What role for schools in the overall education system

  • -  Should schools be the only place where knowledge is formed and passed on?
  • -  If not, which other instances should be involved in the education system?
  • -  What should the specific character of the school system be?
  • -  Who should be responsible for adult education?

2b What interaction between school and pedagogical research

  • -  How can the interaction between school and pedagogical research be harmonised? Is the school system a test bench? A field of experimentation? A place of elaboration? A forum for discussion of educational proposals?
  • -  Which instruments would allow a more harmonious transition?

2c School and innovation

  • -  How can schools cope with the disruptive force of the technological revolution? What reflection is needed? How can this reflection be agreed on? How soon? With which instances? To do what?

3. Proposals for school governance

3a What is the role of different traditions in the creation of educational policies?

  • -  Do you think it is right to integrate and coordinate the different European education systems?
  • -  How can the European perspective be integrated with more local perspectives?
  • -  Do you think that one of the tasks of education is to develop European citizenship? And if so, how?

More in general,

  • -  What should be the timeframe for the implementation, verification and discussion of any school renovation?
  • -  How to avoid a key element of our society becoming a fertile ground for the launch of empty propaganda messages in the eternal election campaign we live in?

Anyone who wants to answer these questions, or propose others, anyone who wants to contribute to creating a transnational sphere of public discussion on education, can contact us at this address:  info@fr.diem25.org

Let’s keep in touch. Let’s keep this ball rolling. Let’s stick together. We need this.

About the authors

Paola Pietrandrea is a lecturer in the language sciences, general linguistics and phonetics at the Université François Rabelais de Tours, in France. She is currently member of the Coordinating Collective of DiEM25.

Francesca Lacaita is a secondary school teacher based in Milan. She obtained her PhD in English Studies at the University of Genoa. She has been involved in pro-European movements for several years and is currently a member of DiEM25.

Rossella Latempa is an Italian high school teacher in Mathematics and Physics. She obtained a PhD in Physics at University of Salerno and worked as a researcher in Naples, Paris and Milan. She is interested in the evolution of Italian and European Education policy.

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