EPN REPORT: Inclusive education. Fighting inequalities in education and training

Report of the round table discussion about Lifelong Learning organised by EUCI-LLL on December 10th:
“Inclusive education. Fighting inequalities in education and training”

On December 10th, EPN participated to the round table discussion organised by the European Civil Society Platform on Lifelong Learning (EUCIS-LLL) at the University Foundation in Brussels. The event hosted guests and speakers from the EU institutions as well as from different civil society organisations.

 Daniele Dimitri, EUCIS-LLL vice-president and moderator of the discussion, introduced the guests and the topic addressed by the panellists. He briefly talked about the importance of the accessibility of education and of social inclusion. He stressed on the fact that education is a fundamental tool to empower people and to fight against discrimination.

After Dimitri’s introduction, Julie Ward, a newly elected British MEP from the S&D political party, took the floor and presented more broadly the topic of the debate. She expressed her insights and her point of view about the notion of inclusive education. According to her, this concept should imply that people of all ages should have the opportunity to participate in a whole range of activities. Within this context, any failure by civil society organisations and by political authorities would lead to the isolation of some categories of people and to tragic situations, such as violence issues and suicides. According to Ward, these are the outputs of a lack of access to education and to a wide range of opportunities. Concluding her speech, Ward made an important remark saying that civil society should act both through big providers as well as through grassroots organisations if it wants to fully achieve the goal of inclusive education.

Following Ward’s views on the issue, Paul Downes, director of the Education Disadvantage Centre, presented a study he conducted about the access to education in Europe. He investigated education ministries and universities in Europe conducting interviews in twelve different EU countries. The results of his study showed that there are some blockages preventing the implementation of reforms within the education system: as a matter of fact, very often there is no commitment starting at the national level, nor there are set criteria for inclusion. This lack of interest from the side of European countries is reflected within the framework of EU institutions, where apparently the topic of access to education has been excluded from the Commission’s priorities. This being said, Downes shared his doubts with the audience about the question of the eventual need of a Council recommendation in order to tackle this delicate issue. As Ward stressed during her speech, also Downes insisted on the importance of developing community-based lifelong learning centres.

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After the insightful openings by Ward and Downes, the panellists took the floor. The event hosted: Thomas Huddleston, representing the Migration Policy Group, a Commission funded Network working on education issues concerning people with a migrant background; Gina Ebner, Secretary General of European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA); Brando Benifei, a young Italian MEP member of the S&D political party; Giuseppina Tucci, board member of the Organising Bureau of European School Students (OBESSU).

The four guests talked extensively about the issue of inclusive education from different angles and point of views, according to their personal and professional experience. During the discussion, several crucial points were highlighted. First of all, the issue of a factual lack of political will concerning inclusive education was emphasised. Since EU priorities have so far excluded important issues related to education, more efforts have to be done by civil society organisations if substantial change is to be realised. Additionally, also the problem of implementation was pointed out. Very often the strategies in the field of education seem to be written by ministries of social inclusion or of other nature, while instead they should be tackled by education authorities, teachers’ associations and organisations with an expertise on the matter. To solve the problem of implementation, more engagement with stakeholders is needed. Furthermore, some core issues were defined as fundamental in order to make further steps on the path of inclusiveness. To mention the most relevant ones: the promotion of mixed schools, the improvement of the quality and of the functioning of the vocational training system, and the solution of the issue of the mother tongue, which is still an obstacle for people with a migrant background. According to the panellists, it is also important to share the concepts of social inclusion and of active citizenship. Adult education should serve as a way to provide a wider range of self-confidence and to give a voice to people within the public sphere. This is why civil society organisations and political authorities should find ways to make learning attractive. Within this context, the “outreach approach” seems to be one of the keys to achieve inclusive education. It is a comprehensive approach which should be further exploited through the development of a whole range of activities allowing people to meet, discuss, and be listened to. This approach crosses different sectors and implies a dialogue within civil society. Some broader reflections were made also concerning the situation in which Europe finds itself at the moment, especially considering the very negative influence that the long term crisis had on our continent. Within this context, the EU2020 Strategy should serve as a framework to overcome the crisis while establishing a constructive dialogue between political authorities and civil society organisations. This dialogue should especially concern topic of utmost importance, such as the issue of inclusive education. Other relevant points were highlighted by the speakers, such as the issue of the costs of education, education snobbery and the challenges that experts of education have to face when it comes to minorities. Furthermore, the case of hidden costs of education was presented. Considering secondary and higher instruction, even though education is considered as free, there are instead some high costs that are often forgotten. For example, some schools or universities require very expensive material that is charged to the students. Moreover, the costs for the public transports have to be considered, as well as those for school trips. Very often all these costs play a decisive role in young people’s decision when it comes to choose a school or a university or a vocal training. This is one of the reasons why in a way education creates exclusion.

To summarise the most important points that were stressed during the discussion, some key-words can be highlighted: grassroots organisations, active citizenship, comprehensive approach, dialogue. A more intensive interaction between political authorities and stakeholders seems to be the key to the progressive solution of the problem of non-inclusive education.

After a short Q&A section, Daniele Dimitri closed the discussion leaving an open question: how to create synergy among different civil society organisations to fight for inclusion in education? We hope that the answer to this issue will be concretely provided by civil society organisations during the next years.

Author : Lucia Montanari

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