Early School Leaving

Labour Party

My report on the problem of Early School Leaving (ESL) has been voted on by the European Parliament.  I’m happy to report that it was passed almost unanimously with 543 MEPs voting in support of it. Of course the 23 Tories present, including London MEPs Marina Yannakoudakis, Syed Kamall and Charles Tannock, voted against it.

I hope now that the report will help reach the EU 2020’s very ambitious target of reducing early school leaving by 10% by 2020. 

This report follows on from my work on Early Years Learning in the EU, where I highlighted the importance of Member States providing high-quality early years services for children aged 0-6.  It also follows the publication (in January 2011) of the Commission’s Communication on Tackling Early School Leaving.

Writing this report has taught me that ESL is a complex phenomenon and one of the hugest challenges facing Europe at present. Although rates vary across EU Member States, as well as between towns and regions, the European average in 2009 was 14.4%.

In my report I define early school leavers as individuals between the age of 18 and 24 who have left education and training with only lower secondary education or less.  Though for some not having this level of qualification may not be such a hindrance, but the fact is over 50% of people in this category are unemployed. 

My report also looked at the causes ESL, which are typically a process of disengagement, as a result of personal, social, economic, geographical, education or family-related reasons.  A significant part of the problem can also be attributed to lack of support or guidance, disengagement, and courses and modules that are too rigid.

The consequences are far reaching as well, contributing to social exclusion in later life and driving economic and social instability, with higher rates of antisocial behaviour, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse.

But there are solutions to this problem and in the report I recommend that a personalised and inclusive approach be adopted, with counselling service in schools, better career guidance for students and mentoring schemes.  I also believe that Member States should introduce a system of means-tested financial support for those who need it, like the educational maintenence allowance in the UK, which the Tories unthinkingly destroyed.  There are numerous studies that show that such support means that young people who would otherwise have to leave school at 16 to support their families or, more importantly, themselves can afford to continue their secondary education.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the provision of ‘Second-chance’ schools.  These should be able to reintegrate school leavers back into the education system without stigmatisation and with proper support.  The report even recommends that if someone is working, their employer should provide them with reasonable, but limited amount of time off to get their secondary qualifications.

The fact is that there are fewer and fewer jobs that do not require some level of qualification.  This is a problem that could lead to even higher levels of unemployment in the future if it is not addressed now.  What’s more, young people who have been let down by the education system will find themselves increasingly excluded and impoverished.

This report will now be sent to the Commission and the Council and I hope that it will inform a larger part of the discussion around these issues.

Cameron supports changes to the Lisbon Treaty, but where is the promised referendum?

Labour Party

It seems David Cameron is prepared to renege on his election promise to put all changes to EU treaties to a referendum in the UK.

In a speech to the House of Commons following his first meeting of the European Council,  made up of the prime ministers and presidents of the 27 EU Member States, Mr Cameron was full of bravado about not letting any agreement ‘alter member state competences’ .  However, despite quoting Margaret Thatcher,  in reality Cameron is supporting Germany’s desire to make changes to the Lisbon Treaty in the wake of the financial crisis and the problems caused by the situation in Greece.  If these treaty changes are to go forward, where, Mr Cameron, is your treasured referendum? 

David Cameron also supported the EU 2020 Strategy and Millennium Development Goals in his speech to MPs.  I found this a little strange since, as Harriet Harman rightly pointed out in her response, Conservative MEPs have either abstained or voted against these measures in the European Parliament.  Cameron didn’t even have a response, deciding instead, rather pathetically, to say that he would be keeping an eye on the Labour and Lib Dem MEPs.  I wonder what the Tories’ coalition partners made of this.

Following George Osborne’s deeply damaging budget, David Cameron’s antics in Europe add depth and context to the picture of the Coalition Government which is beginning to emerge, an image of a Conservative Party that really does not know what it is doing over some of the most important issues currently facing us.

Part of me almost feels sorry for David Cameron.  He must have been a lonely figure in Brussels last week.  Seeing the leaders of centre right parties from across Europe meeting before the European Council summit in order to discuss strategy, whilst he was left to ‘strategise’ with one far right Polish MEP.  That is price you pay for isolating yourself from the biggest political grouping in European politics (the European Peoples’ Party) and allying yourself with the far-right, eurosceptic fringe.  Sarkozy and Merkel gave an impressive press conference afterwards, detailing the decsions reached in the summit.  Not too long ago, the British Prime Minister would have been standing right beside them.  Not now.

There was a telling moment in the debate in the House of Commons where one of Cameron’s own MPs (William Cash) asked a question regarding the “30 European directives in the pipeline which will deeply affect our financial regulation and economic governance” and questioned how we might regain and retain control over economic issues.  David Cameron could only rather weakly respond that the European Parliament had made things ‘a lot more burdensome’ and that it was ‘not a satisfactory situation’.  Now I happen to think that these financial regulations are necessary, but perhaps Cameron’s political position would be a good deal more ‘satisfactory’ if they could actually engage and influence European politics.  Cameron needs to realise that euroscepticism may win him the support of the back benches, but in Europe he’ll be left standing on the sidelines with the nutters, looking lonely and confused.

David Willetts’s Claim that University Fees are a Form of Income Tax will exacerbate the Economic Downturn

Labour Party

I am completely with those who know, the lecturers and, dare I say the students, that university charges of up to £7,000 would create a two-tier system where only the rich are able to go to university.  This would be far worse than when I was an undergraduate when grants created a relatively level playing field, even if it was for only 10 percent of the eligible population.  The Tory proposals (they are Tory rather than Coalition) will mean a return to those mercifully far off times when the rich held all the cards and no-one else got much of a look in.

Forget what happens in the United States.  Our culture is different.  There is no reason as far as I can see to think that very high university fees would somehow or other lead to scholarships and other forms of higher education philanthropy.  There are no plans for such changes and they will not happen on their own.   

The EU is at present very concerned with issues to do with young people.  The new EU 20/20 programme puts education at its centre, and the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, will launch a new agenda for young people, Youth on the Move, very shortly.

Unless urgent measures are taken to make sure young people have jobs and that youth unemployment is kept down, we will see ever growing numbers of young people who are out of work.  The financial crisis makes it ever more important that we keep you people in jobs.  If we fail to do this, there will, I believe, be a return to the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher’s callous attitude put record numbers of young people on the dole, a personal and a national tragedy.

The EU 2020 uses the fact of the financial crisis as it’s jumping off point.   Its targets are all in some way related back to solving the problems that arise from the downturn or are looking for ways to make our way out it.

The unfortunate truth of this and any financial crisis is that the most vulnerable are usually the worst affected, and the younger generation are part of this group.  People just starting out in life at this time are going to have far more limited opportunities than they would have done even a few years ago.  Youth unemployment has risen dramatically. To further compound this problem, the global economic crisis has led to budget cuts in the education sector in member states across the EU.  This has led to academic staff lay-offs and the increased demands on teachers risk a sharp decline in the standard of teaching in these countries.

 The Commission EU 2020 Strategy and Annual Legislative Programme  sets out five main objectives, two of which are directly related to education and young people as follows: to enhance the performance of education systems, reinforce the attractiveness of Europe’s higher education system, open up more mobility and training programmes for young people, modernise labour markets, boost labour mobility, and develop skills and competences to increase labour market participation.

The Spanish education minister (Spain currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency) Angel Gabilondo has said that education is “at the heart” of the EU 2020 strategy.  These sentiments have been echoed by Androulla  Vassiliou, the Commissioner with responsibility for education.

 The Spring Council, in endorsing the EU 2020 strategy, stated key objectives requiring action at the EU level included: better conditions for research and development; improved education levels; a reduction in early school leavers; and increased participation of young people in the labour market.

In the European Parliament we in the Socialist and Democrat Group are committed to making sure that education is at the forefront of our policy agenda.  We will work to make sure that young people get the help and support they need in these difficult times.

 I find this focus on youth policy very encouraging.  Clearly young people are not seen as a problem, but an incredibly important part of the solution.  The financial crisis has had a disastrous effects but has also made the EU, and I hope, most member state governments, really think about how important education and youth policy is.  I believe we can emerge from this financial crisis with an education and youth policy that gives the younger generation more and better opportunities than they ever had before.  The consequences in increased welfare spending and broken communities will indeed be serious if we do not.

The Hearing of Androulla Vassiliou

Labour Party

I’ve just come from the Culture and Education Committee’s hearing for Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner-Designate for Culture, Education, Multiligualism, and Youth.  Mrs Vassiliou is the Commissoner-Designate from Cyprus and held the public health commission portfolio in the last Parliament.

As Co-ordinator for the Socialists and Democrats, I asked the second question, which was:

“Do you agree that the new EU 2020 strategy must include a strong social dimension and thereby contribute towards the fight against inequalities, social exclusion and poverty?

My Group, the S & D Group, calls for the Commission to put the interests of citizens at the heart of its 2020 strategy, particularly in this time of economic hardship, by opening up opportunities for a decent job through better quality education and professional training, which in turn promotes integration and social inclusion. Do you agree?”

She did agree, and her answer demonstrated an understanding of what we can do to improve people’s lives through better educational opportunities.  Ms. Vassiliou did not perhaps provide a huge amount of detail in how she was planning to do this, but I was encouraged by what she said.  Throughout her hearing she was enthusiastic and obviously very committed to her prospective job.

Ms. Vassiliou made a number of other interesting points, I was especially interested by her desire to encourage more women in to scientific research and more men in to teaching.  She had statistics that showed that a disproportionate number of women were teachers and men scientists.  Ms. Vassiliou stated that this was an issue which she would like to address.

Commissioner-Designate Vassiliou also answered questions on higher education and vocational training, lifelong learning, youth policy, multilingualism and sport, among others.  She answered well on all the topics, with the possible exception of sport.  Her nomination as Commissioner has been endorsed by the S & D Group and also by the Culture Committee Co-ordinators from all the political groups. 

I hope that Ms. Vassiliou will live up to the promises she made in the Hearing.  If she can then she will be a strong Commissioner, who I shall look forward to working with.