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Ministers round on Cresson

Eurofile. The European Commission's White Paper on Education and learning: towards the knowledge-based society came under attack from all sides at last week's meeting of member states' education ministers in Brussels.

Proposals for "second-chance" schools and a system of quality certificates for schools based on the number of languages they teach were robustly rejected.

But it was the attempt by Edith Cresson, the EU commissioner for education, to interfere with national curricula that provoked the most hostile response.

For once the British, represented by education minister Eric Forth, found themselves surrounded by allies at the Council of Ministers. Again, unusually, it was the Finns who launched a vehement attack against Mme Cresson's scheme to set up a network of second-chance schools for the 10 to 15 per cent of teenagers who leave without even the most basic of skills.

Such special schools would stigmatise former pupils, they said. Putting a "second-chance" label on their heads would exacerbate the plight of those for whom the system had failed.

The problem of school "drop-outs" had to be tackled as those who left school without diplomas were far more likely to end up without work on a long-term basis than those with qualifications.

But the answer lay in dealing with problem pupils earlier on, within the mainstream education system, Mr Forth and his EU counterparts told Mme Cresson.

They were warmer towards the use of multi-media in schools, which they described as a "useful tool". Everyone agreed that schools should be encouraged to use software - as happens in Britain already.

"But we cannot accept the idea of picking winners in terms of choosing one software program over another. That is a choice for each school according to its own needs," said a Department for Education and Employment spokesman.

He was equally critical of Mme Cresson's proposal for quality labels for language teaching. "We cannot allow the European Commission to judge our standards. That is for each country to do," he said.

While multilingualism has been targeted as important for helping the young and unemployed to move around in search of work, it is clearly closer to the hearts of those in the Benelux countries than elsewhere. Proposals to start teaching foreign languages in the first year of primary school hit a major stumbling block last June. But, undeterred, Mme Cresson incorporated her goal of ensuring that nobody left school without being tri-lingual into her White Paper a few months later.

Again she was rebuffed. This time it was the Danes who told her that experience had taught them that a later start was more beneficial.

The extremes are found in countries like Luxembourg, where between the ages of five and seven, teaching is in the local dialect. At junior school lessons are in German, followed by French throughout secondary school.

In Belgian Flanders, pupils from French-speaking families undergo intensive language teaching in Flemish before they are allowed into mainstream lessons.

But while that might be appropriate in those countries, it would not work in Britain, said the DFEE spokesman.

"Concentrating on a child's mother tongue is far more essential," he said.

"If the next generation are to be employable, a solid base in the language of the country in which they live takes priority over branching out."

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