Europe may be the political hot potato in the forthcoming general election, however local government in the UK has been steadily building bridges to the Continent.
The Committee of the Regions, which in Britain consists of elected councillors, is establishing effective links with the Commission in Brussels. It is developing strategies to combat racism in schools and colleges, to increase the role of vocational education across Europe, and to help students learn more effectively through technology.
Local government education leaders are regularly in touch with MEPs, the Commission and its officials. The failure of the British Government to involve itself effectively in giving evidence on educational matters to the Commission has greatly damaged educational opportunities in this country. Under Margaret Thatcher, Kenneth Baker vetoed the Lingua programme for schools with the result that language teaching in UK schools has fallen behind the rest of Europe. Many other countries expect their students to be literate in three Community languages: we have difficulty in managing one.
In response to this, the European Commission has recognised the Council of Local Educational Authorities as the voice of all LEAs in England and Wales, and, with that special status, to give evidence both orally and in writing on European legislation before it is enacted. Local government intends to use this power to press the UK case on educational matters at the European Parliament.
Already, the Commission has asked CLEA to co-ordinate the bids for Britain for "second-chance" schools for post-16-year-olds. Each country is asked to develop the programme suitable to their own country, and CLEA submitted the bids on behalf of LEAs within a month. Previously, the Commission had to wait for up to three years before receiving replies from the British Government.
Comenius is a project which allows exchanges between schools in three European countries. Although it has proved to be very successful on the Continent, the UK Government prevented schools from taking full advantage of it; now, thanks to CLEA, this restriction has been ended. Grants for both the Socrates and Leonardo programmes have in this country mainly gone to grant-maintained schools or the private sector. The European Commission is keen to use the information provided by CLEA to see that this money now goes to schools in need.
Edith Cresson's paper on lifelong learning dealt with many proposals which local government is supporting. The British Government, though, has largely ignored this document, even though its proposals on training and vocational education could reduce unemployment.
A theme of 1997 is the fight against racism and fascism in Europe, and the European Parliament sees education as the key. Through CLEA, local government is planning a major initiative with the National Youth Agency and the National Adult and Continuing Education organisation. Yet many of the Parliament's proposals have been ignored by the UK Government.
It is always impressive to see so many countries working together at the European Parliament. The UK Government should enthusiastically play its part at the centre of Europe, for everyone's benefit.
Graham Lane is education chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities