Socrates, a direct result of the Treaty of Maastricht, opens up all of education, from nursery schools to universities, to funding and development from the EU.
The motivation for the extension of the EU's influence into schools came from a 1988 decision by the Council of Ministers to introduce the European dimension into schools to strengthen students' sense of European identity and to prepare them to take part in the economic and social development of the Union.
The Council of Ministers was convinced that improving education was the key to improving member nations' economic competitiveness. Therefore Socrates and Leonardo share the same objectives, to promote quality education and training through exchanges of information and experience, and to stimulate innovation in the curriculum, methodology, and educational technology. There will be a special emphasis on new methods of transmitting and acquiring knowledge, such as multi-media techniques and open and distance learning. In all such projects a "European" dimension must be clear. In addition, the principal of subsidiarity operates, ensuring that the system of education and curriculum content remain in the hands of each member state. The EU provides the added European value.
The specific actions that will be supported in school-level education are contained in Chapters 2 and 3 of Socrates. Chapter 2, now called Comenius, encourages the development of multi-lateral school partnerships, ie three or more schools in three or more countries working together on themes of mutual European interest, with one of the schools acting as the co-ordinator.
A multi-lateral exchange pilot project involving 150 schools has given the Task Force for Education (the body responsible for implementing the programmes) some cause for optimism about their future. Bi-lateral partnerships are still eligible for support if they are specifically for language learning.
Projects will be expected to promote knowledge about the languages of the Community, its cultural heritage, protection of the environment, and artistic, scientific and technological education.
It is assumed that most of the projects chosen will involve joint development and distribution of teaching materials and innovatory teaching methods. There is scope, too, for supporting "the mobility of schoolchildren" particularly those participating in language exchanges. This has been treated with some scepticism by Euro-watchers, since the money available is only sufficient to help a tiny fraction of the current 70 million pupils (with more to come when Austria, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden join the EU).
Another "action" in Chapter 2 expands existing programmes for the benefit of the children of immigrants and occupational travellers. This is an increasingly important area for all European countries.
A third action creates opportunities for co-operation between teacher training institutions and schools, and for the improvement of teacher training. Proposals must contain a "European" dimension and once again the accent will be on multi-lateral groupings. For the first time, grants will be available to aid teachers to benefit from in-service training in other EU countries.
Chapter 2 of Socrates covers "horizontal measures" which supplement the preceding provisions. The development of language skills, open and distance learning, and promotion of exchange of information are the areas chosen for assistance. The European Commission hopes that a range of complementary measures drawing all levels of educational managers together will be proposed.
The original budget for Socrates between 1995-9 was set at more than 1 billion Ecu (Pounds 800 million). The Council has now reduced this to 760 million Ecu. More in-fighting will take place over the relative percentages to go to each programme, but even after 50 per cent has been taken to fund the mobility of university students in the Erasmus programme (now Chapter 1 of Socrates), substantial amounts will be available for schools and teachers.
Individual schools will make bids through a "national authority" which as yet the UK does not have. The Central Bureau, with all its experience, is a prime candidate but has to await a government decision. Meanwhile, those British schools with good ideas and ambition should be making their foreign contacts, ready for the January start.
Chris Lowe is president of the European Secondary Heads' Association.