A year for learning to lose our fear of others

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Robert Evans hopes 1996 will not lie around unopened on desks. Next year has been designated by the European Commission as the Year of Lifelong Learning, with a budget of 8 million ecu (Pounds 6.5m), divided between the 15 member states.

The purpose of the year and its stated objectives include making the public aware of the importance of lifelong learning as a key factor in personal development, trying to foster better co-operation, at all levels, between education and training establishments and the business community, and introducing a European dimension to education.

This will link in with other EU initiatives which are just beginning to take shape, Socrates (teacher exchange and school links) Leonardo (vocational training) and Youth for Europe.

The Commission envisages, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that local communities, libraries and schools will become involved in such activities as a competition to design the logo for the year with an imaginative and catchy slogan, and that national and regional events will take the European message to a much wider circle of people than have been reached before.

Many of us have encountered other grandiose plans for involving thousands more people in new educational ideas and one can become a bit sceptical after a while. This initiative however, has very laudable aims and objectives which in theory, should serve not only to give education a higher perspective nationally and internationally, but also to raise the status of the European Union in the education field.

While this is not so important or significant in other memberat states where a European identity already exists, for the United Kingdom, even if it only partly succeeds, this could play an invaluable role in helping to remove the racist and xenophobic barriers that undoubtedly exist in British society.

Many, if not all these barriers are based on ignorance and lack of education. If people are not given the opportunity to learn and to understand about other countries and other cultures, some instinctively start to fear them and see them as a threat. Fear in turn, leads to rejection. This is what has happened with many British people as regards our membership of the European Union.

Where there is racism or anti-Europe feeling, in most cases it can be challenged by attempting to overcome the initial fears through awareness and education. Far fewer people, of any age, who have worked, studied or travelled abroad; or have met and got to know people of different nationalities or cultures have the fears and suspicions that others experience.

This is another of the many challenges facing education in the future. It is a challenge that can be tackled and approached with optimism and enthusiasm. If the European Union's "Year of Lifelong Learning" ends up solely as a publicity campaign on library walls or stays in unopened envelopes on headteachers' desks, it will serve no purpose. But if instead it goes even part-way to making lots of people, whatever their age, aware of the opportunities and advantages of education in a European context, then it should be money well spent. It will be up to all of us, in the next few months to ensure that the information is properly disseminated and that the latter outcome is the one that prevails.

Robert Evans is a member of the European Parliament for London North West and Labour's education spokesperson in the European Parliament. He was head of Crane Junior School in Hounslow, west London from 1990 to 1994.

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