Second chance for equality

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Reva Klein has written that the European Union is "ignorant of the state of its children" ("A denial of rights amid affluence", TES, July 19).

She is correct in that there is no mention of children in the European Union treaties, but young people and students are mentioned in articles 126 and 127 of the Treaty of Rome as amended at Maastricht. It is only since Maastricht that the international aspects of education have been considered important.

What Ms Klein, and the Children in Europe report to which she refers, highlight is something we know already; that black and ethnic minority children get as bad a deal in British schools as in almost anywhere in Europe. While the structure and organisation of education is and will remain the responsibility of local, regional or national government, Europe is right to be concerned about the international dimension.

If we are to establish a truly free market, then this must apply to labour, as well as to goods and capital. If labour is to have equal opportunities in the 15 member states, then there must be equality of educational opportunity in the various countries.

In her paper on teaching and learning, published at the end of last year, Edith Cresson, the commissioner responsible for education, emphasised that Europe must address the needs of those young people excluded from education. And her paper suggests establishing "second-chance schools", partly financed by the European Union.

In the United Kingdom, many pupils - especially black children - are excluded from school, often being unable to find another one. As the European Union is looking for areas to pilot such a scheme, not surprisingly they have been inundated with applications from Britain. Details of the pilots are expected to be announced in the autumn.

"The basic idea is simple," says the Cresson paper, "to provide youngsters excluded from the education system or about to be, with the best training and best support arrangements to give them self-confidence."

The document is, however, a translation from the original French, and in Britain "excluded from school" now has a different interpretation from that intended by the authors.

The original, European intention is actually to provide second-chance schools for those pupils whom society has failed - who are "socially excluded" and thus unable to participate in normal life. Without an education and without qualifications, these young people inevitably find it almost impossible to get a job and, in many cases, to integrate into society. They are probably the groups most vulnerable in our society; those who are in most danger of long-term marginalisation and exclusion from society.

Second-chance schools are designed, therefore, for people who may have no formal education or training qualifications. They may be those aged over 16 who abandoned school years before, or they may be people who have begun vocational training or apprenticeships after leaving school, but who, for whatever reasons, have dropped out.

Clearly the target audience will vary from region to region and from country to country. There are already some examples of second-chance schools in Europe: Marseilles, Bologna and Bradford, to name but three.

The schools aim to enable their target audience to move towards economic and social integration, by providing them with high-quality and tailor-made education and training opportunities.

Students will be helped to acquire knowledge, competences, qualifications and perhaps crucially, the positive self-image to facilitate a successful transition to active life. To do this, the schools must fully appreciate the difficult circumstances from which these people often come.

The commission has a budget of approximately Pounds 25 million for the pilot projects. The funding will initially be for up to three years, but depending on the success rate, perhaps longer. Working closely with the local education authority, with local businesses and other interested parties, the commission hopes to be able to establish the first of the schools as soon as next year.

Free from the traditional working patterns of a school year and termly courses, the second-chance schools will be able to develop courses to suit the demand.

There will be no big fanfare openings, no huge publicity (unlike Britain's city technology colleges) but a serious attempt to provide for the real needs of the people in the various communities. In particular, the Cresson paper notes the needs for new technology skills and languages.

Robert Evans is MEP for London North-West and Labour's European spokesperson on education and culture. Children in Europe, NCH Publications, London N5 1UD. Teaching and Learning - Towards the Learning Society, 1995, European Commission ISBN 92-827-5698-X.

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