The European Union is good for nothing if not statistics, and its reports provide plenty of fuel for the debate on education and training: 5 million of the Union's 18 million registered unemployed are under 25; of those now aged between 15 and 25, some 5 million failed even to complete compulsory education successfully; by the end of the decade, as many as one-third of new entrants to the job market may have no vocational qualifications.
These are problems on an international scale, and the European Union is taking action to address them. The Task Force for Human Resources, Education, Training and Youth is the long title for that pocket of the European Commission (EC) which is responsible for work of increasing significance to the economic and social fabric of the new Europe.
Its aegis covers programmes including Erasmus (which has facilitated exchanges for some 5 per cent of university students in the Union), and Comett (which unites academic and industrial organisations in pursuit of education and training in technology). As the European Community moves into its next major cycle of activity, the so-called Fourth Framework, the Task Force is continuing to build on its successes, and initiating programmes to foster the exchange of information, ideas and people across national and cultural borders.
These include placement programmes for teachers, trainers and students, as well as opportunities for instructors and institutions to develop teaching and training materials, experiment with open and distance learning, and share information and experience through conventional channels and with new media and technologies. Like other schemes funded by the commission, these programmes particularly encourage collaboration with colleagues and peers in other parts of Europe.
For prospective participants, one of the key tasks is to develop contacts with potential partners in other institutions.
The Fourth Framework sees the launch of two new programmes of particular interest - Socrates and Leonardo, as well as the third phase of Youth for Europe.
Socrates runs throughout the Fourth Framework, until December 1999. With a budget of 1005.6 million ecus (approximately Pounds 800 million), it is an important programme devoted to "developing the European dimension" within education at all levels throughout the Union. This broad theme embraces both immediate practical concerns, such as the cultivation of multilingual communication skills, and more general pursuits such as the use of new media and technologies to facilitate communication between students and teachers working in different parts of the Community.
One particular line of action will encourage partnerships between schools, a theme with considerable scope for innovative activity, particularly in the area of intersection with two of the programme's other broad aims - the development of open and distance learning, and the use of communication and information technologies. This part of the programme will give priority to projects which aim to improve achievement levels all round, as well as those which address special educational needs and capabilities, and encourage equal opportunities for boys and girls.
Another line of action is dedicated to educational staff. Projects designed to "update and improve" teaching skills will, among other activities, allow teachers to observe and practise educational skills in other countries.
One intriguing thread for this pointedly "transnational" programme particularly addresses the educational needs of itinerant children, including travellers, gypsies, and the families of both migrant workers and occupational travellers.
Socrates also re-flects the topical interest in "telematics" - a buzzword the European Commission defines as the fusion of communications and information technology - which informs many other programmes in the Fourth Framework. There is in fact a separate Telematics Application Programme, with a budget of 843 million ecus (roughly Pounds 674 million) over four years, one strand of which is also devoted to education and training (see next page). Within Socrates, new media and technologies are seen both as subjects for study and as educational tools to be explored and exploited.
Leonardo also runs from January 1995 to December 1999 and, at 801.8 million ecus (approximately Pounds 641 million), also has a substantial budget. Its aim is vocational training - specifically, those opportunities for co-operation and collaborative activity which complement the individual policies of the various member states.
Leonardo ultimately complements the proposals published in last July's White Paper on European Social Policy, which envisages a Community in which all young people will be guaranteed a place in the education and training system, or a linked work and training placement, at least until the age of 18.
Leonardo addresses the need for training leading to vocational qualifications, both for recent school-leavers and for adults who lack formal qualifications, academic or vocational. The programme further aims to provide access to "training for life" to ensure that workers throughout the Community can continue to update and upgrade their skills and qualifications.
Leonardo will embrace, for example, projects concerned with initial vocational training, the transition from school or college into working life, strategies for training young people with few or no academic qualifications, and the provision of vocational information and guidance.
Like Socrates, Leonardo also aims to nurture equal opportunities for men and women, for migrant workers and their children, and for the handicapped.
Leonardo also offers placement and exchange programmes not only for young people in vocational training programmes, but for young workers - and instructors too. As with most EC-funded projects, the emphasis is on trans-national initiatives which involve participants from two or more member states.
The on-going Youth for Europe programme (Youth for Europe III) aims to "encourage young people to take an active part in society", and to combat racism, sexism and xenophobia, largely through the virtues of enlightened education and experience.
The programme offers "youth exchanges" for people aged between 15 and 25, which foster direct contacts and first-hand observation of daily life in other countries. The programme also provides opportunities for training and support for youth workers and instructors, and for information and research. Youth for Europe III will continue to support Youth Initiative Projects, which part-fund creative initiatives conceived and managed by young people.
If there is the inevitable feel-good factor in all this worthy activity, there is also a cutting edge to the targets and the language of the Task Force which suggests that, from this office at least, someone in Brussels can see the real world, and ways to make it better.
* Contact: Task Force for Human Resources, Rue de la Loi 200, B-1049 Bruxelles, Belgium; Socrates: tel. 010 32 2 295 41 85, fax 010 32 2 295 72 95; Leonardo: tel. 010 32 2 296 27 86, fax 010 32 2 295 78 30; Youth for Europe, tel. 010 32 2 511 15 10, fax 010 32 2 511 19 60. Telematics Application Programme (Education and Training), Brian Jones, Dept. of Trade and Industry, tel. 0171-215 1224, fax 0171-215 1370.