Britain's future within Europe has been one of the major political controversies of 1996, but little public attention has focused on young people's views. However, two recent studies provide insights into youngsters' developing conceptions of Europe.
The authors of Pupils' perceptions of Europe: identity and education, to be published next month, questioned 1,337 14 to 16-year-olds in England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Through questionnaires and interviews, the team attempted to discover if there was a consensus in their views and whether nationality, gender, class, school, media and travel affected these attitudes.
They uncovered striking divergence in the response to the question "Do you think of yourself as European?" Only 19 per cent of the English teenagers replied "yes, totally", compared with 90 per cent of the Dutch and 68 per cent of the Spanish (see table).
Conversely, 40 per cent of the English youngsters did not think of themselves as Europeans. To some extent this is a reflection of the Euro-sceptic opinion disseminated by the media and some politicians. It may also be due to the low priority that schools give to the European dimension in education, officially one of the cross-curricular themes mentioned in early versions of the national curriculum but passed over in the Dearing review.
The l0 English schools involved in this study, which spanned a wide range of institutions, were not taking part in collaborative European projects. But is the European consciousness of pupils in schools which are involved in such partnership projects more heightened than those in "ordinary" schools? This was one of the questions which a team of researchers at Cambridge University Department of Education tried to answer this summer by evaluating European projects in British schools.
The evaluation covered 26 of the 45 primary and secondary schools co-ordinating the European Union-funded Comenius Action 1 European partnership projects. This scheme supports multilateral partnerships between schools in cross-curricular European education projects. Co-ordinating schools receive an annual grant of 3,000 ECUs (Pounds 3,800) and participating schools 2,000 ECUs (Pounds 2,540).
A total of 483 pupil-questionnaires and 67 teacher-questionnaires were completed. The largest age group in the sample was 13 to 15-year-olds. The gender and ethnic make-up of the pupil sample was telling: 64 per cent were girls, 91 per cent classed themselves as white, 2.7 per cent as Afro-Caribbean; 2.5 per cent as Asian; and 2.5 per cent as "other".
It may be inferred, therefore, that the majority of schoolchildren participating in European projects are female and white. Boys' involvement seems to be fairly limited and that of children from minority ethnic communities negligible.
Nevertheless, the teachers were generally very complimentary about the Comenius project. They said it enabled them to establish links with schools on mainland Europe, reflect more on their teaching, boosted pupils' attitudes towards language learning and combated prejudice.
It is interesting to compare the pupils' responses with those of the first study which was conducted 18 months earlier. Nearly a third (31 per cent) thought of themselves as "totally" European and 23.5 per cent felt "not at all European".
If these findings are representative of similar schools, one could infer that involvement in such projects does have a positive influence on pupils' European consciousness. The quality and length of the project seem to be a factor: most pupils said they would like to know and understand more about Europe, though 38 per cent were "not bothered".
While 63 per cent of pupils thought it was a good thing that the UK was a member of the EU, 31 per cent were "not bothered". Despite the overall success of this European scheme, it is clear that it will take more than short-term collaborative projects to win over the hearts of all our schoolchildren.
Pupils' perceptions of Europe: identity and education, by Anne Convery, Michael Evans, Simon Green, Ernesto Macaro, and Janet Mellor (Cassell, December 1996). A pilot study evaluation of UK co-ordinated SOCRATES: Comenius Action 1 school-based partnership programmes, by Tony Adams, Michael Evans and John Raffan (University of Cambridge Department of Education, 1996).
Dr Michael Evans is a lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge Department of Education