International surveys, such as PISA, regularly point to the high share of pupils with poor skills in reading, writing and maths. On 6 and 7 December a conference in Brussels brought together policy-makers from EU countries with representatives of EU-funded projects that work on innovative ways of supporting teachers to improve pupils’ basic skills such as maths, science and literacy.
Participants discussed how experience from such projects can be used to inform and shape national schools policies aiming at raising pupils' skills levels, especially targeting those with most difficulties.
The projects showcased at this event receive support through the EU’s Comenius Programme and the Framework Programme for Research (FP7), the EU’s main funding instruments in school education and research. Through Comenius, which is part of the Lifelong Learning Programme, the EU gives grants to networks and consortia of educational organisations with partners from several European countries to develop, promote and disseminate good practice in school education.
Policy-makers at the meeting included experts from national ministries who regularly meet to exchange best policy practice within the thematic working group on mathematics, science and technology skills, set up by the Commission in 2010. The conference, which was also joined by business representatives and academics, was an opportunity to discuss how EU support can be used to develop innovative and transferrable ideas that help EU countries develop effective policies in support of basic skills.
Addressing the conference, Xavier Prats-Monné, the Commission's Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture said that this conference was a good example of what the EU should engage in to make sure that its education programmes have a systemic impact. He underlined the importance of evidence-based policies to ensure that the Euros spent on education are spent well, and effectively stimulate reform and modernisation of education systems across Europe.
Roberto Carneiro of the Portuguese Catholic University quoted Thomas Friedman from the New York Times who said that “the country that uses this crisis to make its population more innovative (...) is the one that will not just survive but thrive down the road.” Referring to the work of the High-Level Group of Experts on Literacy, he discussed the concept of multiple literacies – including digital literacy, science literacy, financial literacy and ethical literacy – describing a range of essential skills without which neither young people nor adults can function well in our modern society.
Peter Gray from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology underlined the need to focus not only on “achievement” as measured relative to benchmarks, but also to keep in mind the purpose of education – and make sure teachers and learners understand it and are aware of it. This can only be achieved by uniting all levels of the education system. He also stressed the importance of fostering innovative talent, pointing out that “more innovative scientists means more scientific entrepreneurs.”
Among the projects showcased was On-Air: Effective use of Media for School Education,through which partner organisations from seven countries joined up to look into ways of helping teachers exploit the attractiveness of new media on young people in order to raise their interest and motivation when it comes to reading and writing. The project involved 70 teachers directly in its activities.
The STENCIL network offers science teachers and practitioners in science education from all over Europe a platform where they can exchange ideas and team up with others to contribute to the improvement of science teaching. STENCIL brings together 21 partners from nine European countries and aims to promote innovative methodologies and creative solutions that make science studies more attractive for students.
Workshops at the conference looked at how ICT and digitisation impact on literacy skills, how collaboration between teachers can be supported and channelled towards addressing low achievement, how ICT can be used to address low achievement in maths and science and how didactics in mathematics and science need to react the increasing shift from knowledge to competences.
A panel discussion with policy makers and business representatives strengthened the message of building networks between schools, industry, research and policy making on all levels.
Raising skills levels is one of the EU's priorities in the field of school education. With Rethinking Education the Commission has just presented a new strategy urging EU countries to take action for the supply of all the relevant skills to boost future growth. EU countries have pledged to reduce the share of 15 year-olds with insufficient skills in maths, science and reading to less than 15% by 2020.
Earlier this year, the Commission's high level expert group on literacy highlighted an alarming situation: while the demand for advanced reading and writing skills is rapidly rising in the context of digitalisation and high-skills economies, literacy levels have stagnated in the European Union during the last decade. In their final report the group made policy recommendations to the Commission on the most effective and efficient ways of supporting reading literacy throughout lifelong learning.