Thirty-ninth Report of Session 2012-13 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

11   Rethinking education: investing in skills



+ ADDs 1-8

COM(12) 669

Commission Communication: Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes

Legal base
DepartmentBusiness, Innovation and Skills
Basis of considerationMinister's letter of 28 March 2013
Previous Committee ReportHC 86-xxix (2012-13), chapter 3 (23 January 2013)
Discussion in Council15 February 2013
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared; further information requested

Background and previous scrutiny

11.1  The purpose of the Communication is to galvanise a wide range of actors to pursue reform of education and vocational training systems in order to provide the skills needed to increase productivity and boost growth and competitiveness. It covers all levels of education and training, from early years to higher education, and vocational and work-based training. It is accompanied by eight Commission staff working documents (ADDs 1-8) providing detailed information and analysis to underpin the policy recommendations contained in the Communication. These fall into two categories: strategic priorities which Member States need to address as part of their domestic reform processes; and action to be taken at EU level to support and coordinate Member States' reform efforts.

11.2  The Government assured us that the areas of activity identified in the Communication were broadly in line with UK domestic policy but highlighted a number of concerns regarding the actions proposed at EU level which are described in our Twenty-ninth Report of 23 January 2013. In particular, the Government questioned whether country-specific recommendations issued as part of the European Semester reporting cycle to monitor Member States' economic and employment policies were an appropriate tool for monitoring Member States' education and vocational training policies. The Government also indicated that it would seek further information on the Commission's proposal to analyse the efficiency of public investment in education and training.

11.3  We noted that the Government expected the Education Council to agree Conclusions based on the Communication in February and asked the Minister for Skills (Matthew Hancock) to report back to us on the outcome, explaining how the Government's concerns had been addressed. We also noted that one of the Commission's staff working documents, on language competences (ADD 2), proposed establishing a new EU benchmark on language learning which seeks to ensure that, by 2020, at least 50% of 15 year-olds are able to hold a basic conversation in their first foreign language (the EU average is 42%, but only 9% in the UK), and that at least 75% of pupils in lower secondary school study a minimum of two foreign languages (the EU average is 61%). We asked the Minister whether he welcomed the benchmark and how likely the UK was to achieve it by 2020.

The Minister's letter of 28 March 2013

11.4  The Minister confirms that the Education Council agreed Conclusions at its meeting on 15 February and says that the UK secured a number of important changes, insisting on the inclusion of an explicit reference to the principle of subsidiarity, "noting" rather than "welcoming" various actions to be undertaken by the Commission, and ensuring that any follow-up action to country specific recommendations addressing education and training policies should be a purely voluntary process.[36] He adds:

"In my opinion, in delivering Country-Specific Recommendations (CSRs) on national education policy, the EU is operating at the limits of its competence to 'support and co-ordinate education policies' as set out in Treaty Articles 165 and 166. It is true, however, that Article 148 of the Treaty (which governs the Europe 2020 process of guidelines, targets etc) makes provision for CSRs on education and training where there is a clear labour market rationale. Against this background, and mindful of the fact that CSRs are non-binding on Member States, our approach is always to try to limit an over-prescriptive approach to education and training and to take every opportunity to remind the Commission that policy in this area is very much a national issue."

11.5  Turning to discussions within the Council on the draft Conclusions, he continues:

"[a]cting on instructions, our Deputy Permanent Representative stressed our view that, in the context of the Article 148 procedure, CSRs related to education should be agreed only where they relate to an identifiable labour market issue that impacts on employment growth. She also made the more general point that CSRs in this area should be discussed and agreed with Member States in advance, in recognition of the particular nature of education co-operation in the EU and the primacy of the role of Member States. It is important to recall that the UK is not subject to sanctions or binding mechanisms as part of the CSR process or at any other stage of the European Semester, and that the Commission's Communications on forthcoming economic governance arrangements are aimed primarily at the euro area. We also aim, of course, to minimise the bureaucratic costs associated with the management of the CSR process."

11.6  The Minister says that the Conclusions note the Commission's intention to analyse the efficiency of public spending on education and training and to initiate a debate on the benefits of investment in different education and training sectors. He adds:

"Our Representative intervened again on this point, making clear that this sort of spending analysis should be very much a matter for Member States. Notwithstanding that, we have asked the Commission to provide more information on its plans."

11.7  The Minister explains that the proposed new European benchmark on language competences stems from the Conclusions of the Barcelona European Council in 2002 which urged Member States to improve language learning. Discussions on the benchmark are at an early stage and the Conclusions endorsed by the Education Council simply note the Commission's intention to carry out further methodological work on data collection. He continues:

"Although I would not welcome a new EU-wide benchmark in this area, I recognise that the idea may command the support of a majority of Member States, given the priority attached to languages learning within EU education cooperation. I believe that the crucial issue here is that we would not be required to report on such a benchmark, and that it would be a benchmark — i.e., some sort of average reference point against which countries could compare themselves — and not a target.

"In terms of our own policymaking, there could even be some advantages to publicising comparative information of this sort, even though it is clearly very unlikely that the UK would be able to reach the suggested level. We have participated, for example, in the European Survey of Language Competences, which shines a useful spotlight on our poor performance relative to several other EU countries. That said, I am well aware that there is a track record in the EU education domain of attempts by the Commission to turn benchmarks into more prescriptive targets (two of the existing Europe 2020 targets started off this way). I can assure the Committee that we will oppose any such development."

11.8  Finally, the Minister notes that the Communication on Rethinking Education contains various other proposals for EU activity in the education field, including new initiatives on apprenticeships, open learning and entrepreneurship. He adds:

"I am far from convinced that these ideas represent real added value, particularly at a time when we are trying to bear down on administrative costs in the EU. For this reason, we also secured some new wording in the Council Conclusions requiring a detailed cost/benefit analysis to be included in the Commission's plans. I hope to enlist the support of other Member States in ensuring that this is followed up, enabling Education Ministers to exercise better control over what is, I fear, an expansionist Commission agenda."


11.9  We note the Minister's concerns regarding the potential for "competence creep" as the EU expands its activities within the field of education, as well as his reservations about the use of country-specific reservations to address Member States' education and training policies, and draw his reply to the attention of the Education Committee. We would welcome a further update from the Minister on the development of the benchmark on language competences and on how the Commission proposes to conduct its analysis of the efficiency of public investment in education and training once more information becomes available. Meanwhile, we are content to clear the Communication from scrutiny.

36   See Council Conclusions on investing in education and training - a response to Rethinking Education at Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 1 May 2013