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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for initiating this debate on such an important issue. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, on his thoughtful and, if I may say so, mildly controversial maiden speech. This is no bad thing. I broke that convention some years ago. It is a pleasure to have the noble Lord's expertise and experience in this House, and we look forward to his further contributions to our debates.

We are now at an exciting time as we embark on our EU presidency, although, in the light of today's events, I use the word "excitement" with some trepidation. I hope that the Government, who profess to have education at the top of their agenda, will ensure that it is near the top of our priority list during the next six months.
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Having read the meaty report produced by the European Union Committee on the proposed EU action plan for education, I can only express my gratitude for the splendid job they have done. The report is obviously the result of extensive research, evidence-taking and consultation. I find myself almost entirely in agreement with their well founded recommendations, and I hope the conclusions encourage the Government to play a central role in influencing the final shape and details of the proposed programme.

The report focuses on the integration of current EU-funded education and training programmes in the revised action plan due to start in 2007 and run until 2013. This is the next step in a coherent and laudable strategy to encourage growth of the EU as a competitive knowledge-based economy. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said about referring to it as knowledge-based. He added the word "service"; I would like to add to that a "creative-based" economy, but an economy sharing a common aim for education and vocational training by working on mobility and co-operation within the EU.

The report contains a great deal of detail about the strengths and weaknesses of the current EU education and training programmes. It also highlights the strengths and some of the potential shortcomings of the new integrated action plan. What struck me most about the report was that there seemed to be a recurring theme of making the new action plan user-friendly. Several issues are at stake here.

First, we must be convinced that the revised programme will cut out some of the extensive bureaucracy, to which all noble Lords have referred, and administrative time-wasting, which is a barrier to the involvement of our educational and training establishments in the EU schemes currently on offer. Time and again, the report highlights the fact that small and voluntary organisations have found the bureaucracy disproportionate and a barrier to their participation in EU-funded schemes.

Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger highlighted the huge dedication of teachers and organisers of those programmes in the face of real bureaucratic hurdles. The Commission talked about simplification, but there are still real concerns. For instance, it is unclear how the cross-cutting role of the transversal programme will work in practice, and fears that it may increase bureaucracy. I note that chapter 13 of the report states that it was the new financial regulations brought in in 2003 that have caused time-consuming and bureaucratic hurdles to participation. It is surely important to work on the principle of joined-up government to ensure that burdensome regulation is kept to a minimum.

Secondly, it is the Government's job to work much harder at promoting awareness and increasing participation in the current and soon-to-be-revised programmes. From the evidence submitted to the Committee, it was suggested that UK participation in current EU programmes was some way behind that of our EU colleagues because of the failure of the Government to promote the schemes sufficiently. That
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point was noted by the noble Lord, Lord Moser, who referred to the problem, especially with the Erasmus programme, as both inward and outward—inward because British universities do not seem all that keen on inward migration of students; and outward because the number of our students going out into Europe has fallen.

I hope that the Government will take seriously the comments of the committee in paragraph 278 that,

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked whether those programmes were embedded in government policy and used the word "disconnect", which was a recurring theme.

We need greater information dissemination so that it is not only the few dedicated and persevering individuals who take advantage of the education and training programmes. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said that the programmes were seen by too many, including the Government, as marginal.

Thirdly, if the revised programme is to be user-friendly, it must be flexible. By this I mean flexible for all adult learners as well as students; flexible for small organisations, which may not be able to match funding, as required by the Leonardo programme, as well as larger ones that can; and flexible for schools who cannot afford to provide supply teaching to allow their teachers to have the chance to travel to Europe on the Comenius programme.

The new revised and integrated programme, and the approach of the Government in adopting it, needs to focus on all three of those issues—minimal bureaucracy; promoting awareness; and embracing flexibility—to succeed in being as user-friendly as possible. That will allow more people involved in education and vocational training—students as well as teachers—to take advantage of the benefits which the EU schemes have demonstrably shown that they can offer.

I wholeheartedly agree with the serious concerns voiced by the committee about the massive increase in the budget. Paragraph 248 of the report tells us that:

I certainly agree that there must be extensive consultation to evaluate whether this translates into more value for money. I note with interest that the report states that many of the targets are too ambitious. Perhaps the massive budget is aiming too high. We should not merely pour money away without some transparency about what results and effects we can expect. I also note the caveat at Paragraph 191 that:

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I hope that the Government will press hard for some more evaluative work to be done before such a huge budget is committed to the new integrated programme. I note that in Paragraph 259 the committee questions whether the proposed funds may be spread too thinly and fail to improve some of the funding deficiencies that have prevented the present programmes from being fully effective and reaching more disadvantaged people.

I also share the disappointment of the committee at the damning conclusions on the teaching of foreign languages, particularly in this country compared to our European neighbours, which is something to which all noble Lords have referred. I want to see a concerted effort from the Government to address the further decline of language skills within our schools and a solid commitment to pulling up standards in the UK, particularly after the article in the Financial Times yesterday, which commented that we are now bottom of a table of 28 countries in competence in other languages. That is embarrassing.

The language focus of the expanded EU programme through the cross-cutting transversal programme will not benefit our educational establishments unless there is a long-term investment in language and a drastic reappraisal of the way in which languages are taught in this country. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne spoke about the driving skills policy that helped us to respond strongly in recent years to the challenges of the global economy. But surely, language is a crucial element and skill in that challenge. That point was made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Greengross and Lady Howe of Idlicote. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said that her children were given the fantastic springboard of the chance to go to the Lycée. There is a huge problem. As I see my own children growing up in a world where competition will be so enormous for all of them, I cannot express passionately enough that they must have languages as one of their key skills.

I have taken up much of your Lordships' time. There is much to celebrate in the new integrated EU programme. There is also much work to be done. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the excellent recommendations of the EU committee will form a central part of the discussions, development and negotiations concerning the new action plan during the coming months.

I wish that more time could be given to responding further to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, about life-long learning. Because a lot of us are getting older, my immediate reaction was to say that that is the heart of it. In the 21st century, it is surely right to think about continuing the learning process for each and every one of us throughout our lives. In terms of becoming an ageing population, retirement time and the reduction in the birth rate, life-long learning is of crucial importance to the future of this country.
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