Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


LIFE-LONG LEARNING: KEY COMPETENCES (13425/05, 8084/06)

Letter from the Chairman to Bill Rammell MP, Minister for Life-Long Learning, Further and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills

  Your Explanatory Memorandum was considered by Sub-Committee G on 2 February.

  We note that the Government appears to support this initiative in principle and says it is consistent with UK policy initiatives. The latter may well be so, but we need to be sure that this exercise is really worthwhile. We would be glad to know how much value it is likely to add and how the Government intends to put it into practice without generating nugatory effort and expense.

  We were rather surprised that the Government is not planning to carry out any consultations about this Proposal. We believe that the views of educational administrators and the profession should be taken into account when judging the merits of this Proposal and would be glad to know why they are not being consulted.

  If the exercise is judged to be worthwhile, we agree that the Government should keep a very watchful eye during negotiations for any possible encroachment on the principle of subsidiarity. It is also important to make sure that the competence of Member States is firmly respected.

  We note that you have reservations over some of the definitions of the key competences. We agree that it is hard to see how the definition of entrepreneurship can be translated into vocational policy and practice. But we are less sure about your reservations over the definitions of communication in foreign languages and cultural expression and would be grateful for an explanation.

  In my letter dated 27 January to you about the joint report on the Education and Training 2010 work programme, I reminded you of the importance attached by our Inquiry Report on the EU Integrated Action Programme for Life-Long Learning (HL Paper 104-I, published in April 2005) to ensuring a genuine commitment to older learners and their needs in life-long learning programmes. This would be equally important for the key competences exercise, where we would want to see evidence that it was being taken seriously and given due priority.

  That Report also stressed the importance of language skills and the urgent need to remedy the UK's poor performance. This will also require due priority in the key competence exercise. So, in our view, will the UK's relatively poor performance in mathematics and science. We would be glad to know how the Government proposes to relate the development of key competences, as proposed by this exercise, to these and other areas where the UK is performing less well than our EU counterparts and how the relative priority between key competences would be determined nationally and across the EU.

  We will retain this document pending your reply.

2 February 2006

Letter from Bill Rammell MP to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 2 February. I am writing to respond to the points that you raised on the proposed Recommendation on key competences and to update you on how negotiations have progressed. The Recommendation is due to be adopted by the EU Council of Education Ministers on 19 May.

  You asked the Government to keep a watchful eye during negotiations for any possible encroachment on the principle of subsidiarity. During negotiations at working group level, we secured amendments to the recitals in order to ensure that the Recommendation is fully in scope of the Treaty articles governing EU competence in education. The recitals on p 7 which set out the recommendations for Member States now read "Hereby recommend that Member States use the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning—A European Framework in the Annex hereto as a reference tool, with a view to ensuring... ". This makes clear that the Recommendation will not impact on the national curriculum unless Member States choose to refer to it when undertaking any curriculum reforms.

  Our reservations on the definitions of the competences were that the Recommendation should not be prescriptive, as it is not compulsory to teach foreign languages at every Key Stage in England, nor could we guarantee that the full spectrum described under the cultural expression competence is uniformly on offer. The amendments we secured to the recitals make clear that the Recommendation does not prescribe to Member States what the content of their curriculum should be.

  You agreed that it would be hard to see how the definition of entrepreneurship can be translated into vocational policy and practice. In fact the definition in the Recommendation is more consistent with the standard English usage of the more broadly defined term "enterprise". Enterprise education in England is defined as "enterprise capability, supported by better financial capability and economic and business understanding"; enterprise capability encompasses "innovation, creativity, risk-management and risk-taking, a can-do attitude and the drive to make ideas happen". The concept of enterprise therefore embraces future employees as well as employers, while the term "entrepreneurship" in England implies a narrower focus on setting up a business. However the Commission, Presidency and the majority of Member States argued strongly during working group negotiations to keep the word entrepreneurship. Firstly, enterprise would be understood unfortunately in several other languages as meaning "an enterprise". Secondly, a broad definition of entrepreneurship has been used for several years at European level, and is thus part of the "acquis" in the field of education. Amendments to other competences suggested by policy experts in England and the devolved administrations have been incorporated into the current text.

  We agree that the views of educational administrators and professionals should be taken into account when judging the merits of this Proposal. Two policy experts from the Skills for Life Strategy Unit represented the UK in the expert groups when the key competences framework was drawn up. A separate group of academics were charged with refining the content of the annex, on which the UK was represented by Ms Ursula Howard, Director of the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. Furthermore, a range of stakeholders has been informed and consulted on the Recommendation since negotiations began, including officials from across the Department for Education and Skills, the devolved administrations and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

  You asked how much value the proposed Recommendation is likely to add and how the Government intends to put it into practice without generating wasteful effort and expense. A policy expert will represent the UK in the forthcoming peer cluster on key competences. The cluster will consider follow-up to the key competences framework, including what the main policy messages should be and how to ensure appropriate dissemination. They will also undertake peer learning activities designed for Member States to exchange experience of relating the development of key competences to raising performance in specific areas of the curriculum. The UK representative will be communicating regularly with departmental policy leads to discuss how to determine the relative priority between key competences nationally, and how the key competences framework could be used to raise performance in areas where the UK is performing less well than our EU counterparts. The representative will also be making sure that the needs of older learners are properly taken into account.

  We will also be hosting a seminar in autumn 2006 (joint funded with the European Commission) to engage UK stakeholders in debate on how best to disseminate the outcomes of the Education and Training 2010 work programme, including the peer clusters, at the national, regional and sectoral level.

19 April 2006

Letter from Bill Rammell MP to the Chairman

  My officials have sent you the latest version of the draft Recommendation (document 8084/06) which went to Coreper on 3 May. It is due to be adopted (general approach) by the Education Council on 19 May.

  Articles 149 and 150 of the EC Treaty state that Community action should encourage cooperation between Member States and support or supplement their action where necessary. The Government believes that the Recommendation is indeed necessary and that Articles 149 and 150 do provide an appropriate legal base for the revised version.

  By attempting to define the new basic skills required in a knowledge economy, the Recommendation will usefully provide a common point of reference for Member States, either when choosing to undertake their own reforms of education and training systems, or when learning about what has worked in other countries through the open method of coordination. Indeed, the need for defining these basic skills has been emphasised by Heads of State and government in the conclusions of the European Councils in 2000, 2003 and 2005. Furthermore, the Employment Guidelines for Growth and Jobs 2005-08, approved by the June 2005 European Council, call for adapting education and training systems through better identification of occupational needs and key competences as part of Member States reform programmes. As well as wishing to fulfil these commitments made at European Council, the Government is also keen to ensure that the Key Competences Recommendation adds value by participating in the peer learning cluster on key competences, as I explained more fully in my letter of 19 April.

  Although Recommendations have no binding legal force, they do carry moral and political obligation if Member States agree to them. We therefore aimed during negotiations to make sure that the wording of the Recommendation was fully in scope of Articles 149 and 150 and did not create any expectations that could lead us to consider changing the way we organise our education systems. We secured amendments to the Recommendation itself, so that it now reads "Hereby recommend that Member States use the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning—A European Framework in the Annex hereto as a reference tool, with a view to ensuring... ". This makes clear that the Recommendation will not impact on the national curriculum unless Member States choose to refer to it when undertaking any curriculum reforms.

  The introduction to the Annex which defines the key competences also states the four main aims of the Recommendation clearly, namely (i) to identify and define the key competences necessary as we move towards a knowledge society (ii) to support the work that Member States are undertaking to ensure that citizens have the skills they need (iii) to provide a European Framework for policy makers and other stakeholders to refer to when undertaking their own curriculum reforms and (iv) to provide a framework for future EU cooperation, for example through peer learning clusters and the EU programmes.

EXPLANATION OF OUTSTANDING ISSUE ON KEY COMPETENCE 6 (SOCIAL AND CIVIC COMPETENCES)

  Apart from the Parliamentary scrutiny reservations held by the UK and Denmark, the one outstanding issue at Coreper concerned a proposal by France for a greater emphasis in key competence 6 (Social and civic competences) on knowledge of the development, functioning and achievements of the European Union. France proposed inserting the following paragraph as set out in footnote 12 on page 19:

    "Knowledge of the origins of the European idea, the history of European integration, the EU institutions and how they work, and the rights, principles and values underlying the European project are also essential".

  The UK, supported by the majority of delegations, the Presidency and the Commission, opposed the insertion of this paragraph when it was first suggested at working group as it would mean that the text placed greater emphasis on EU as opposed to national or wider international history and democratic institutions.

  I attach a copy of the compromise paragraph agreed at Coreper (not printed). The UK representative made interventions to ensure that it remained factual and neutral. These included questioning whether the word "essential" was really necessary and stalling an attempt by the Presidency to insert a reference to the "achievements" of European integration.

  The UK will request a change to the last sentence in the paragraph when the document is examined by Jurists Linguists. Rather than "an awareness of European diversity and cultural identity... ", which we feel is unclear as it could imply there is such a thing as a single European identity, we will ask for the sentence to be re-drafted so that it reads "an awareness of diversity and cultural identities in Europe... ".

9 May 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Bill Rammell MP

  Thank you for your letters dated 19 April and 9 May which were considered by Sub-Committee G on 11 May.

  We are grateful for your reports on the Working Group negotiations and the COREPER meeting and note that a General Approach on the Recommendation is now due to be adopted by the Education Council on 19 May.

  We are glad to see that the text will include clarification in the Recitals that Member States will be free to choose to what extent the Recommendation may be incorporated in national curricula and note that you are satisfied that the text fully accords with the Treaty Articles governing EU competence in education.

  We also note that you are now apparently content over the definition of the key competences on communication in foreign languages. We support the line you propose to take in striving for further improvements in the definition of the key competences on what is now apparently to be called social and civic competences.

  The revised definition of the key competences on entrepreneurship (now apparently to be re-titled as "Sense of Initiative and Entrepreneurship") does not seem to us to be much of an improvement. It is still not clear what it would mean in practice and the very difficulty you report in arriving at an agreed definition with other Member States suggests that it is likely to have little or no practical effect. But, since you appear to be broadly content and consider it to be part of the Community acquis, we would not object to its inclusion in the overall package.

  Thank you for explaining in such detail the reasons why the Government believe that this Recommendation is necessary and will add some value. I must say that we still have our doubts about whether this exercise is really worthwhile. But, for the time being, we are prepared to accept your assurances that it is.

  We are particularly anxious that, in adopting this framework, the Government should ensure that it will not dilute attention from the need to focus on basic skills, to which we attach great importance. We also trust that the Government will ensure that the "peer cluster activity" envisaged is well-directed, proportional and does add significant value without generating nugatory effort or needless expense.

  More broadly, we also have some concerns about the whole range and extent of consultative activity which is being generated around the Education and Training programme. We will want to discuss the implications of this at our next informal meeting with Judith Grant on 25 May.

  We are glad to see that the Government has already carried out some consultations about this Proposal and will be hosting a stakeholder seminar in the Autumn on the work programme which will include consideration of the implementation of the key competences. We would have preferred to see the concept and practical implementation of the key competences exercise given much wider consideration by UK education professionals and others before final decisions were taken in Council.

  Nevertheless, on balance, we are prepared to agree to lift scrutiny to enable the Government to support the expected General Approach at the Education Council on 19 May and would be grateful for your report on the result of that meeting.

12 May 2006



 
previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007