Education: Europe’s problem child

Education reforms in the EU need serious attention, according to a major new study. [Shutterstock]

Many EU member states are too slow to implement socio-political reforms in crucial sectors like education, according to a new study. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Issues like class and class struggle have long seemed resolved but now threaten to reemerge. Whether it is the Brexit vote, the election victory of Donald Trump or the relative surge in popularity of the Alternative für Deutschland party, many current developments are seen as the result of frustrations felt by a marginalised working class.

A Europe-wide survey of experts has now revealed how unequal social inclusion is across the continent and where reforms are needed most urgently. The Bertelsmann Foundation’s study, which surveyed more than 1,000 experts, has concluded that reforms taken to eliminate social imbalances have not had the desired effect.

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Take for example Germany: in 2009, it placed 16th in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In 2016, its ranking remained unchanged.

Many of EU member states, including Germany, have, particularly in terms of education and integrating foreigners, allowed a gap between reforms needed and their actual implementation, to grow significantly.

Participating specialists examined social policy reforms carried out from mid-2014 to the start of 2016 in five areas: poverty, education, employment, social cohesion and non-discrimination, as well as healthcare.

The results showed that there are major shortcomings in all five sectors and that the member states have only implemented 50% of reforms that have been identified EU-wide.

Particularly in need of attention is education, where only a third of reforms have actually been addressed.

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But there were success stories too, including Malta, where programmes to reduce the number of children leaving school early have been introduced, as well as free childcare and flexible study courses.

Greece, Lithuania and Spain failed to impress but the United Kingdom performed above average. But the study’s experts pointed out that a drastic increase in university tuition fees had brought its own negative social impact.

Germany made progress but its efforts to integrate refugees in the school system were criticised. Social background, according to the study, has had a significant impact on educational performance and success in Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain and Finland.

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However, Finland impressed elsewhere, with a number of pilot projects that have dispensed with traditional teaching methods in favour of more independent learning.

“The lack of education reforms in many countries is a cause for concern,” said the Foundation’s Aart De Geus. “The EU member states should do their utmost to promote the permeability of the education system and lifelong learning. Otherwise, poverty trajectories continue and social inequalities persist,” he insisted.

Since the high point of the refugee crisis in 2015, the need to integrate migrants and refugees into the system has become even more pressing. But the member states have also come up short in that regard too.

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The experts highlighted how in the pre-2004 enlargement member states, there are few significant measures that tackle poverty among foreigners.

Some countries have even regressed in this regard. Denmark has roughly halved the social assistance it provides for asylum seekers instead of increasing it. But, in contrast, Italy has done a lot to integrate new arrivals.