The Scottish Executive Minister for Education and Young People, Mr. Peter Peacock, and Ms. Anne Lambert, UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, represented the UK during the Education Council in Brussels.
At the Education Council:
1. Ministers agreed conclusions on the European Indicator of Language Competence. The agreement covered the basic parameters of the indicator, including level of testing and the languages to be included, as requested by the European Council in 2002. An advisory board of member states’ experts will work out the technical specifications. A sentence was added to make clear that the advisory board should take into consideration the need to prevent undue administrative and financial burdens on member states.
The Council agreed that pupils should be tested in two foreign languages at the end of ISCED level II (ages 9-14 in the UK). However, in those member states where only one foreign language was taught at that level, testing of the second language would be at ISCED III (15 - 19 and therefore after the end of compulsory education in the UK). Some member states would have preferred all testing to take place at ISCED III, but could accept the compromise.
2. The Council agreed a general approach for a recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning. The presidency expected to reach early agreement with the European Parliament. The Commission (Figel) said the recommendation could be finally adopted at the Education Council in November 2006.
The UK maintained its parliamentary scrutiny reserve, noting that the UK Parliament thought the text went too far in the direction of defining and prescribing the content of curricula. The Parliamentary Scrutiny Committees had particular difficulty with the idea that knowledge about European integration and structures was “essential”. The UK asked the Council to replace “essential” with “desirable” or “important”. The presidency noted the UK’s concerns and outstanding scrutiny reserve but declined to alter the text.
3. The Council also agreed a general approach for the recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Quality Charter for Mobility. The presidency said a joint report of the European Parliament's Employment and Culture Committees was expected in September.
4. Ministers exchanged views on the financial aspects of the Lifelong Learning Programme. The Commission said that, following the agreement on the EU financial perspective (2007-13), the total budget for the programme would be EUR 6.97 billion. A formal proposal would be adopted on 24 May. It would break down the funding between the four main sub-programmes as follows: 13 per cent. to Comenius (schools); 40 per cent. to Erasmus (higher education); 25 per cent. to Leonardo da Vinci (vocational training); and 3 per cent. to Grundtvig (adult learning).
In a full table round, several member states regretted the substantial reduction in the budget originally proposed by the Commission. However, most welcomed the increased flexibility and decentralisation, which would allow unused funding to be transferred more easily between sub-programmes.
Many member states could accept the distribution of funding proposed by the Commission in order to ensure that the new programme started on time. Nonetheless, most argued that priority should be given to one or other of the sub-programmes. The UK suggested that Grundtvig should receive 6 per cent. of the overall budget, and said the increase should come from the much larger Erasmus Programme. It was important for the Council to send a signal about the importance of lifelong learning and the need to give greater assistance to older and low-skilled workers, particularly given the demographic challenges facing the EU. A number of other member states also asked for Grundtvig to receive additional funding. Several member states preferred to give priority to Erasmus, while a few others favoured Leonardo da Vinci. The attention of the Council was also drawn to the European Council’s request to double the number of mobility grants under these programmes between 2006 and 2013.
Summing up, the Commission said that there would be some room for flexibility, but reminded Ministers that the European Council had highlighted the particular importance of Erasmus and Leonardo da Vinci. The Commission urged member states to consider how they would use alternative sources of funding, including the EU structural funds. The Erasmus Mundus programme, which could no longer be funded from the new Lifelong Learning Programme, would continue until 2008. The Commission would at that point make a proposal for the future funding of that programme.
5. In a debate on the contribution of education to the EU Sustainable Development Strategy Ministers agreed the central role and importance of education and lifelong learning. Most stressed the importance of establishing strong links between policies for sustainable development, education, citizenship and cohesion. member states, including the UK, generally did not want to fix new EU objectives or targets. Existing processes, notably the Lisbon Strategy and the Education and Training 2010 Work Programme, were sufficient. One member state also stressed the need for synergy with the UN's 10-year strategy for sustainable development.
6. Under “Any Other Business” the Commission presented its recent Communication on higher education. The UK stressed the need for a concrete follow-up of the Communication and encouraged Ministers to have a full discussion in the near future about the issues it raised. The UK informed the Council about the “peer learning” seminar it would host in October on the theme of modernising universities. This seminar should produce concrete outcomes that could form the basis of Ministers discussions.
The Commission also informed the Council about its plans to develop a European Credit Transfer System for Vocational Education and Training.
7. Finland announced that during its presidency it would give priority, inter alia, to the follow-up of the Hampton Court summit; vocational education and training; and the themes of efficiency and equity in education and training.