My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
I attended with the Scottish Executive Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Mr Allan Wilson. The meeting was chaired by the Finnish Education Minister, Antti Kalliomaki.
The aim of the meeting was to give a further boost to EU work on vocational education and training (VET) by agreeing a Helsinki communiqué.
The format was a dinner and presentation of Leonardo da Vinci awards on the first evening, followed by a half day's meeting. All EU member states were represented. Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Macedonia and Croatia, the EEA countries and the social partners (UNICE, ETUC, CEEP), as well as the European Training Foundation (ETF) and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), had also been invited and the majority attended.
The Helsinki communiqué consolidates progress made so far in EU co-operation in vocational education and training (VET), and sets priorities in this area for the coming years. The main priorities identified in the communiqué follow on from the Copenhagen (2002) and Maastricht (2004) declarations and were agreed in the form of council conclusions on VET at the formal Education Council attended by Bill Rammell on 14 November 2006.
The communiqué highlights four priority areas:
Policy measures to improve the attractiveness and quality of VET.
Continued development and implementation of voluntary common EU tools: the European Qualifications Framework; European Credit Transfer System; Europass and the European Network on Quality Assurance in VET.
A more systematic, strengthened approach to mutual learning through the open method of co-ordination; and further development of statistical information so that progress can be evaluated.
Active involvement of stakeholders.
The council conclusions and Helsinki communiqué explicitly recognise the voluntary nature of co-operation in this area. The director of CEDEFOP gave a presentation, outlining the work that it had done to establish the basis on which progress could be measured. Commissioner Figel talked about progress on benchmarks and on the VET process generally. His main conclusions were:
progress in VET, following the Copenhagen declaration, was proceeding more quickly than in HE (the Bologna process);
there had been good progress on a number of benchmarks but on others it was disappointing (eg, early school-leavers, low achievements in literacy, numbers achieving upper secondary level qualifications);
there had been good progress on science and maths but perhaps the benchmarks had been set too low;
the gender gap was decreasing in maths and science but from a very low base;
and there was concern that education and training systems were still not providing young people with the skills they need for life and work.
In my intervention, I pointed out the links between welfare reform, pensions and VET. There has been a massive decrease in the number of unskilled jobs: there were no longer jobs for life but, with effective lifelong learning systems, it should be possible to offer employment for life. Training needs to be demand-led and vocational qualifications need to have real intellectual rigour and there is a big political imperative to tackle this agenda. There are important links with higher education, with research and development and science.
I also expressed my concern that the Education Council punches well below its weight in deliberations on the Lisbon agenda: education and skills should be at its heart but other councils seemed to have much more influence.
A number of delegates stressed the need to make the Helsinki communiqué readable so that it could be understood by citizens. It was important to share experience of what worked and what did not so that MS could learn from one another.