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New schools: #LearningForLife in 21st century

Colin Stevens



In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump to the highest seat in American politics, and a widespread resurgence of populist politics across Europe and the US, the West seems to have been delivered a wake-up call: issues of unemployment, underemployment and the struggles of the working class remain, despite appearances, unresolved in the 21st century. The demise of experts in tandem with persistent youth unemployment point to deep inefficiencies in educational systems across the Western world and, much like the transition from analog to digital, from print to online, a deep rethink of the education of future generations of leaders has become of paramount concern to policymakers worldwide.

A Europe-wide study has revealed just how unequal social inclusion has become across the continent. The Bertelsmann Foundation’s study, which surveyed over 1,000 experts, this year concluded that reforms undertaken to eliminate social imbalances have drastically failed to have the desired effect. Further, many EU member states, including Germany, have now been shown to have implemented less than 50% of identified reforms in key areas including poverty, education, employment, social cohesion and non-discrimination. The OECD paints a particularly grim picture, where one fifth of students have not acquired the skills to participate in today’s society. As public finances dwindle, the burden of financing tertiary education has increasingly shifted from the state to individuals. Left unaddressed, this trend points to a continued worsening of standards in the long-term. The #EducationInFocus conference, hosted at the United Nations Office in Geneva between 20-23 June will try to address exactly those issues.

One option available to policymakers would be to redesign brick and mortar schools entirely, and embrace a new generation of smart schools. A recent survey found groundswell support amongst IT leaders for using Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a means of transforming classrooms into interactive learning environments, replacing traditional notebooks and pencils with wearables, sensors and smart lighting. In Australia, a steady increase in government spending on education over ten years has been met with stagnating performance in reading and writing skills country-wide. In response, school initiatives are doing away with desk-based learning in lieu of outdoor learning spaces and an emphasis on tablets and computer programs as the new tools of the trade.

A similar initiative has evolved in Russia, where a $58 million Smart School in Irkutsk promises a deep rethink of the relationship between students and their communities by wielding architecture as an educational tool. The School, which will be opened in 2019, was designed by the prestigious Danish architecture studio CEBRA and involves “a ring of connected buildings with overhanging eaves and a landscaped 'meadow' in the centre”. A key element is that for the first time ever, a single educational complex for foster families will be built.

As Mark Sartan, the general director of the project, told this site, the Irkutsk project is a model for “education, upbringing and socialization of children with diverse starting opportunities” that could easily be implemented in both developed and developing countries. “The Smart School falls under the scope of the UN agenda for sustainable development” and, Sartan adds, “redefines the key goals of education focusing on responsibility towards oneself, the world and future generations.”

But most importantly, the Smart School envisages a greater role for parents and teachers to chart individual educational paths, best adapted to the pupils. Coursework will be tailored to their individual profiles and psychological characteristics, allowing them to perform better. Finland, long renowned for the quality of its state education and consistently high-ranking in international league tables, is another country that has been toying with these ideas. Rethinking education in the digital age, schools now place skill-building at the heart of curricula, rather than subject-based learning, in a form of teaching described as phenomenon-based learning (PBL). In August 2016, it became compulsory for each Finnish school to teach collaboratively; in practice, this means that students choose a topic relevant to them, and subjects are adjusted respectively.

How effective, then, is replacing arithmetic and grammar with lessons in identifying fake news, installing anti-virus software and 3D printing? Critics of the new Finnish system fear that PBL is failing to provide students with a strong enough foundation to study subjects at a higher level. Anecdotally, some teachers are pointing to a widening gap between the most and least able students, with PBL failing to work for students who require comparatively more guidance. Others point to an increase in teachers’ workloads, arguing that, given Finland’s already high standard of education and small classroom sizes, PBL merely represents an attempt at reinventing the (3D printed) wheel.

Another option may be to shift focus toward virtual education, and encourage the growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs). It has been more than four years since Harvard and MIT launched the nonprofit learning platform edX, and the results have been encouraging: cumulative participation has grown steadily, with participants from a range of backgrounds pursuing a broad spectrum of subjects. Computer science remains the most popular subject of choice, routing students to other disciplinary areas along the way.

Whatever the solution is, being open to innovation in approaches to education represents a significant first step. The anticipated approach of the fourth industrial revolution is timed with a greater awareness of the political and social implications when social inequities are left unaddressed and, if political willpower aligns with the capacities of modern day technology, there is hope yet for the next generation of learners.


Commission welcomes Nestlé pledge on jobs and apprenticeships

EU Reporter Correspondent



work_trades_volunteer_480The public and private sectors need to work much closer together in the fight against youth unemployment and invest more in equipping young people with the skills and training they need. This was the message from  Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou at the launch of 'Nestlé needs YOUth', a new initiative inspired by the Commission's European Alliance for Apprenticeships. The Swiss multinational has pledged to create 20,000 jobs, apprenticeships and traineeships across Europe in the next three years.

"I welcome today's pledge by Nestlé. In a time of crisis, investing in the education and skills of young people is more important than ever. It is also vital that we invest in quality so that that our young people develop the skills and competences which will make them employable. This means that the private and public sectors need to work in partnership," said Commissioner Vassiliou.

Nestlé also pledged today to work with 60,000 business partners to increase work opportunities for young people. The company will provide 120 business ambassadors, who will provide advice and guidance to smaller companies that wish to start or strengthen apprenticeship schemes.

"This is an excellent example of how private companies should get engaged. Investing in skills not only benefits young people but also the businesses themselves because they will have a pool of young productive employees. By mobilising its network of small and medium-sized business partners, companies like Nestlé can also increase the impact of such initiatives," added Commissioner Vassiliou.

The Commission's European Alliance for Apprenticeships, launched in July by Commissioners Vassiliou and László Andor, in charge of employment, called for partnerships and pledges to strengthen the supply and quality of apprenticeships across Europe. Nestlé was among the first to sign up, pledging to increase the number of high-quality apprenticeships and traineeships by 50% by 2016.

The Commission has received 30 other pledges from businesses, social partners, chambers of commerce, industry and crafts, vocational education and training providers, youth organisations and others, which are published online. On 15 October, Member States adopted a Council Declaration in support of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, and agreed on guidelines to improve their apprenticeships systems.


Next month, the Commission is due to present a Quality Framework for Traineeships, to ensure that young people can acquire high quality work experience in safe conditions to increase their employability. The Commission also plans to include apprenticeships and traineeships on the EURES job mobility portal; a further proposal to strengthen EURES services to job-seekers and employers is due to be presented by the Commission before the end of 2013.

The new Erasmus+ programme, to be launched in January, will provide grants more than four million people, mostly under the age of 25, to study, train, work or volunteer abroad. They will include 2 million higher education students, 650,000 vocational training students and apprentices, as well as more than 500,000 young people volunteering abroad or taking part in youth exchanges. This international experience boosts skills and employability.

In December 2012, Greece signed a co-operation agreement with Germany to help reform its vocational education, training and apprenticeships system. The idea is to develop a 'dual' system of training, which combines theoretical learning at school and practical in-company experience.

More information

DG Education and Culture

Commissioner Vassiliou's website

Twitter @VassiliouEU

European Alliance for Apprenticeships (Twitter #EAFA)

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