Back Breakfast seminar marking the 15th anniversary of the European Wergeland Centre and the International Day of Education

"Education as civic preparedness, bridging policy and practice. 

Lessons from Ukraine and other European countries"



As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe


President of the Committee of Ministers, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Education and Sports of Liechtenstein, dear Dominique,

State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

Ambassador of France, dear Pap,

Director and Chair of the Board of the Wergeland Center,


Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,


I begin by thanking the Permanent Representations of Norway and Liechtenstein –

And the European Wergeland Centre –

For organising this important and very timely event.

The Council of Europe recognised early in its work the importance of education –

And it has remained a priority ever since.

Because education is the basis of what we all strive for – understanding, knowledge and reasoning –

And at the same time, it provides a route to equality and opportunity.

But most importantly, it is also the way in which young people can learn about democracy itself –

How this benefits them personally –

Their friends, families and communities –

And Europe and the wider world.

That way, they can also be empowered to participate in democratic life –

And help us recognise – and fend off – attacks on it.

Our special education program – our Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture – has been central to this work for many years –

Helping member states equip young people with the tools they need to raise awareness, educate and build a better, democratic future for us all.

This is what we mean when we talk about education as an investment.

An investment in our democracy.

And we have been very fortunate to have innovative, effective and clever partners that share this outlook.

Among these is the European Wergeland Centre.

For 15 years now, it has done extraordinary work.

It has implemented a wide range of co-operation programmes with national education authorities, higher education institutions, and civil society –

Involving thousands of teachers, plus teacher trainers, researchers, and parents –

And in this way, they have probably reached out to millions of students across Europe.

So, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the leadership of the Wergeland Centre and those employed there, as well as all of those who have contributed to the Wergeland Centre’s work so far –

You have helped ensure that education serves as the bedrock of inclusive democracies.

But there is still a lot to be done.

Our shared ambition is far from achieved.

Education must evolve to reflect the times we live in.

And today, these times are particularly challenging and difficult.

In 2022, the much-respected International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement – the IEA – published an important report –

It was titled “Education for Citizenship in Times of Global Challenge”.

It looked at the level of civic knowledge – the knowledge of how our societies work and what it means to live in democracy – among school-aged students across a range of 23 countries in the previous six years.

It found that the level of this knowledge fell in six countries –

And that it did not advance in any countries at all.

It also found a clear gender gap –

And clear differences in civic knowledge relating to socioeconomic status.

If you then add the various opinion polls of young Europeans that we have seen over recent years, it tells us a sad story: that faith in democracy as the best form of government is surprisingly weak – and falling.

I believe we know where much of this comes from.

The rise of extreme populism and nationalism which seeks to undermine democratic values –

The wave of polarised political debate and the crises that has faced our continent in recent years, including an economic crash –

A global pandemic –

And the Russian Federation’s appalling and ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine –

In addition to the emergence of new, fundamental long-term issues – including the environment and climate change, the use of Artificial Intelligence and the development of new technologies that go hand-in-hand with the rise of fake news, deep fakes and disinformation.

The good news is that the Council of Europe is playing its part in addressing all of these inter-connected challenges.

As our European leaders underlined at our Summit of Heads of State and Government in Reykjavík last May.

And among their commitments, they were also very explicit about the need for action to ensure young people’s “education about human rights and core democratic values”.

Quite simply, we need to reinvest in education for our youth and for our democracy –

In line with the times –

And to ensure the faith, resilience and civic preparedness that you will actually discuss here today.

And there is no doubt that the experts and practitioners in this room have invaluable and first-hand experience of this.

And it will be very interesting to hear more about the experience of schools and young learners in Ukraine, as their country defends itself and fights to secure, first and foremost, its freedom and democratic future – but also Europe’s future and a rules-based international order.

We can certainly learn from each other, as we step up our efforts –

And we are stepping up these efforts, right now.

Let me give you some very concrete examples.

First, our education ministers adopted last year a new Education Strategy – Learners First – that will run from this year until 2030.

One of its key pillars is renewing the democratic and civic mission of education.

This will help guide member states to ensure that their education systems prepare student “citizen learners” –

That are competent, responsible and active democratic citizens –

And able to think critically, recognise complexity and cope with uncertainty –

So that they can engage with key political issues of today, such as discrimination, migration, and human rights through a democratic lens –

And have faith in their democratic institutions.

Second, this feeds into our new initiative of Creating a European Space of Citizenship Education, where we will codify the key principles, concepts and commitments to education for democracy –

And set new standards for teaching, learning, and assessing competences for democratic culture –

With fresh indicators for measuring learner outcomes.

These new practices will be backed-up with support and legal assistance –

And, bringing these efforts together, we will help ensure that this form of education goes further than ever before –

Reaching more institutions and more students across our 46 member states.

And my third point – we have recently launched ENDURES –

A toolkit for Education in times of Emergencies and Crises.

This help authorities to assess the resilience of education systems when these come under strain –

During natural disasters, epidemics, conflict, war and so on –

So that weaknesses can be identified and addressed –

And quality education can be provided as best as possible to all students – also during these extreme difficult circumstances.

In this respect, the Wergeland Centre is already doing important work co-operating with Ukraine in the field of education at this time of war.

Dear friends,

Living in a democracy is what gives each of us freedom, autonomy and opportunity.

It is not something God-sent, but based on hard work.

And in an ever more complex world –

Where the challenges seem so daunting –

We cannot at any point assume that young people will simply inherit previous generations’ faith in the way that we are governed.

That they will automatically understand and believe in our democratic systems.

Instead, we must teach and explain to young people the benefits that come with living in a democracy –

And contrast these with the alternatives.

We must help them see that democracy is in fact our best hope even for overcoming the biggest of challenges –

But to do that we need education.

It must be the starting point for all of us.


Thank you for your attention.

Strasbourg 24 January 2024
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