Standing Conference of Ministers of Education

Helsinki , 

As delivered


Dear Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am very pleased to welcome you to the 24th session of the Council of Europe's Standing Conference of Ministers of Education.

 I would like to start by thanking our Finnish hosts, including Mr Gustavsson the Finnish Minister of Education, for staging this event. It is great to be back in Helsinki, I always enjoy coming here.

 Minister Gustavsson, I can honestly say that I can think of no better place to have this conference than Finland, a world leader in education.

 Year after year, your students top the PISA tables: in mathematics, in reading, in science.

 And while more Finns are accepted to college than in any other European nation, the achievement gap between your weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world.

 Europe should take note.

Of course, no two countries are the same but the example of Finland should give us cause for optimism.

Finland shows Europe that it is possible, even in a tightening economy, to build an effective educational system without breaking the bank.

Finland shows that it is possible to use smart education policies to raise a nation's prosperity, to reduce poverty.

That it is possible to raise the standard of education if you give teachers the respect and recognition they deserve. It is no coincidence that the current Prime Minister, Finance Minister as well as former president Ahtisaari, were all teachers before they became politicians. It is a profession held in high esteem. And rightly so.

I am particularly pleased that education quality and governance are the two sub-themes chosen for our conference.

Education quality and governance: they are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Quality is about whether we manage to develop our societies in accordance with our vision and our values. 

These days, you often hear a chorus of political leaders chime that the main focus of education should be to make people more employable.

They are right that employment must be a priority. But there is much more to education than finding a job.

Education is ultimately about the kind of society we want, not only about the kind of jobs we would like people to have.

The Council of Europe has defined four major purposes of education:

  • Preparation for employment
  • Preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies
  • Personal development


  • Developing a broad, advanced knowledge base.

All four are equally important.

However, as an organisation devoted to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it is only natural that the Council of Europe devotes particular attention to the second point, democratic citizenship.       

I say this mindful that the Helsinki Accords – marking a moment when the tides of history began to move – were signed not far from where we are now.

Only a short generation ago, democracy stopped at the eastern borders of this country.

It is a measure of how far we have come in two and a half decades that to those who are in school today, this seems like the distant past, read about in history books.

It is nevertheless a sad fact that the situation in many places, reminds us that democracy is not something we gain once and for all.

We cannot take democracy for granted. It must be nurtured and developed in each new generation. 

The lesson is clear: democracy cannot exist without education.

Democracy cannot exist without dedicated teachers who believe that their mission goes beyond the chemistry or literature lesson of the day. 

Democracy cannot exist without school leaders, parents and public authorities who give teachers their trust and support.

Above all, democracy cannot be built without pupils and students who learn to practice it. This is precisely the theme of our conference today and tomorrow.

Democracy also cannot exist if we do not have the competences to make democracy work in practice and to speak with those whose background is different from our own. 

Europe needs a strong culture of democracy and intercultural dialogue.

This goal forms the core of the Council of Europe's existence and we will stay true to this mission in the years to come.

But how do we do this? How do we achieve excellent levels of education that help us develop the kind of society we want for the future?

It is, above all, a question of good governance.

Let me sketch out some of my thoughts.

If we think governance is not important, let us start by considering why democracy is in trouble in today's Europe.

The disillusionment we see in so many European countries is not with the ideals of democracy. It is with the way democracy works in practice – or does not work. 

We must face the facts. Europe's crisis is not just a financial one. It is also a crisis of trust.

To paraphrase the late Finnish President J.K. Paasikivi: "acknowledging the truth is the beginning of wisdom."

I believe this too. I believe in social dialogue and honest public debate.

The challenge we face as policy-makers is to weigh our possibilities and set priorities.

It is about defining our values, about making each young child believe that he or she can make a difference – and to organise our societies in such a way that this belief is justified.

If this is not a task for education, what is?

This brings me to the other side of the coin: quality of education.

Quality is perhaps the word we hear most frequently in education debates. We speak a lot about how important quality is but we rarely discuss what quality is.

The Council of Europe has done its bit to remedy this.

In December 2012, our Committee of Ministers adopted Recommendation (2012)13 on ensuring quality education.  This recommendation is important and brings added value.

It underlines that we cannot know what quality is unless we know why we have education.

It's simple: if we do not know why we do something, it is impossible to know if we are doing it well.

The recommendation recognises that the quality of education depends not only on whether an individual school or university is good but on whether the education system as a whole is making the grade.  This is particularly important for the social role of education.

For example, we can perhaps think of good schools or universities that turn down applicants. We cannot, I hope, conceive of a good education system that does not offer opportunities to all its learners.

For the Council of Europe, and me personally, quality education is about equality.

In recent years, the Council of Europe's work on quality education has been closely linked to giving access to education to every individual independent of their socio-economic or cultural background. 

Quality education is therefore defined as an inclusive education. 

Its implementation opens up new dimensions thereby improving social cohesion and individual opportunities. 

Often, these opportunities can have a monumental impact on a person's life. 

I know this from personal experience: I was the first person in my family to go to university. 

It has been almost forty years since I graduated from Oslo University – a long time – but what was true for me back then is still very relevant today. 

Quality education equips students with the self- confidence to put their competences, knowledge and skills to good use as responsible citizens and workers. 

Quality education is also about giving teachers the respect – and resources – they deserve.

It is not just about getting the best teachers; it is about getting the best out of teachers. 

Once again, the example of Finland shows that getting good teachers to a large extent depends on how you select and train them. 

It doesn't have to cost a fortune to make teaching a credible career choice for the brightest graduates. 

Importantly, a quality education can be measured not just by how many top performers it produces but how it helps those who fall behind.  Special-education teachers as well as one-to-one remedial lessons are an important part of the mix. 

Looking to the future, the Council of Europe will include diversity, participation and democratic innovation among its priorities for its 2014-15 programme. 

We cannot fulfil these priorities without a strong education programme.

 My compatriot, the playwright Henrik Ibsen, once said "Jeg spørger kun, mit kald er ei at svare", which translates roughly as "I only ask the questions, my calling does not lie in finding the answers".

 That, dear Ministers, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, is not quite good enough for us.

 Quality education must give us the imagination to ask critical and uncomfortable questions.

 But it should also give us the audacity to find the answers.

Answers to what kind of European society we want for our future generations and answers to how we can make our education systems good enough to get us there.

Yes, education is about creating a society in its deepest sense. It is therefore about creating good citizens.

 Everyone cannot become as curious as Albert Einstein or artistic as Pablo Picasso or as open-minded as my fellow citizen Thor Heyerdahl.

 But we have to keep in mind what Einstein said "your brain is like a parachute, it has to be opened to function". And Heyerdahl said "The aim of education is to make people curious, and open-minded, artists of life.

 Thank you.