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Securing Democracy through Education - 25th session of the Council of Europe Standing Conference of Ministers of Education

Brussels , 

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Europe’s crisis of confidence

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

I have the honour to declare open the 25th session of the Council of Europe Standing Conference of Ministers of Education.

I would also like to propose that we observe one minute of silence for the victims of terrorism and violent extremism.

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The Council of Europe’s Action Plan on “the fight against violent extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism” was adopted during Belgium’s Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, last May.

Inviting us to hold this event here is the latest demonstration of Belgium’s continued commitment to this programme.

And, after last month’s terror attack here in Brussels there is nowhere else I would rather we meet.

In the same cities where terrorists detonate bombs to create fear and division we come together, in solidarity, to pursue safety through co-operation.

It is our best response.

Our societies are now engaged in a long battle.

The economic crisis, the refugee crisis, the growth of home-grown terror, the persistence of human rights abuses on our continent, all have brought into question Europe’s internationalist and democratic ideals.

The European project finds itself in a deep crisis of confidence.

Trust in state institutions is at an all-time low.

And the beneficiaries are the populists.

Nationalists.

Xenophobes.

Anti-Semites, Islamophobes, the far right.

They see that our societies are being transformed – by globalisation, by new technology, by unprecedented migration.

They sense people’s anxiety.

They offer easy answers: the politics of blame.

And they do it with devastating effect.

If we want to preserve our democratic ideals…

If we want to safeguard the openness and tolerance on which modern Europe is built…

…we need to be just as unapologetic in promoting our values too.

Competences for Democratic Culture

It starts in our schools – it has to.

In Europe today most states have some form of civic education.

But we still do not, as standard practice, teach our children what it means – explicitly – to be a democratic citizen.

How to live with others, as equals, in mixed societies.

Many educators do an excellent job – but they see this gap

They tell us that it is becoming increasingly difficult to create “safe spaces” in classrooms where controversial issues can be calmly and responsibly discussed.

They tell us of the struggle to reconcile freedom of expression with countering hate speech.

They tell us that, yes, you can teach students about democratic processes, such as voting but it is not so easy to teach democratic culture, the mindsets and attitudes.

So I see the first priority of this Ministerial which brings together European Education Ministers and representatives of international institutions to be empowering our educators to meet these challenges;

Doing our bit to ensure that all members of our societies grow up with the skills needed to sustain democracy.

At the heart of this agenda, as you know, is our flagship Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture.

I hope you will not only strongly endorse it, but also help catapult the project to its next stage.

The idea first gained momentum during Andorra’s Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, which ended in 2013.

I would like to welcome back the former Permanent Representative of Andorra, Josep Dallerès – Josep, we are here as a result of your efforts.

I think it is useful if I recall what the Competences are not.

This is not some kind of new political curriculum.

It isn’t ideological.

We are not attempting to rewrite history, or define religion.

Nor is this about pushing ‘Europe’ – the idea – onto your schools.

This is about setting out, for the first time ever, the specific competences needed by young citizens across all of our democracies.

How to live in society where not everyone thinks like you but where we all have a responsibility to uphold the democratic principles by which our different belief systems co-exist.

The Competences combine teaching values: the value of justice, for example, fairness and the rule of law;

Attitudes: such as respecting the right of others to hold their own opinions;

Skills: empathy, listening, resolving conflicts;

And, perhaps of widest benefit, the ability to approach issues critically: such as history, or politics, or the media. The ability to separate facts from opinion, and then debate those views.

They are designed precisely so that they can be adapted to suit differing national and local realities.

I hope, eventually, that they will be used in schools beyond Europe’s borders, too.

We know that the UN is keen to see how the policy develops.

We also hope it will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of G7 Education Minsters in Japan.

And, with your support, we will now launch the second testing phase, on as wide a scale as possible.

We will provide the guidelines – some of you have already helped us in the first testing phase.

In the second phase, we need even stronger participation, in even more countries.

By the end of 2017 we want the Framework to be ready, available and already in use.

And today I ask you, Education Ministers, to actively support testing in your domestic education institutions and schools.

Education and the Council of Europe

The project builds on sturdy foundations.

In 2010, member states agreed our Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education culminating many years of work, and confirming that education and training are central to the Council of Europe’s core mission:

Promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

But it is true that, within our Organisation, we are now elevating education, giving it a status it has not perhaps enjoyed before.

We have to: The Council of Europe was an institution created to help deliver peace and stability in Europe and, today, the education practices of our member states and European security are becoming increasingly intertwined.

Our landmark “signposts” publication on teaching about religious and non-religious world views in intercultural education has been published in 11 languages, including Arabic, and remains in high demand.

We have well-established programmes for helping schools teach controversial issues, for example, and teaching history from different perspectives.

And as we do more in this field we need to ask ourselves if, as an organisation, we are ready for this shift.

Should, for example, the Charter be reviewed, as the key reference point for our work on education? Should, eventually, we be talking about a Convention? Are there other ways of becoming more rigorous in assessing states’ progress?

These are open questions which I pose to you

Integrating migrants and refugees

There is one other, related, area which I want to bring to your attention – and that is integrating migrants and refugees.

Initiatives such as the Democratic Competences are, in part, about educating the majority to be open to minorities.

But it is equally important to use education to empower newcomers to become active and engaged members of our democracies as well – for their own good and for broader social cohesion, too

In this debate, everyone is still talking about quotas, deals, relocation – and understandably so.

But the next stage of the refugee crisis is the integration challenge.

This time, let’s not be caught so off guard.

Let’s not wait for a problem to become a catastrophe before collaborating on a response.

Last year an estimated 300,000 children arrived in Europe.

Many have already been through traumas unimaginable to the rest of us.

The longer they stay out of school, the more damage that will be done.

I wrote to Heads of Government last month, reminding them that each and every one of these children has a right to education:

Whether in transit or not, whether granted asylum or not.

I want the Council of Europe to help promote the right policies to deliver it, and we have a steering group working on this.

But we need to hear directly from you: what works, what doesn’t, how can we help?

Our Action Plan on “Building Inclusive Societies” sets out, among other things, how States can better integrate migrants and refugees through language teaching and learning that is more targeted.

We’re also looking at what steps are needed to overcome the current barriers to recognizing the qualifications held by migrants and refugees.

Since 1999, 48 Cultural Convention States have committed to dismantling the obstacles which exist by ratifying the joint Council of Europe/UNESCO “Lisbon Recognition Convention”.

Yet the vast majority – over 70% – have taken no action at all to help refugees have their qualifications recognised.

Again, what are the blockages? How can we remove them? Let us start getting ahead of this problem. 

Conclude

As we look across our societies today, it should be obvious that, in the long-term, education policies and practices will be more decisive for tolerance and stability than any counter-terror measure, any asylum reform, any law.

This isn’t how we are used to thinking in Europe.

International Organisations do not usually convene education specialists to talk security.

But these are the times we live in.

Stability rests on democracy.

Democracy relies on education.

And education depends on you.

Us too.

We need to have confidence in teaching our shared values to the next generation – without apology.

We need to use education and training to promote the inclusion of the newest members of our societies.

And we need to be in it for the long-haul.

The Council of Europe is, and I’d like to thank you again for being here today.

I would now like to invite Belgium to take over the Chairing of the Conference. 

Belgium is represented by two Ministers of Education, Ms Hilde Crevits and Mr Harald Mollers who will be co-Chairs of our Conference.

Today’s sessions will be chaired by Ms Crevits and Mr Mollers.  Ms Crevits, I would now like to invite you to take the chair, as Chairperson of the Conference.