Don’t mention the B word

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, National secretary for education, UNISON

The shadow of Brexit is hanging over the progress made in recent years by the EU’s education consultation and negotiation group, says Jon Richards

I’m writing this in Brussels where I am preparing for a European Union meeting on education. I realise that sets me up as a quisling for the evil Brussels empire. And it’s clearly a family trait as my daughter spent several months on an exchange programme at Toulouse University, funded by the EU’s Erasmus programme.

The meeting is the EU Sectoral Social Dialogue for Education (ESSDE). This is the officially recognised EU consultation and negotiation body made up of employers and unions.

Sadly, for obvious reasons, it could be my last as a representative of the European Public Service Union – the EU federation for public services professional and support staff. I was there when the committee was set up five years ago and, although it has taken some time, it has recently begun to have an impact on EU education policy.

It’s not been an easy journey – for many years EU governments’ jealously guarded education policy as a devolved issue, although the EU did have an impact in higher education, particularly joint-country research funding and the aforementioned Erasmus programme.

It was only after the financial crisis hit and governments across Europe realised that a way out of austerity was to improve the education and skills of the population that serious co-operation looking at all areas of education began. However the EU’s initial wider education programmes had a limited impact. They were agreed at a high level but didn’t really engage with staff or employers and had no-one championing them in the nation states.

The rise in populism and antagonism across Europe has shocked the EU and they have belatedly recognised the need to promote a wider social as well as economic Europe – one that involves dialogue, engagement and listening. The ESSDE, which is representative and has links into nations, has taken six years to get off the ground – not least because initially the employers’ didn’t have an organisation to represent them.

Increasingly the Commission has got used to the new kid on the block and now sees it as an important part of the policy-making process.

Initially my role was very similar to the role I play when I meet ministers, civil servants, employers and sister teaching unions in the UK: to remind them that 50 per cent of people working in schools are not teachers – so education policy, training and development needs to be aimed at the whole workforce. Now there is a wider understanding of a whole school team.

Today’s ESSDE meeting shows recent progress The EU council recommendation on an EU framework for quality and effective Apprenticeships got through the system in record time because of the joint work of employers and unions.

We have seen EU policy on further education and training in Europe change as a result of officials attending our meetings.

The EU is putting more money into education with a focus on disadvantage, migration and mobility, such as expanding the Erasmus programme to cover further education, apprentices and schools. The meeting also launched a project on recruitment and retention of teachers.

Having made progress in affecting change at a higher level, our next challenge was to promote and implement the EU work.

A positive, social agenda of increased funding and policy worked out with agreement of staff and employers – I can’t wait until we can engage with our government and promote some progressive EU policies to be implemented in the UK.
What can possibly get in the way?

  • Jon Richards is the national secretary for education at UNISON.


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