Councillor’s report on education accepted by EU body

A report by a local Kildare County Councillor which could have a significant effect on the future of education in the European Union has been accepted by a powerful committee.

A report by a local Kildare County Councillor which could have a significant effect on the future of education in the European Union has been accepted by a powerful committee.

Cllr. Fiona O’Loughlin is a member of the Committee of the Regions (COR), a body which has members from local authorities all over Europe and which is intended to give local representatives direct access to Europe’s top decision makers.

When the top bodies in Europe such as the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers are working on new policy, a member of the COR is appointed to the position of ‘Rapporteur’, and is required to produce a report.

That report, known as an ‘opinion’ is then presented to the COR for approval. Once approved it is referred to the higher bodies who will consider its findings as part of their own deliberations.

And last Friday morning, Cllr. O’Loughlin presented her opinion ‘Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better economics outcomes’ to the COR.

However the achievement was tinged with considerable sadness. Her father, the late Jimmy O’Loughlin, was one of the first members of the Committee of the Regions when it was established in 1994, when there were only 12 countries in the Union.

And on this, the 100th sitting of the COR since its establishment, it was expected that he would have been present to support her.

Sadly, Mr O’Loughlin passed away on January 28 last, and two of his children, Conor and Sinead, attended the COR last Friday morning along with several other friends to support her.

Speaking to the Leinster Leader, Cllr O’Loughlin revealed that the entire project had, in the circumstances, been tough.

The consultation work for the opinion had started just in the weeks before her father’s death, and at times she doubted if she would be able to tackle the mountain of work.

But tackle it she did, and successfully.

Cllr. O’Loughlin’s opinion actually sought to shift the emphasis of the new policy away from directly linking the education provided to the young people of Europe with the requirements of the various industries around Europe.

She felt that a broader focus was required, and emphasised the role of education in the development of young people and in making them better able to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

“Education and training are fundamental to help us emerge from the crisis that Europe is currently in,” she said in her address to the COR.

“However, in welcoming the communication (from the European Commission), I want to add a word of caution by suggesting to the European Commission (and the Member States) that account needs to be taken of the broader role of education, so that it is not just focused on growth and competitiveness and developing economic proto units, but that it also has a clear emphasis on personal development, citizenship and well-being.

“A holistic and integrated vision of education is required along the lines of Delors four pillars of learning - to know, to do, to be and to live together.

“Education should liberate, stimulate and inform the individual, as well as embracing our individuality.”

Speaking to the Irish delegation at the COR, it was clear to the Leinster Leader that the policy being favoured by the European Commission appeared to directly and solely link education to the requirements of industry. This is a particularly German way of thinking – that the sole purpose of learning anything is to be able to do it in a job, whereas it’s generally agreed by experts in education that the purpose of education is not necessarily to teach facts, but train them to think.

Cllr. O’Loughlin also noted that “the length of time spent in education is a poor indicator of learning” - and later she said: “Skills do not automatically convert into jobs and growth”.

This isn’t to suggest that she was against a more vocational approach to education. She supported vocational education, and generally speaking, the need for greater entrepreneurial thinking in education.

In reality, while the presentation of the opinion may be a nervous experience for the Rapporteur, the big work is carried out in the weeks and months beforehand where they must meet with experts throughout Europe and write it.

Then, a few weeks before the Rapporteur presents the Opinion, it is made widely available to other members of the COR, who are invited to make amendments.

In Cllr. O’Loughlin’s case, the amendments had be submitted by Monday, March 25. She then had a number of weeks to accept or reject the amendments.

Her Opinion was 12 pages long. The proposed Amendments were 42 pages long, containing 42 individual amendments. Some of them are very minor, little more than changing the emphasis in a sentence, such as changing the word ‘should’ to ‘must’.

At the top of each amendment is a list of names of other COR members who supported each amendment.

Occasionally, noting the nationality of the proposers could give you an indication of what way the amendment was likely to go. More often than not, it was the Germans and Nordic countries who contributed most.

Cllr. O’Loughlin accepted most of the proposed amendments. In presenting her Opinion to the COR on Friday, she had to defend her thinking where she had decided to reject proposed amendments.

In one case, she rejected the amendment because those proposing it mis-interpreted her use of the phrase ‘standardised testing’. She meant the use of standardised testing within a country, such as the Leaving Cert, where everybody sits the same exam.

Her comment got lost in translation, and 10 German members of the COR got it into their heads that she was proposing that everybody in Europe sit the exact same exam.

Misinterpretations are not unusual, but a lot less common than you’d imagine in an institution that works in 22 languages simultaneously. It is nothing short of amazing to see it in action, with more than 30 translators servicing any given meeting.

There was only significant discussion on one of them, where members from all over Europe had difficulty with a proposal from Cllr. O’Loughlin that the choice of languages in a school be “based on the needs identified by local and regional authorities in consultation with the business world”.

They objected on the basis that “language learning cannot be decided on the basis of local labour market needs alone”.

She didn’t necessarily disagree with that point of view, but explained that during her consultation carried out during the preparation of the opinion, this was the strong view of authorities, especially in parts of Europe that were near border regions.

Eventually a compromise was struck whereby she changed the phrase ‘must be based’ to ‘can also be based’.

Each amendment is voted on, and the committee voted with Cllr. O’Loughlin on each one.

The Committee thanked her for her Opinion and for her work in such trying personal circumstances.

- Conor McHugh