Towards laying the foundations for education policy in the 21st century (Part 2)

Introducing individuals into a real society such as the one I described earlier is by no means an easy task. Clearly, in the climate of uncertainty in which the task of educating people is developing, we should not lose sight of the capacity that education has, has always had and must continue to have in fostering the homogeneity and social cohesion that stem from a common educational curriculum.

The third aim pursued in education – preparing young people for active working life – represents the other side of the coin, namely that of meeting the needs and acquiring the skills that society requires. Every study on education makes the observation that as economies must adapt with enormous flexibility and at a rapid pace, so employment structures and the nature of jobs must evolve at breakneck speed. The restructuring of economic sectors may see new technologies and new means of organizing labour emerge. These technologies are so sweeping in nature that they change substantially the skills required by the labour market. Organizing the practical functions of education to meet the exact specific requirements of working life has never been an easy task; when, therefore, those specific requirements change as they are doing at present, that task becomes simply impossible. We can only hope to take a reasonable approach to such a challenge by providing pupils with a solid educational grounding, by developing lifelong education and moving gradually towards a society which is being educated continuously, and by employing the educational tools that technologies themselves make available to us as flexibly as we can.

Education is thus called upon to play its strategic role in a constantly changing world in which its own objectives are extremely blurred. Fortunately, though, the new requirements facing education have emerged at a time when society is once again beginning to deem it a valuable asset. In the 1960s, the last ‘golden age’ of confidence in the potential which education held to engineer change, education systems around the world expanded considerably, spending on education came to be seen as a worthwhile investment, the meritocracy appeared to have earned legitimacy as a driving force for social mobility, and education was used as means of redressing inequalities. The ‘golden age’ of the 1960s then gave way to certain doubts about the role that education should play and to a barrage of criticism suggesting that resources were being squandered, whilst progressive educational circles flirted with the idea that access to education did not remedy social inequality per se or to any great extent. In any event, the economic slump of the 1970s and the financial crises at national level put paid to these educational expansion policies, before the latter began to win back support in the 1980s, and markedly so in the 1990s.

This change stems from a number of convictions. Firstly, that we are living in a society in which knowledge is all-important. Secondly, that knowledge has come to represent one of the key players of the future. Thirdly, that scientific and technological progress in a global economy is central to improving competitiveness. And fourthly, that one’s level of professional competence is crucial to mastering complex industrial processes.

Calls for education to be treated as a strategic option are widespread. Ample proof of this is found in the plans laid out by Clinton, Blair and Jospin; in the book which UNESCO entrusted to Jacques Delors, whose thought-provoking title compares education to a treasure-trove; or in the successive speeches delivered at the Latin American summits of heads of state and government in Madrid, Bahía, Cartagena and Bariloche on education as a factor in economic development. General agreement exists, then, that education is essential to stimulating economic, social and cultural development, though it is not the be-all and end-all. When the social structure enables people to better themselves and the economic climate is favourable, education produces multi-faceted, flexible human capital and erodes social inequalities. Education policy has the potential, therefore, to become a driving force behind growth with equality, provided that it forms part of an overall development strategy and that the international and domestic economic climate is right.

Clearly, then, countries must become societies founded upon knowledge and turn every available means of education to their best advantage. Equality as well as development must underpin the drive to bring education to all people, throughout their increasingly long lives.

Please allow me now to mention some guidelines which, in my opinion, should govern education policy in the coming century. Guideline number one: the education system has long since lost its monopoly as a fountain of learning. Young people in today’s world obtain information from a whole host of sources, and foremost amongst them the ever more interactive media. That said, schools are second to none in tasks such as instilling the capacity for abstraction or ensuring fluency in language to stimulate structural communication, thought and the shaping of free minds. The purpose of education becomes all the more crucial bearing in mind the need to develop an identity and a sense of belonging whereby one adheres to the values that govern community life, becomes a fully mature member of society and sees the value in the ethics of effort, cooperation and responsibility. In short, far from shrinking, the role played by schools is gaining in significance. It should fall to them to sort out the wealth of information available to pupils, give it relevant meaning and channel it towards a moral purpose.

Guideline number two: the education system no longer enjoys a monopoly on teaching, for much can be learnt outside educational establishments, in the home and, above all, at the workplace. The need to learn will remain with pupils – and, indeed with all individuals – throughout their lives. On the other hand, the most reliable studies highlight how important it is to their future careers that young people possess the most basic skills. They must be able to read, write, reason and count. They must understand how the social and economic fabric of a country is organised. They must have a basic grasp of physics and biology. They should have benefited from experience in engaging in communal activities and resolving conflicts within groups. Their behaviour and attitudes as people must be such that they will help shape a responsible, trustworthy, adaptable and informed member of society. To sum up, education must organise itself in such a way that schools give young people the faculties that no other institution can, including the most vital – the ability to learn how to learn.

Guideline number three: education and employment will become ever more closely linked as time goes by. I have already mentioned that communications are undergoing rapid change and that trying to make the range of education dependent upon the needs of a hazily defined labour market leads nowhere. In such circumstances, high-quality vocational training – by which I mean university education as well – should be structured so as to ensure that it covers many aspects and is, by extension, primed to adapt to technological changes. As paradoxical as it may seem, the best vocational training undoubtedly takes the form of a sound basic education together with an effective vocational training element. Moreover, training must take the production system as its reference point, for which it requires the active involvement of social agents, an overview of company practices, sandwich courses, or the involvement of people actively engaged in an occupation in education.

Guideline number four: education systems must be constantly more open and flexible in order to facilitate the inclusion at various levels of those adults returning to education to improve or update their education. That implies extending options such as part-time education, applying techniques and methods related specifically to adult education, and coordinating with education structures outside school. In short, learning as an activity, once confined to young people, now affects all age groups and social categories. The education system must be able to cater for each and every one of them.

Guideline number five: in future, education systems will be wrestling with an apparent contradiction, in that whilst they will have to be able to learn within the context of the cultural identity linked to their region or country, pupils will be living and communicating in a world which transcends borders and traditional language barriers. The sole means of ensuring that extended schooling achieves practical results and does not trigger off a huge increase in the drop-out rate, is to make schools more flexible in their approach and help introduce diversity into them in an orderly fashion, by giving them the free rein in matters of teaching and organization that is lacking in the vast majority of countries at present.

Guideline number six: in recent years a significant effort has been made to expand schooling in quantitative terms, and indeed we should continue providing schools with resources. However, in the years ahead it would be appropriate to shift the emphasis towards a more quality-based approach and focus upon standards in education, which implies updating curricula, modernizing funding methods, training the teaching profession, introducing innovations and undertaking a continuous external assessment of the education system.

Guideline number seven: the principle of standards that I have just outlined takes on particular importance at university and in science and technology. University life is about competing and should also be about pursuing excellence, which suggests that we review the purpose of universities and become accustomed to the idea that rather than covering every subject universities should specialize. International cooperation is required in the world of science, for the overwhelming majority of scientific matters of import transcend national borders. Demand for higher education places will hold up in the years to come, because, amongst other things, such is the immediate effect of extending compulsory education, but primarily because many adults will be entering this level of education. In such circumstances, quality and the search for a separate identity are two sides of the same coin. This is the path that university reform should take to ensure that universities are given consistently large room for manoeuvre to implement their own reforms, whilst remaining sensitive to the risk of corporatism. We cannot allow the tail to wag the dog.

Guideline number eight: the numbers of people in education is rising, whilst the dividing lines between initial training and continuing education and between general education and vocational training are becoming blurred. The different social sectors should be involved in running schools. As running educational establishments becomes increasingly complicated, so will we have to focus more on that area. We shall be called upon to cater for a diverse group of pupils whose motivations, attitudes and interests vary. Running these establishments must constitute both the benefit we shall derive from striking a balance between involvement and efficiency (a task which is never simple) and a priority in the state education sector. In short, we should combat the widespread view that our state-run establishments have no master.

Guideline number nine: the aim of extending compulsory education is to ensure that pupils across the board achieve – not by keeping every child occupied at school, but by seeing to it that each attains certain educational targets. In the case of compulsory education, those targets fall within the concept of citizenship, which is what is required of a young person if he or she is to enter society as a mature and free individual. That is why seeing to it that all pupils match one another in achieving should be compulsory education’s primary concern. Otherwise, we shall merely be extending education for its own sake. But whereas ‘equal achievements’ constitute the main thrust of compulsory education, equal opportunities lie at the heart of post-compulsory education and training. In that way, all young people will progress within the education system as far as their attitudes and interests allow, thanks to the equal opportunities which are even more vital to achieving social justice in a society founded on knowledge than in the industrial and post-industrial societies that we have known thus far.

Guideline number ten: lastly, fighting discrimination is an essential component of educational activity, since in addition to the old social inequalities generally associated with economic disparities, the need now exists to be alert to new discrimination at school on the grounds of race, gender, nationality or merely one’s state of health. In short, working to combat any form of discrimination whatsoever is not only essential for ethical reasons, nor is it even so much a matter of principle: it is also crucial to underpinning social cohesion. Culture and intolerance are, and will remain, incompatible; the same applies to schools and discrimination.

I should like to conclude on an emotional point. This is not meant as criticism of anyone here, but I feel that given the large number of economists present at this seminar, we have strayed a little too far into the technical aspect of our political debate and have somewhat neglected our emotions. Allow me to share mine with you very briefly. We on the left have always indulged in self-criticism. We thrive on disaster. The presence of religion – Catholicism, in our case – might serve to explain this permanent trait. We are forever seeking to find fault in ourselves, and whenever we speak of the market, whingeing pervades our discourse. We have no other option than to accept that the market is a bad thing; it pains us to say that it is good. We always sound defensive. Yet were we to approach matters from an historical perspective and consider events over the past hundred years, we would be forced to admit that we have emerged as outright victors. If we look at what separated right from left, reactionaries from progressives one hundred years ago, we must acknowledge that we have done a pretty good job. Education is available to all; people can, theoretically, be treated in hospitals on demand; no longer work in the mines; working hours have been reduced. It would appear, then, that, fits and starts aside, history has vindicated us, and that together all of these means make for a good system for distributing wealth more efficiently. I did not espouse left-wing values because I wanted to see bureaucracy expand, nor did I identify with the left so as to advocate government which grew ever larger and controlled more and more means of porno production. For me, it was a far simpler matter: I embraced left-wing views because people deserved to live differently; because my country had no freedoms; because discrimination, intolerance and the such like pained me. These are emotions: perhaps someone should have made them the starting point for this seminar. Still, better late than never.

Towards laying the foundations for education policy in the 21st century (Part 1)

I should like to begin by thanking the organizers of this seminar for the opportunity of returning to the subject of education. I have dedicated almost eleven years of my political career -from 1982 to 1993- to the exciting task of working on reform of the Spanish education system. In 1993 Felipe González cut short my happiness, transferred me to the Ministry of the Presidency and made me work in media relations. My hair went grey and continued to fall out and my alopecia progressed in leaps and bounds. Before I begin in earnest, I should warn you that I may well get a little carried away with this subject at times as a result of my excessively detailed knowledge of the state of education in my country, in which case I apologize for that here and now. My speech will give an outline of the state in which education finds itself at present, before going on to list ten principles which I see as fundamental to the education policy we require in the 21st century.
Education might best be compared to landscapes, insofar as in each country its form differs, it has been fashioned over many years, and has its own peculiarities. Although I intend them to be of a general nature, some of the aspects I shall be touching upon could not be applied with ease to each and every education system around the world. Nevertheless, in my view they remain broad outlines which serve as a starting point for discussion.

I think you will agree with me that analyses of the current situation have thrown up very similar perceptions. The deep-seated changes we are now experiencing have introduced a prevailing sense of malaise and confusion into our societies. There are those who believe, wrongly, that the world has undergone great and, more to the point, sudden change. They associate this change with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has come to represent the close of an era throughout which blocs stood opposed to one another, the cold war set in, the threat of a nuclear holocaust loomed, and ideologies clashed. Taking their lead from Fukuyama, they attempted to turn the page of history, hastily proclaiming that history itself had come to an end with the imposition of one of the two models of society which had once been in direct confrontation. The truth is that the world does not change merely because the Soviet Union breaks up, because German reunification takes place, because new conflicts (which are, indeed, old) emerge, or because a new international order is decreed. In fact, we have probably seen more historic events occur in the world since the end of history was decreed than in recent decades. No one in their right mind would deny the relevance of the events I have described above. Yet, at the same time, the radical and lasting changes that have been emerging over the past two decades will be far more difficult to reverse than those which the fall of the Berlin Wall might have produced.

I shall examine those changes very briefly, for they form the context within which education policies must be defined. Take, for instance, developments in communications, which, whilst ushering in the global village on the one hand, provoke trends towards the uniform, the banal, and a certain cultural anomie on the other. Or advances in the field of genetics, whereby production can be increased, illness prevented and reproduction revolutionized. Or the emergence of information technologies, whose influence extends right across all production processes and which are at the root of new means of organizing labour. Or the danger that the lifestyle led by most is jeopardizing the conservation of the natural environment and the respect for our surroundings, including recognition of the need to safeguard vital resources. Or longer life expectancy and its many different ramifications vis-à-vis the structure of society and its rules. Or greater plurality and widening gaps in society, with the emergence of new forms of exclusion, many of them linked to knowledge. Or migration levels and the increasing emergence of cultural mosaics, or what have been termed mixed-race cultures. Or, finally, the resurgence of irrational dogmas and trends. These extremely significant changes have engendered a crisis in traditional values. It is true to say that in today’s world a good many absolute certainties and unassailable principles have been called into question. We are no longer certain even of our most dependable secular alternative, namely our faith in progress.

As we seek out certainties, we trust that education will act as it always has done, that is to say that it will shape human beings, make it possible to introduce mature individuals into society, and prepare them for working life. These are three functions which education is called upon to perform in a dramatically changing world. The first of them – turning out mature human beings – has undoubtedly become more complicated than it was in the past, bearing in mind that as standards in education have been raised, so targets have become considerably more diverse. Extending and broadening studies makes pupils a more heterogeneous group, and helps them achieve in more areas. Alongside all this we see that inefficiencies in educational systems drawing upon excessively uniform criteria are worsening, thereby indicating the need for greater diversity and a more personal approach to education. I shall return to this matter later.