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What do we mean by a European dimension in education?

"You’ll have to excuse my English – it’s my fourth language," said Eeva Penttilä, the Finnish President of the European Secondary Heads Association, as she proceeded to talk about European collaboration in schools, belying the assertion that you lose 40% of your effective intelligence when you speak in a foreign language.

"In a way, we’re barking up the wrong tree if we insist on teaching our children ‘to be international’ as if this were a separate entity. Being ‘international’ is nothing more and nothing less than a matter of personal and national self-confidence. By this

I mean a youth that is European yet grounded in its own national identity. Also, we need to be able to live in a flexible society and have the courage to deal with constant changes and new situations. We need skills to interpret other people and cultures, whether we come across them in our own countries or abroad."

Addressing National Conference on "Developing Skills for Inter-cultural Co-operation", organised by the Central Bureau,* Mrs Penttilä was tempted to draw comparisons between Finland and Britain. "Coming from a small and young(ish) nation state, Finns have been rather wary of the outside world. Of course this is a generalisation, but on the whole we haven’t exactly embraced other cultures. The Finnish identity has been built on many things, but one ingredient has certainly been fear of the foreign -- sometimes justified, sometimes not. We have obviously opened up, and have already done a fair bit, but a lot remains to be done."

Without a hint of irony, Eeva Penttilä went on to describe Britain as a super-power -- which the 200-strong audience of teachers, head teachers and education officials found highly amusing -- with a long-established international network. Still, it seems that even with this extensive network, Britain, too, needs to work on her inter-cultural skills.

A lot of good work on developing and polishing these skills is being done in schools. They are putting the flesh on a European (and international) dimension, and the National Conference has a policy of naming and acclaiming primary and secondary schools and colleges of further education that have done particularly well over the last year or so.

All of the six schools presented with the European Curriculum Award for 1997 take pride in their links with Europe. Two of the award-winners have extended their links to Finland.

In the case of Ocker Hill Junior School in Tipton, Birmingham, the staff at the school identified a need to introduce European awareness into the curriculum in order to imbue pupils with a positive attitude towards Europe, including a sense of place and of belonging. As Head Teacher Andy Tromans said, the school has incorporated a number of European projects into its curriculum. These include the teaching of French to Years 5 and 6, a ‘Finpals’ project, in which pupils correspond with their Finnish pen-pals via email, and joint history, geography and science projects with schools in Germany, Holland and Portugal.

(It is fitting that Ocker Hill pupils, aged between seven and eleven, should correspond with their Finnish partners in Vaajakumpu School near Jyväskylä, via email. Finland is one of the promised lands of telecommunications, and Finnish is now allegedly the second most common language on the Internet in Europe.)

The other European Curriculum Award winner with Finnish links was Wakefield College in Yorkshire. A 16+ college with over 15,000 students, Wakefield College has introduced a wide range of international projects across the curriculum. Anne Davidson-Lund, their International Manager, says, "We now offer, for example, an HND course in European Tourism Management, a European Executive Secretarial course and European assignments as part of a number of programmes in subject areas as diverse as catering, media studies and social care. The college has exchanges and work placements abroad in all faculties, and offers accredited foreign languages programmes in a practical context. This means, for example, German for Construction and Computing, and Finnish for Graphic Design."

Ocker Hill Junior School and Wakefield College -- and many other schools -- are bringing the European and international dimension to life in education. More than that, they are making it part of their everyday lives. By learning the skills needed to appreciate other people and other cultures, they learn to appreciate themselves, too (or is it the other way round?). These are, in any case, the skills that we need in everyday life. And, as Eeva Penttilä said, this is what internationalism is all about.


* The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges is part of the British Council. It is funded by the Education Departments of the United Kingdom, and is the UK national agency for many of the European Union education and training programmes.

More information on Ocker Hill Junior School’s European projects can be found on a Finland-based web site: http://www.jklmlk.fi/~petri/comen/prokans.html

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