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NECE: Setting the Agenda for European Citizenship Education
NECE - Networking European Citizenship Education was initiated by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, the Austrian Ministry of Education and ProDemos in the Netherlands in 2004 as a knowledge hub and a platform for cooperation and exchange. It is politically independent and non-partisan, and it focuses on identifying political, social and cultural trends to build common strategies and practices for citizenship education.
NECE aims to Europeanise citizenship education, making comparisons between countries, sharing best practices, raising awareness and finding common needs among practitioners, and to open up a European public space for transnational debates which are relevant to citizenship education. Over the years, the platform has organised regular meetings with diverse stakeholders: practitioners and academics of citizenship education and related sciences, activists from formal, non-formal and informal situations, governments and non-governmental actors. Transnational thinking and action are crucial skills today both for citizenship educators and citizens. As the pandemic has recently shown us, political and social challenges do not stop at national borders. NECE has developed and matured over the years, and now has an advisory board and committee consisting of seven partners. Coming out of a pandemic, at the start of a new Conference on the Future of Europe, NECE’s mission is as relevant as ever.
Petra Grüne, Head of the Events Department at the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) and founder of NECE, Niccolo Milanese, Director of European Alternatives and member of the NECE Advisory Board, and Dr Michalis Kakos, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Childhood, Education and Society, Leeds Beckett University, UK and member of the NECE Advisory Board discuss the increasing importance of European citizenship education, the shortcomings and strengths of the new Erasmus+ programme as well future requirements for a resilient European citizenship education.
Last October, the NECE published a declaration presenting 2020 as a watershed moment for citizenship education in Europe. Could you elaborate on that?
2020 will be remembered as a watershed year for many different reasons: we have experienced a pandemic on an unprecedented global scale, the fastest development of vaccines in history, but we have also seen signs that society is able to bring about radical changes if citizens are convinced about the reasons to do so. Above all, 2020 shed light again on the many problems that exist within and between our societies: lack of coordination and solidarity between countries when faced with a common risk, inequalities of housing, different levels of social protections, unequal pay, unequal exposure to risk at work, and unequal access to quality education. At the same time, intolerance and racism are on the rise, and societies are affected by polarisation and segmentation. Anti-science and conspiracy theories have spread and the massive acceleration of digitisation is creating not only new opportunities but also new threats. In moments of crisis, we tend to reach for citizenship education as a response. It is presented as a response to terrorism, to climate change, to poverty and so on. Citizenship education is relevant to each and every problem that the world faces. However, we see citizenship education not as a panacea for all social malaise but as a precondition for involving citizens in public life in a meaningful way. This is why we wanted to make a declaration to say that we should not only turn to citizenship education when there are problems to be solved. Rather, it is time to underline the value and centrality of quality citizenship education for a democratic society. Citizenship education needs to be at the top of political priorities. It must be consistently supported and fostered because it provides citizens with the critical capacities and dispositions they need to engage in democratic political and social life, a life in which each person takes responsibility. As such, it is a crucial investment for a better world, one that has the capacity to address difficult and unpredictable problems that we all share.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, citizenship educators, the schools, non-profit associations and movements that they work in, have come under considerable strain. Such practitioners often depend on project funding, but projects have been disrupted and funding streams suspended. There is a risk that society will emerge from the pandemic in a financial and mental health crisis, and its civic foundation will be seriously weakened because so many civil society organisations and education practitioners have disappeared.
With the NECE declaration, we want to call on European decision-makers, governments, and politicians at all levels to follow through on two decades of statements that have been made about the importance of citizenship education and to provide the resources, training and prioritisation it needs to be sustainable.
The new Erasmus+ Programme Generation 2021-2027 addresses the importance of citizenship education in Europe with the horizontal priority “Participation in Democratic Life”. In your opinion, how does the Erasmus+ programme contribute towards citizenship education in Europe?
Obviously, universities provide the spaces needed for the sharing of ideas. The diversity of these ideas and the development of skills that facilitate their peaceful exchange are key prerequisites for meaningful participation in democratic life. The Erasmus programme supports the diversity of these ideas and engages participants who are particularly open to learning from such experiences. It is worth noting that the spaces we refer to are not only lecture theatres and classrooms but also bars, cafés and restaurants and the other places where students meet, interact and communicate. University staff also have the opportunity to take part in this exchange and share ideas, teaching methods and research. We also should not forget that in most European countries, universities are the major providers of initial teacher training. Erasmus+ becomes particularly important since it has the potential to directly influence teacher student cohorts and thus impact schools at all levels of education.
It is gratifying that the Erasmus+ programme has a significantly larger budget than the previous programme. Studies have shown that the impact of this programme is amongst the best of all European programmes: each euro invested in providing mobility, exchange and knowledge about other European countries pays off many times over both for individual participants and for Europe as a whole. Efforts have been made to make the programme more diverse and more accessible to people of all ages and to those without high levels of education. The programme also addresses such issues as climate change and digital transformation, which we mention in the declaration.
However, the programme still lacks a focus on citizenship education as a transversal aspect of all educational or civil society activities. Whether they are aware of it or not, all participants in Erasmus projects or exchanges are involved in citizenship education. This is why we would have welcomed a requirement that applicants explained how their project would contribute to citizenship education, both to encourage reflection and learning and to allow comparisons to be made within Erasmus+. We believe self-reflective learning is largely missing from the programme. Funds will be awarded to thousands of interesting and innovative projects across Europe, and many of them will develop innovative new ideas, but how is this knowledge shared, remembered and built upon? This seems to be a wider problem. Previously, the Commission's Eurydice project produced comparative reports of formal citizenship education in the member states, but this has not been carried out since the last report in 2017. Without monitoring and comparisons, it is impossible to develop coherent European policies in this area.
Moreover, the process of applying for funding through the Erasmus+ programme seems to be getting more and more bureaucratic. Previously, European programmes, such as Youth in Action, provided small amounts of money to informal groups of citizens. Now, applying for Erasmus+ requires highly specific skills and an understanding of legal conditions. Given that civil society across Europe is being starved of funds as a result of the pandemic, and in light of the emergence of so many different informal initiatives in response to its challenges, the European Commission should come up with new ways to proactively support and foster grassroots civic activity.
In addition to “Participation in Democratic Life”, the new Erasmus+ programme generation also embraces the horizontal priorities of “Inclusion and Diversity”, “Digital Transformation” and “Environment and Fight against the Climate Change”. How do you rank the role of citizenship education in Europe in relation to the other issues?
All of the priorities are welcome. Naturally, we think that protecting the environment, combatting climate change, addressing the challenges of digital transformation and promoting inclusion and diversity are crucial and urgently needed. At the same time, citizenship education is a precondition for participation in democratic life, and democratic life by definition should address every social and political priority, whether it is the implications of technological change, social inequality, terrorism, geopolitics or anything else. It should also allow for discussions on the prioritisation of these different issues.
What is more, we need to be very attentive to what each of these priorities means in practice when it comes to the projects that are supported by the programmes and claims regarding the achievements of the programme. It is one thing to say you want to promote diversity and inclusion, it is another thing to ensure that these priorities are actually put into practice at every level of the programme – from outreach and communication to applications, selections, and so on. We see the Commission making some positive efforts to promote diversity, for example by recently appointing an EU anti-racism coordinator and making important declarations about gender equality. Hopefully, such initiatives will be further reinforced by the Erasmus+ programme.
Citizenship education is relevant and concerns all the horizontal priorities. To take digital transformation as one example: it is a catalyst in terms of societal developments such as polarisation, conspiracy theories and radicalisation of public disputes. Citizens often stay in their own information bubbles. There is an urgent need for the development of skills so that individuals can process and classify information, and differentiate between news, disinformation, advertisements and opinion pieces. Building media and news competencies is becoming increasingly important. It is needed to fight polarisation, hate speech and conspiracy theories.
In addition, further issues of importance are critical developments concerning data, surveillance, the influence of big companies as well as access to or the positive effects and chances of digitisation. The task of citizenship education is to observe and critically examine digital transformation, to relate this to other changes in society, and to develop new comprehensive approaches which provide citizens with the skills they need to have critical agency when engaging in digital society. More inspiration and proposals can be found in the full declaration: https://www.nece.eu/nece-declaration/
Current partners of the NECE initiative (https://www.nece.eu/) are:
- BELvue Museum, Belgium (https://belvue.be/en)
- Center for Citizenship Education, Poland (www.ceo.org.pl)
- Charles University, Faculty of Humanities, Civic Education Centre, Czech Republic (http://www.obcanskevzdelavani.cz/english-version)
- Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Germany (https://www.bpb.de/)
- Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (www.bmbwf.gv.at/politische-bildung)
- ProDemos – House for Democracy and the Rule of Law, the Netherlands (https://prodemos.nl/english/)
- Zentrum fir politesch Bildung/ ZpB, Luxembourg (https://zpb.lu/)