Europe: Balancing Cohesion and Diversity: new challenges for education policy and practice

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jul 7 14:03:12 UTC 2008

Balancing Cohesion and Diversity: new challenges for education policy
and practice

July 6, 2008 | Daniel Faas

Schools and education systems in 21st century Europe are facing a
threefold challenge. First, member states have responded rather
differently to calls for a European educational dimension. Some,
including Germany, have explicitly revised their curricula to address
European issues whereas others have either continued to emphasise
national values and identities, such as Greece, or have only
marginally addressed Europe under the umbrella of global education, as
is the case in England. These different responses to European
integration have not only resulted in geographical knowledge gaps
amongst students with ramifications for their employability, but have
also been symptomatic of notions of a 'multi-speed' Europe.

Linked with this are the challenges resulting from devolution and
regionalisation. This leads to a range of intra-nationally diverse
education systems with different philosophies in terms of foreign
language learning, length of schooling and types of secondary
education. Take Germany as an example, where sixteen federal states
and their respective education ministries have been battling over just
how much better states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg with their
tripartite secondary education systems (i.e. Hauptschule, Realschule,
Gymnasium) fare over states like Bremen and Brandenburg that promote a
comprehensive school system. Some argue that this increases
competition in a Europe of the Regions whilst others fear that such
developments are counterproductive to notions of comparability and
mobility both within nation-states and Europe. And what is the point
of winning the regional competition when you are consistently loosing
the 'champions league' to Finland (which, by the way, only have
comprehensive schools), Canada and others? Developing national, or
even supranational, educational standards has become a crucial tool in
responding to these diversifications.

Arguably, however, the most important and pressing of all these
challenges is posed by migration-related cultural and religious
diversity. In several European countries, 10% or more of the student
population now has an immigrant background and international
assessment studies show that, on average, pupils with a migrant
background have an educational deficit of about one year of study
compared with their native peers. In Germany, the gap between
second-generation Turkish students (the country's largest migrant
community) and German students reached the equivalent of about three
years of study. One of the priorities of a forthcoming European
Commission green paper is thus to address the early school-drop-out
rates of socio-economically and ethnically marginalised students and
find ways in which to include all students in the schooling process.
But how can political and educational systems in Europe manage to
balance social cohesion whilst also promoting cultural diversity?

Following the disturbances in some northern English cities in the
summer of 2001, the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in the United States,
Spain (2003) and England (2005) as well as the civil unrest in France
(2005) and the Danish cartoon controversy (2005/6), governments are
turning more towards assimilationist and integrationist approaches. In
response to the 'civic turn' multiculturalism is undergoing, academics
and policymakers have been debating how to balance notions of
diversity with social cohesion. Despite converging trends in Europe
around civic ceremonies and tests and a resurfacing of nationalism
discourses, there is considerable divergence in addressing recent
political events. For example, despite the policy buzzword of
community cohesion, British discourses favour what could be called
'multicultural Britishness', allying the legacy of multiculturalism
with a renewed emphasis on commonality. In contrast, the German grand
coalition government under Chancellor Merkel emphasises 'integration'
around German language learning and has organised several integration
summits as well as Islam conferences with a view of fostering
intercultural dialogue – initiatives that, at least on occasion, have
veered between assimilation and an exclusive notion of Europe.

The fact that European countries continue to set different priorities
regarding citizenship, national identity, Europe and migration-related
can also be seen in education. There is indicative evidence from a
recent international research project that the celebration of cultural
and ethnic diversity in schools without providing for an integrative
element may reinforce ethnic tensions as well as nationalistic
identities (such as Englishness or Turkishness). There is further
evidence that ethnocentric, or Eurocentric, approaches are
counterproductive to the extent that they exclude non-EU pupils like
the Turks from the European project. This is particularly
disconcerting because, unlike their native peers, migrant students
hardly favour regional identities – they do not identify for instance
with England or Baden-Württemberg but more with Britain or Germany.
But what does this mean and where do we go from here?

It is of utmost importance for education policymakers and
practitioners to promote inclusive policy approaches. More
particularly, in contexts in which the school leadership teams promote
national or supranational (European) values alongside rather than
instead of intercultural values, young people from all backgrounds can
relate positively to the nation-state or Europe. It is not so much a
question whether we are more pro-European or rather Eurosceptic
because inclusion can happen at various citizenship levels. Some may
favour an inclusive notion of nationhood whilst others look more
towards the idea of what could be called 'multicultural Europeanness'
– departing from the idea of an exclusive interpretation in favour of
an inclusive tolerant model uniting students around common values of
democracy, freedom and the rule of law despite their ethno-cultural
and religious diversity. It is for all these reasons that we should
not only endorse educational approaches that combine cohesion and
diversity, but also redefine our national and European identities in
more inclusive ways.

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