Equitable Access and Inclusion in Education for Every Child in Europe – EPA International Conference, 27/29 April, Milan, Italy

The conference focused on challenges countries, parents and children are facing for real equity in education. The speakers and participants took stock of equity and quality issues. Outstanding keynotes were combined with interactive workshops to explore the equity problems and trying to define solutions that parents would like to see in place. Some of the topics covered were: an equal opportunities approach of some countries, double financing by parents, inclusion of learners of diverse talents and needs, geographical differences, cultural differences, challenges of migration. Most of the issues raised are also applicable for countries outside of Europe. Some of the speakers could offer inspiration for parents, professional educators and policy makers alike anywhere in the world.

The European Commission has announced its commitment to creating a European Education Area partly to establish a policy framework providing the path towards Sustainable Development Goal 4: Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education. When the European Parents’ Association published its Manifesto 2015 envisaging 21st century education provided by education systems providing equitable learning environments for all children and their parents, based on a free and informed choice for parents on the education of their children that should never be restricted by the financial capacity of the family, UNESCO published its own vision calling for establishing education as a common – rather than public – good. This approach, based on children’s and parents’ rights, demands governments to make informed and unrestricted choices possible for parents for an education that is best for the individual child as well as society. This was the backbone of discussions at the Milan conference.

The first inspirational speaker was Janet Goodall (University of Bath, United Kingdom) highlighting the importance of involving all parents and reminding participants that it is something organised parents still have a lot of work to achieve this. This is the starting point to provide for social justice in education. She highlighted that parents are often seen to be on the demand side of education, but the fact that they have an important role on the supply side, too, is often overlooked. Once it is realised, a partnership can be initiated between parents and school professionals. When analysing the background of the achievement gap, it became clear that 80% of the difference in learning outcomes comes from what happens outside of school. It is of crucial importance that this on the supply side is supported properly.

Another regular mistake is that parents are treated as a homogeneous group, while they are a very diverse one. It is important to put enough emphasis on those parents that the school system did not work for. It is a mistake to only wait for parents, especially these ones, to come into school, rather teachers should go and reach out to them. All parents, not only the lowly educated ones, need support at some points, and it is important not to see it as a deficit. It is also very important to praise parents for all of their good parenting practices.

She also highlighted some areas that has the largest impact on student achievement, and they are not necessarily school related (eg. helping with homework). Interestingly enough, children generally do better if their parents regularly talk about social and political issues at home with their children. Children of parents who read regularly are likely to become readers, and reading to your children is also crucial, for example re-telling stories have a very important educational value. Research shows that parents academic guidance helps in certain countries, but not in others – no real reason for that.

She called for systemic change of reportedly unjust school systems. In many countries school had become a battleground of policies. For the necessary change we need to stop talking about education, and start talking about learning and the role of schooling in it. Current education discourse and policies have a school-centred view that need to be changed. However, there is no one single solution, the right answers need to be found locally.

She quoted data from Parent Voice (2006), OECD’s Parent and Community Voice in School (2006) and another OECD publication on parental involvement (2012) among others. You can find these in the ParentHelp Library.

In the panel discussion later there was a mention of hidden children (who are doing well and not striking out), hidden parents (who do not come, but have no problem children) and also disengaged parents (in there case it is not obvious if they are really unengaged or just disengaged with school). The fact of power relations interfering with learning was also highlighted as an element to consider for equity.

Another great inspiration was Professor João Costa, Secretary of State for Education of Portugal. He presented the details of their current education reform in Portugal focusing on learning rather than passing or failing. When analysing the situation, it became clear that their system has had a social justice problem as the main predictors of school failure are poverty and the mother’s level of education. The goal of the reform is to create equity and justice, and innovation may be a tool for it.

The elements of the complex Portuguese education reform are

  • defining a student profile with desirable competence levels in several areas by the end of schooling while moving away from traditional subject focus,
  • inclusive education based on responding to differences of children
  • a formative and performative new assessment model
  • an essential curriculum to avoid curriculum overload
  • and school autonomy and flexibility of curriculum with citizenship education re-introduced as an important curricular area.

Their final goal is to establish individual and societal well-being – very much in line with the UNESCO approach of education as a public good. They consider it a global issue and thus cooperate with OECD in their 2030 project, while reform is done in a participatory way (“Portugal is discussing education”). They introduce reform measures in a gradual way with a right balance between stability and reform. He highlighted that not only reform is an experiment in education, education in general is an experiment in the case of each and every child. Portugal is determined to make decisions, and when it comes to budgetary constrains there is a need to remember that abolishing slavery was also expensive, still had to be and had been done.

He highlighted that the lack of cooperation between teachers and parents results in children being empowered to disrespect their teachers and playing their parents against them. This is definitely not a desirable outcome. He also raised the issue of parental guilt that is raised by societal requirement. Very often overprotective parental behaviour is a result of this.

Anna Barbieri from the European Commission informed the conference participants about the EU’s policy initiatives for excellence and equity. She started by defining excellence: an education system that makes it possible for everybody to reach their full potential. She talked about updates to the key competences framework, the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, improving the quality and image of vocational education and training and the European Education Area initiative.

Peter de Zoete, representing the European School Heads Association raised the question if evolution is enough in education, especially in schooling, or if we need a revolution to offer today’s children what they deserve.

On the second day of the conference Italy was in the limelight. After Luisa Ribolzi’s keynote on the Italian challenges of equitable access to education, inspiring practices from Italy were presented and discussed in workshops. Professor Ribolzi put the negative Pygmalion effect on the table to consider: if you tell a child often enough they are not going to achieve, they actually will not.

The good practices presented were

  • Maestri di Strada from Naples working with children deemed to fail at school
  • Dschola, an initiative from Piedmont to close the digital divide
  • and Eugenia Carfora’s personal example being a school head dedicating his life to equity and quality in education.

On the last day of the conference the focus was on equitable access to education after the refugee crisis in Europe. The inspiration of the day came from Professor Mika Risku and Matti Pennanen from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland on collaborative learning for equity in education. Professor Risku compared Finland to a huge research laboratory in transition from a Newtonian to a quantum paradigm. In their mind equity also means that some will necessarily go further than others, an element that we are often shy to say, but there is nothing wrong with it. He highlighted that there is no agreed definition of equity and inclusion among experts, but there more or less is a common understanding. Collaborative learning practices in their case primarily mean peer-to-peer learning of teachers, but an approach that people collaborate who are at different levels and stages of their lifelong and life-wide learning.

During the conference several workshops were organised, most of them feeding into different international projects around parental involvement and engagement, some focusing on teacher training, some on migration, some on education areas such as STEM.


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