¿Puede la Transición Verde resolver la paradoja educativa de España? 

Los jóvenes en España se enfrentan a una perspectiva incierta después de dejar el instituto. De hecho, en todo el sur de Europa, el desempleo juvenil en la región se ha mantenido obstinadamente alto desde la crisis financiera. Resolver este problema es una tarea difícil, especialmente cuando muchas escuelas carecen de los recursos y la orientación adecuados. ¿Podría la reciente inversión gubernamental en formación profesional darnos pistas sobre cómo conectar la educación, la justicia social y la transición verde?

El sistema educativo de España vive en una contradicción: los jóvenes estudian carreras para trabajos que no existen y, sin embargo, la Transición Verde genera empleos para los que no hay perfiles. La respuesta a este problema podría encontrarse en el reciente impulso que el Gobierno ha dado a la Formación Profesional, una opción educativa que históricamente ha sido relegada al segundo plano. 

Despertar a un diplodocus de un sueño eterno no es tarea sencilla. Requeriría de una gran habilidad y esfuerzo que una especie tan majestuosa como esta abriese los ojos. Para el pedagogo José Antonio Marina, tal y como describe en su libro  ‘Despertad al diplodocus’, el sistema educativo de España es ese dinosaurio en brazos de Morfeo. Un animal de gran potencial, pero siempre dormido. Y es que mientras el mundo cambia, la educación parece seguir con los ojos cerrados, aferrada a una idea de Estado de bienestar que evolucionó hace tiempo. Bajo su inamovible sombra intentan crecer –muchos sin éxito– los jóvenes que quieren formar parte del futuro laboral de España. 

Desde la gran crisis económica de 2008, las cifras se han encargado de demostrar que el fino hilo que conecta el sistema educativo y el mundo real está cada vez más desgastado. En la actualidad, el desempleo juvenil alcanza en España una tasa del 29,4%, la segunda más alta de la Unión Europea después de Grecia. Además, según las últimas cifras de Eurostat, en 2021 uno de cada cuatro españoles con estudios universitarios adquiridos en los últimos tres años seguía en paro pese haber alcanzado un alto nivel en el sistema educativo. Décadas atrás, en 2007, el porcentaje de graduados con empleo (87,7%) superaba al de la media europea (86,9%). Ahora se sitúa casi 10 puntos por debajo. Es uno de los peores datos del continente.

Making Our Minds: Uncovering the Politics of Education
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¿Dando la vuelta a la esquina? 

Contar con un título universitario ya no garantiza un empleo digno, a pesar de que el sistema educativo siempre haya insistido en esa promesa. El sueño se ha roto y, paradójicamente, los jóvenes estudian carreras para puestos que ya no existen. Una dura evidencia de ese desacoplamiento entre la educación y la economía: mientras que la segunda cambia de forma continua, se vuelve más líquida y multiplica sus sectores en busca de nuevas cualificaciones, la primera sigue descansando en aquella idea meritocrática heredada de la Revolución Industrial que, aún a pesar de la evidencia, todavía tiende a concebir la educación superior como el camino hacia una vida económicamente estable.

Pero el diplodocus podría abrir pronto los ojos. Los daños colaterales provocados por la pandemia en España, al igual que en otros países europeos, dejaron el mercado laboral al borde del colapso, con una tasa de desempleo juvenil que rozó el 42% en pleno pico de la enfermedad y que situó a España, de nuevo, en otro ranking a la inversa: esta vez, se convirtió en el país con mayor desempleo juvenil de la OCDE.

Sin embargo, en el otro lado de la balanza, nos encontramos con que, durante el periodo educativo de 2020 a 2021, el número de matriculaciones en Formación Profesional aumentó en un 5,2% respecto al periodo anterior, lo que llevó a miles de alumnos a quedarse sin plazas en este formato educativo. Fue un dato histórico en el país: después de décadas relegada a ser ‘la segunda opción’ de aquellos que no entraban en la Universidad –España es el país de la OCDE con menor porcentaje de alumnos matriculados (12%)–, la FP ganaba más reconocimiento que nunca. Tiene motivos para hacerlo: según las estadísticas del Ministerio de Educación, la tasa de paro juvenil en este tipo de formación ni siquiera alcanza el 7%.

La pregunta es: ¿por qué si la FP promete una mayor estabilidad laboral, la universidad aún se mantiene por encima? Ante esta arraigada contradicción, el Gobierno socialista dirigido por Pedro Sánchez – el primer Gobierno en coalición con el partido de izquierdas Podemos de la historia de España – ha optado recientemente por destinar una parte de los Fondos de Recuperación europeos asignados por un volumen de hasta 385.500 millones de euros a impulsar un Plan de Modernización de la Formación Profesional y pulverizar el paro juvenil. Concretamente, son 2.076 millones de euros destinados a este cometido a través del VII Plan de Recuperación, Transformación y Resiliencia.

Y es que más allá de lo que ha supuesto la pandemia, este cambio ya se vislumbraba años atrás cuando España aceptó el ambicioso reto eurpeo de descarbonizar la economía antes de 2050 para intentar frenar las consecuencias del cambio climático. Abordar una transformación de tal nivel se traduce también en una metamorfosis del sistema económico y social desde todas las aristas para evitar efectos negativos en el proceso, lo que requiere inequívocamente de una transición justa que palie la desigualdad (y no añada más). Para ello hay que replantear las bases. 

los jóvenes estudian carreras para trabajos que no existen

Una transición justa a través de la educación

Así, en 2019 España elaboró hace varios años la Estrategia de Transición Justa, un conglomerado de medidas aplicadas a nivel estatal y a través de las diferentes Comunidades Autónomas que aprovecha el potencial de la Transición Verde para transformar los sectores sociales. En líneas generales, a través de la ya aprobada Ley contra el Cambio Climático y el Plan Nacional de Energía y Clima,  hace especial énfasis en la generación de empleo ecológico en la España vacía a través del impulso a las renovables y el desarrollo de los llamados convenios de transición a nivel que crearán oportunidades de empleo en las comarcas a través del acompañamiento verde a empresas y colectivos vulnerables. Pero, además, revisa los currículos educativos a todos los niveles para acercarlos más a la futura economía verde, incluyendo la propia Formación Profesional. 

La Transición Energética derivada de la estrategia verde del gobierno, así como el resto de propuestas de las agendas marcadas por las instituciones internacionales, requieren una amplia proporción de perfiles técnicos ahora mismo inexistentes. «Necesitamos duplicar en los próximos años el número porque los indicadores alertan de que más de la mitad de los puestos de trabajo requerirán de estos perfiles», explica Clara Sanz, Secretaria General de la Formación Profesional en el Gobierno.  

Concretamente, en la Unión Europea, el Centro Europeo para el Desarrollo de la Formación Profesional (Cedefop) calcula que los empleos verdes sumarán en 2030 más de 2.5 millones de puestos. De hecho, según la organización, más allá de los puestos verdes, en España la FP podría cubrir hasta 10 millones de oportunidades de empleo de aquí a 2030 surgidas, principalmente, del reemplazo de trabajadores por jubilación.

En el ámbito de esos nuevos sectores que surgen gracias a la Transición Verde, según valora Marta Suárez-Varela, economista en el Banco de España, la demanda de perfiles técnicos va a ser acuciante para facilitar el despliegue de la renovación de la vivienda y la transición energética a través de las energías renovables, uno de los sectores predilectos del Gobierno ya que España, además de ser uno de los estados europeos con mayor potencial de aprovechamiento de las energías renovables gracias a su disponibilidad natural de recursos (sol, viento, biomasa y litio), también se posiciona como el tercer territorio más atractivo del mundo para invertir en energías verdes según CBE Group, una firma inmobiliaria estadounidense. 

De la misma forma, pronto se expandirán la construcción, la instalación de equipos, las finanzas verdes y el desarrollo relacionado con la innovación climática en torno a energías como el hidrógeno verde, el coche eléctrico o la eficiencia energética. «La inversión en formación es esencial para que los fondos europeos sean eficaces y, aquí, la FP dual –combina la enseñanza con un periodo de prácticas en la empresa– juega un papel clave», indica Suárez-Varela. «La adaptación de las necesidades formativas a la habilidades que demandan las empresas permitiría un mejor ajuste de un mercado de trabajo en el que, actualmente, a pesar del desempleo, numerosas vacantes quedan sin cubrir por la falta de trabajadores con las habilidades que se buscan».  

Una realidad que corroboran también desde el Cedefop. «En España existe un cierto grado de sobrecualificación: los jóvenes se gradúan con carreras universitarias pero trabajan en empleos donde se exigen habilidades que podrían resolverse con un grado medio», analiza Ernesto Villalba, experto en Formación Profesional del Cedefop. «Aquí se juntan dos aspectos fundamentales: por un lado, la necesidad de que la educación esté conectada con el mundo que hay ahí fuera y, por otro, el hecho de que ante un mercado laboral tan cambiante y adaptativo, es importante estar aprendiendo constantemente». 

En este escenario, y acompañado de una nueva Ley de Formación Profesional que consolida la formación dual, el nuevo plan del Gobierno busca modernizar la oferta formativa y crear 28 nuevas titulaciones vinculadas a estos sectores y otros que emergen de la digitalización y que serán fundamentales en el futuro próximo, como el big data, la ciberseguridad, la inteligencia artificial o la robótica, entre otros. Además, el documento financia la creación de 200.000 nuevas plazas y apoya la acreditación de las competencias profesionales para aquellas personas que las adquirieron a través de la experiencia profesional. La línea de meta: conseguir que el porcentaje de españoles con cualificaciones intermedias (Bachillerato y FP) ascienda del 24 al 49%  en los próximos diez años. Pero, antes, hay que despertar el todo al dinosaurio.

Abordar una transformación de tal nivel se traduce también en una metamorfosis del sistema económico y social desde todas

Una historia de lastres

Si bien el plan del Gobierno ha sido aplaudido sobre el papel, los expertos no se atreven a valorar cómo se acomodará en el sistema educativo. Principalmente, porque el mencionado desacoplamiento también bebe de una tradición cultural. En España, el rechazo a la Formación Profesional proviene del retraso de la industrialización española, que provocó la implantación tardía de esta formación –no se hizo formal hasta 1975–, lo que se sumó a la conocida tradición humanística de las universidades nacidas en el país.

Ambos factores construyeron esa infravaloración de los trabajos técnicos que, poco a poco, encaminó, por un lado, a la propia sociedad a rechazarlos y, por otro, a priorizar el certificado universitario en la legislación educativa. Se construyó así el conocido ‘modelo diábolo’ que el propio Gobierno de España describe al analizar el sistema en su propuesta de mejora de la FP: siguiendo la forma de ese instrumento –sus extremos son mucho más anchos que su tronco–, en las partes amplias se ubicarían, arriba, el porcentaje de españoles con titulación superior y, en el otro extremo, la proporción con baja cualificación,, aquella que solo incluye la educación básica. En el centro, la parte más estrecha, encontraríamos el escaso porcentaje de españoles que estudian formación profesionales. En otras palabras, el reparto no es proporcional.

Sin embargo, el obstáculo capital que incrementa la desconexión educativa y laboral es que en España –a diferencia de otros como Finlandia o Japón– no existe un Pacto de Estado, es decir, una ley aprobada en consenso entre el Gobierno y el resto de representantes políticos blinde algunos aspectos educativos –como el porcentaje de financiación– y proteja al sistema educativo de los vaivenes políticos y posibles reformas legislativas cada cuatro años tras las elecciones. Hasta ahora, según indica el medio Newtral, España aprueba una nueva ley educativa cada cinco años, lo que se traduce en ocho reformas desde el inicio de la Transición (1975).

Como apunta el pedagogo José Antonio Marina, que acumula décadas de experiencia estudiando la educación española, «hemos aprobado demasiadas leyes y, sin embargo, no hemos sido capaces de generar un gran interés educativo en la sociedad: en el último CIS –una encuesta estatal que consulta a los españoles sobre sus principales preocupaciones–, solo un 7% de los encuestados se reconoció inquieto por el estado de la educación».

Además del desequilibrio social, esta falta de consenso alimenta un problema aún más difícil de resolver: la infrafinanciación de las escuelas públicas. En la actualidad, el gasto educativo no llega a alcanzar el 5% del PIB en España, un porcentaje distinto al de países vecinos como Dinamarca (6,3%), Bélgica (6,2%) o Estonia (6%).  Ante la falta de ese Pacto de Estado que afiance el gasto de forma definitiva, el dinero que se destina a Educación es variable, lo que sume al sistema educativo en la incertidumbre. También hay que tener en cuenta la otra cara del débil gasto público educativo: el alto gasto privado en educación, especialmente en las etapas obligatorias, que origina una mayor inequidad en el acceso a la educación.

En última instancia, como Estado autonómico, las competencias en Educación pertenecen a cada comunidad autónoma –gobernadas por distintos partidos–, por lo que ellas también pueden decidir sobre la cantidad de dinero que destinan o cambiar algunos aspectos del currículum educativo. Esto abre la puerta a una mayor ramificación de desacuerdos por motivos ideológicos ante algo tan sustancial como la educación. De hecho, tras la aprobación de la última ley educativa en 2020 que permite pasar de curso sin un límite de suspensos, hasta siete comunidades autónomas se mostraron en contra y plantearon medidas alternativas.

Estos bandazos complican también el desarrollo de los currículums educativos, una dificultad añadida para el docente tal y como lo describe Alejandra Cortés, investigadora permanente de la Cátedra Unesco y profesora: «Es una cuestión de estabilidad, tanto económica como formativa. El bandazo de los partidos políticos no puede influir en lo que se enseña en las aulas». El propio Comité de los Derechos del Niño de las Naciones Unidas ha solicitado expresamente este consenso político que destine la financiación correcta y conecte el currículum educativo con la demanda del mercado, subrayando la urgencia de hacerlo para acabar con el otro gran problema de la educación española: el abandono escolar.

Aunque en 2021 consiguió su cifra más baja desde que existen registros (13,3%), España no alcanza la meta europea de reducir la deserción en un 10%. «Un currículo que da la espalda a los intereses sociales contribuye a que el alumnado abandone el sistema», reconoce el propio Secretario de Estado de Educación, Alejandro Tiana, órgano superior del Ministerio de Educación. «Esto se suma a la carencia de plazas de Formación Profesional, ya que la mayoría de quienes están en situación de abandono tienen el título básico pero no han encontrado una plaza en la que continuar sus estudios».

Un argumento que completa Alejandra Cortés, quien además critica la excesiva memorización teórica que ha caracterizado siempre a la educación española: «La buena formación tiene que responder a lo técnico desde infantil; necesitamos enseñar competencias transversales más allá de lo teórico: capacidades técnicas, resolución de conflictos, capacidades comunicativas…». Aunque, afirma, «por suerte la imagen de la Formación Profesional empieza a ser mucho más positiva: las familias y los alumnos lo ven mucho mejor, y eso hay que cuidarlo». No se trata de desprestigiar a la universidad, sino de encontrar el punto medio entre ambas formaciones: «Mucho alumnado con el que trabajo hace una FP primero y acude a la universidad posteriormente, adquiriendo el bagaje práctico de uno y el academicista de otro. Eso es muy enriquecedor».

Educación para el futuro

En conclusión, la amenaza del cambio climático y la apuesta política por descarbonizar la economía ha desenterrado algo que hasta ahora pasaba completamente desapercibido en el sistema educativo español cuando se hablaba de la Transición Verde: esa conexión entre la educación y la transición justa. Las cifras del abandono escolar y el desempleo juvenil venían ya avisando de que faltaba otra mirada en el sistema educativo, una capaz de superar el horizonte del «enseñar para producir» y hacer de las aulas ese espacio responsable de garantizar una evolución social en concordancia con lo que exige una  economía en continua transformación.

Tal y como apunta el Secretario de Estado de Educación, a fin de cuentas, «las grandes fracturas de los diferentes sistemas educativos se producen cuando los cambios importantes en la sociedad, relevantes para la vida y las personas, no tienen un reflejo en los conocimientos, las habilidades y las actitudes que esa sociedad considera como equipaje vital que deben portar sus jóvenes». «Sin olvidar la necesidad de ir construyendo un camino de convergencia con los sistemas educativos de la Unión Europea, es nuestra obligación incluir valores, destrezas, motivaciones y actitudes para formar una ciudadanía activa en la sociedad en la que va a vivir», añade.

Ante esta amalgama de dificultades por resolver, ¿podemos fiar la revolución educativa (y, por tanto, del Estado de bienestar) a este impulso de la Formación Profesional desde el trampolín de la Transición Verde? Como un gran árbol, cada raíz de lo que nos define como sociedades juega un papel fundamental. Si una se evoluciona, el resto también debe hacerlo. Por lo tanto, acabar con esa idea de ‘universidad = trabajo’ y abrir otras opciones puede contribuir a germinar nuevos modelos de trabajo que aborden otros debates, como la reducción de la jornada laboral a cuatro días o mayores permisos de paternidad, y doten de mayor importancia a sectores comúnmente olvidados por esta tendencia a favorecer los empleos universitarios, como el sector de los cuidados o el turismo (uno de los principales contribuyentes al PIB español).

Para que esto ocurra, son los propios representantes políticos los que deben mover la ficha y facilitar este entorno de cambio, porque abandonar lo que se ha arrastrado ancestralmente requiere una acción conjunta. Es complicado, pero la evolución es la moneda de cambio para seguir garantizando el bienestar de las sociedades. Y todo empieza en la educación: si el diplodocus, finalmente, abriera los ojos y diera el primer paso, la huella que dejaría sería imborrable. Y no solo eso: las generaciones venideras aprenderían durante siglos de ella.

Tor Bella Monaca, geografia della diseguaglianza educativa  

La vita nel quartiere di Via dell’Archeologia, nella periferia romana di Tor Bella Monaca, è un microcosmo autarchico in mano a un’economia sommersa prodotta dalla rete criminale dello spaccio. La scuola di quartiere, dove confluisce una gioventù spesso irrequieta con un’eredità familiare complessa, è stata per anni afflitta dagli alti tassi di dispersione scolastica e dalle difficili condizioni di insegnamento. Ma l’arrivo di una nuova dirigenza ha mostrato un modo diverso di fare scuola in periferia, capace di disinnescare le dinamiche di quartiere e riattivare l’ascensore sociale: una parabola che racconta come l’istruzione abbia il potere ambivalente di scardinare o cementare le diseguaglianze spaziali d’Europa.

Ci sono volute tre ore per pulire una finestra. Tre ore per togliere via le incrostazioni di vent’anni di incuria e disinteresse che si erano stratificati tra le grate e il vetro opaco.

Da quando lo spazio della biblioteca scolastica è stato preso in carico, dopo tre anni e sedici carrelli della spesa pieni di tomi da buttare, quella vecchia stanza di sbroglio con le finestre sudicie è finalmente tornata a essere uno spazio vivibile. Adesso i libri sono stati catalogati e dalle finestre si intravedono le file di ‘torri’ d’edilizia popolare che svettano su Via dell’Archeologia, a Tor Bella Monaca: grandi palazzoni di un bianco sporco che riflettono il sole nelle giornate terse e si dissolvono quando il cielo è livido.

Situata oltre il Grande Raccordo Anulare, nel Municipio VI a est di Roma, Tor Bella Monaca è uno dei tanti ritagli di spazio periurbano trasformati in enclave della diseguaglianza dalle dinamiche di borgata. Sorti su terre conquistate originariamente dall’abusivismo edilizio postbellico, sono oggi sfilacci di terra in periferia, spazi in continua definizione dove i tentacoli della capitale si dilatano e il potere centralizzato si annacqua.

The social housing blocks of Via dell’Archeologia, in Tor Bella Monaca, from a window of the Melissa Bassi Institute.
The social housing blocks of Via dell’Archeologia, in Tor Bella Monaca, from a window of the Melissa Bassi Institute.

A Tor Bella Monaca il cemento è disordinato e lascia spazio a una natura poco curata, a tratti dominante, dirimpetto a un’edilizia dalla scarsa manutenzione. È uno dei quartieri dove le abitazioni popolari rappresentano l’82% degli appartamenti e la densità di patrimonio pubblico è la più alta d’Italia. La zona si è fatta un nome soprattutto per l’attività criminale legata alla rete dello spaccio. In Via dell’Archeologia, la principale piazza di traffico illecito del quartiere, si calcola un giro di affari di stupefacenti di circa 600.000 euro mensili. Tor Bella Monaca vive di un’economia sommersa che si sazia di un quartiere senza molte altre possibilità di scelta, dove i tassi di disoccupazione sono molto superiori alla media della capitale.

Unico presidio istituzionale della zona, infilato nella convergenza triangolare tra le due parti di Via dell’Archeologia, è l’Istituto Comprensivo “Melissa Bassi”, un complesso di edifici colorati con un giardino trasandato e una piccola biblioteca dalle vetrate appena lucidate.

La scuola oggi conta 720 iscritti tra infanzia, primaria e secondaria, di cui la maggior parte ragazzi di quartiere: sono i figli e le figlie di Via dell’Archeologia, dove le famiglie sono numerose e ci sono più minorenni che adulti. È una gioventù di borgata la cui vita irrequieta invade i confini scolastici; così, tra le palazzine messe in fila, scuola e ragazzi condividono un destino irrimediabilmente attorcigliato alle dinamiche di quartiere.  

Making Our Minds: Uncovering the Politics of Education
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La strada chiusa

Tor Bella Monaca si caratterizza per le strade frastagliate e un quartiere che si sviluppa in altezza. Venendo dal centro della borgata, poco prima di arrivare alle torri di Via dell’Archeologia e a meno di due chilometri dall’Istituto Melissa Bassi, c’è una struttura ampia e tarchiata con un colonnato all’entrata: è il Liceo Scientifico Linguistico Amaldi. Un liceo che, nonostante il contesto di periferia e al contrario del Melissa Bassi, è considerato uno degli istituti superiori migliori del Lazio.

Emiliano Sbaraglia, insegnante di materie letterarie al Melissa Bassi, ha toccato con mano per anni la qualità dell’insegnamento all’Amaldi durante i suoi anni da supplente: “La differenza è tanta, soprattutto a livello di preparazione e dal punto di vista didattico. E mi manda in bestia pensare che non ci siano neanche un paio di chilometri di distanza a separarci – allora perché là sì e qua no?”, borbotta. È un uomo di mezza età con le dita fasciate da grossi anelli e il capo brizzolato, una figura pacata che è diventata per molti un punto di riferimento a scuola.

“Chi dalle nostre medie va lì viene trattato come quello che tanto verrà bocciato perché non ha le competenze di base necessarie. Ci proviamo a combattere questo pregiudizio, ma in parte è anche vero”, spiega Emiliano mentre la sua auto sfreccia tra la schiera di terrazze e palazzoni lividi di Via dell’Archeologia.

“Ecco il perché: è questa strada”.

A Tor Bella Monaca, l’urbanistica pubblica e privata di borgata è asservita alla cultura dello spaccio. Negli spazi interstiziali delle palazzine nate nel boom d’edilizia popolare degli anni ‘80 sopravvive un sottobosco che ha generato un’economia modulare autosufficiente e inscalfibile: nonostante le ripetute retate, nelle torri dello spaccio, gli ascensori sono bloccati e usati come stoccaggio della merce mentre le terrazze restano punti strategici da cui fare la vedetta.

Nel parcheggio della scuola, Emiliano delinea con le dita il confine invisibile di quel microcosmo autogestito: “Continuando verso l’imbocco autostradale,” spiega “c’è il collegamento con la Roma-Napoli che in due ore porta al cuore dello smercio di droga d’Italia, il quartiere napoletano di Scampia”. Un ponte per la droga che definisce e scolpisce la vita di quartiere.

“Si fa fatica a tenere le regole della strada al di fuori della scuola”, racconta Emiliano.

An outdoor lesson in an area of ​​the school’s garden that students helped renovate. 

Una scuola aperta

Insegnare negli istituti di periferia come il Melissa Bassi può essere una scelta politica. Prima di chiedere il trasferimento, nel suo primo anno di ruolo, Emiliano era entrato con una cattedra in una scuola media borghese a Frascati, a duecento metri da casa, dove è nato e cresciuto; proprio vicino al campetto da calcio dove giocava come centro-avanti e non lontano dal pub dove lavorava fino alle due di notte.

“Ho chiesto il trasferimento per venire qui. Ho scelto questa scuola perché qua mi sento utile”.  Emiliano non è l’unico a insegnare al Melissa Bassi per scelta e questo ha fatto spesso la differenza: “Fino a qualche anno fa criticavo molto gli insegnanti che appena arrivati chiedono il trasferimento. Poi ho capito che non tutti sono portati a insegnare in un contesto del genere”.

Dal 2011, quando Emiliano entrò per la prima volta al Melissa Bassi con Save The Children per allestire studi radiofonici improvvisati nelle aule scolastiche, l’Istituto è cambiato molto. Per molto tempo, la scuola ha risentito degli anni persi in reggenza: mancava il dirigente di ruolo e il titolo veniva assunto da presidi di altri istituti che spesso non avevano il tempo né la dedizione di gestire le complessità di una scuola come quella. Ma dopo il susseguirsi di reggenze, nel 2019, una nuova dirigente di ruolo, Alessandra Scamardella, ha dato alla scuola e al corpo docenti compattezza e presenza. Tre giorni alla settimana, la porta del suo ufficio è aperta a tutti, incluse le famiglie.

“La stabilità data dalla dirigenza e da alcune nuove linee educative ha ricucito la fiducia del territorio nell’istituzione scolastica”, spiega la dirigente. “Qui i genitori vanno accompagnati, invitati, richiesti: non funziona la formula dell’open-day virtuale come per altre scuole… siamo perennemente in ritardo con le scadenze e i genitori vanno rincorsi. Per questo stiamo anche cercando di coinvolgerli, per esempio, nei processi di alfabetizzazione informatica”.

A Via dell’Archeologia, la capillarità della scuola nel territorio ha messo in relazione istituzioni, organismi locali e comunità: per la prima volta dopo tanto tempo, nel quartiere si propone un modello diverso di rapporto tra enti statali e collettività, in zone che rimarrebbero altrimenti ai margini dell’azione politica.

“In collaborazione con la Fondazione Paolo Bulgari, stiamo organizzando un presidio dei servizi sociali che sia aperto almeno una volta al mese per fare in modo di avere una sinergia tra istituzioni statali sul territorio e associazionismo”, spiega la dirigente Scamardella. Iniziative che nascono anche dall’esigenza di intervenire sull’isolamento della comunità locale e di far conoscere tramite la scuola realtà al di fuori dei confini di Via dell’Archeologia.

Persino gli interni del Melissa Bassi hanno cambiato aspetto per accogliere nuove dinamiche e modelli di insegnamento: sotto la guida della nuova dirigenza, nella scuola ogni giorno si riconquistano gli spazi perduti negli anni, alcuni precedentemente ingombrati da spazzatura e vecchi mobili, altri diventati presidi personali. L’istituto è enorme, ha aule ampissime e coni d’ombra abbandonati nel susseguirsi disattento delle reggenze. Prima, nella noncuranza generale, custodi e inservienti rivendicavano parti del plesso scolastico, trasformando luoghi pubblici in spazio privato: c’era chi si portava il fornetto e chi nella struttura ci abitava.

“C’erano delle stanze ignote, chiuse a chiave, magari perché il bidello si era impossessato dello spazio. Ma come fai a impossessarti di uno spazio pubblico?”, si chiede Marco Fusco, docente di ruolo di arte e immagine. Mentre racconta, riordina le opere dei ragazzi nel nuovo laboratorio d’arte, una sala dalle pareti blu e dai termosifoni gialli che è stata recentemente risistemata grazie all’aiuto degli studenti.

“Sono tanti i posti sottratti a chi li aveva rivendicati per essere restituiti alla scuola”, spiega Marco. Fino a pochi anni fa, anche quella che oggi è l’ampia sala dei professori, con i muri dipinti e una vista sul cortile interno, era una falegnameria a uso magazzino dove pioveva dal soffitto. In un altro spazio è invece nato il laboratorio di street art, sotto l’egida di Mario Cecchetti dell’associazione ColorOnda di Tor Bella Monaca; di fianco, un’aula è stata data al Museo delle Periferie e un’altra è diventata il laboratorio di musica.

Nel tentativo di dare un senso al suo presidio nel sistema autarchico di Via dell’Archeologia, la scuola ripittura pareti, costruisce spazi di aggregazione e migliora i rapporti col vicinato per creare una possibilità di esistenza alternativa all’interno del quartiere. Ma di là dalla compattezza delle sue mura, si dimena una vita di borgata che obbliga gli studenti a un senso di appartenenza di altro tipo, che ha forse più a che fare con la durezza del cemento.

Marco Fusco, art and drawing teacher, at Melissa Bassi. Marco’s students are reclaiming disused spaces in the school, transforming this once abandoned classroom into an art laboratory. 

 

Eredità di quartiere

Da quando lo scorso gennaio Maira (nome di fantasia) ha compiuto 17 anni, a scuola non si vede più. A volerla cercare, la si può trovare al di là della strada, appena fuori dal plesso scolastico, nella desolazione delle conche di luce abbacinante che riempie gli spazi vuoti tra gli edifici o nella penombra delle strettoie che li attraversano.

La strada di Maira si intreccia a una vita di quartiere che è fuori dal suo controllo. La cultura dello spaccio l’ha lasciata vagare di casa in casa da sola mentre i genitori erano in galera, per poi toglierla dall’affido del nonno trovato casualmente mentre sniffava cocaina durante una visita di controllo dei servizi sociali. Con una fatica generazionale ereditata, mentre veniva sballottata da una parte all’altra di Via dell’Archeologia, vedeva cambiare il civico ma non il risultato.  

“E che vogliamo fare – te la vuoi prendere con Maira?”, si domanda Emiliano.  

A Tor Bella Monaca, sono almeno tre anni che Emiliano le corre dietro per i labirinti di Via dell’Archeologia; e Maira è solo a metà della sua lista. In quel piccolo mondo, la classe in cui insegna Emiliano è la riproduzione fedele delle statistiche: “Siamo tra i peggiori nella dispersione scolastica italiana: al Melissa Bassi la media è del 19%, contro il 10% della media europea e il 13% di quella nazionale. Su diciotto studenti me ne sono persi quattro, in perfetta media. In otto anni sono tanti, troppi: cominciano e poi non finiscono per colpa del quartiere”. Così a scuola un gruppo di docenti monitora gli studenti a rischio di abbandono scolastico, lavorando anche in concerto con le strutture sanitarie e i servizi sociali del territorio: nel 2022 in certe scuole si parla di supporto alla digitalizzazione, al Melissa Bassi di supporto agli alunni.

I numeri della dispersione scolastica di Via dell’Archeologia non sono casi isolati: sono istantanee che ricordano i dati europei di certe scuole rurali in Francia o la segregazione sociale dei collegi pubblici nelle banlieue parigine. Là, anni di centralizzazione del sistema educativo e una polarizzazione nella qualità degli insegnamenti tra banlieue e quartieri ricchi, campagne e città, ha creato un sistema educativo aperto in due: binari paralleli in cui l’istruzione fallisce nel suo ruolo di ascensore sociale e condanna le nuove generazioni al determinismo della propria geografia d’appartenenza.

The school garden. With the help of local associations, the new management is giving the school’s spaces a new lease of life. 

In tutto il mondo, esiste una topografia sociale dove le disparità spaziali intaccano l’opportunità di migliorare le prospettive socio-economiche di un’intera generazione. In Inghilterra, le fratture causate delle diseguaglianze geografiche cambiano il futuro degli studenti, soprattutto se provenienti da famiglie a basso reddito: mentre a Londra l’indice di mobilità sociale è tra i più alti del Paese, l’Inghilterra delle campagne inglesi, delle coste frastagliate e dei vecchi centri industriali si paralizza. Così nelle città di Hasting ed Eastbourne, nel litorale sud del Paese, sono solo il 10% i giovani provenienti da contesti sociali svantaggiati che si iscrivono all’università, contro il 50% dei distretti del lusso londinesi di Chelsea e Kensington. È il profilo dei quartieri che appesantisce l’eredità sociale del contesto di nascita.

L’educazione è uno dei principali motori di redistribuzione sociale, soprattutto se si parla di scuola primaria e secondaria. Ma come spesso accade, i quartieri che hanno più bisogno sono anche quelli in cui la qualità dell’insegnamento e dei servizi scolastici è più carente: per molti, la prima disuguaglianza è proprio l’accesso a un’educazione di qualità. Nella periferia romana come nelle città costiere di Hastings o Eastbourne, la scuola ha l’opportunità di scardinare una pesante eredità territoriale che le nuove generazioni si trascinano dietro.

“Come si fa a convincere questi ragazzi? Ai tempi delle reggenze, li andavo a beccare per strada e gli dicevo di tornare a scuola perché magari non li si vedeva da due settimane; però mi rispondevano: ma se non viene il preside a scuola, ci devo andare io, che guadagno 150 euro al giorno qua fuori? Allora restavo nudo, disarmato, e me ne tornavo a scuola senza nulla da dire”, racconta Emiliano. “Ora invece qualcosa la posso dire, perché un modello diverso a scuola c’è”.

Periferie politiche

Tra i corridoi, nel susseguirsi di piani e spazi interrotti, si ha l’impressione di una scuola piena a metà. Mentre si dirige verso la biblioteca, Emiliano parla di un’emorragia di iscritti che ha ridotto le sezioni a tre: “Nel 2011 arrivavano fino alla E e i piani erano tutti pieni. Ma con i tanti anni in reggenza, la scuola ha iniziato a tirare avanti alla giornata, così le iscrizioni sono diminuite. Se dovessero calare ancora, correremmo il rischio di diventare succursale di un altro plesso. Sarebbe una grande perdita perché qui, a Via dell’Archeologia, siamo l’unico presidio istituzionale”.

Nonostante i tanti anni in cui la scuola ha avuto un calo di iscrizioni, il cambio di direzione nella dirigenza ha tamponato le perdite e ora il numero degli studenti inizia finalmente a risalire. Al Melissa Bassi, la differenza l’ha fatta un corpo docenti più attivo e selezionato che ha dato un senso alle ore di lezione. Ma mentre il ruolo degli professori rimane cardine, è la capacità di adattare l’insegnamento al contesto –oltre che un maggiore accesso a risorse e servizi- a rendere i sistemi educativi più equi. Elementi che sono, però, spesso fuori dalla competenza delle singole scuole, sebbene indispensabili per non lasciare tutto in mano all’accidentalità di alcune dirigenze illuminate.

Tor Bella Monaca è periferia anche in senso di politiche istituzionali. Sebbene al quartiere siano riconosciute esigenze particolari in quanto “zona a rischio” in termini di insegnamento, la tendenza all’accentramento della macchina istituzionale mal si adegua agli strappi sociali che molte scuole si trovano a dover ricucire. “A livello nazionale, non esiste una reale autonomia per l’organizzazione degli uffici scolastici, un fattore fondamentale per gestire aspetti quali i meccanismi di inserimento in graduatoria e l’attribuzione di posti vacanti amministrativi. Poi c’è il problema del numero di docenti per classe, che spesso non tiene di conto di certe situazioni specifiche dell’istituto. La burocrazia – che non è sempre molestia e che va comunque rispettata- impone condizioni che non mettono in conto le difficoltà della scuola nello specifico. E poco conta la gestione interna quando ci sono aspetti calati dall’alto”, spiega la dirigente Scamardella.

Children on their way to musical and creative activities. 

In mano al proselitismo  

Emiliano è seduto tra i banchi della biblioteca, la stessa dove tre anni prima si accumulavano cianfrusaglie e scatoloni e dove ha impiegato tre ore per pulire una finestra. “In otto anni di insegnamento in questa scuola ho capito di non sapere nulla. Il quartiere devi abitarlo 24 ore al giorno per comprendere veramente cosa vuol dire vivere qua”.

Nella biblioteca c’è una porta-finestra che affaccia sul cortile di una delle tante entrate secondarie della scuola. Emiliano spera che un giorno, dopo l’ultima campanella della mattina, quella possa diventare l’entrata della nuova biblioteca territoriale: “Una cosa l’ho capita: se tieni aperta la scuola il pomeriggio, anche solo fino alle cinque, aiuti le famiglie e tieni i ragazzi lontani dalla strada”.

A Tor Bella Monaca la politica è spesso quella propagandistica e svuotata delle campagne elettorali. Il quartiere è oggetto di un proselitismo politico e sociale che ha spesso danneggiato la qualità ed effettiva sensatezza di iniziative e interventi. Mentre il quartiere rimane ai margini di una concreta risoluzione della politica, le potenzialità di trasformazione dell’ambiente locale rimangono inesplorate, lasciando la salvezza di Tor Bella Monaca in mano alla progettualità locale. “Avete visto quanti spazi verdi ci sono? Si potrebbe ottenere tantissimo investendo anche solo su ambiente e giovani nel quartiere”, spiega Emiliano.

In Europa, le enclave della diseguaglianza sono diventati focolai del populismo d’estrema destra. “Questo municipio è stato vinto da Fratelli d’Italia e quando ne è stato eletto il Presidente, a Via dell’Archeologia hanno festeggiato con il saluto romano. E pensare che questo, negli anni ’80, era uno dei quartieri più comunisti che c’erano a Roma. Cosa è successo in trent’anni?”. Nelle borgate come Tor Bella Monaca, dove comandano i principi della deprivazione economica e dove i plessi scolastici si inaridiscono, la polarizzazione e lo scontro sociale si generano da una vita di quartiere lontana dai benefici della politica e del sistema sociale collettivo: uno scarto che produce sfiducia nelle istituzioni. Anche così le periferie sono diventate roccaforti del populismo d’estrema destra.

Nelle borgate d’Europa, incorniciato da un paesaggio diverso, non più fatto di alberi e palazzoni grigi, c’è il dispiegarsi lento di uno stesso ritualismo della diseguaglianza che è anche un fallimento generazionale in mano alle istituzioni e alla politica.

La fatica dell’Istituto Melissa Bassi di Tor Bella Monaca racconta la storia delle tante scuole che operano nel fronte sociale dei paesi europei, in quel vortice delle diseguaglianze dove la forza centrifuga del sistema educativo combatte contro quella centripeta del quartiere. Per l’importanza dell’educazione nel produrre sistemi sociali più equi, gli istituti delle periferie rurali e urbane d’Europa richiedono maggiori risorse, personale e autonomia di altri; ironicamente, sono spesso anche quelli più trascurati dagli interventi politici. Nonostante il supporto zoppicante delle istituzioni, al Melissa Bassi è bastato un corpo insegnanti selezionato e guidato da una visione comune a svelare il reale potenziale degli istituti educativi che operano in contesti di profonda disuguaglianza. È la prova che garantire un accesso a un’educazione di qualità e promuovere investimenti a lungo termine sul territorio sia fondamentale per una politica di scardinamento delle disparità che affliggono l’Europa.

Foto di Federico Ambrosini. All rights reserved.

UK Academics Campaigning for Social Justice

Throughout history, universities have been birthplaces of new ideas and movements. In the late 20th century, student movements such as that of May ’68 shook the world and reshaped society for generations. Today, universities continue to play their critical role as laboratories for social and political change, but their capacity to do so is waning. Between government control and the pressures of cuts, fees, and precarity, many students and academics are on the back foot.

This text is part of Struggles in the University, a panorama bringing together the voices from movements in and around the university. We hear from representatives of campaigns to keep students out of debt in the Netherlands, oppose chronic student housing shortages in Hungary, and demand a decolonised education in Belgium, as well as academics resisting worsening working conditions in the UK. Their experiences reveal an ongoing struggle to stand up for the emancipatory promise of education and reach out beyond the walls of its institutions to build a better society.

UK academics have been engaged in industrial action against pension cuts, the increased casualisation of university staff, and the gender and racial pay gap since 2017. At Goldsmiths, we have also been engaged in a struggle to make the university more democratic, accountable, and inclusive. This local movement consists of the trade and student unions as well as other collectives of staff and students. We have deployed a number of strategies for our cause: formulating proposals, for instance, on alternative governance models; developing alternative community fora involving staff, students, and members of the local community; and the occupation by students of Deptford Town Hall (Goldsmiths’ main administration building) for four and a half months in 2019 to push for racial justice reforms.

Our key demands are fairly straightforward, but they require a radical overhaul of local management, the university sector, and government policy. We envision a public education system that is unencumbered from market logics and open to everyone who wants it, and that fosters critical thought. While the university has never been entirely inclusive nor egalitarian, important reforms allowed more people access to higher education.

Unfortunately, with the expansion of neoliberalism this opening up has been turned into a profit-generating opportunity. Students are seen as income sources, while degrees have become consumer items and university workers endlessly exploitable and expendable. And with everything valued in terms of its capacity to generate money, much of the arts and humanities are treated as pointless and starved of investment. We want this to stop.

We’re not seeking special treatment for academics. We simply want to highlight the erosion of decent basic working, pay, and pension conditions. We believe this situation is further evidence of the growing divide between the very rich minority and the increasingly impoverished majority.

The administration has responded negatively. At every level we have been belittled, derided, and put down by people who build careers as university managers and consultants but who themselves do not teach or conduct academic research. Despite having much more material and structural power, they try to discredit us by portraying us as elitist academics refusing to give up privilege.

In reality, many of us – particularly those of us from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds, women, and other marginalised groups – have not experienced this supposed privilege. We have come up through an academia that has exploited our labour, kept us on precarious contracts, worked us harder in ever-tougher conditions, and blamed us when poor management produces impoverished institutions. This situation has not just led many of us to despair; it has also made us more willing to take drastic action (including extended strike action) because we feel we have nothing left to lose. The university is failing to deliver social justice. In addition to expanding access and cultivating critical thinking, the university needs to reflect on its blind spots and privilege and on its role in making the world a better place. Through a project entitled New Social Imaginaries, a small international collective is exploring ways to do this work beyond the existing institutions.

Decolonising Belgium’s Oldest University

Throughout history, universities have been birthplaces of new ideas and movements. In the late 20th century, student movements such as that of May ’68 shook the world and reshaped society for generations. Today, universities continue to play their critical role as laboratories for social and political change, but their capacity to do so is waning. Between government control and the pressures of cuts, fees, and precarity, many students and academics are on the back foot.

This text is part of Struggles in the University, a panorama bringing together the voices from movements in and around the university. We hear from representatives of campaigns to keep students out of debt in the Netherlands, oppose chronic student housing shortages in Hungary, and demand a decolonised education in Belgium, as well as academics resisting worsening working conditions in the UK. Their experiences reveal an ongoing struggle to stand up for the emancipatory promise of education and reach out beyond the walls of its institutions to build a better society.

After the death of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests reached Belgium in 2020, the Belgian government convened a commission to examine Belgium’s colonial past. For decades, Black communities and organisations in Belgium have been advocating for this commission. Ministers and local politicians have since held discussions on teaching Belgium’s colonial history more extensively in schools as well as on decolonising museums and public spaces, many of which are populated by statues of King Leopold II.

The campaign #DecolonizeKULeuven puts this challenge to the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) – Belgium’s oldest university and one of Europe’s most prestigious educational institutions. It is run by Undivided, a student-led organisation that focuses on gender, decolonisation, anti-ableism, and supporting LGBTQI+ students. Alongside other relatively new African student associations in Belgium’s universities, Undivided advocates for the overdue reckoning with academia’s colonial past. The #DecolonizeKULeuven manifesto launched in 2021 sets out a roadmap for decolonising the university. Its 10 demands cover issues such as Eurocentrism in curricula; KU Leuven’s participation in Belgium’s colonial past in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi; and the precarious position of cleaners and other university support staff.

The campaign is one student-led action within Undivided’s broader work. Since its founding in 2018, the group has organised lectures, panel discussions, documentary screenings, and protests. The platform also advocates for the wellbeing of LGBTQI+ students of colour. Its gender justice agenda involves making sure that the university responds to instances of homophobia or transphobia and advocating for a racial justice approach to the university’s gender equality policy.

As of 2019, only 30 per cent of KU Leuven professors were women. While the university does not collect data on the ethnicity and racial origin of its staff, it is clear to us as students that these are almost exclusively white women. Undivided believes that the university doesn’t just need more women faculty members, but also more women from lower socio-economic backgrounds and different ethnicities to reflect the society we live in.

Our experience of organising as students at the university started off positively. From 2018 to the summer of 2021, the university funded Undivided as they deemed its work vital. We were also invited to take part in KU Leuven’s Diversity Council, which was an opportunity for our criticisms to be heard and influence the council’s long-term policies. Eventually, the university rejected our criticism and approach, which centred on decoloniality and intersectionality. In addition to withdrawing funding, the chancellor of the university branded Undivided as “woke” and indicative of “cancel culture” that “threatens academic freedom of thought”.

This pushback threatens to stifle representation of students from minority communities, which has long been absent at the university. Despite the opposition, Undivided continues to put the challenge of decolonisation and intersectionality to KU Leuven. We are striving for an academia that sheds its pretence of neutrality and rejects the West as the sole point of departure for knowledge.

Connecting Student Housing With the Struggle for Democracy in Hungary

Throughout history, universities have been birthplaces of new ideas and movements. In the late 20th century, student movements such as that of May ’68 shook the world and reshaped society for generations. Today, universities continue to play their critical role as laboratories for social and political change, but their capacity to do so is waning. Between government control and the pressures of cuts, fees, and precarity, many students and academics are on the back foot.

This text is part of Struggles in the University, a panorama bringing together the voices from movements in and around the university. We hear from representatives of campaigns to keep students out of debt in the Netherlands, oppose chronic student housing shortages in Hungary, and demand a decolonised education in Belgium, as well as academics resisting worsening working conditions in the UK. Their experiences reveal an ongoing struggle to stand up for the emancipatory promise of education and reach out beyond the walls of its institutions to build a better society.

In June 2021, 10,000 people marched through Budapest to protest against government plans to build a campus for China’s Fudan University. Some carried signs reading “treason”, while Budapest’s Green mayor, Gergely Karácsony, denounced the government’s decision as “the final and complete moral suicide of Fidesz” in a speech at the protest. The government was effectively breaking its promise to build a “Student City” for the sake of a project funded by Chinese loans, and public outrage was palpable. The march was the first large-scale anti-government action after a year of strict Covid-19 rules, and it took place at a time when China’s human rights abuses were earning it strong rebukes from the EU.

Young people, who have the most to lose from the government’s broken promise, were strongly represented at the march. Students are increasingly forced into the primary housing market or into paying exorbitant rents to private landlords because of a shortage of appropriate accommodation, and Budapest’s housing supply cannot keep up with demand. The planned Student City project was therefore a welcome change. Beyond providing new accommodation, cultural, and sports facilities, as well as public transport networks, for approximately 8000 students, the project was expected to push rents down across the city, reducing living costs not only for young people and the families that support them but also city residents in general.

Szikra (Spark), the political movement behind the protests, struck a chord with students and the opposition. While the liberal mainstream media highlighted the national security risks of hosting a Fudan campus within the EU, and some even raised racist concerns about Chinese people gaining influence in the country, Szikra framed the issue in terms of the material consequences for Hungarians. We chose to highlight the government’s hypocrisy, as it would rather be indebted to China than provide affordable housing to thousands of young people moving to Budapest from across the country for their studies. This became a rallying cry for the opposition ahead of the April 2022 elections. A referendum bid on housing proposed by the opposition parties and spearheaded by Karácsony and then-parliamentary candidate András Jámbor gathered 200,000 signatures. However, on 18 May 2022, the Constitutional Court threw out the referendum bid. This decision was made on a political basis and leaves the opposition without any legal means to appeal.

Students and teachers have tried but largely failed to make their voices heard in the last 12 years of Fidesz government. Their appetite for radical action and deep organising in the educational sector is understandably increasing. This spring, for example, hundreds of teachers were on a rolling strike, most of them participating in “wild strikes” which, under Fidesz-introduced laws, means sacrificing their wages and risking their jobs. Szikra takes this as a further sign that people want to exercise democratic control over their lives.

If the government refuses to compromise, Szikra will continue to fight for the Student City project. We believe that the lack of funding for public schools, low teacher wages, and the ideological control of teaching materials are issues that cannot be divorced from Hungary’s political crisis. With our campaigns, we hope to show Hungarians that if they organise, they can challenge the Fidesz hegemony, even when the political alternative seems to have collapsed after the 2022 parliamentary elections.

The Netherlands’ “Bad Luck Generation”

Throughout history, universities have been birthplaces of new ideas and movements. In the late 20th century, student movements such as that of May ’68 shook the world and reshaped society for generations. Today, universities continue to play their critical role as laboratories for social and political change, but their capacity to do so is waning. Between government control and the pressures of cuts, fees, and precarity, many students and academics are on the back foot.

This text is part of Struggles in the University, a panorama bringing together the voices from movements in and around the university. We hear from representatives of campaigns to keep students out of debt in the Netherlands, oppose chronic student housing shortages in Hungary, and demand a decolonised education in Belgium, as well as academics resisting worsening working conditions in the UK. Their experiences reveal an ongoing struggle to stand up for the emancipatory promise of education and reach out beyond the walls of its institutions to build a better society.

At exactly 23:37 on 20 January 2015, the Dutch government made a decision that would affect students for years to come. It abolished the basic grant system that allowed students to study without incurring major debts, replacing it with a grant-based system that only financed students from low-income households. The grant had a catch: repayment was required if a student did not graduate within 10 years. All other students would need to rely on their parents or take out a loan (on which the government charges interest). The government promised to use the money saved by this decision to fund improvements in the Dutch higher education system. With its budget cuts between 2015 and 2022, however, the government effectively broke its promise.

Around 2019, an outcry from students spurred research into the effects of the new loan system. Research found that the number of students with debt had tripled. Students from middle-income backgrounds were found to have comparatively greater financial problems than those from a low-income or high-income background.

More than half of students from middle-income backgrounds are worried about their future finances. With mounting debt and the average price for a house at half a million euros and rising, home ownership is increasingly out of young people’s reach. Not only are they priced out of the market, the Dutch government has also made it impossible for them to borrow money to buy a home: in 2021, the government retracted its pledge to enable young people to hide their debt from banks and mortgage lenders.

Most students were never in favour of the loan system and anticipated many of the problems it has since created. The National Student Union (LSVb) has organised around the issue since 2012. However, their campaign #NietMijnSchuld (not my debt/fault) with the youth trade union branch FNV Young & United only took off in 2019 after the effects of the loan system became difficult to ignore. Between 2015 and 2019, a growing number of students filed troubling complaints with these student-led organisations. The #NietMijnSchuld campaign had three demands: reinstating the basic grant system and abolishing the loan system; fair compensation for all students who suffered as a result of the loan system; and new investments to improve higher education. To further their cause, the campaigners organised protests, petitions, sit-ins, spammed the student debt collector with small payments, and wrote to officials. In 2022, the new government coalition finally responded: the loan system would be abolished and the basic grant system reinstated. The government also earmarked 1 billion euros to compensate students who studied between 2015 and 2022. Students were pleased to hear the news but felt that at 1000 euros per student, the level of compensation was insufficient, especially as student loans average 24,000 to 28,000 euros for four years of studies.

To highlight their dissatisfaction student unions organised a protest on 4 February 2022. Government officials and certain party leaders also came to show their support. Although the protest reignited debates in the House of Representatives, changes to the 1 billion budget are yet to materialise.

After many broken promises and superficial changes, students understandably feel that the government has failed them. Although progress has been made and future students can expect a basic grant as of 2023, those who studied from 2015 to 2022 will always feel like the “bad luck generation”.

“We Cannot Delete Our Way Out Of This”: Learning In The Maze

Thanks to technology and the internet, today’s children and young people have unprecedented access to information. While much online content is valuable and informative, there is also a great deal of compromised, biased, and untruthful information. Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck is the director of Lie Detectors, a journalist-led organisation seeking to help teenagers and pre-teens use the internet to enhance their learning, while avoiding the dangers of becoming ensnared in conspiracy theories or manipulation. She argues that media literacy should be an urgent priority for educators and policymakers alike.

Beatrice White: What kind of information landscapes are school-children navigating today? How does this impact the way they learn?

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck: The pandemic caused a lot of upheaval, not just because classes were suddenly taking place via video conferencing, but also because children were exposed to a lot of rumours and false information – as we all were – and so were unsure of what to believe. We also see this with the war in Ukraine, and previously we saw a lot of curiosity among children about the environment. Children have questions and concerns and want to understand what is happening. These worries are compounded because often they are not helped by their teachers to find their way in this information universe.

Disinformation affects children in a very different way to adults because they use different platforms. These days, children seek out information about the world from sources such as TikTok, Snapchat, and increasingly Twitch and Discord. These aren’t generally seen by adults as information sources: they’re gaming platforms and live video platforms, and they are largely unmoderated, either because they are encrypted – with exchanges happening in small private chatrooms – or because the content is visual. Images and video are among the types of content that have always been the most difficult to moderate. So there is a generational dimension, in that children inhabit a different online world to their teachers. This can make it very difficult for teachers to approach the subject of disinformation.

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So the issue goes beyond whether particular pieces of information are factually correct or incorrect; it’s a question of the environment shaping our whole world view. Is this why Lie Detectors works specifically with young people?

Our organisation works with professional journalists to strengthen democracy using the tools of journalism. We currently work with more than 200 professional journalists from all kinds of media: broadcast, print, and online. The most visible part of our work is what we do in classrooms, speaking to children aged 10 to 15.

Those at the younger end of this age range in particular are incredibly open and enthusiastic about looking things up online; they are keen detectives who want to have the freedom to do research online, which they tell us doesn’t happen often at school. They are also very enthusiastic about meeting real live journalists. By the time they’re 14 or 15, they can sometimes be more difficult to work with because they’re shyer and more self-conscious. But secondary school is a very important time because this is when they are forming lasting friendships and social groups, and also their world views. It is when they start thinking deeply and making decisions about where they stand on particular issues.

In our view, it is really important to intervene early, and there are initiatives that start with children as young as four years old. On average, 10- to 11-year-olds regularly use three platforms, and the older ones are on up to five platforms. So they are much more adept at using these technologies than their teachers, but they often don’t understand the full extent of their engagement and can’t see that they may be trapped in an information silo. Also, very often they don’t use reliable sources of information. If you ask a schoolchild where they get information from, very often the answer will be “Instagram” or “WhatsApp”. You then have to tell them that these are photo or messaging apps and explain the difference between how they operate and how journalism works. It’s about understanding the difference between the content on these platforms – which is entirely subjective and sometimes manipulative – and that produced by journalists, which might not always get it right but is certainly more reliable.

The way we talk about this issue is very important. Yes, there are dangers we need to be wary of, but it’s important to emphasise that so many precious treasures and so much valuable information can be found online. We need to seek out what is good. It’s a bit of a yin-and-yang approach. Nonetheless, all the journalists of the world are not going to be able to solve this problem, so what we are also doing, increasingly, is training the teachers.

Critical media literacy needs to be recognised as a core literacy alongside reading, writing, and counting.

What are the main shortcomings in how the current education system deals with this issue? Is it simply a question of catching up with the technology or is there a need to instil a more critical approach?

Teachers’ confidence in their own ability to do something about media literacy is not at the level it should be. Almost 100 per cent of teachers say that this subject is relevant to their class, but only 30 per cent have actually addressed it in the classroom. That is a really significant gap. So there needs to be training for teachers regardless of subject area, and we need to provide them with incentives. It should become part of all teachers’ approaches to their subjects, whether they teach biology, politics, art, or maths.

In addition, some schools in more deprived areas have very poor connectivity and access to facilities and equipment to get online, so practical access is an important barrier. There is also a lack of suitable materials. It can’t always be a conversation about refugee rights or religious tolerance. You have to catch the kids where they are, on the platforms they use, and actually talk about things that they care about. It’s not about immediately tackling the hardest issues; it’s about teaching kids to flex their critical-thinking muscles so they can use them when they need to. It doesn’t matter if they train them on crazy stories circulating online, like the one about the man who allegedly married his pet cobra – a discussion that tends to generate great enthusiasm in most classrooms!

Because they are unfamiliar with the information universe that children inhabit, teachers actually need to learn to ask questions. This process cannot be only frontal and didactic. It’s a universe that is developing incredibly rapidly, so we need to meet children where they are and be able to engage them regardless of their backgrounds.

We also need to make sure these discussions are conducted in a responsible way that keeps teachers safe. Bringing up controversial subjects can be a risk, as we saw with the tragic case of the teacher killed in France in relation to a discussion about cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. An extreme example but, especially when you start looking at conspiracy theories, you have to keep teachers safe and make sure they know how to approach these questions in a light-hearted way.

What structural changes would you like to see to bring media literacy into schools?

If you’re going to be piling things onto the curriculum, you really have to make sure that teachers are being incentivised in the right way. One of the big grading systems for schools is the PISA rankings. They are currently thinking about adding critical media literacy as one of the indicators used to gauge a school’s performance. What we say is that critical media literacy needs to be recognised as a core literacy alongside reading, writing, and counting. Because without it, you cannot make sense of the world. It doesn’t matter how well you can read words if they don’t make sense to you.

We also really need to be able to measure the effects of media literacy programmes so we can guarantee that politicians are going to put their political and financial capital behind them.

In recent years social media platforms have stepped up their efforts to stem disinformation, for example through content warnings and fact-checking. How do you view these efforts?

We think the “information disorder” problem needs to be tackled on the demand side, because the reason that it exists is the demand at a human level. If we can curb this demand, then it might not be as interesting to put out the manipulative information we see at the moment. However, there’s also the supply side. And by supply side, I don’t mean foreign actors such as Russian or Chinese trolls; I actually mean the drivers of disinformation. Platforms have to become accountable for their algorithms and the way in which they prioritise polarising content.

It’s about teaching kids to flex their critical-thinking muscles so they can use them when they need to.

There is good reason to be sceptical of the large internet platforms and the solutions they offer. We have seen this for many years: Facebook hires 1000 new fact-checkers, and it still doesn’t solve the problem. There has been a focus on content moderation, fact-checking, and using artificial intelligence to move or remove harmful content. The problem is that when you start deleting content, this often leads to accusations of censorship – real or perceived – which is harmful, both for democracy and for the credibility of politicians. You only have to look at the German Facebook Act[1] to see what kind of backlash can arise. We cannot delete our way out of this.

At the EU level, the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts will give the EU very powerful antitrust tools, so it’s important to get that right. Correct application, privacy, the limit to behavioural data collection: these are essential questions over the long term for curbing disinformation. But there have been intensive lobbying efforts, and the process has been very lengthy. Commitment and resilience will be needed on the side of policy-makers to see it through to the end.

Increasing numbers of people distrust established media. Should we be seeking to restore trust in certain sources? It has also been argued that the impulse to “deconstruct” information and narratives can lead to cynicism and a loss of respect for facts and objectivity. Is this as a risk?

Yes of course. We’ve heard teenagers say, “I don’t believe anything except for what my friends tell me.” We’ve got deep fake fatigue, which makes people just give up. And that’s the worst, when people don’t believe anything anymore. So yes, there is a lot of disinformation out there, but the good news is that there are practical tools that we can give children and young people – and also adults – so they do not feel helpless. All you need is a basic journalist approach. It’s not magic; we simply ask questions. “Who wrote this?” “What is the source?” “What do we know about the person writing this?” “Why might they be writing this?” And there are also questions to ask yourself: “Why am I reading this?” “Why do I want to believe this?” “Is this confirming something I want to believe because it makes the world more understandable to me?”

This is something children have no problems understanding. When you get to the ultimate outcomes of manipulation, propaganda, or lying, they can understand it, because they know all about cyberbullying. They have a very innate understanding of the online world that a lot of adults don’t have, because they all follow YouTubers, memes, and popstars. Even with just an image or a catchy headline or a video, you can make a lot of money and influence people’s opinions, positively or negatively. When you move that gaze from their online world into the world of information, you can do a lot.

What are the risks for democracy if we don’t take this issue seriously?

The threats to democracy are incredibly clear. Just look at the questions millions of people were asking during the pandemic: about whether masks really work, about the risks of vaccines, about whether remedies like gargling garlic water would cure Covid-19. That shows that disinformation can really mess with a person’s ability to make informed decisions. If you are not able to tell true from false online, that can stop you making an informed decision. And informed decision-making is the basis of the democratic process. If that is undermined, then the entire democracy is undermined.

What is the best thing that could happen? From our point of view, media literacy needs to be seen as a right for children, and must become engrained in the thought processes of both teachers and students. And teachers need to lose their fear. We’ve seen it happen; we’ve seen the debates that can happen in classrooms. We’ve also seen children correcting teachers in the classroom, or heard about them questioning their parents at home, as a result of this work. These tools can be incredibly empowering.

Young people today face great uncertainty about the future and are exposed to alarming and confusing information about issues such as war and the climate crisis. It can often be tempting to look away from reality. Can media literacy empower young people in the face of such challenges?

In the past, you would go to a newsstand or a newsagent and there would be a choice between either broadsheets or tabloids. You’d buy a broadsheet for reliable information on serious topics, or sometimes you might choose a tabloid for its sensational stories about UFOs and alien landings because you wanted some light entertainment. After all, not everything has to be a matter of life or death. What matters for children today is being able to tell the difference, to make a conscious choice. We have to train our eyes and those of the next generation to see and understand that difference and to know when it really matters to use that knowledge. We are ultimately telling children and teachers to slow down, to consume information more deliberately. Share more sparingly and stop and think before you do. And also to abandon or resist the temptation to see everything in black and white; to realise that there is so much to be found in the grey middle. It might take longer to explore this messy middle where all the information overlaps – it’s difficult, it’s nuanced – but it’s a really promising and interesting space where you can learn so many important things.


Footnotes

[1] Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, or “NetzDG” law, aims to combat hate speech and disinformation online by forcing platforms to rapidly remove illegal content or face heavy fines. (Source: Centre for European Policy Studies).

Vehicles for Integration or Places of Exclusion? Migration and Asylum in Europe’s Schools

As the final destination of increasingly chaotic and violent migration flows, the European Union must adapt its education systems if it wants to ensure the successful integration of millions of children. There is no shortage of recommendations, but on the ground, schools and teachers face severe difficulties and often insufficient resources. Five testimonies from across Europe shed light on the issues at stake.

Nadia Echadi still remembers the little Syrian girl who arrived alone in Belgium in 2016. At the time, Nadia, a primary school teacher, was co-running a homework class as part of the Citizens’ Platform for Refugee Support, a volunteer movement set up in Brussels to support exiles abandoned to their fate by the authorities. The girl’s parents, who were stranded in Turkey, had entrusted her to a lady to take her to Belgium, where an aunt lived. Despite this delicate situation, there was no appropriate follow-up at the school where the girl was enrolled, and she had received a bad school report. “This was not an isolated case; quite the contrary,” says Nadia. “Other children showed us notes in their school reports that said: ‘Didn’t want to work’, ‘Chatters all the time’, ‘Is too agitated’. In the schools they attended, people hardly knew where they came from; their native language and background were ignored. These children were suffering from being uprooted; they were traumatised. Once in the classroom, they underwent new painful and abusive experiences, when in fact they should have been listened to, reassured, and cared for.”

Schools in Europe seem largely overwhelmed by the arrival of children and young people with diverse immigration backgrounds. Yet the arrival of non-native pupils is nothing new for European education systems, which are the responsibility of member states. The European Commission estimates that today “just under 10 per cent of all students learn in a language other than their mother tongue.” However, even in countries where reception arrangements have been in place for many years (since 1970 in France, for example), the situation on the ground remains problematic. The school system should be teaching the host language, fostering socialisation, and providing a safe haven. Yet it continues to suffer from shortcomings on all three fronts due to a lack of resources, staff, knowledge, and in some cases, willingness. As a result, rather than places of reception and community that act as a vehicle for integration, schools can become loci of exclusion and segregation.

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At the European level, the European Commission and projects such as IMMERSE and ICAM have been producing reports and recommendations aimed at improving the capacity of schools to accommodate “children affected by migration” for years. Surveys of best practices reveal a wide disparity between European countries. Some initiatives, such as multilingual education (the provision of classes in the native languages of foreign-born children) and peer mentoring (pupils accompanying the integration of newcomers of the same nationality or culture), are spreading in schools. Their aim is to limit the isolation of pupils in separate classes and reduce the risk of dropping out to the greatest extent possible. The focus is also on training teachers in diversity and empowering diverse talents to join the profession. And because schools must be able to bring diverse people together, the methods they use to assess students’ knowledge and skills should be flexible enough to adapt to different profiles and avoid reducing them to stereotypes.

In her 38 years of teaching, Anna Maria Picotti has been confronted with all these issues. She works at the IPSAS Aldrovandi Rubbiani vocational institute in Bologna, where about a third of the 1100 students have migratory backgrounds, accounting for a total of 44 nationalities. Some of them were born in Italy or arrived in the country at a very young age. Some do not speak the language of their parents and feel Italian but cannot obtain Italian nationality. It is an aberration that the bill on Ius Scholae currently being examined by the Italian parliament aims to correct. If approved, it would allow hundreds of thousands of young people born to foreign parents in Italy (or who arrived in Italy before the age of 12), and who have attended school for at least five years, to obtain Italian nationality and accompanying rights such as voting.

A gateway to integration?

For these young people, school could thus become the key to integration. But for those who arrived more recently, the challenges remain numerous. “All schools with foreign pupils offer Italian classes financed by the government and the local authorities,” explains Anna Maria. “The problem is that they are usually held in the afternoon, after the school day is over. Some families don’t want their daughters to come home too late, other pupils have to come home early to help their parents or to look after their siblings, and others live too far away.”

For Nadia Echadi, the main problem is the lack of training and the unequal distribution of responsibilities among teachers. “When I started working, there were no classes in French as a foreign language in my school. But since I sometimes had non-native pupils, especially after the enlargement of the EU to Eastern European countries, I started to think about how I could teach them French. For example, I made small dictionaries in all the languages, together with the children, which helped them enormously.” Today Nadia develops pedagogical tools and activities to raise awareness and train teachers through two projects, Ergonomic Pédaconcept and Maxi-Liens.

Since 2019 in French-speaking Belgium, the FLA (“French as a learning language”) scheme has helped to identify the needs of schools in terms of additional language lessons. “But we realised that we didn’t have the qualified staff needed to give these lessons, nor the budget to pay them,” says Nadia. The result is that FLA teachers are not trained, or are often ill, or have to replace class teachers who are off sick, “so the FLA course is no longer taught”. However, Nadia says, “FLA teachers are very important; they often know the children better and can ensure contact with the families. In the current system, all the responsibilities fall on the class teachers, whereas they should be shared, especially with the FLA teachers.”

For undocumented children, school can either be a refuge from exclusionary policies, or exactly the opposite.

In Bologna, Anna Maria describes a similar situation: when the school can count on additional resources – in this case, a language and cultural mediation service funded by the Emilia-Romagna region – the guidance received by pupils greatly improves. “The advantage is that the mediators, who are often young, are present regularly throughout the year and can therefore establish a relationship of trust with the pupils,” she explains. “I am thinking, for example, of young Pakistani girls who confide their problems. Sometimes these are very serious, such as the risk of forced marriage.” In other communities, families may be opposed to the prolonged schooling of children, and the role of mediators is crucial. “This is the case for young Roma and Chinese people, for whom obtaining the secondary school certificate (terza media) is already a lot, either because the girls have to get married or because they have to go to work and help their parents.”

When children have a desire to learn, they must be prepared to go against their family. Sometimes schools even bend the rules to help them: “From the age of 18, young foreigners are theoretically not allowed to enrol in school,” says Anna Maria. “They are supposed to attend an Italian course for foreigners and then adult education. But the director of our school, Teresa Pintori, has always accepted applications from young people over 18.”

The desire to learn

Parwana Amiri has been keen to get back to school ever since she fled Afghanistan with her family in 2018 at the age of 14. After spending a year in Turkey and more than two years in camps in Greece, the young refugee and activist was recently transferred to Germany with her family. Her schooling was suspended for four years, except for a brief period in Greece. Like her, many young asylum-seekers and refugees across the EU are being denied their right to education. “In Turkey, I couldn’t enrol in school,” she says. “The day I arrived at Moria camp on Lesbos, I was told that I had to wait until I was transferred somewhere else before I could go to school. There were families who had been there for six months, a year. With other refugees, we started self-organised educational activities.” It was during this period that Parwana started writing (she has since published two books, The Olive Tree and the Old Woman and My pen won’t break, but borders will), and speaking out against conditions in the camp on social networks.

After the fire in Moria in September 2020, her transfer to a camp in Ritsona (86 kilometres north of Athens) led to a new disappointment: “I was told that I would have to wait at least six months to go to school. I was told that in the schools in the area there were not enough places for the 800 children in the camp. Another obstacle was transport. There was no money to pay for the bus.” Finally, after a year and a half of waiting, Parwana was able to enrol in school with 600 other young people. But 200 children still did not have access to a primary school. From this experience, she draws two conclusions. “The time that children spend in camps without being able to go to school should be used to give them compulsory language classes, for six months at most!” And “teachers should be taught how to teach refugees.”

Waiting is a word that often comes up in Parwana’s stories, but also in those of Anna Maria, Nadia, and Nathalie Dupont. Since 2015, Nathalie has managed the Brussels- based Maximilien School for Adults with a team of 20 teachers and volunteers like herself. After several moves, the school is now located in the south-west of the city in the municipality of Forest. The lease is insecure, subsidies non-existent, and the building dilapidated, but the school has become a meeting place for a varied clientele made up of asylum-seekers, undocumented migrants, and locals who attended little or no school.

Regularisation through schooling could one day enable schools to play their full role as a vehicle for integration.

Three times a week, classes are offered in French, English, Dutch, and IT. Apart from the importance of learning a common language as a tool for getting one’s bearings and knowing one’s rights, the classes offer “a place to meet people who are experiencing the same difficulties”. In the same building, the SISA (Social and Administrative Information Service) helps people to submit their application for protection or regularisation. “Then the waiting begins,” says Nathalie.

Months of waiting, sometimes years, during which people “don’t have many official learning opportunities”. Added to this, for asylum-seekers, is a difficulty related to the multilingual nature of Belgium: “They don’t know which part of the country they will be placed in, and therefore which language to learn, whether French or Dutch will be useful to them later on.” And the younger a person is when he or she arrives in Belgium, the more dangerous the wait: “We see mental and physical health problems developing, problems that then become chronic.”

In Belgium, as in Greece, asylum-seekers are not always given access to school. “Families are placed in reception centres for asylum- seekers and the children are sometimes left out of school for several months, or even several years,” says Nadia Echadi. “Sometimes the schools are too far away, and the problem of transport costs arises. There are also so-called ‘elitist’ schools, which ‘sort’ newcomer children when they enrol, simply claiming that there are not enough places.” Yet, as Laetitia Van der Vennet, advocacy officer with PICUM (Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants), points out, all EU countries provide for at least nine years of compulsory schooling for all, including children with irregular status (although this is usually only implied). As a result, “many schools are confronted with some of the effects of migration policies and procedures that society at large may not see.”

The school as a refuge

Children may miss school because they have an interview as part of their application for protection or regularisation, or because they have to accompany their parents who do not speak the language to appointments. Others leave school because of forced return.

In the Netherlands, for example, “several schools have developed programmes to pay tribute to these departing friends and to say goodbye to them,” explains Laetitia. She also points out that in every EU country, there are regular protests by classes or schools against these expulsions. “What is in the best interest of the child? Staying in the country with a residence permit? Or returning to the ‘home country’, even though the child may never have lived there? Settling somewhere else? Often EU member states do not consider this interest when making an expulsion decision. But if a child has lived for years in a country, has gone to school there, and has a network of friends, it should be in his or her interest to stay in that country.”

Regularisation through schooling could one day enable schools to play their full role as vehicles for integration. But in the meantime, as President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said in 2020, “We will make sure that those who have the right to stay are integrated and made to feel welcome.” For undocumented children, therefore, school can either be a refuge from exclusionary policies, or exactly the opposite. “In Cyprus, some schools inform the immigration services of the status of their pupils, who are then arrested,” says Laetitia, who would like to see stronger firewalls against such denunciations throughout the EU.

Rights on paper are not enough

Nadia, Anna Maria, Nathalie, and Parwana also have aspirations. Nadia would like to see a genuine reception and support programme put in place for migrant and exiled children, “to enable them to begin their resilience process, to plan their future with confidence and to have a successful school career”. Anna Maria would like to see more places where parents can meet and be welcomed, “because their isolation has a negative impact on the pupils”. Nathalie would like the Belgian government to ensure that migrants are given support more quickly and comprehensively, “and that their skills are properly recognised”. Parwana is apprehensive about her approaching 18th birthday, which could further hamper her education. When she was in Greece, an international school in Warsaw offered her a scholarship to complete a two-year bachelor’s degree. But when she arrived in Germany, she had to start her asylum procedure again and give up the scholarship. “I hope to find another opportunity here,” she says. Her wait continues.

The exodus of millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war – more than 5.5 million by 1 May 2022, about half of whom are minors – has been a powerful reminder of the importance of ensuring a swift and comprehensive welcome for displaced people. For children, this means access to education. “Their return to school will help to alleviate their psychological stress, give them a sense of stability and normality and an outlook to the future,” states the European Commission in the preface to its measures to support the schooling of Ukrainian children. Access to education is a right of every child, regardless of their status. The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainians has not changed this.

But rights on paper are not enough. On the ground, all of Europe’s schools must be able to count on the resources – financial and human – necessary to play their role as a nursery for future citizens. The school system has a unique capacity to lay the foundations for a plural, open Europe, one that can see itself as the fruit of centuries of migration, cross-fertilisation, exchanges, and sharing. Against the efforts of certain governments to extend the hunt for the undocumented into schools, we must defend these spaces where the values of an inclusive and egalitarian EU are embodied by children every day. In this sense, the campaign for Ius Scholae – which in Italy faces obstruction by the far-right Lega and Fratelli d’Italia – could become a Europe-wide movement. A way of recognising the valuable, and underestimated, role played by so many teachers in welcoming and integrating young people. It would also be a way to allow these young people to shape – through the vote – their own future in the European Union.

Translation: Harry Bowden | Voxeurop 


Benedict Anderson: Reimagined, Re-engineered, and Restored Communities

To build a narrative with the power to inspire a sense of allegiance, the power of education and the media must be harnessed. A tribute to the great scholar of “imagined communities”, this essay evokes the challenges and opportunities presented by globalisation. It proposes a green reimagination of our sense of belonging anchored in our identity as global citizens and fostered by our educational establishments and creative industries.

This article is part of the series “Schools for Thought” – a collection of reflections on the contributions of four thinkers to our understanding of education today and its potential: Maria Montessori, Pierre Bourdieu, Simone Weil, and Benedict Anderson.

As the dim light of post-ideological times fades, politics is increasingly called upon to produce overarching and comprehensive narratives. From providing a semblance of legitimacy to the contested neoliberal order to responding to the growing search for a sense of meaning in secularised, materialistic societies, “grand narratives” – as predicted by Peter Sloterdijk – are back.

First to come ashore on this rising historical tide were the remnants of the past. Weaving together abundance and freedom, modernist grand narratives of growth and nationhood are reviving the fury of the Steel Age as sovereign nations vie for access to resources. In post-colonial, Islam-obsessed France, the national narrative revolves around discussions on the “roman national” and the dubious benefits of colonisation. For a jingoist United Kingdom, it evokes the buccaneering glory of Global Britain. In nationalist Poland and Hungary, it manifests as an aggressively revisionist political approach to memory and history in museums and schools. Concurrently, India, China, the United States, and Putin’s Russia are all redeveloping their civilisational narratives in support of their soft power globally and as a justification for their hard power nationally.

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Fed by the economic imbalances and cultural misgivings fostered by globalisation, a new generation of left-leaning populist movements has been gathering momentum over the past decade, attempting to form a discursive coalition based on a galvanising public narrative. However, these efforts were unable to reconcile the Left’s old internationalism with the new normal of globalisation and lacked institutional underpinning. As a result, they were ultimately unstable alliances. In stark contrast, the right-wing project has tapped the deep well of nationalism, its institutions, and its forms of expression. Gradually shaping the whole public conversation, such efforts demand a streamlined national history celebrating grandeur and obscuring society’s darker moments in order to strengthen and mobilise the national community. Shaking up the comfortable belief in the rationality of ruling elites, they solicit nostalgia, pride, and anger to conjure a powerful alternative narrative that is strongly nationalist in nature.

The author of arguably the most influential book on the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) was a historian and political scientist as well as a devoted student of south-east Asia. Investigating the “origins and spread of nationalism”, he famously defined it as “an imagined political community […], imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.[1] Against the cold-blooded realism of his contemporary Ernest Gellner, who saw nationalism as merely the instrument of the modern industrial state,[2] Anderson insisted upon the warmth, comfort, and solidity of a community held together by a shared creed, song and, more often than not, language: a Verdian “chorus of the slaves”.

Anderson insisted upon the warmth, comfort, and solidity of a community held together by a shared creed, song, and language.

Through his work on language in relation to power, Anderson demonstrated the crucial historical role played by the media – especially the print media – and the schooling systems of modern states in imparting knowledge of the history, geography, and literature of a community in order to build a sense of belonging stronger than any other allegiance. This was the primary historical achievement of the Republican school: transforming France’s conservative, predominantly peasant population into a community of French citizens, enfants de la Patrie ready to take up arms and die in muddy trenches.

After 70 years of European integration designed to forestall any resurgence of the nationalisms that led to the horrors of the past, Europe’s nations have grown wary of the concept of patriotism, now relegated to football stadiums and the Eurovision Song Contest. But the EU has yet to put forward an equally compelling narrative about what it stands for, and there is no sense of the sacrifices Europeans as a whole might be willing to make in order to protect their “European way of life”. This stands in clear contrast to the dedication with which Finnish citizens, for example, are prepared to defend their “imagined community”.

In this context, especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and given the conflicting narratives surrounding it, Anderson’s lessons are valuable and worthy of reflection – for Greens in particular. The existence of the modern nation-state and the extraordinary resilience of the emotional link it established with its populations is an everyday reminder of the power of education.

Over the years, the Green approach to a better world has evolved from whistleblowing on environmental destruction to a technocratic portfolio of policies designed to address the ecological crisis. But both at national and European levels, Greens often struggle to identify the tone and substance of their own “imagined community”. Lest they forget, schools have an important role to play in developing ecological awareness and this educational process continues through the broad diversity of media forms as a type of lifelong learning.

The Green role in developing a citizenry that identifies with and is able to bring about a better, safer, greener world must go far beyond election campaigning. It is a question of building up a Gramscian “eco-hegemony” – in schools and within public debate, in the world of trade and industry and within trade unions, and in organised civil society – that also touches the average person on the street.

For this, the Greens will have to overcome an important obstacle that has arisen since Anderson’s times, marked as they were by the dominance of the printed press: the increasing division of the public sphere into ever-shrinking “imagined communities”. An overhaul of the media ecosystem poisoning our minds and societies should become a priority as urgent and necessary as banning the fossil fuels and chemicals contaminating our air and food.

An opportunity presented by today’s globalised, interconnected world is the possibility of extending our imagined communities to encompass the whole planet. As the war in Ukraine threatens to starve people in Africa and triggers fuel-related riots in Lima, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” is more real than ever.[3] From the Covid-19 pandemic to the geopolitical situation, a positive externality to these global crises is the fact that they pave the way for an “imagined community of planetary dimensions”. With public opinion increasingly connected and mobilised, in addition to unprecedented levels of interdependency, it may be time for Green political discourse to reconnect with its alter-globalist roots, drawing on Anderson’s lessons to forge a compelling narrative.

It is high time for education to instil a form of “Earth patriotism”, a sense of belonging and devotion to the planet on which we live. This would not take the form of the ludicrous nationalism of Hollywood blockbusters that pit humanity against space invaders, but rather integrate the inclusive and democratic thinking of scientists and even sci-fi pioneers. Asimov’s Gaia, the Spaceship Earth of Lovelock and Margulis, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, to name just a few, offer striking examples of such narratives.

How it might be possible to combine these elements to generate a sense of togetherness, of a shared common destiny, of belonging to an “imagined community”, is still uncertain. What is certain, however, is that our schools and our creative and intellectual projects – from action movies to scientific essays – will be instrumental. It is time to take Anderson’s legacy to the next stage.


[1] Benedict Anderson (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Books.

[2] Ernest Gellner (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[3] Marshall Mcluhan & Bruce R. Powers (1992). The Global Village. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Bourdieu: Cultural Capital in the 21st Century

The writings of French thinker Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) anticipated many of the inequalities felt in today’s post-industrial societies. Despite the immense resources poured into education and record rates of university attendance, the promise of social mobility through equal opportunities rings hollow. Is it not time to think critically about the social function of education?

This article is part of the series “Schools for Thought” – a collection of reflections on the contributions of four thinkers to our understanding of education today and its potential: Maria Montessori, Pierre Bourdieu, Simone Weil, and Benedict Anderson.

In today’s capitalist societies, wealth is embodied in an immense accumulation of intellectual, cultural, and symbolic commodities. Wealth involves possessing not only a plethora of consumer products (media, art, fashion, etc.) that satisfy the social and psychological needs of a large middle class, but also the intangible assets that constitute value: trademarks, patents, networks, and even skills acquired by individuals, attested by their educational titles. Although difficult to calculate, the total value of this intangible capital – which in spite of its impalpable nature consumes huge quantities of natural resources – now greatly exceeds what is attributed to mere tangible goods. Cultural capital is the intangible wealth of nations.

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) foresaw how capitalism – as a bureaucratic social order aiming at maximum rationalisation – would depend increasingly heavily on its educational institutions and their capacity to issue credentials to individuals. “Cultural capital”, “social capital”, “symbolic capital”, and “human capital” are all formulas dating back to the 1960s, used in the social sciences to conceptualise or even quantify the intangible value accrued by individuals, as opposed to the pure economic value of capital in the strict sense of property and tangible assets.

Are we ready to recognise the perverse logic of the race for cultural capital? 

Weber had already noticed that “class”, constructed on the basis of economic criteria alone, was not enough to explain the inequalities inherent in bureaucratic capitalism, which depend just as much on “status”. Later thinkers, including French sociologist and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, endeavoured to examine the relationship between economic, cultural, and social capital. It is now recognised that a high level of cultural capital can coexist with low economic capital, as is often the case in the intellectual professions. The most recent studies on social stratification, such as the one conducted by Mike Savage et al. in the UK in 2013,[1] take into account the different combinations between these three forms of capital.

With regard to the difference between cultural and social capital, the former is embodied by the individual, mainly in their memory, but also objectivised in their possessions (books, clothes, etc.) and institutionalised in their titles. Social capital, in contrast, is attributed from the outside to the individual, engraved in the memory of other individuals or the relationships themselves. An individual cannot make much use of their cultural capital without objectivising, institutionalising, and then converting it into social capital; in other words, without it being recognised by society through institutional or reputational mediation. However, the individual can use their cultural capital to increase their social capital (for example, by succeeding in a government examination) and thereby access economic capital.

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The logic of cultural capital has been at work since the dawn of the modern era and the development of public administrations and universities. The investment of economic resources in an individual’s cultural formation in order to improve their condition is the mechanism of conversion and reconversion that governs social reproduction. It involves transforming one form of capital – material – into another – a capital of skills, relationships, and titles. The ultimate goal is to generate more capital than was invested at the beginning. The bureaucratisation of the modern world consequently has all the traits of “cultural capitalism”. However, free universal education, guaranteed in France since 1881 and founded on principles inspired by the 1789 revolution, was supposed to even out this kind of inequality.

The question then is whether the same investment consistently generates the same return or whether other factors come into play. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron address this question in two well-known books published in 1964 and 1970 respectively: Les Héritiers (The Inheritors) and La Reproduction (Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture). The two sociologists demonstrate that individuals enter the educational machine already endowed with the codes and skills they have absorbed from their environment. They leave this machine with greater expertise but without these initial differences evened out. Yet it is these gaps that determine the “distinction” between different socio-cultural spheres, which in turn determines social and economic differences, as Bourdieu explained in 1979.[2] Individuals with more cultural capital at the start were able to leverage it more than those who had less. Things have not improved since. Is the promise of social mobility merely an illusion?

Schools and universities make up a subsystem legitimising the political and economic status quo. 

We cannot overestimate the role of education systems in our contemporary society. Schools and universities are there to transmit the shared elements of primary socialisation and the skills required by the economy based on a functional differentiation of tasks, as well as to bestow the titles that make it possible to assign duties to individuals. On the one hand, the system levels out; on the other, it distinguishes. However, the social and economic differences determined through education, which supersedes natural differences, should be justified by merit. This is then the fourth fundamental function of the educational system: the justification of the social order.

When Bourdieu denounces the contradictions of the French republican education system, the stakes are high. Schools and universities make up a subsystem legitimising the political and economic status quo. Absent this legitimisation, it is not certain whether the broader system could continue to operate. Does this educational subsystem guarantee equal opportunities? Bourdieu’s conclusion can be summed up quite simply: in France, schools and universities do not play an equalising role. The initial differences observed when entering the system are still there upon exit. Thus, the education system achieves its three most obvious functions – socialisation, the transmission of skills, and the assignment of duties – but not the fourth. If this were true, and if it came to light, the entire liberal political and economic system, known in France as “the Republic”, would be undermined.

In recent years, the debate on meritocracy has been gaining momentum. Authors such as Michael Sandel in the United States and David Goodheart in the United Kingdom have decried the unequal effects of professional selection processes, as well as their moral externalities: a lack of recognition, frustration, and class neuroses. Economists such as Robert H. Frank have analysed the dysfunctions of a “winner-takes-all society” that relies on the overaccumulation of intangible capital for the selection of its personnel. Thorstein Veblen identified and denounced this risk a century ago; Ibn Khaldun almost a millennium ago.

The conversion of cultural capital into economic capital is a complex, two-fold process. Firstly, educational institutions act as processors: they consume material wealth to produce intellectual wealth. But what translates this intangible wealth into hard cash is that there is a demand to be met. In the past, public administrations were eager to fill their ranks, and clients required the services of doctors and lawyers; today, it is the vast tertiary sector that absorbs enormous amounts of human capital.

Cultural capital investments can also result in a net loss: places in educational institutions are expensive, and people from less privileged contexts often find it more difficult to utilise their cultural capital. Moreover, the costs associated with its accumulation are only increasing, following an “arms race” logic. As a result, a mountain of sunk costs is being accumulated in order to finance a race of which the outcome is already known. A considerable amount of property, income, public and private expenditure, energy, and dreams, as well as the planet’s material resources, are consumed in this ritual that serves purely to justify the social order. It costs more and more to reproduce the world as it is.

Thus posed, the problem is far from merely being one of the insufficient resources: an arms race cannot be resolved by stocking up on even more weapons. Increased spending would only lead to widened inequalities and inflated expenditures. As early as 1964, Bourdieu refused to even consider that the solution could be of an economic nature. If we wish to deal with the perverse mechanism of cultural capitalism, it must be defused. That means slowing down the race for distinction just as we regulate financial markets and road traffic. Ultimately, this means that public and private employers would have to deal with a greater level of uncertainty when selecting new employees. Post-productivist politics too will have to think more in terms of regulation than investment.

The massive accumulation of cultural capital is inseparable from an increase in collective expenditure and an erosion of the legitimacy of the system. Bourdieu’s analysis thus reveals a deep fragility within the social order. Half a century after Bourdieu’s first studies, are we ready to recognise the perverse logic of the race for cultural capital? If we are unable to imagine a better way of guaranteeing the functional differentiation of complex societies, we will have to resign ourselves to their collapse.


[1] Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, et al. (2013). “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment”. Sociology 47(2), pp. 219-250.

[2] Pierre Bourdieu (1979). La Distinction. Paris: Minuit.

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