After a year of severe disruption to children’s education, the government slamming the door on eTwinning is just a further blow to broadening their horizons.
At the beginning of February, the government announced its plans for the Turing Scheme, the replacement to Erasmus+. At first sight, it certainly appears to be pretty thin gruel. But perhaps the most glaring omission is the complete lack of any replacement for a part of Erasmus+ known as eTwinning.
Let us turn to the British Council, the organisation that was charged with managing Erasmus+ for a description of eTwinning. On their website they explain:
eTwinning is a free online community for schools in Europe and some neighbouring countries, which allows you to find partners and collaborate on projects within a secure network and platform. Through participating in eTwinning, your school will be able to:
- enrich learning and motivation of pupils (aged between 3 and 19) and staff
- access high quality professional development and ready-made resources
- raise standards across the whole school community
- gain recognition for your commitment through eTwinning awards and the International School Award.
However, prefaced in bold writing at the head of that page is the following statement:
The UK government has decided that it is not in the UK’s interests to seek continuing participation in the Erasmus+ programme.
In two paragraphs and four bullet points, an official body has starkly shown all that is being lost and issued a damning indictment of the government’s ideological and vindictive decision to withdraw from Erasmus+.
A look at the details in the box below shows what the government is destroying:
- eTwinning allowed teachers access to a platform of nearly 1 million teachers across Europe and beyond with whom they could collaborate on projects whilst remaining within the 4 walls of their own classroom.
- It is about more than just the EU. eTwinning + countries include Turkey, Georgia, Jordan, Albania and more.
- This platform is secure and provides e-safety. All teachers are verified as being educators working within an establishment, so everyone is assured that potential partners are legitimate teachers.
- It is for all pupils aged 3 to 19, not for universities.
- The collaborative process allows teachers in the classroom to challenge stereotypes, break down barriers and enables students to understand their place in the world.
- It is the perfect vehicle for disadvantaged pupils as it takes place within their school environment.
- Teachers benefit from the opportunity offered for Continued Professional Development that is essential for UK schools to have the best 21st century educators.
As if that were not bad enough, the decision to end involvement with Erasmus+ from 1st January was only announced on 24th of December, after the schools had broken up for Christmas and before they were due to return in the New Year.
As a consequence, pupils have lost access to the project work they had completed and teachers have lost years’ worth of work that they did not have a chance to download. This will then impact the next generation as teachers will not be able to re-create their work without a lot of time and effort.
All of this, and we have yet to mention the impact on the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). If there are three things that are beyond dispute, it is that:
- Global Britain needs foreign language skills more than ever
- Historically, Britain has been a laggard when it comes to teaching them
- The earlier that teaching is started the more proficient the children will become.
A 2019 report estimated that the lack of language competence has an economic cost of up to £48 billion a year.
Schools are already unable to fill all MFL vacancies. Language degree courses have been cut by over a third in UK universities. If every language graduate went into teaching we still wouldn’t have enough teachers to fill all vacancies.
Most schools already rely, to some extent, on EU nationals to come here and teach their native languages. But now, thanks to other well-publicised government action to restrict immigration, they will need to pay for a visa and the NHS supplement, even if they meet the minimum wage needed for a visa in the first place – by no means a certainty, especially with language assistants.
Those who say that the lure of the English language is enough to convince many to come regardless of the cost should remember that these EU teachers can go to Ireland and do the same thing for free. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the government often seems to have forgotten that Ireland exists!
There are two final points to consider:
- Let us take Gavin Williamson (and David Johnston) at face value that they really do want to help those from less privileged backgrounds. There can be few schemes ever created that were more appropriate to achieve this goal than eTwinning. By taking place in the classroom environment, it is the model for broadening the horizons of all young people, not something that is cast to the dustbin of history.
- The Education Secretary has also said it wasn’t possible to “justify sinking £2 billion into EU coffers for a scheme that wouldn’t have been as good [as Turing]”. Once again, let us take his figures at face value. As the government is only investing (by its own account) £100m in Turing, where in the education budget is the saving of £1.9 billion? Rather than looking to improve the educational opportunities for students, this decision appears to be a massive cut to education budgets. This at a time when teachers and pupils alike are reeling from the impact of Covid-19 and schools (which have had to pay for their own PPE out of their budgets) are already struggling to make ends meet.
Indeed, surely it cannot have escaped those in Government that eTwinning offers the perfect post-Covid solution to broaden children’s experience of foreign lands and cultures?
So, what can we do?
- MPs need to be made aware of the situation. It is almost certain that few will know about eTwinning and so will not understand the extent to which its abolition goes directly against the government’s stated objectives.
- The government needs to be encouraged to negotiate with the authorities running Erasmus+ to ensure that the pupils’ project work and the teachers’ library of projects going back over the course of many years can be downloaded for future use.
- The UK needs to become a participant as an eTwinning+ country. As stated above this is not an EU-specific organisation. It already embraces countries on the border of Europe – and we should be one of them.
30 years of tax payers’ money has been invested in Erasmus+. To pull the plug suddenly with no consultation does not suggest the actions of a government with a rational plan.
As children have experienced more disruptions in the last year than any generation since the Second World War, they now need the best education that we can provide for them. Erasmus+ was an investment in our children’s futures. Even if the government chooses to press on with the Turing Scheme, it must take action to preserve eTwinning.