Participation of social partners in monitoring national recovery plans in the field of education

From October 12th to 14th, 2023, a seminar organized by the Working Group of the EZA Education Platform took place in Wrocław, Poland, organized by KK NSZZ "Solidarność" (Komisja Krajowa NSZZ "Solidarność"), with the support of EZA and funded by the European Union. Topic was “Participation of social partners in monitoring national recovery plans in the field of education”. 40 representatives of workers’ organisations attended the event.

The meeting was opened by Jerzy Jaworski, Deputy Chairman of the National Commission of NSZZ "Solidarność", who emphasized the importance of the topic and the location of the meeting, proud of its strong academic environment. He underlined the significance of digitization in education and expressed hope for a fruitful discussion on this matter.

Next, Kazimierz Kimso, Chairman of the Lower Silesia Region of NSZZ "Solidarność", welcomed the participants. He provided insights into the history of Wrocław and the trade union "Solidarność" in this city, emphasizing its popularity among students who choose to stay permanently and work in numerous multinational, technological corporations.

Representing the National Science and Education Section of NSZZ "Solidarność," Dr. Waldemar Jakubowski emphasized that digitization brings both concerns and hopes. However, there is no turning back from it and it’s necessary. This is due to the changing ways children and young people communicate creating big challenge both for students and teachers. It unleashes emotions such as loneliness and alienation so it is crucial to ensure that traditional human values are not lost in this digital world.

Next, the meeting moderator, Elżbieta Wielg, an expert from the National Commission of NSZZ "Solidarność", welcomed the participants, introduced the topic, and presented the agenda.

The first presentation was delivered by Yulian Petrov from SEP, who outlined the Bulgarian recovery and resilience plan in the field of education. He discussed the situation regarding education and vocational training, focusing on supporting digital skills. The Bulgarian Recovery and Resilience Plan emphasized education reform at various levels, modernization of educational infrastructure, long-life learning training, and digital skills for adults. The plan included the construction and modernization of several school facilities and youth centers at every level of education. Additionally, there were plans to establish several STEM centers – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The emphasis was on renovations rather than building entirely new science centers, prioritizing investments. However, there were no funds allocated for teacher training or requalification, except for those guaranteed in the national budget. During the discussion following the presentation, participants unanimously highlighted the shortage of teaching staff caused by low salaries.

The next presentation was given by Aldona Kinduriene, Chairwoman of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers "Solidarumas" from Lithuania. She presented the scope of support in the National Recovery Plan concerning education and training aimed at improving qualifications and supporting digital skills in the country. In Lithuania, they focused on digital transformation worth 700 million euros, which constitutes 31.5% of all funds. In the field of education, the school network will be optimized, teaching quality enhanced, vocational training reformed, and business support provided to promote internships and practical training for students. She also introduced the flagship project of the "Millennium Schools," aims on reducing disparities in learning conditions and achievements between municipalities. The Lithuanian educational system focuses on leadership, inclusive education, cultural education, and STEM education. The National Education Agency's project, "Digital Transformation of Education" ("EdTech"), includes organizing a network of educational innovators consisting of teachers, school administration, municipal employees, and EdTech enthusiasts who use technology for teaching and learning as part of the overall government plan, "Lithuania of the New Generation."

The next presentation was delivered by Roland Gangl, Chairman of Vocation School Teachers Trade union, GÖD from Austria, who discussed the Recovery and Resilience Plan, emphasizing climate-related issues and sustainable development. Similar to other countries, there is a significant focus on digital matters in Austria, including the development of a broadband network for remote work and public administration, where many tasks are handled online. All children in Austria aged 10-14 receive laptops, and starting next year, all students will have access to these devices, which are also co-funded by parents. During the discussion, the speaker provided detailed insights into the school and preschool system operating in Austria.

The next presentation was delivered by Vesna Zarkovic, Chairwomen of Nezavisnost, Toursim and Hotel School from Serbia, focusing on the educational situation in Serbia and the importance of digital skills. Over the last decade, the demand for experts in digital technologies has been increasing by 4% annually, and it is expected that by 2024, the number of unfilled positions for ICT specialists will almost double. Currently, most job positions already require basic digital skills. In the past five years, the use of ICT has significantly increased in over 90% of job positions, and in the future, almost all positions will require digital skills. Serbia has adopted a national digital strategy to improve digital skills in the ICT sector, enhance the country's living conditions, and promote economic development. In this context, digital educational content is being created, involving a learning process different from the traditional one, which is essential for ensuring the economy's competitiveness. In the previous period, a pilot project was implemented, equipping 10,000 classrooms with digital educational content. A modern learning process, based on the needs of the economy, respect for diversity, as well as students' needs, is one of the EU's priorities in supporting Serbia. So far, over 40,000 teachers have acquired new skills and knowledge through vocational training. 175 vocational high schools have been modernized, and new teaching programs have been developed for new education profiles, in line with the needs of the job market. Summing up her presentation, the speaker underlines that what Serbia lacks is not programs, plans, strategies, or goals but rather a shortage of teachers who could implement them. In her opinion, the issue lies in the low salaries and low professional prestige of teachers.

The second day of the seminar began with Tomasz Kulasa, Deputy Director of the Digital Transformation Center at the Ministry of Education and Science, who presented the actions outlined in the National Recovery Plan regarding digital education in Poland. He also mentioned other sources of funding for this area. The Ministry's goals include developing infrastructure, purchasing equipment, enhancing teachers' skills, digital resources and tools, as well as extracurricular activities aimed at developing students' digital skills. Approximately 10 billion PLN was allocated for these purposes from 2014 to 2022, with only about 2-3% dedicated to improving teachers' qualifications. He pointed out the issue of teachers' reluctance to participate in training, leading to the implementation of evaluation measures to tailor the training to the curriculum. Free postgraduate studies and nationwide training sessions are also being carried out as part of various projects, with over 100,000 teachers expected to be trained by the end of 2023. Under the National Recovery Plan, training activities in digital and IT skills are planned for citizens, including teachers (76,000) and digitally excluded individuals. 255 million PLN net is allocated for training this group of teachers. Starting this year, all 4th-grade students in Poland receive a free laptop for personal use, and teachers receive a voucher for a laptop. The remaining funds from the loan part are allocated for expanding network infrastructure, purchasing sets for conducting remote classes, AI laboratories, STEM laboratories, and supporting the digital examination system. The value of this part is 700 million EUR. During discussion followed, participants emphasizing the lack of software in schools and reservations about the idea of remote examination processes. There were also discussions regarding teacher training and teacher vouchers.

In the subsequent discussion, facilitated by Danuta Utrata from NSZZ "S", participants explored the support provided by the National Recovery Plan for education and training aimed at improving qualifications and enhancing digital skills. They analyzed the situations in the participating countries, exchanging experiences and best practices arising from the efforts of social partners. It was emphasized that raising teachers' salaries is necessary to attract young people to the profession, especially considering the shortages in the workforce and the aging teaching staff. Infrastructure and equipment were noted as generally good and sufficient, but the shortage of teachers was identified as a common problem faced by the participating countries. Frequently, vocational education programs include subjects unrelated to future professions, unnecessarily burdening both students and teachers, highlighting the need for a profound reform of the education system. Participants underlined that in the face of digitization, nothing can replace human interaction and direct meetings, especially among teachers. It was mentioned that artificial intelligence (AI) can partially replace teachers, as evidenced by the planned digitization of examination processes. Discussions also revolved around the hyperactivity of children (ADHD), concentration issues, and overstimulation in schools resulting from excessive use of digital tools. It requires new skills for teachers to handle these problems. The growing aggression, not only among students but also towards teachers, was highlighted as a concern. In Hungary, the lack of practical knowledge among students despite having multiple degrees was pointed out, emphasizing the need to return to vocational and dual system of education. Participants reminded that education is a long-term investment in society, not an economic cost. TU "Solidarność" expects the release of funds from the National Recovery Plan for infrastructure and other necessary EU funds for education. Subsequently, discussions revolved around potential actions of trade unions at the European, national, and local levels to strengthen the unions' voice and expand the catalogue of arguments in social dialogue. Strengthening vocational education was another idea advocated by union members due to the lack of technical specialists. In terms of social dialogue, participants expressed surprise at not being allowed to attend a meeting concerning the refugee crisis despite teachers' direct involvement in the issue.  In summary, the representative of "Solidarność" pointed out that Polish education and science have not received additional financial assistance after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine despite that the situation is highly dynamic and changes almost daily.

On the last day, moderator Elżbieta Wielg presented the Report on the activities of the Education Platform for the period 2016-2023, highlighting the goals, working methods, past topics, and structure of the Education Platform. She then discussed the planned thematic area for the Education Platform in 2024 and conducted a debate to determine the countries that would share their experiences and establish the date for the next meeting. The theme of the upcoming meeting will be inclusive education, understood as an approach in the education and upbringing process aimed at increasing educational opportunities by providing conditions for developing potential and full social inclusion of every student.

A preliminary date for the next meeting was collectively set for October 2024. Examples and perspectives from both governmental and union viewpoints will be considered from Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Austria. The final part involved a debate on the choice of topics, issues, and thematic areas for the Education Platform in 2025. Ideas for future discussions included the adaptation of refugees to educational systems, including financing and best practices in this area. Additionally, the concept of "international education," involving student and teacher exchanges between countries, was suggested. There is also a need for a discussion on the education of future teaching staff, the future education system, and the challenges of the "school of the future." Through voting, the latter topic was chosen as the guiding theme for 2025.

The chosen methodology for discussions included presentations and group work aimed at developing recommendations. Participants' proposals for topics, issues, and thematic areas were summarized, and the meeting was concluded.