Manchester has cafes, restaurants, bakeries and food stores offering delicacies from every part of the world, with significant populations of Poles, Romanians, Italians, Greeks and other European nationals making their home in the city. Approximately 200 languages are spoken in its streets. It is hardly surprising then that many Mancunians feel very European, with more than 60% of those participating in the 2016 referendum choosing to vote to remain in the EU.
In the wake of the government’s ‘hard Brexit’, the loss of EU funded programmes has been particularly hard for the North West, with its plethora of universities, cultural organisations, transport hubs, business parks and social enterprises – many of which bear the iconic EU logo acknowledging regional development and social fund investment on a scale unmatched by the government’s measly shared prosperity fund.
However, it is our youngest citizens who have the most to lose from the rupture with Brussels. The Conservative government’s broken promise to keep us in the Erasmus+ programme has resulted in a loss of opportunities for everyone in the education and youth sector. This flagship initiative provided life-changing experiences for young people of all abilities, their teachers and youth leaders, regardless of socio-economic background.
During my many years working in informal education, I saw young people with special needs transformed by their Erasmus+ experiences and shy youths grow in confidence through the opportunity to study abroad and participate in cultural exchange projects. Teachers, youth leaders and adult education tutors were supported to meet with their peers to share ideas and learn new engagement techniques.
Whatever way you looked at it, Erasmus+ was a win-win for everyone. There were Erasmus weddings and even Erasmus babies as young people met their soulmates during their time abroad, and set up family life together, giving birth to a new generation of bi-lingual Europeans who could enjoy the freedom to live, work and study (and fall in love) in 28 (now 27) countries.
A consolation prize for our young
It was a wonderful surprise then to be invited to join a special ceremony at Loreto High School in Chorlton, Manchester, in July, where young people and teachers were given prestigious awards for completing the European Parliament Ambassador Schools (EPAS) programme. Whilst EPAS is not a replacement for Erasmus+, it nevertheless offers students and teachers a rich learning experience grounded in European fundamental values and parliamentary democracy.
The programme is an EU-wide programme which has been available in the UK since 2021. EPAS connects its member schools to a network of 1,500 schools and 23,000 pupils and students throughout Europe. In the UK, the programme is run by the European Parliament Liaison Office (EPLO UK) who organised the Manchester ceremony, which was also attended by Councillor Yasmine Dar, the current Lord Mayor, and Salford councillor Samantha Bellamy.
EPAS from a student’s viewpoint
Guests were warmly welcomed by Farhat, Loreto High School’s outgoing head girl, who had been involved in the EPAS programme since the outset in Autumn 2021, setting up an EU lunchtime club for her peers. Pupils gave presentations outlining to guests what they had learnt. Ani said, “I attended some of the lunchtime sessions. The one that was most memorable was about the workings of the European parliament. I learnt a lot about both the countries who were in it, and about the unique and different collection of countries that work collectively to make decisions.”
Club members worked with school cooks to plan European-themed menus. They organised quizzes and Europe Day celebrations, they entered competitions and won places to travel to EU countries such as Cyprus to meet other EPAS students. Some pupils had the opportunity to visit the European parliament in Strasbourg, and others went to the EPLO UK office in London.
As part of the programme, the head of modern foreign languages at Loreto High School began encouraging pupils to greet each other in various European languages, rewarding those who made the effort. All seemed to gain enormously from their EPAS experiences and some spoke longingly about a time in the future when the UK would rejoin the EU.
“…EPAS has boosted our personal development programme by providing both tangible resources and support to inform our pupils about the EU, and offer unique experiences. It has resulted in our pupils being more outward looking in their approach and has also boosted our community of European speakers in school. Our EU lunchtime club is popular and allows pupils to use a range of skills to plan projects.”Nicola Knowles (head of personal development at Loreto High School)
And from the perspective of a former MEP
As a former MEP representing the North West, I was invited to unveil a plaque marking the school’s commitment to the EPAS programme. I also gave a talk about my time in the parliament, sharing concrete examples of my work as a member of the Committee for Culture and Education (CULT) where I had helped to shape the current Erasmus+ programme, broadening its reach, increasing funding and reducing bureaucracy.
At the school, I was asked about my motivation to enter European politics which had developed following my involvement in EU-funded Youth In Action projects which focused on peace and intercultural dialogue, bringing together young people from Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, as well as those from EU member states. I often spoke about these transformative experiences when defending the EU against attacks from UKIP and other Brexiters. For me, the EU is fundamentally a peace project designed to facilitate common approaches to better living together between neighbours.
In 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders and Danish attacks, I was given the responsibility of leading on a CULT report which aimed to address some of the root causes of violent extremism through ‘intercultural dialogue, cultural diversity and education in promoting EU fundamental values’. The final report was adopted by the European parliament in January 2016 with a huge majority.
It is notable that Conservative MEPs – as well as groups on the far right – voted against my report. This was despite the fact that Nicky Morgan (then Conservative secretary of state for education) had signed the Paris Declaration, which promoted “citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education” in the previous March. My report had specifically built upon the Paris Declaration, creating a policy framework with recommendations subsequently taken up and implemented by many EU member state governments, although sadly not the UK.
EPAS offers hope for better and closer ties with the EU
I believe that our youngest citizens are our most precious asset. However, they are growing up in very troubled times. It is therefore hugely important for them to grasp every opportunity to learn about democracy and fundamental values as embodied by the EU, which was, in turn, shaped by post-war British values. Multi-cultural outward-looking schools such as Loreto High School fulfil a hugely important role in our post-Brexit fractured society, providing young people with the opportunity to stay connected to our nearest neighbours, learning beyond borders and developing their citizenship skills.
The EPAS programme is an exemplar, helping to maintain and develop good relations between neighbours through an accredited education programme, an active student body and inspired teachers. I hope the empowered youth who have benefited from this programme will go on to be champions of quality inclusive democracy, reaching out the hand of friendship to their peers across Europe and the wider world.
The EPLO UK is driven by a commitment to young people and continues to encourage schools and colleges across the UK to get involved in a variety of educational programmes and to make use of the free learning resources. Whether by attending an interactive presentation at Europe House, or by taking advantage of free learning resources, or by seizing the opportunity to participate in the EPAS, there are options for every UK school to benefit. Further information is available from the European parliament’s Youth Hub. Alternatively, you can write directly to the EPLO UK at [email protected]