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19th Annual Conference of EECERA
"European Early Childhood Education Research Association"
in collaboration with the French association le Furet "Early childhood and Diversity"


26 August 2009

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Dear participants,

In the Council of Europe we build Europe for children and we build Europe with children.

This is not merely a slogan, or another story or rhetoric short on substance, on the contrary. In the Council of Europe we have developed a programme of specific and coherent activities to defend and extend the rights of children; to protect them from all forms of violence, guarantee them education, respect their identities, their diversity and take account of their different needs and abilities. This is what building Europe for and with children means. We also work to eliminate all forms of discrimination against children, work towards the social inclusion of all children and at improving their self-esteem and self-respect from very early on.

When it comes to education, which is the topic of this conference, I see three interlinked issues which are particularly important. One, the need to provide compulsory pre-primary education for all children. Two, the need to encourage positive parenting and non violent upbringing. And three, the earliest possible introduction to education for human rights, democratic citizenship and intercultural understanding into the school curricula.

As to the first issue, compulsory pre-primary education, we should remember that under the European Convention for Human Rights, education is a human right. It is also crucial for social inclusion.

However, in most Council of Europe member states, pre-primary education is almost always provided on a voluntary basis, and very often it is not free. And yet, research has shown that the provision of quality pre-primary education is crucial for ensuring equity and social inclusion of children.

Only very few countries in Europe have made pre-primary education compulsory. However, some countries are beginning to take measures to provide for pre-primary education accessible for all. This is particularly important for children from vulnerable groups, such as immigrants or ethnic minorities, in order to help them to integrate as early as possible. Helping them to become fluent as early as possible in the language of schooling is essential in this respect. For this to happen, we must ensure adequate institutional settings which take all ethnic and cultural diversity into account. It is also important that all children learn to respect – and why not learn about – the culture and the language of children from the minority communities.

In the Council of Europe, we have been paying particular attention to Roma children and the need for them to attend early childhood education and care. The Roma population represents the largest minority ethnic group in Europe, and their culture is particularly rich. Many Roma children are multilingual, which is known to be beneficial to children’s intellectual development. Yet, this advantage is not used as it should be and many Roma families experience severe social exclusion. Their access to education is far from being satisfactory, especially at the pre-school level. Roma dependency on, and mistrust of, mainstream society and its institutions, is a sad reality, and this is true for any group subject to a history of racial prejudice, economic segregation, exclusion and extreme poverty. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers has recently adopted a Recommendation to member states on Education for Roma and Travellers in Europe which states that “enrolment in preschool education should be promoted if necessary by providing specific support measures” to Roma children.

I come now to my second point, positive parenting. Even if pre-school and child-care facilities are a crucial space for providing equal opportunities to children, they are far from being the only place where young children are educated. Distinction between childcare and early education should be avoided, and I am pleased to see that your conference will tackle the different educational influences received by children, including those within the family.

In the first years of their life, children receive educational influences first and foremost within the family, through interaction with family members and other persons they meet within the family context, as well as through the media. Attitudes and stereotypes are ingrained very early on, often through the family. For most children, family interactions are overwhelmingly positive, but some, regrettably, will suffer as victims of violence and abuse.

The Council of Europe is committed to eliminate all forms of violence against children. We are currently drafting European guidelines for integrated national strategies on violence against children and, at the same time, we have developed ways to fight some specific forms of violence, such as sexual violence, violence at school and corporal punishment of children.

The prevalence and tolerance of corporal punishment of children are clear illustrations of the different – if not to say lower – status that we grant to children when it comes to the protection of their human rights. I do not think that anyone can dispute that any intentional use of force to cause pain, discomfort and humiliation is a violation of physical and psychological integrity, and a violation of human rights. If this is true for adults, it is even more true for children. Yes, they are smaller, but their human rights are not!

Moreover, corporal punishment sends a message to children that violence is an acceptable means to resolve conflicts between people, and ultimately, even between peoples. With the launching of our campaign “Raise your hand against smacking!”, we are asking member States to do three things. One, to ban corporal punishment through clear legislation. Two, to promote positive parenting policies. Three, to raise awareness on children’s rights.

The third issue I would like to raise is the need to integrate education for democratic citizenship and human rights into all levels of the education systems, both in formal and non-formal learning, in a lifelong learning perspective. Children should learn, from a very early age, about their rights, and through their rights. They should also learn for children’s rights, in other words, learn how to make use of their rights both in school and outside school, how to participate in decision-making, and how to defend themselves against discrimination and violence. Such education is crucial for a vibrant, open and tolerant society.

The Mahatma Gandhi once said: “You have to be the change you want to see in the world”, and it is certainly true. But no person is born with this knowledge, no child can count on that she or he will be listened to if that is not a part of their education. So you have to learn how to become this change you want to see in the world.

Thank you very much.