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ECA goes back to school — ECA auditors participating in the EU B2S programme

Explaining to EU citizens on how the EU works and what the different institutions do most often works best if done on a personal basis. The EU Back to School (B2S) programme does exactly that to the younger part of the EU population. Several people working for the ECA have participated in the programme to discuss the EU with high school students in EU Member States. The European Commission decided to extend the reach of the programme by including universities and Ágnes Godány, within the ECA the coordinator for the B2S programme, gives some insights and presents several staff impressions of participating in the B2S programme.

Ágnes Godány, Directorate of the Presidency

Good participation levels

The EU’s inter-institutional programme ‘Back to School’, also abbreviated as B2S, offers EU staff the opportunity to visit schools in the Member States to share their experience, and to exchange views on the EU project with young people. The programme, which the European Commission started in 2007, aims to ‘give Europe a face’ and to take part in discussions with school students on European issues of interest to them. Many EU colleagues from various EU institutions went back to their home country, most often to their own high school, to share experiences, explain EU issues, but also to find out what young people want and expect from Europe. The EU institutions consider the program as excellent support for promoting awareness of the approaching European Parliament election at the end-of May 2019.

The ECA has been participating in the B2S programme since 2013. 100 ECA colleagues participated in the programme, going back to the secondary schools to discuss with young people aged 14 to 19. In the second half of 2018 the European Commission, the key driver and organiser of the B2S programme, decided to extend the reach of its programme by including universities. The ECA joined the new programme labelled now as the ‘Back to University’ (B2U) on 1 May 2019.

For the classic B2S programme, specific training is provided for candidate ‘ambassadors’ to help them make the most of their visit. Also for the additional programme B2U training is developed to meet the different requirements of addressing university students.

Reflections of some Back-to-Schoolers 2018–2019:

Participation levels from ECA colleagues are high, and so is their enthusiasm when they come back and to participate again in the future. People from various different places and different levels in the ECA participate: auditors, directors, translators, ECA Members, etc. Below a reflection of some of the reactions received.

Klaus-Heiner Lehne Lehne, President
I am a great fan of Back to School and take part whenever I can. Going to meet schoolchildren, the upcoming generation of European citizens, is the best way to understand their preoccupations and also their expectations. They are often extremely curious and practically-minded, and they never take what I say at face value. I try to encourage them in their inquisitiveness and at the same time explain why the European Union, including its Court of Auditors, exists and why it is important in our daily lives. At the end of the day, it is our collective legacy to them, and it will be for them to shape it in the years to come, not least by becoming active participants and electing their local, national and European representatives.

Charlotta Torneling, Auditor
Explaining how the EU functions to teenagers was a good opportunity for reflection on the work we do and I found it motivating and inspiring that the students listened attentively: they were really learning something new. What made it a particularly memorable experience for me was a teacher pointed out the impact — in the sense of opening up a new prospective — it could have on students seeing someone with a similar background to theirs now working for the EU.

Magdalena Cordero Valdavida, Director
Back to School was a very interesting and emotional experience. It was the first time in almost 40 years that I went back to my school in Moreda de Aller in Asutrias, and remembered and shared with the students my memories about the girl that I was who wanted to leave the village to change the world and how these ideas brought me to work at the European level.
I focused my presentation about the European Union on its solidarity projects — in the difficult moment of the refugee crisis — reminding the students how Europe had enormously transformed our mining valley In the middle of Asturias. I presented the great opportunities it offers to young people and I learnt how my school is already participating in European initiatives. A very fruitful dialogue. The session was even published in the regional newspaper. An event that filled me with pride and that I recommend to all officials.

Frantisek Baranec, Translator
The Back to school project was for me an enriching and energising experience. It meant going back in time (visiting the old school, meeting some of the former teachers) and at the same time having the possibility to share information on the EU with the next generation. Highly recommended!

Carl Westerberg, Auditor
I realised that to present oneself in person, coming from the same town and background, having made a journey to the EU, gave a high impact of the interest and attention of the students. Seeing it is possible and listening to first-hand information of the functioning of the EU is most appreciated and valuable. Therefore, I believe my Back-to-school mission did raise the awareness of the EU for the school students and brought EU closer to the periphery of far north Europe.

Kristina Maksinen, Auditor
My first B2S experience last year exceeded all my expectations. The students and teachers were welcoming and very interested in discussing and expressing their views about the EU and asking questions about my journey to becoming an official at the Court. While I had the opportunity to share my own experience, I learned even more about what they think and what matters to them. It is a rewarding experience that I would recommend to all my colleagues.

Joaquin Hernandez Fernandez, Auditor
It was great! B2S program helps students to understand that the European Union is not only Brussels and EU bodies are open to everybody (including people coming from remote small towns!). By sharing our experience, we really encourage young people to open their minds and to work abroad.

Raffaella Missio, Translator
In 2018, the B2S programme provided me with the opportunity to meet some 150 students in total in two different cities in Italy. It was a great experience that I would recommend to each and every colleague. I firmly believe that meeting people (in particular young people), explaining them our work and our challenges, and being ready to answer their questions is the best way to promote EU values: it is useful for citizens, because they realise how much they are benefitting from the EU, and it is important for us, as EU officials, because we can improve our understanding of social phenomena and be more effective in carrying out our mission.

Nicola Berloco, Auditor
B2S is not only an excellent exercise for public speaking but also a way to keep contact with my town (Altamura, Italy) and a tool to share the feeling that even my small town, although geographically distant, is very close to EU Institutions, much more than students think. Concrete examples are: the “bread of Altamura” which received by EU the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) as “Pane di Altamura” and the “lentils of Altamura” which received the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) as “Lenticchia di Altamura” by EU as well. In particular this year, Matera, a neighbouring town, is European capital of culture.

Laure Gatter, Auditor
For the young people I met, the EU is something completely foreign. This very humbling experience made me realise how important is it for us, EU officials, to go out and tell the future generations that they are the EU.

Martin Weber, Director
Participating in the Back-to-School initiative has been highly interesting, not the least because of the European elections at the end of May this year. Those who say that young people are not interested in EU affairs are clearly wrong. In March 2019 I returned to ‘my’ Gymnasium Neureut in Karlsruhe to discuss with around 90 students. Not an easy day, because the European Parliament had passed the EU copyright Directive the previous day; and many (mostly young) people — including many YouTuber’s — had protested against this legislative proposal. So we had a very good discussion about the market dominance of some of the social media platforms, the risks associated with upload filters, or the potential for censorship, but also how EU laws come into being, why such regulation is adopted at EU rather than at national level, about lobbyism at EU and national level and how EU citizens and NGOs can participate in EU law making. These are topics that clearly matter to these students, and I must admit that I was quite impressed how well informed they were. Much more than we were during my time in school.

Antonella Stasia, Auditor
My participation in the B2S project exceeded my expectations! I wanted to show the students how they could relate to the EU, how it had made a concrete impact in their lives. And what I found was a group which was both interested and receptive. The students showed me as well the results of the work they had carried out the EU throughout the academic year. They even gave me a blue booklet, with the yellow stars of the EU flag, with a contribution from each one of them. I am definitely looking forward to repeat this experience!

Ramona Bortnowschi, Auditor
It was a great honour to discuss and promote the EU values and prospects with the young generation. In addition to the positive emotions I felt from going back to my high school, I was impressed by the pupils’ open mind, broad interests and high ambitions to make a difference. I am grateful for the support received, as it allowed me to make the B2S project a valuable experience — for me and my audience.

Ingrid Ciabatti, Auditor
I had the amazing opportunity to go to both the primary school of my niece and my high school in Florence, where I was warmly welcomed by one of my former teachers, now Deputy Principal — so many emotions! It was great to raise the enthusiasm of pupils towards the EU project, give a different point of view to Eurosceptic students and instil their curiosity in what the EU does.

Thomas Obermayr, Head of Cabinet
I presented the “back to school programme” to my former school in Vienna most recently on Friday, 10 May. Personally, I want to stress that undertaking this programme presents a real “added value” — especially in light that the school was heavily interested in participating. Since around 160 students attended the event, it was even required to hold the presentation three times.
There were a lot of questions arising from students´ side; they appreciated the topic, even though the level of knowledge on the EU differs a lot. I find this is mostly due to the different background of the students, as they come from all over the world — from North-Africa to South America and from Middle East to China.
What´s more, Austrians can already vote at the age of sixteen years, and the majority of the students, I met, have the opportunity to vote in the upcoming EU election (at the end of May 2019) and they have agreed to do so. I firmly believe that this sounds tempting.
Final point, my former school announced to report concerning this issue on its website, including publishing pictures, from the said three presentations that I have undertaken.

Martina Pellegrini, Project Manager
As the pilot project “Back to University” of the European Commission opened to other institutions as a parallel programme of Back to School, I immediately took the opportunity to fly to the University of Trieste to share my experience with the students.
Going back to my translators faculty was a great “flashback” of seeing me 15 years ago with a dream, of working one day for the EU, and now that this dream became true. My presentation focused on the idea that when someone really wants something, they can get it.
I gave an overview of my “variegated” career and shared a few tips on career opportunities, which students were very interested in hearing.
If you are not scared of speaking (again) if front of your old teachers, but that luckily will not evaluate your presentation, just go and enjoy spending some time with students as you were just a few years ago.

This article was first published on the 2/2019 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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