Education: what country for what people

There is a motto written below the official sign at Singapore's Ministry of Education: "Moulding the Future of our Nation". Indeed, discussing education requires considering what sort of country we want and what values, attitudes and aptitudes we feel that our citizens should have.

Education is not just about schooling: family and the sociocultural environment play a very important role. But schools are the institution that our society must give itself to ensure that all children can realise their full potential and define their life project successfully. To find out whether schools are doing a good job, we have progressively brought in tools to assess the achievements of our education system. But if we look closely at what is measured, we will also notice what we understand by success.

For instance, according to the PISA education rankings, which were first introduced in 2000 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Singapore is the world leader in education. However, the government of Singapore is concerned about the effects of "kiasu", the fear of failure that schoolchildren experience. The pressure to excel academically, which begins well before adolescence, is so great that "kiasu" leads to a systematic refusal to cooperate with one another, a wish that your peers will fail so that your individual performance will rank higher.

When you talk to Catalans who reside in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan and Singapore, they all express their admiration for the pace at which their economies have grown. But, at the same time, they are afraid of the resulting lifestyle that this imposes on children and infants. These children live under the constant pressure of competitiveness and have a full day of "productive" extra-curricular activities after school from an early age, starting at 7 am through to the evening and up until bed time, including Saturdays.

In Catalonia there is a feeling that this is not the model we want. Evidence of this can be found in the warm welcome given to "Ara és l'hora" ("Now is the Time"), a clever initiative to reform our daily routine so that people can enjoy some quality time during their day. Besides, the obsessive education systems of the Asian countries topping the ranks don't necessarily lead to a more prosperous economy or a society with a better quality of life.

There is no doubt that reading comprehension, maths and scientific knowledge are essential for a successful career and these must be taught well. At the same time, though, knowledge isn't enough if it's not accompanied by initiative, autonomy, curiosity, creativity, persistence, diligence and the capacity to adapt. This is what economist and Nobel prize winner James Heckman has proven for over two decades: the decisive role of non-cognitive skills and their acquisition in the future success of children and the reduction of inequalities.

Education in schools is being rethought all over the world. But, particularly in developed countries, we know that the education system we choose will give us the definition of success that we want for our children, the notion of welfare that we have for our citizens and the concept of prosperity and equality that we would like to prevail in our society.

In the last decade Catalonia has undergone an important demographic shift: over one million newly-arrived migrants have changed the makeup of our neighbourhoods and schools. In ten years we could either have a better prepared, more cohesive nation, with good professionals who are life-loving citizens, or we may find ourselves living in a divided society. It all depends on whether today we can come to broad agreements to improve public education and its organisation, funding and accountability, as well as teacher training.

Rather than becoming depressed inner cities, our neighbourhoods may turn into the breeding ground for the future Maya Angelou, Amartya Sen, Zaha Hadid, Rubén Blades or Malala Yousafzai. In fact, the Mayor of New York has just picked the brilliant Brooklyn-born Carmen Fariña, whose parents originally emigrated from Galicia, for the job of overseeing the city's education policies. There are nearly as many schoolchildren in New York as in Catalonia.

We have a number of important challenges ahead. Catalonia is one of the European nations with the highest school failure rate: 24.7 per cent (that's twice the European average: 11.9 per cent). This percentage is on a par with our child poverty rate. It is imperative to break the vicious circle that perpetuates poverty and it is equally important to think about educating children to become free citizens and building a nation with the kind of welfare and progress that we hope for. Catalonia has a long pedagogical tradition and good professionals. In addition, now that we are getting ready to set up a new State, we must avoid partisan policies in education and face the necessary reforms in order to build an ambitious, widely shared education model, like Finland did thirty years ago.