Honorable Ms Secretary General,

Dear Commissioner Gabriel,

Dear Colleagues, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honor to welcome you all to this informal Conference of Ministers of Education of the States Parties to the European Cultural Convention, organized under the Greek Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, the first such conference ever to be held online. Just two days ago, my husband and I tested positive for COVID-19. We are both doing well with no symptoms so far and will remain in quarantine, as per the instructions of the healthcare experts. This however renders me unable to chair the entirety of this conference as originally planned, not for any other reason but because otherwise we would have two small kids in the background of our session, as we are all quarantining at home. In any event, I rest assured knowing that I am leaving you all in the capable hands of Deputy-Minister Zacharaki.

As I will not be able to join you for the entirety of the conference, allow me to express a few thoughts on the two sessions of today’s discussion:

1.      “The education response to the COVID-19 crisis: the right to quality education in times of a pandemic and its challenges”.

When we met in France about a year ago and discussed the topic of “Citizenship Education in the Digital Era”, we could not have possibly imagined how relevant this topic would become a few months later. Since that time, our countries have been tested on multiple fronts: our healthcare systems have been called upon to respond to an unprecedented challenge, our society was called to reexamine its fundamental mode of operation, and our educational systems were called upon to shift overnight to distance, online and blended learning.

I believe we have all placed education at the forefront of our priorities during this difficult time, with special emphasis on digital education, on the use of new technologies and on striking a balance between the protection of people’s health and the universal access to education. The road to achieving this goal was not without challenges, but we have all emerged stronger, wiser and better equipped to restructure our educational systems according to the needs of this new reality. 

2.      “Utilizing education as a tool for promoting awareness of cultural heritage at risk from climate change in a culture of democracy”

The second thematic session of today’s discussion is focused on the critical role of education, in cultivating sensitivity towards climate change and, more specifically, towards its harmful effects on our global heritage. The crisis of climate change has been looming in the horizon of political conversations for decades. In the last few years the international community has become more mobilized towards this urgent crisis, to a large extent in response to calls made by the educational community and particularly the younger generations. The particular issue of preserving our shared cultural heritage (whether that is material, such as monuments, or immaterial, such as customs and traditions) has been set forth in international dialogue by the Greek Government, and was intensely highlighted by the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at the UN Climate Summit in New York in September 2019. Last week, students from around the world took on the role of representatives to the Council of Europe, debated the topic, exchanged ideas and reached conclusions which will be presented later on by Professor Doussi. We believe that, in international fora such as this, it is critical to engage with the youth, and I hope that we will all take this opportunity to listen to what they have to say.

Before closing, I would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere solidarity to the family and colleagues of Samuel Paty, to the French people, to Minister Blanquer, for the horrendous loss that they are experiencing. This unprecedented tragedy takes on a global dimension and highlights the importance of our global, continued efforts to protect democracy, human rights and education.

Thank you all very much for your presence in today’s conference. Special thanks to the Secretary General, Ms Burić and the entire team over at the Council of Europe, to Deputy Minister, Ms Zacharaki, to Secretary General, Mr Dimitropoulos and to the entire team at the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs of Greece, who worked hard over the past few months to make this conference possible. I wish you all a fruitful and substantive exchange of ideas. I would now like to pass the floor over to Deputy Minister, Ms Sofia Zacharaki. Sophia – The floor is yours.