Key competences for 21st century citizens

Image: Shutterstock/ Galushko Sergey

What are ‘21st century’ or ‘key competences’? Why are they important in school education? What are European countries doing to ensure these competences are taught in schools?

The European Reference Framework on key competences for lifelong learning was defined and adopted in 2006. The framework identifies eight key competences and transversal themes combining knowledge, skills, and attitudes, all of which are considered as necessary for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion, and employment.

The key competences are cross-curricular by nature, and are therefore applicable in all subjects and school activities. While no country has made a complete shift to competence-based education, several countries have made significant progress. In addition to introducing legal and curricular frameworks for key competences, some countries have used various strategies to foster a competence-based approach in the classroom.

In 2012, the European Commission launched the European Policy Network on Key Competences in School Education (KeyCoNet), coordinated by European Schoolnet, to analyse and map emergent strategies in implementing the key competences in education across Europe. The network also developed recommendations to strengthen policy and practice in different country contexts. By the end of 2014, more than 100 educational stakeholders from 30 European countries became members of KeyCoNet.

Over the course of the network’s development, many case studies were produced, each one with a different focus and representative of various countries with diverse education systems and traditions. Three examples are presented below.

Co-designing 21st century learning environments for teaching natural sciences, Finland

In this example, a Finnish secondary school adapted its physical learning environment to facilitate the teaching of all 21st century key competences in an explicit, well-thought-out way. The initiative’s innovative, participatory approach, whereby the new learning environment was co-designed and co-developed simultaneously with both internal (school staff and students), and external (the Jyväskylä Teacher Training School and architectural, interior design and furniture companies) stakeholders was of particular interest. Download the case study

Curriculum reform: Project Maths, Ireland

Following a review of post-primary mathematics education in 2007, Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) prepared a strategy for the phased implementation of syllabus change in mathematics over a four-year period, starting from September 2008. The main changes introduced were the shift to the development of mathematical competences, the contextualisation of content, the change in teachers’ beliefs about mathematics, teaching and learning approaches and the evaluation of student comprehension. Download the case study

Core Curriculum Programme (CCP), Malta

The CCP aims to reach low achievers at secondary level before they finish compulsory education. Its aim is to instil the basic key competences at least at the Level 1 of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). This will increase the students’ possibility for further and higher education and give them more employability skills. Moreover, the CCP is adaptable to the diverse abilities/backgrounds/interests of learners, and aims to develop an environment that addresses each learner’s unique nature and learning ability in a responsive manner. Download the case study


Find more videos, case studies and other materials on the KeyCoNet website.

Based on evidence built during the past three years (2012-2014) by the KeyCoNet partners and associates across Europe, the network published its final recommendations in November 2014. The recommendations draw on evidence collected through literature reviews, country overviews, case studies, peer learning visits, national expert consultations, and an international online public consultation which gathered feedback from education stakeholders.

KeyCoNet also organised an online course on Competences for 21st century schools with over 1,000 participants. The course focused on areas of interest to teachers of all levels and subjects, including how to effectively implement project-based learning, and how to teach and assess collaborative problem solving. The course was well-received, with 98% of respondents rating it as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. “The video talks were informative and interesting, and the course challenged my assumptions on assessment of competences”, one participant commented. All the course materials are available online for self-study.

KeyCoNet project details