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After 70 years, it’s time to reform European schools

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The first European school in Luxembourg celebrated its 70th birthday this April. The European schools date from the very beginnings of the European Union, created for the families of officials working at the European Coal and Steel Community. Parents value what the schools can offer their children but reforms are urgently needed, as called for in a recent European Parliament report, writes Andrew Janis Folkmanis.

Today they are 13 European schools across Europe, at locations of the institutions and agencies of the EU. And in addition a new type of multilingual school is emerging, an existing EU national or private school that receives accreditation to also give courses and host the European baccalauréat qualification exams. 

The European baccalauréat has received good recognition across the world. When our son applied to study at Maastricht last year, it was evident that the European bac is very well recognised alongside national secondary qualifications.

In the European schools we must thank a dedicated and innovative teaching staff, who have over these years developed a multilingual and multicultural syllabus and teaching style of very high quality. These teachers are seconded from EU Member States. Pupils thus attend lessons just as they would receive them in their home country. And also receive subject lessons in a second EU language. They emerge genuinely bilingual.

These are not private schools in a classical sense. They are in large part public funded, through seconded teacher costs, facilities provided by host member states, with support from the employer institutions of the EU officials whose children attend. The system is open to anyone that wishes to enrol their children, this is not an exclusive system. 

Its limits are the buildings of the schools themselves, which are already overcrowded. The recent introduction and growing number of accredited national schools is intended to broaden access to multilingual teaching in Europe even further.

The system provides an excellent qualification, but there is room for improvement in the physical conditions pupils and teachers must work in.  Overcrowding means that the four Brussels schools with 14,000 pupils operate at the limits of fire safety and sanitary conditions. This situation has existed for 10 years, gets worse year by year and school management has been excruciatingly slow at seeking and exploiting solutions. 

Governance and school management lack transparency, parents like myself receive information of developments very late and often with little justification. At least one school director has stated that the job does not include communicating with parents’ representatives. Decisions by the Board of Governors of the system are published, but there are no minutes of meetings, no justifications, no public information about which member states have supported or questioned certain paths of action.

The biggest recent step forward in alleviating overcrowding, adding three new buildings across Brussels, was achieved not by school management or the Board of Governors, but by parents in 2019 making their case to Charles Michel and other politicians. Belgium stepped up and saved the day.

The European Parliament voted on 25 May in committee (CULT) to support a report on the European School system. The report identifies considerable weaknesses and asks the Commission to undertake actions to resolve them. It insists that an ‘open to all’ policy should be retained. It also recognises that the multilingual, multicultural concept of European schools has great potential to strengthen cultural cohesion in Europe.

It is this last aspect and the success of the European bac that keep us parents keen to send our children to these schools, despite inadequate management in some schools, despite dysfunctional governance of the overall system. 

I hope very much that the European Parliament’s initiative will lead to badly needed corrections in management and governance in the school system. I hope too that together with all stakeholders and institutions, European and national, we can put the European School System and the new accredited schools on track to provide a multilingual, multicultural education and perspective for future generations.

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