European schools clash with parents over long-awaited reforms

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The board of governors of the European Schools will adopt a reform of the secondary curriculum later this week (4-6 December), hoping to overcome some of the academic and financial troubles, but parents slam the reform as being cost-cutting driven.

The European schools – international, multilingual schools geared for children of EU officials – are in the midst of a reform of their secondary programme.

Proposals drafted by working groups over the past year will be presented to the system’s board of governors this week. Amongst the suggested changes are:

  • the introduction of a third language courses in first grade, and an expansion of the curriculum for children in the first three years of secondary education;
  • a reform of the mathematics curriculum, including a proposal to offer basic math for all children and an advanced course of ‘math plus’;
  • the permission for an external review of the European baccalaureate – the certificate obtained at the end of the secondary education – on whether it still fits the needs of universities across Europe.

In the run-up to the board's meeting, the draft reform is being criticised by parents' organisations - initially involved in the drafting. In an opinion piece published on EurActiv, representatives of the parents' organisations of the European schools (APEEE) express their deep concerns over the proposed plans, calling them “ill-conceived on many levels”.

>>Read: Tower of Babel in the European Schools’ classrooms?

“Instead of pushing a deeply unpopular reform and allowing politics to influence a decision-making process, all efforts could focus on providing a worthy education for Europe’s next generation,” they argue.

The changes that will be agreed on Friday (6 December) are likely to spur further discontent, adding to an already troubled reform process.

Concerns are unnecessary, officials say

The officials behind the reform seem surprised by parents’ grievances: “These proposals are the outcome of a long process, and most of the working groups that were involved have agreed on them,” a source from the European schools secretariat told EurActiv.

“The parents haven’t seen the final versions of the reforms yet – those will be agreed on this week [in the board of governors meeting].” Amongst others, the source stresses that the disagreement between member states on sharing the costs of the European schools is not on the table: “This is a different discussion.”

But parents seem to be alienated throughout the drafting of the proposals, and feel that “the alleged objective of the reform is to rationalise the structure of the curriculum, but there is a strong suspicion that the wish to cut costs is the real driving force here.”

This is firmly denied by the European Commission, who carries responsibility over the European schools. “The objectives [of the reforms] are not cost-cutting,” Antonio Gravili, spokesperson for EU Commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, Maroš Šefčovič, told EurActiv

“The savings are not that important in relation to the overall budget,” Gravili stressed. “The aim is to modernise and update the curricula and to remedy the failure and drop-out rates. The parents’ views have also been taken into consideration throughout the whole process.”

Larger reform to prevent ‘collapse’

The European schools have existed for over 60 years and attract mostly children from EU officials, but diplomats and expats' kids can also attend the schools and pay a tuition fee. The schools are mostly financed by EU member states as part of the EU budget.

While multilingualism is the schools’ strong suit, the changing nature of the European Union has put pressure on the system. New member states forced schools to expand the language modules available to pupils. Teachers and parents have expressed their concerns in finding enough qualified teachers to ensure all EU languages are taught.

“It is sometimes hard for the schools to recruit teachers in all the different languages, which can range from Swedish to Slovak for instance,” Gravili admitted. With this set of reforms, drafted over the past few years, the European schools are hoped to “follow the evolution of society and the increased demands, in order to prepare the pupils in the best possible way,” he added.

A fair financial burden-sharing among member states is also considered a hot potato, as some member states have complained that they carry a larger part of the cost.

In November, member states struck a deal on cost-sharing, the Commission now confirms. The deal takes into account: the number of pupils of a certain nationality that attend the European schools; the number of teachers and staff that each member state seconds to the schools; the average national salaries of staff; and how many language sections a country has.

In 2009, the Commission called for a reform. Then European Commission vice-president responsible for adminitration at the time, Siim Kallas, said the schools system “might collapse” if no action was undertaken. This broad reform was agreed upon that same year and now pundits hope it can stave off a decline of the European schools.

There are fourteen European schools in seven member states: Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain and Luxembourg. The European Schools have around 24,000 pupils enrolled in their programmes. The schools were created in 1953 with the establishment of the then European Coal and Steel Community – the predecessor of today’s EU.

Timeline: 
  • 4-6 Dec.: Board of Governors meeting on the proposals for a reformed secondary programme
  • Sept. 2014: Start of year-by-year implementation of reforms
  • Dec. 2014: Target date for external review of compatibility of European Schools to Europe’s university systems.
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