Unreformed European school system 'might collapse'

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The European school system "might soon collapse" if not reformed, European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas told a public hearing in Brussels last week (19 March), citing "alarming signs" like lack of teachers, cumbersome decision-making procedures and governments' unwillingness to invest in infrastructure.

Acknowledging that reforming the European school system is a "delicate subject", Vice-President Kallas, responsible for administration, told a European Parliament hearing organised by the EU assembly’s centre-right EPP-ED group that "if today sufficient political impetus is found, we can put together the final touches to ensure that, tomorrow, the provision of a high-quality, multicultural and truly European education becomes available across the EU". 

Reform process underway 

Reform of European schools has been underway since the mid-2000s, Kallas told stakeholders including parents, teachers and officials from the EU institutions, outlining three main strands of the process: 

  • Streamlining decision-making and cutting red tape to ensure that decisions are taken at the most appropriate level; 
  • Ensuring that costs are shared fairly among all member states, and; 
  • Opening up the system not just to make the European curriculum available where EU bodies and agencies are located, but in any interested member state. 

"Together, we can ensure that European schools are no longer perceived as an elitist and closed educational system," the commissioner told the hearing. 

Opening up the system 

At present, priority for places is given to children of officials working for the EU institutions directly. Luxembourg MEP Erna Hennicot-Schoepges (EPP-ED) said the reforms currently underway would open up European schools to a wider variety of pupils, including the staff of EU agencies (so-called 'Type 2' schools, of which four already exist). 

National schools should also be given the opportunity to offer students the chance to take the European baccalaureate ('Type 3' schools), an idea hailed by Czech Deputy Education Minister Jakub Dürr as "highly inspirational". 

But Alain Scriban of the Commission's administration department took a more cautious view, warning that opening up the schools must not become a "free-for-all" or lead to "variations from one school to another," stressing the need to maintain the quality of the system. 

Overcrowded European schools 'in crisis' 

Not all stakeholders shared Commissioner Kallas's positive assessment. Pupils' parents in particular believe the whole system is in "crisis" and needs significant expansion and investment if it is to continue to provide high-quality education in the future, their representative, Inter-parents President Christopher Wilkinson, told the hearing. 

Overcrowding, particularly at the three Brussels sites of Woluwé, Uccle and Ixelles, means many European schools have reached their bursting point "after years of mismanagement," Wilkinson lamented. 

Indeed, Renée Christmann, secretary-general of the European schools, admitted that overcrowding is regrettable as "it increases the feeling that European schools are cut off from the rest of society". 

As a result of these capacity problems, Wilkinson even alleged that "attempts are being made to exclude the children of non-EU staff of the [bloc's] institutions due to overcrowding," claiming that the present set-up is one of "small schools, small classes and small language groups: a closed system". 

Brussels is expected to host a fourth European school in Laeken, but this is not expected to be ready before 2012. Meanwhile, debate over the future of the European schools is set to continue, with some participants in the hearing already calling for a fifth institution in the Belgian capital. 

Positions: 

The European school model "can suit particularly well the globalised and dynamic character of our societies, whilst ensuring that roots in national identities are clearly preserved," said European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for administration. 

"To achieve this, we must ensure that the internal functioning of the current system is adequately adjusted, that the costs inherent to it are fairly shared, and that the decision-making process becomes more streamlined and efficient," Kallas explained. 

Calling for a new model of more flexible European schools adapted to local needs, Luxembourg centre-right MEP Erna Hennicot-Schoepges (EPP-ED), who chaired the hearing, called for "better governance" structures, expressing hope that the reform process currently underway would "fundamentally change the system". 

Expressing confidence that "we’ll be able to move forward in the next legislature," Hennicot-Schoepges said she understands parents' frustrations. But "we can't deal with infrastructure and overcrowding problems [at European level]," she explained, because such issues "are for member states". 

Czech Deputy Education Minister Jakub Dürr said the multilingual nature of the European school model would be "very hard to emulate at national level," but conceded that national education systems could take inspiration from it, for example by teaching some subjects in foreign languages. 

"Today it's taken for granted that European schools should open up more, but four years ago this was not the case," said Alain Scriban of the Commission's administration department. 

Addressing concerns about the lack of teachers, Scriban said "we're exploring the possibility of using non-native speakers to teach certain subjects, but only with appropriate quality safeguards". 

Appealing to governments to fill all their teaching posts, Renée Christmann, secretary-general of the European schools, echoed Scriban in saying "language difficulties" mean secondment of teachers who are non-native speakers of their primary teaching language will now be allowed. 

Educating students in their mother tongues is a "fundamental principle" of the system, Christmann explained, but "the need for burden-sharing between member states must be taken into account". 

The secretary-general described externalising the European baccalaureate to make it accessible to more people as a "very good idea," in keeping with the dreams of the schools' founders. 

Inter-parents President Christopher Wilkinson, representing parents of European school pupils, said "the reform process so far has already been time-consuming, expensive, laborious and fraught with difficulty". 

Wilkinson believes the system should be reformed to "look to a more global context". "European schools are an asset which should be deployed throughout the EU. Europe needs these people for its Lisbon agenda and to emerge from the recession competitive." 

One parent, an official at the European Commission, described the Brussels schools as "saturated" from the classrooms to the buses. "We've been talking about [overcrowding] for ten years now and the problem is not going away." 

"All children of EU staff, including those of Parliament assistants, are entitled to a place in the European school system given the fact that most have no other alternative in the Belgian school system," argued TAO-AFI, an independent association of officials working for the EU institutions. 

"No discrimination can be exercised between children enrolled and included in the system," while "the schools at Uccle, Woluwé and Ixelles have reached their limits in terms of capacity," TAO-AFI further stated. 

The European school system is creating a socially-homogenous "apartheid regime" that could foster a feeling of superiority among the pupils, Professor Philippe van Parijs of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) told EurActiv in an interview last month (EurActiv 17/02/09). 

"It is not good for the offspring of the EU's bureaucracy to grow up in such a socially-homogeneous environment," the professor says, continuing: "Nor is it good for a city like Brussels to have part of its school population creamed off by what amounts to an invidious apartheid regime". 

"When you are admitted to an elite school by virtue of the status of your parents, it is hard not to develop a sense of superiority towards those who are not," van Parijs declared, blaming European schools for fostering "social separation". 

Timeline: 
  • 2012: Target date for opening a fourth European school in Brussels at Laeken. 
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