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.