Academic: European school system triggers ‘social separation’

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Social separation in schools for the offspring of EU officials is creating a socially-homogenous “apartheid regime” that fosters a feeling of superiority among the pupils, Professor Philippe van Parijs of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) told EURACTIV in an interview.

Professor Philippe van Parijs, a Belgian academic, directs the Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics at the Catholic University of Louvain.  

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

At the plenary meeting of the Brussels Citizens’ Forum (Etats Généraux de Bruxelles) on 10 January, efforts were made to build bridges between the city’s various communities. Resentment emerged towards perceived privileges for ‘Eurocrats’: for example, regarding access to so-called ‘European schools’, which are multilingual. How would you comment on this? 

The attitude of the Brussels population towards the European schools is ambivalent. On the one hand, the schools are perceived as high-quality schools and are frequently mentioned as a model to be emulated, in particular because they equip their pupils with linguistic competences that are more valuable in the capital of Europe than anywhere else in today’s Europe. 

On the other hand, European schools are perceived as one more privilege reserved for a fraction of the Brussels population far wealthier than the average Brussels resident. This resentment is easily amplified, fairly or not, when it is pointed out that the households granted access to these schools are precisely those exempted from paying the Belgian federal income tax used to pay for school buildings far more lavish and better equipped than the average Belgian school. 

Such resentment is also particularly acute among those who live near the existing schools and have to put up with the congestion and pollution caused by the daily procession of school buses, while their own children are denied access. 

And [the resentment] is by no means confined to the Belgian population: the many journalists, lawyers, lobbyists, NGO employees, etc. living in Brussels because of the EU have children with exactly the same sort of needs as those of EU employees, yet they are too are excluded. 

How would you assess European schools in general? Do they respond adequately to the needs of their pupils? 

I cannot give a general assessment. What I can say is based on a couple of reports I have read, but above all, on my experience as a concerned and active parent of children who attended the European schools of Culham [Oxfordshire, UK], Woluwé and Ixelles [both Brussels]. 

Attending these schools was a fantastic experience for all three of them. Not only are they now fluent in three or (in one case) four languages, they also have close friends of several nationalities with whom they are likely to keep in touch for the rest of their lives and thanks to whom they got intimate access to cultures quite different from their own. 

This enthusiasm should not obscure a number of major difficulties. First and foremost among these is social separation. It is not good for the offspring of the EU’s bureaucracy to grow up in such a socially homogeneous environment. 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 feeling of superiority towards those who are not. 

Secondly, European schools do not have technical and professional sections. It follows that less academic children are routinely downloaded either onto the Belgian system or sent back to relatives or boarding schools in their home countries. 

According to your own estimates, how many Europeans work on EU and diplomatic affairs in Brussels? Do most of them prefer to place their children in private international schools or Belgian schools? 

According to the most recent estimates published by the Brussels-Europe Liaison Office (‘Bruxelles-Europe en chiffres‘, October 2008), the Brussels-based EU institutions employ (in a broad sense) about 40,000 people. 

Employees of other supranational organisations and diplomats approach 15,000, and there are estimated to be around 15,000 lobbyists. If you add journalists and consultants of all sorts, etc, we are probably slowly approaching 80,000 people. 

I am not aware of any systematic data set about the schools chosen for their children. It would help public debate on these issues if the European institutions could provide reliable estimates. 

Public education in Brussels is run by the Communauté française and the Vlaamse Gemeenschap. Do they provide an education that corresponds to the international needs of the capital of Europe? 

They do not, for different reasons. 

The Flemish schools (16% of Brussels pupils) are on average somewhat better resourced and tend to be attended by children of more motivated parents. Only about 15% of pupils attending these schools are Dutch native speakers, the rest being either Francophones or recent immigrants. 

Given the make-up of this school population – the Flemish Community deliberately discarded the “apartheid” option of restricting access to Flemish families – it is not hard to imagine some of the big problems that arise. 

How can exposure to Dutch be sufficient for all the children to be equipped for secondary studies after six years of primary school? How can the overall level remain high enough for Flemish families not to flee from Brussels to Flanders in order to find schools with a higher proportion of Dutch natives? 

How can one recruit in a sustainable way enough teachers from Flanders who are willing to rise to the challenge of teaching such a mixed set of children while facing long commutes or high housing costs? 

For the Brussels-based international community, however, the schools of the Communauté française (80% of Brussels pupils) are prima facie a far more attractive prospect, if only because expatriates living in Brussels are likely to find it far more useful for their children to acquire a good command of French than of Dutch. 

However, the average level of achievement in the schools of the Communauté française in Wallonia and Brussels has been shown to be very low by European standards, and there is sound evidence that it is even lower in Brussels than in Wallonia. 

There are also huge inequalities between schools, in both the Catholic and the state systems, which some well-intentioned but amateurishly implemented “mixture” policies are now attempting to reduce. The particularly worrying state of French-language education in Brussels is feeding increasingly pressing calls for the regionalisation of compulsory education. 

Arguably, it is only once the Brussels government controls the bulk of public education in the Region that serious and innovative collaboration can be effectively initiated between the French, Flemish and European networks, in order to provide, first in an experimental fashion, the sort of school which will best suit all the children growing up in the capital of Europe. 

Who can attend European schools? Why can’t they be accessed more widely? 

Under the present formula, there is no chance of wider access. On the contrary, restriction to ‘Category 1’ pupils, i.e. to the children of EU employees, will become ever more fiercely enforced. 

The reason for this is simple. Schools that satisfy the standards demanded by the boards of governors of European schools are expensive to build. By virtue of a convention signed by Paul-Henri Spaak in the early 1960s, when all ‘Eurocrats’ still fitted into two small buildings, and renewed later on, the Belgian state is obliged to pay for the sites, buildings and equipment of any school deemed necessary by the board of governors. 

But for various reasons, the financial leeway of Belgium’s federal government has shrunk considerably, and the government therefore insists that it should not pay for accommodating a single pupil not covered by the convention. Understandable, but not exactly healthy. 

Can the current European school system contribute to bridging cultural and social gaps between different national communities? 

Cultural, yes. Social, no. Quite the contrary: it contributes to widening the gap as a direct consequence of the apartheid logic outlined earlier. 

A fourth European school is being prepared in Laeken, ‘on the other side of the canal’, as it were: a canal which some say reflects the socio-cultural divide within the Brussels region. Many parents, especially young EU officials from Central Europe, complain about their children being ‘relegated’ there. Can you explain why and how children are allocated to particular European schools? 

I do not know what formula will be used when Laeken opens. I can remember, however, the uproar when sections and pupils had to be moved from Woluwé and Uccle to Ixelles. 

As with many transitions of this sort, there is a lot of anxiety, and sometimes indignation, beforehand, but once the move is made, practically everyone is happy: the children who had to move made knew friends, benefited from excellent teachers they would otherwise have missed, the old parents find new clever ways of smoothly reconciling the locations of school, work and home, and the new parents, very quickly the overwhelming majority, have never known anything else. 

The choice of Laeken was one of the wisest public decisions taken in Brussels since the arrival of the European institutions. The leaders of the parents’ associations at the time proved to have enough vision and common sense to understand and explain to their constituencies that trying to locate the fourth school yet again in the South-Eastern quarter of the Region would irreversibly cut the city in two. 

The Laeken location is exceptionally accessible in terms of public transport (seven minutes from Bockstael station to Schuman station) and it will gradually lead to a welcome redeployment of the EU population throughout the territory of the Brussels Region. 

Demand for European-type schooling among both ‘Belgians by origin’ and ‘new Belgians’ from families that migrated is potentially strong. Why not launch a pilot scheme among a few existing Belgian schools, adapting teacher recruitment accordingly to develop European school-style curricula open to a wider variety of pupils? The international baccalaureate is ‘licensed’ to a number of schools, notably in the UK. In a similar way, could the European baccalaureate prepared at European schools also be licensed to willing public or private schools in Belgium? 

Experiments of this sort must get off the ground. But they must start with kindergarten and primary school. They may cater de facto for a relatively privileged category of pupils at the start, but they must have the potential to be gradually generalised, albeit in a flexible way, to the whole of the Brussels school population. 

And a fair way must be found for them to be jointly funded by local and European authorities. The initial extra cost could conceivably be shouldered, in the experimental stage, by the EU commissioner for multilingualism, and beyond that through some form of direct subsidy to so-called “type II schools” from the European institutions. 

The current system is expensive and requires EU subsidies and/or a parental contribution by non-EU officials, on top of the usual Belgian funding. Is this because expatriate teachers must be recruited from their home countries? What could be done to lower the costs and/or raise funds? 

Because of the combination of linguistic diversity and subject diversity and the need to recruit competent specialised teachers, full-scale generalisation of the European school formula at secondary level is beyond reach. 

This is one of the reasons for concentrating on primary education. Even here, there is an additional structural cost generated by the need to attract native speakers with the right teaching qualifications. But as the Brussels-based international community grows, and as a good command of the languages in highest demand spreads far beyond the native speakers of these languages, this additional cost should shrink. 

To create the socio-linguistic pre-conditions for this process, imaginative use will need to be made, without too many bureaucratic constraints, of incipient Brussels-based multilingual media and of the fantastic wealth of linguistic competence increasingly concentrated in Brussels. 

Given the number of political and educational stakeholders in any education decisions regarding Brussels and Europe, is there a realistic chance of progress on broadening the reach of the European school system? Do you have any timeframe in mind? 

Bureaucratic rigidities and fragmentation of decision-making power on both sides do not exactly facilitate vigorous initiatives in this direction. But where there is a will there is a way. 

At least, providing not everything is expected from politicians on either the European or Belgian side. Civil society initiatives such as EURACTIV or the various initiatives stimulated by the December 2006 ‘Appeal to the Citizens of Brussels’ (‘Nous existons! Wij bestaan! We exist!’), currently culminating in the Brussels Citizens’ Forum (Etats-Généraux de Bruxelles), will all have to do their bit.  

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