Tower of Babel in the European Schools’ classrooms?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

European Schools are reforming their education system and there is a clear risk that pupils will be taught core disciplines in a different language than their mother tongue which will create a considerable gap between the European baccalaureate and national higher education, parents write.

This OpEd is signed by Hélène Chraye, president of APEEE Brussels III, the organization representing the parents of children enrolled in the European School in Brussels (Association des Parents d’Elèves de l’Ecole Européenne), representing the associations’ views.

Sixty years ago, the first European School welcomed the children of staff members from a handful of member states. As a testament to the vision of its creators, the European Schools' broad-based education is increasingly recognised as a strong formation for Europe's youth.

At the same time, enlargement and the failure to innovate have put the schools under enormous strain. Member states have struggled to reach agreement on how to secure sustainable and equitable funding for the schools, leaving a substantial funding gap and a significant problem in finding the necessary teachers.

It is against this backdrop that a ‘re-organisation of secondary studies’ is being put through. 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. Many parents fear that these reforms will strip the European baccalaureate of many of its strengths and de-value it at a time when it is finally beginning to earn its hard-fought reputation.

One of the key principles of the Schools, namely to allow “the primacy of the pupil’s mother tongue to be safeguarded”, is under threat: the new proposals introduces a ‘filière’ type system, a streaming of subjects into specialized pathways such as economics, arts or sciences. Basic and advanced math courses, which were originally taught to separate language groups to accommodate different abilities, will now become mixed in language.

The reforms will also see the removal of a key, practical element of science courses: the laboratory work. Surprisingly, religion will be ‘upgraded’ to a compulsory baccalaureate exam subject – rather bizarre for a secular schools system.

Why do we oppose these reforms? The proposals are ill conceived on many levels, but the most astonishing aspect is the fact that they have been put forward without any pedagogical impact assessments; without consultation by any universities to ensure the continued recognition of the baccalaureate exam; without consultation of the teaching staff; and with the strong likelihood that they would be adopted without trial periods.

It is difficult to imagine that reforms of this kind could be instituted in any of our national systems without judicious scrutiny and thorough testing by the departments for education.

At the European School, humanity subjects such as geography have long been taught in a second language, chosen by a pupil. This is seen as one of the schools strengths. It is very challenging but at the end of their studies, it provides the students with a mastery of the language that surpasses most national courses.

Crucially, however, this emphasis on the second language has been properly balanced by teaching more complex and conceptual subjects such as math and Sciences in the student’s mother tongue. Under these reforms, even such core subjects may be taught in the students’ second or possibly even third language – depending on classes’ size.

This will particularly affect the smaller sections, those with only one class in each year group, including perhaps surprisingly, both the German and English sections. Many parents question why most sections must exist in every school in Brussels and have proposed grouping the sections. Indeed, the current set-up keeps the sections small, increases the need for more teachers and will ultimately penalise the students by offering them fewer options.

This planned change disadvantages those that are well-versed in the subject matter and are not strong linguists, as the language proficiency of the second or even third language will influence their performance and score. Another significant aspect of this language change is the fundamental difference in the approach to teaching math for example, representing a considerable hurdle for any student.

Moreover, there wouldn’t be a guarantee that the language they learn subjects in will be maintained from one year to another. In the end, it leads to legitimate concerns about ‘dumbed down’ courses across core subjects.

But perhaps the greatest concern is that the resulting pathways would in several cases endanger access to certain universities, as some subject combinations would no longer be available and some newly devised courses would not meet university admissions criteria. This is not a remote fantasy but has already been indicated by some member states.

While we parents accept that choices cannot be unlimited, we are worried that our children will be barred from choosing certain subjects, and by consequence certain universities. The same applies for the disappearing laboratory work, mandatory for those pursuing careers in scientific research or medicine.

Although we have raised these questions again and again, the answers we have received are not very reassuring to put it mildly.

A prime example of the consequences of such rash reforms is the outcome of the baccalaureate math exam in 2012: a small element of the curriculum was changed and more than half the students taking their math exam that year failed. Even after corrective measure and a commissioned study from external experts, students’ expectations to enter university were damaged.

On all of these grounds, we do not find this a credible reform, and encourage everybody to sign a petition outlining our objections.

At this time, the future of our children’s education in the European Schools is clouded. The planned reforms are slackened by member states’ inability to reach a sustainable cost-sharing agreement that would provide for the necessary seconded teachers.

Perhaps, 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. The next generation of graduates shouldn’t be the guinea pigs of some failed reform experiment.

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