A one-off to treasure in any language

26th September 2008 at 01:00
A school that is unique in the UK for teaching lessons in five languages faces closure - unless it can reinvent itself as an academy.

In any other school, a PE teacher able to switch fluently between four languages would be remarkable. But for Jose Carlos, a towering former professional basketball player, the only thing that makes him stand out is his height.

At the European School in Culham, near Oxford, Mr Carlos's linguistic skills and well-travelled background - he lived in Mozambique, Portugal and Germany before settling in England - are distinctly average.

"I have worked in state and private schools, but nothing has the international flavour of this place," he said. "This school is unique."

Within the UK, the school is, indeed, a one off. Opened in 1975, it was set up to educate the children of European Union employees who were drafted in to work on a scientific research project nearby.

To minimise disruption to the children's education, the school offers lessons in five different languages - English, French, German, Italian and Dutch - with staff seconded from across the continent.

It is the only school in the UK to offer the exacting European baccalaureate (not to be confused with the international bac), and all students leave fluent in at least two foreign languages, with some studying as many as four.

As with Mr Carlos, the polyglot pupils happily switch from one language to another, even within the same conversation.

"I have lived all over the place," said 17-year-old Eleonore Cossery. "I was born in France, but really I consider myself to be European."

From the age of 14, pupils study geography, history and economics in their second languages while pursuing maths and science in their mother tongues.

There are 13 such institutions across Europe, including a super-school in Luxembourg which teaches in 15 different languages.

But the Culham school's future is in doubt. The EU project that led to its establishment is being wound up and unless action is taken, the school will have to close.

The school is scheduled to stop taking pupils after 2010 and to close its doors for good seven years later.

But there is one hope of salvation, and that is to make it part of the ever-expanding academies programme.

Lord Adonis, the schools minister, has given his backing to the idea in principle, describing the 835-pupil all-through school as "extraordinary" and saying that losing it would be a "tragedy".

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, has also spoken out in favour of the school, which was in his constituency when he was MP for Henley-on- Thames.

"It would be sad and paradoxical if, in a career that I have spent trying to close down various EU institutions, the first one with which I had any direct relationship and which I particularly like were to be closed," he has previously said.

But the school's movement to the state sector will not be an easy one. Its supporters only want it to survive if it can stay true to its multi- lingual heritage - something that Uffe Pedersen, its headteacher, knows could cause problems.

"It will have to be selective in terms of language ability for the ethos of the school to survive," he said. "The number of foreign languages on offer will drop to two: French and German. But if we are to retain our focus, pupils will have to be able to speak them. There would be no sense, anyway, in a parent wanting to enrol their child for lessons they could not understand."

A trust has been set up to establish the academy, in what will be an unprecedented move to transfer control of a European School from the European Commission to a national government. Currently, the European schools are funded centrally by every European country. One proposal is to offer boarding facilities at the academy, which Mr Pedersen, a former official in the Danish ministry of education, thinks could help attract the kind of pupils they need.

"Only one of the European schools has boarding, but that's in Flemish- speaking Belgium, and who would want to send a child there?" he asks, with a smile.

In truth, the school has been moving away from its original purpose of educating the children of EU employees for some time. Only 15 per cent of its current pupils now have those links.

Other pupils are the children of ex-pats working in local BMW and Vodafone offices, while some have parents who have chosen to settle in the area specifically for what the school has to offer.

Financially, what it has to offer is a very good deal.

While it is free for the children of parents working for an EU institution, the school is fee-charging for its other pupils. But, at just pound;3,200 a year, it is far cheaper than traditional independent schools.

"Once you allow pupils into the school, they are treated the same," said Mr Pedersen. "But the European Commission has to think twice about subsidising a school that an individual state would normally pay for, or to subsidise a private school for parents who would otherwise pay more for it."

Set in spacious grounds six miles outside Oxford, the school was once home to Culham teacher training college, which specialised in religious education.

Its chapel, quaint quadrangle and listed 1850s buildings still play host to the Bishop of Oxford and his reunions of former teacher training students.

"It is a very good place to ask for divine intervention during exams," said Mr Pedersen.

But judging from the school's impressive results, very few of its pupils rely on such external help to get by. Almost all - 98 per cent - go on to university in countries throughout Europe.

The European bac, licensed by the commission in Brussels, was designed to allow pupils to transfer from their home education system to one of the European schools and back again.

Its tough standards are beginning to attract the attention of other schools, and significant expansion could follow. Non-European schools in Finland and France have been given permission to start teaching it from this month, and another in France is also interested.

But Bob Read, a part-time art teacher at the school, admits it might not be for everyone: "It is a difficult qualification and some children can struggle with it.

"And the school does not offer any alternatives, so a small number of students do leave to go to the local college to do other qualifications instead."

Mr Read and Jim Martin, a geography teacher, both previously taught at Wheatley Park School, a comprehensive in Oxford.

"We didn't even know this place existed. It's a closely kept secret, but one I'm glad I finally discovered," said Mr Read.

"It's unique, it really is totally different. It's much freer and easier. It's like teaching was 40 years ago, when you could enjoy lessons and have a laugh, but without pupils taking it too far."

Both teachers said they enjoyed the lack of tests, targets and league tables.

The money is pretty good too. British full-time teachers get more than pound;24,000 a year on top of their regular teaching salary, although part of that is to make up for a loss of pension contributions.

An additional bonus is the lack of middle management at the school, and staff meetings are rare.

"In my view, it's an advantage not to waste your time on meetings, but to get on with teaching," said Mr Pedersen.

If that ethos survives the move towards becoming an academy, the school will not only be remarkable for its approach to languages, but also its happy staff.

Teacher nation is an occasional series focusing on the diverse nature of schools throughout the UK.

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