Learning to live together, EU-style

10th November 2000 at 00:00
IMAGINE a school on a site similar in size to an English comprehensive, except that it has 3,400 pupils between four and 18, more than 20 nationalities, 11 language groups and curricula to match. Nightmare, eh? Welcome to the European School in Brussels.

This is the school for the children of the bureaucrats of the European Union and, in 1995 when The Guardian posted me to Brussels, we were relieved to get our two eldest children, aged seven and four, in there.

Five years later we returned to England with strong reservations about the European schools system. As our daughter was just entering secondary, we felt we had just got out in time. Had we had the choice again, I think we would have opted for the excellent Belgian state system instead.

European schools dot the member states like sultanas in a cake. Children of EU-employees can attend free and as of right, whatever their educational attainment and however many of them there are. Then children like ours, the offspring of so-called non-entitled parents, can make up the numbers if there are any spaces left.

The schools do not follow the national curriculum, they are funded largely by member state governments and their sites are provided by the government of the host country.

They have the plainly avowed purpose of creating good Europeans and the EU bureaucrats of the future. The school's educational philosophy is bent to that ideal.

In primary, although children are taught mainly in their mother tongue, they have to learn a foreign language, then in secondary, a second is added, and sometimes a third. In secondary, pupils take certain subjects in their second language, history and geography, economics and music.

The purpose is clear: to avoid a nationalistic interpretation of what might otherwise be ticklish areas. One basic drawback, apparently never considered, is the problem of teaching a complex non-linguistic subject to children with a range of language abilities. No wonder some teachers settled for the lowest common denominator, leaving the fluent under-engaged and the linguistically-challenged baffled.

With each EU nationality having the right to be taught in their mother tongue, there are 11 language section, plus an almost infinite variety of foreign language permutations. The school timetable is complicated to draw up. There is no certainty that any section of the school or ancillary staff can talk to any other, or to any child they meet.

The interplay of teaching cultures gets really interesting. Teachers are usually seconded from schools back home.

They are paid (by their own government) to their own national pay scales. National inspectors may call, but staff avoid the sort of pressures and sanctions their colleagues here would have.

Cultual differences matter. When a French teacher started hitting primary children who did not understand his language lessons to his satisfaction, his French colleagues seemed surprised when the parents started complaining.

Quandaries abound. If you see children fighting in the playground, do you break it up? Not if you see your duties ending at the classroom door. We looked upon the permissiveness of a school which allowed older children to smoke openly with some alarm.

The French system of redoublement - whereby you have to take the whole year's work again if you fail end-of-year exams - was viewed with anguish and despair by English and Irish parents.

Meetings of the parents' association APEE (Association des Parents D'Eleves de l'Ecole Europeenne) sometimes resembled pictures of meetings during the French Revolution. APEE is tremendously powerful in a system where management controls and governing bodies are labyrinthine.

The organisation employs full-time staff and administers a substantial budget. Its members are mainly the highly articulate, bilingual, unaccountable and unsackable members of the EU's bureaucratic elite, so meetings of hundreds of pushy parents ran on well past midnight.

On one splendid occasion, the (English) headmaster of the school could bear no more and walked out, shouting: "I don't care. I'm going. I'm retiring next year, so it doesn't matter to me."

Now our children are back in state schools in England. The European school was broadly good for them. But whether its aspirations to international harmony are met is another matter.

Stephen Bates was education editor of The Guardian 1990-93

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