The day after the Brexit referendum was a bad day for my school. I remember seeing many colleagues with incredulous expressions on their faces. Most people in the school believe in the European ethos, so found the outcome of the vote difficult to understand.
I am a primary school teacher at the European School of Brussels II (Woluwe), providing education mainly to the children of officials working in the European institutions. There are a total of 13 European schools in six EU member states. The first school of its kind opened in Luxembourg in 1953. As the European Union expanded, so did the need for schools and to support the mobility of officials, scientists and engineers. This led to the situation we have today.
There are nine language sections at my school: Dutch, English, French, Italian, German, Lithuanian, Swedish, Finnish and Portuguese. Many teachers are seconded here by their government on a nine-year contract and will return to their home country when they finish, although we also have locally recruited staff.
There are more than 3,000 pupils across the nursery, primary and secondary levels. Having come from a small school in rural Nottinghamshire with only around 100 pupils, the first thing that struck me about the European School was the noise: excited children speaking a blend of different languages. At the beginning of the week this feels thrilling, but towards the end of the week I sometimes long for peace and quiet.
'The playground can be the best classroom'
My own children attend the school, so I drop them off in the playground at around 8am, before heading to my classroom, where lessons start at 8.30am.
As well as having my own Year 4 class, I also teach English as a second language to a mixture of children from the other sections. I really enjoy these classes because it’s a chance to see the way the children from the different language sections interact. However, I’ve found that the playground can be the best classroom for language learning.
When the students from the different sections communicate to dispute a penalty decision in a game of football, they dip seamlessly into French or English.
In addition to delivering the subjects pupils would be taught in a UK primary school, the school tries to promote collaboration between the sections with a “European hours” lesson, joint science and maths projects and mixed religion and ethics lessons.
My typical day finishes at 3.20pm, but Wednesday is different. Like many schools in Europe, we finish at lunchtime. Occasionally, the afternoon is given over to training but it’s usually a nice mid-week break.
The best thing about my job is that it has given me a chance to experience a huge range of different cultures and customs in a multilingual environment, just as the EU is supposed to do. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues and their different approaches. The collaboration continues when different sections of the school celebrate their national days with traditional food and drink. It’s been an education of the palette working here.
However, I’m not sure what will happen over the next few years, because of the Brexit vote. Families who live and work at the institutions in Brussels are starting to relocate and so the English section is in a state of flux. Hopefully the school will adapt to these changes and emerge stronger and more resolute. Only time will tell.
Peter Gale is a Year 4 teacher at the European School of Brussels II (Woluwe)