Sealed within the cornerstone of the Brussels III school in Ixelles — one of the most sought-after educational institutions in the EU capital — lies a piece of parchment inscribed with the founding mission of the European School system.
Students in the European Schools, the statement declares, will be educated “side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices“ and “will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”
The noble rhetoric enshrined in the walls here and at all four European schools in Brussels is hitting up against some harsh realities of what’s going on inside those walls.
Interviews with more than a dozen parents, students, teachers, and administrators in Brussels reveals a European School system in disarray. It is suffering from overcrowding, struggling to recruit qualified teachers and paralyzed by an over-complicated organizational structure that affects everything from grading standards to infrastructure.
“Our crisis is that we are not able to meet the needs” of the students, said Kari Kivinen, secretary general of the European Schools.
The schools were created in 1953 to provide the children of European officials posted abroad the same education they would get in their home countries. But what started as a European Coal and Steel Community of six countries has grown to today’s Union of 28, and the school system is straining to keep up.
“The crisis in the European Schools reflects the crisis in the European Union,” said Maria Ribeiro, who graduated from Brussels IV, in Woluwe, last year.
Not making the grade
The European Schools promise that students from any member state will be provided with an education on par in that of their home countries, which provide teachers according to the proportion of pupils studying their languages.
Prior to the 2004 enlargement of the EU, when 10 new countries joined, the schools more or less fulfilled that mandate.
Students of different nationalities were grouped into language sections according to their native tongue, and taught by instructors from their home countries. As they grew up, they took on a second, third, perhaps even a fourth language, and studied subjects like history and geography in foreign languages.
All that is still true. But as the EU has grown, so too did the student population of Brussels’ European Schools, even as the number of teachers and support staff and the schools’ infrastructure did not.
Suddenly, the system had to accommodate Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Slovaks, and more, many of whom wanted their children educated not in their native tongue but in English or French, more “useful” languages, despite the fact that most of them have their own language sections anyway.
The result is that now, half of all students in the European Schools belong to the French language section, and the English sections throughout Brussels are so over-enrolled that the U.K. is refusing to pay more or to send extra teachers to take up the slack.
Another problem: A European School has to try to mimic the education systems of all 28 EU countries —so rather than being simply one school, each one is more like 28 mini-schools packed into one campus.
The teachers are told to grade according to the same standards while staying in line with their national marking systems, which vary significantly across Europe. The idea is that students will be prepared to jump back into their native country’s schools despite not having studied in their first language for years.
This makes for a confounding education system that is taking its toll on parents, teachers, administrators — and most of all, students.
Ribeiro, who studied in the Portuguese section, was student president her senior year. She had an offer from University College London (UCL) before she took the European Baccalaureate exam. She missed the grades required for UCL by 0.8 percent — the mathematics portion of the Bac exam brought her average down — and she will now attend Durham University.
There isn’t a fair marking system throughout the schools.
Hers is by no means an uncommon experience in the schools, where students’ year-end marks and baccalaureate performance can be affected by the varied teaching approaches and language barriers between sections. Every year, one section of the exam poses a huge problem for students. Ribeiro estimated that about half of her class failed the math exam. “It’s written in one language and then translated into others, so sometimes there are translation mistakes, sometimes they just leave stuff out,” she said.
Critics claim those different standards produce different results. Students in the French section expect to score a few points lower than their peers in the English, Swedish, and Italian sections, for instance.
“There isn’t a fair marking system throughout the schools,” said Ribeiro. “It’s just impossible. It feels a bit unfair that you work so hard, and maybe you get worse averages because of your section.”
“The ones who are most scared of not graduating are from the French section,” said Tessa Keijzer, Ribeiro’s successor as Woluwe student president.
Part of the problem stems from the pressure the increasing population has placed on teachers, who are being asked to take on more students and who sometimes must give classes in their non-native languages.
The rewards for taking on that extra work are decreasing: In 2011, during a time of budget-tightening in the school system, salaries of new hires of teachers sent from their home countries were cut 30 percent while those of locally recruited teachers were cut by 20 percent, making it difficult to hire and retain high-quality instructors. “The quality of teaching is starting to be affected more and more,” Ribeiro said.
Many of the hundreds of new students who enter the schools every year don’t have native command of the language in which they are being taught.
“The workload is enormous,” said one French teacher who declined to provide his name due to professional concerns. “You spend all your time marking and marking, and after a while, you end up being so exhausted…you stop being creative, you stop being imaginative.”
Too many euro-kids
Complaints about grading standards and teaching according to inconsistent country-specific methods are often drowned out by another perennial gripe of European School parents and students: overcrowding.
A baby boom in Brussels among Eurocrats, combined with an influx of students from new EU members, has left each European School with an average yearly intake of 450 new students in 2014, even while they are already accommodating hundreds more students than their schools can fit. The Ixelles school, built to accommodate 2,650 students, had 2,905 students enrolled this year.
All of our schools are totally overcrowded, and we have to say no to hundreds and hundreds of pupils.
The overcrowding has forced students and administrators to be creative. At Brussels III, many of the students use their hallways as a playground. “When students need support lessons, they have them in the corridors,” said Vladimir Brtnik, the deputy head of the Ixelles school in charge of the primary school system. Two of his three children attend the school; it’s the only one in Brussels that has a section in Czech, Brtnik’s native language.
“In Brussels we are totally over-enrolled,” said Kivinen, the secretary general of the school system. “All of our schools are totally overcrowded, and we have to say no to hundreds and hundreds of pupils.”
In Brussels, every classroom is precious. Classes are limited to 30 students, but there are barely enough rooms to accommodate that limitation. Primary school children are sometimes sent to classrooms in secondary school buildings.
“It puts you down. You’re in a classroom, and you’re 30 [students] sometimes. And you just can’t breathe. Sometimes the teacher, he’s known you for years and he doesn’t know your name because he has so many students,” said Keijzer, the student body president at the Woluwe school. “Our study rooms are crowded, there’s nowhere to study. Everyone just goes outside all the time… Then they wonder why everybody smokes.”
Overcrowding has been a problem at the schools for over a decade. In 2005, when there were only three schools in Brussels, parents protested at a meeting of the board of governors, demanding a cap on class sizes.
In 2009, then-Commission Vice President Siim Kallas warned the system “might collapse” if nothing was done to alleviate strains on teachers and infrastructure.
Little has been done. Member states are responsible for providing and maintaining the infrastructure for the European Schools on their territory.
“We need a new school by 2019,” Kivinen said. “We have a working group, we are dealing with it, the Belgian state is acknowledging that we have a need.”
The school buildings are also old and neglected. A gas leak at the Woluwe school last year led to the immediate evacuation of more than 3,000 students, and sounded the alarm bells about the dire condition of the physical plant.
“The thing is, even if you have a simple emergency and you’ve got to evacuate, if you’ve got an overcrowded building, it is an issue,” said Iseult Lennon Hudson, whose children attend a European School.
The schools know they have a problem and are doing some soul-searching.
“We have a major rethinking of our existence going on at this very moment,” said Kivinen. “The big question is, should we be a comprehensive system for all pupils?”
Despite the substantial variations among teachers, the system has been historically known for its high academic standards, shining Baccalaureate results, and prestigious university placements — but that’s because most students who don’t fit the bill usually drop out well before they take the Bac.
The problem is that not all students are cut out for university, but the European schools don’t offer an education leading any other way.
In 2014, 98.3 percent of students passed the European Baccalaureate. A 2008 alumni survey found that 94 percent of respondents went on to university, with eight out of nine students receiving a bachelor’s degree.
The problem is that not all students are cut out for university, but the European schools don’t offer an education leading any other way. Students who might be better off in trade school, or who want to study the arts instead of chemistry, don’t naturally fit into the system. Those with learning disabilities or other difficulties often risk failing out of European Schools, which could mean their parents would have to pay for their educations.
“A normal Commission salary, unless you are very well paid, is not sufficient for the private schools in Brussels. So unless your children are fluent in French or Dutch and can attend a local school, you’re stuck if your child fails to meet the demanding standards of the European school,” said Giles Houghton-Clarke, president of the Woluwe parents’ association. “What we see is that unfortunately, these poor parents end up having to think very, very hard whether to go back to their home country with their child. And quite a lot do.”
Amending the curriculum to accommodate these weaker students would probably mean hiring more teachers and creating new course offerings that demand more classrooms.
“In a school, you can’t forget about anyone. That’s your job,” said José Fragoso, a former teacher who is now writing a dissertation on the leadership structure of the school system. “The European Schools are like very heavy macedons, moving very, very slowly.” From years of observing the system, he’s devised a theory about how well it takes care of its students: “One-third will be lost, one-third will succeed, and one-third will move from one thing to the other without knowing what to do.”
The schools’ complicated system of governance is the root of many of its problems.
A board of governors consisting of 28 representatives — one for each EU member country, plus one representative from the European Commission (which pays some 60 percent of the schools’ operating costs), one from the European Patents Office (which has its own European School), and one teacher and one parent — sets school policy. Its decisions must be approved unanimously.
And because the European Schools are the product of an intergovernmental treaty separate from the European Treaty, it’s not always clear which laws govern their operations. National laws don’t apply across the system, so an internal appeals board handles complaints.
Kivinen is in the process of reforming the schools’ judicial system, but for now it remains difficult for some issues to get a proper hearing.
“The governance is very old-minded. It’s a form of governance from a time when you don’t contest,” said Helene Chraye, a deputy head of unit in the Commission whose two children attend the Ixelles school. “It means in reality, that if a teacher doesn’t like your kid, the teacher can make him or her have bad marks, without any justification. So for instance, if you don’t like the color of the skin of a pupil, you can insult him or her in the classroom and no one will do [anything].”
Chraye said she defended a pupil in one such case, when a teacher told a student “she’s not well cleaned because she has black skin.” In her role as president of the parents’ association of the Ixelles school, she has supported the transfers of several students claiming harassment to different schools.
Though there is agreement that most of the teachers are excellent, the few problematic ones can be hard to discipline. Seconded teachers are overseen directly by national inspectors from member states, not the director or deputy head of their school, so it is often impossible to hold them accountable. In 2014, national inspectors logged 249 visits across the European School system.
With no middle-management structure to speak of, disputes are often settled between the parents, administration, teachers, and board of governors.
“We have conflicts between students, between teachers, but it’s normal, like in the family,” Brtnik said. “Communication is the key to solving problems.”
Constantly in crisis?
But with so many stakeholders jostling for their say, effective communication is hard to come by.
“They’re an example of Europe failing to work. The mission of the schools does not hold anymore, there’s no common vision for the schools anymore,” said Keir Fitch, whose two children have gone through the system. “The parents see it as a school system providing [instruction] in their mother tongues, while the Commission sees it as a multi-lingual learning experience.”
And yet, the schools see themselves as Europe’s best hopes for maintaining its union.
“We are the only school system that is answering to the mobile Europe without borders,” said Kivinen.
Growing nationalism, he added, “increases the need for our type of schools, because whatever Hungary decides about their policies, when they want to trade, when they want to be in contact with other member states, people need language skills. It’s difficult to be isolated in a globalized world.”
Meanwhile, the kids have to take it all in stride. “This school was the time of my life,” says Keijzer. “But it’s the students that made it, not the school.”