European Schools, a laudable project with ambiguous practices

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This is the story of a very special public school. Public, because it is financed by taxpayers’ money; special, because it behaves like a private school, since it is not accessible to everyone and imposes a minimum fee on certain categories of students, but not on others. Its name: European School. Its original mission: to educate the younger generation about European identity and openness to others. Its current drift: contributing to the gap between privileged youth and the local social fabric. A golden ghetto, similar to the one lived by their European civil servant parents. But this was not always the case.

A GREAT SUCCESS FROM THE FIRST TRY

The first European school experiment was conducted in October 1953 in Luxembourg. The ECSC — the European Coal and Steel Community — had been created two years earlier, in 1951, with the task of regulating the market for these two raw materials, which were still the real sinews of war at the time. At the same time, the idea was to facilitate trade in order to revitalize the steel industry and revive the economies of European states that had been brought to their knees by the two world wars of the 20th century.

ECSC officials were seconded by the governments of the six founding countries of the institution (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) to the headquarters of the institution, which it had been decided, after much negotiation, would be temporarily located in Luxembourg from 1952. A year later, a group of civil servants took the initiative to propose an innovative educational experiment: to bring together children — their children — of different nationalities and mother tongues in the same school, so that they could share a common base of values and knowledge. Their other objective, a little more navel-gazing, was to allow the children to follow courses in their national language during the period of their parents’ secondment to Luxembourg, so that they could resume the school curriculum normally once they returned to the country, while learning a second language from a very young age, choosing between English, French or German.

This first pedagogical experiment of a new kind was so conclusive that the six countries concerned decided to develop the concept and to officially frame the course programs, the choice of teachers, the inspection system as well as the recognition of the level attained through their respective ministries of education. On April 12, 1957, the six ECSC member countries agreed to sign an official statute: the first European School was thus born in Luxembourg.

Two of the articles of this statute are still astonishing today because of their visionary ambition for the time: Article 2, which states that  » the school is open to the children of the nationals of the Contracting Parties  » (i.e. to the children of any citizen of one of the 6 ECSC Member States) as well as Article 6 which states that « theschool shall be open to the children of the nationals of the Contracting Parties « . the School has the status of a public institution  » (its operation is therefore ensured by public resources from the 6 member countries).

The success of this first school led other European institutions, such as the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), to ask for the opening of new European Schools in different cities, headquarters of the other institutions: in Uccle in the Brussels region in 1958, in Varese in northern Italy in 1960, in Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany in 1962, in Bergen, north of Amsterdam, in 1963… to reach today 13 « official » European Schools, located in 6 different countries. Four of these schools are located in Brussels, the last one in Laeken since 2006… and a fifth one was supposed to be built in 2021 in Evere, on the former NATO site.

PUBLIC SCHOOL, PRIVATE SCHOOL

The original founding text of the European Schools thus established, through its article 6, the  » status of a public institution « . Even today, the operating costs of these schools are largely covered by the Member States: more than half of the budget of the European Schools is covered directly by the European Commission (itself financed by the members of the European Union), a quarter directly by the States via the secondment of teaching staff, and the remaining small quarter is financed by the minervals paid by the families whose parents do not work in the European institutions As for the buildings, they are made available by the governments of the host countries. In Belgium, the Régie des Bâtiments, the Belgian government’s property manager, provides the infrastructure for the European Schools, such as the Château Devis and its 4.5ha in Uccle or the former Grenadiers barracks in Laeken.

Moreover, the original Statute of the European Schools also guaranteed, through Article 2, access to its school curriculum to any child who is a national of one of the Member States. Despite successive changes over the years, it still provides for three categories of pupils: category 1, reserved for the children of officials or agents of the European institutions; category 2, made up of children whose parents work for certain public organizations (such as NATO) or large private companies (such as Unilever, Pepsi-Cola, GoodYear or Hewlett-Packard) which have concluded a bilateral agreement with the European Schools; category 3, made up of any child who cannot belong to the first two categories. This last category, the « common man », has access to the European Schools in the same way as the families who feed the first two categories, at least on paper since the statute of these schools provides for it.

A particularity of the system is that while the children of European civil servants are free of charge, families from the third category (the « common people ») have to pay a minerval which starts at a little less than 4.000€ in kindergarten, reaches 5.400€ in primary school and peaks at 7.400€ in secondary school. Not cheap, but still less expensive than the 10, 20, or even 30.000€ minervalue charged by some international schools in Brussels. Organizations and companies in the second category must pay €10,000 per student, regardless of grade level. Parents in this category do not pay the minervalue directly, since their company gives it to them in the form of a benefit, such as a company car or additional insurance. It’s a bit of a backwards world, but it’s totally assumed.

Beyond the financial discrimination, it is above all the discrimination on the basis of the parents’ profession that is shocking: until the 1980s, anyone (who could afford it) was able to enroll their child in one of these schools. But since the early 2000s, all European schools combined, the proportion of category 3 students has fallen year on year, from 24% in 2008 to 13.8% in 2019, in contrast to category 1, whose proportion of students has increased from 69% to 83% over the same period. The trend is the same in Brussels: ‑20% between 2016 and 2019 on the Uccle site for category 3 children, ‑11% in Ixelles and ‑5% in Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, while over the same period in these three schools the number of category 1 pupils is increasing. The numerous testimonies collected from category 3 parents who try in vain to enrol their children in one of the European Schools in Brussels always report the same reasons for each refusal of enrolment: the European Schools in Brussels are overcrowded (this is a fact) and it has therefore been decided to give preference to the children of European officials. Even Tier 2 families, whose employers pay an even higher minervalue, find themselves out of step with Tier 1 families. Imagine for a moment a school in the official French-speaking network deciding overnight to apply an enrolment policy that discriminates against students based on their parents’ profession and to accept only the children of lawyers or doctors…

Last but not least, the more than adequate funding of the European Schools, coupled with the generally higher standard of living of the families, allowed all students to continue the course programs during the lockdown related to the health crisis last spring, while the curricula were completely stopped in the network of the Walloon-Brussels Federation.

EXPATS TAKE ROOT IN BRUSSELS

But why are the four European Schools in Brussels overcrowded? The first explanation is historical: the European Union has undergone successive enlargements of increasing size over the decades. Two more countries joined in 1985 (Spain and Portugal), three in 1994 (Austria, Finland and Sweden), followed by twelve new member states, mainly from the former Eastern bloc, between 2003 and 2005. These enlargements have resulted in a boom in European civil servants: there were 43,000 in 2017 working for the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. As all these officials are of childbearing age, it is easy to understand the demographic pressure that the European Schools located in our capital may experience.

The second reason is sociological: while initially, in the 1950s, civil servants were seconded to the European institutions for only a few years (and stuck with it), since the 1990s the ticket to Brussels has most often been a one-way ticket. Wherever they come from, the winners of European competitions settle in our capital for the long term, even « forever ». What was an exception 50 years ago has now become the rule. The Brussels European Schools are therefore obliged to accept the children of civil servants for the whole of their schooling, which prevents any turnover and any access to other categories.

This sociological phenomenon is having a negative impact on other sectors. First of all, the real estate market: the price per square meter in some communes of Brussels is inflated by the salaries of civil servants, who are known to be higher than the Belgian average and are taxed at a more favorable rate. As a result, many houses in Etterbeek, Ixelles, Auderghem or Watermael-Boitsfort are simply becoming unaffordable for average salaries, both to buy and to rent, as property owners prefer to rent their property to European civil servants, whose reputation is more serious and whose salary is more comfortable. Another, more unsuspected, impact is on Belgian public kindergartens. Although they have access to the quality international school system set up with the European Schools, which is free of charge, many European civil servants enroll their children in French-speaking nursery schools so that their children can learn French from an early age, before transferring them to the European Schools in the first grade. Kindergartens financed by Belgian taxpayers’ money… but not by European civil servants who, as a reminder, do not pay taxes on their income in Belgium. A Belgian taxpayer who, in exchange, does not have access to the European Schools. Look for the error…

IS THE SOLUTION ELSEWHERE?

But then, since there seems to be a relatively large demand from category 3 families, most often attracted by a bilingual French-English education, why doesn’t the European Union open more European Schools in Brussels so that everyone can enroll their children? First of all, because the Régie des Bâtiments would be unable to provide sufficient infrastructure in good condition. The opening of the 5th school on the former NATO site in Evere is an example of these difficulties: it has been announced several times and then delayed, notably because the investments for the renovation of the buildings are very expensive. Secondly, because even though the statute of the European Schools provides for access to any European national, it does not oblige them to do so. In other words, there is no requirement for these schools to be able to meet the demands of families from categories other than European officials.

There are indeed so-called « accredited » European schools, which offer a curriculum similar to that of the official schools and thus recognized by the General Secretariat of the European Schools, one of which is located in Waterloo, on the Argenteuil site. The only problem is that these schools offer even more elitist tuition fees, in the range of 10,000 to 15,000€ per year depending on the level of study.

In Brussels, given the ever-increasing number of expats, there is a significant gap between the demand for a strong, accessible bilingual education, more open to the international scene and allowing for integration into the local social fabric, and the limited supply of schools that can offer this type of education. The question that naturally follows is what role the Wallonia-Brussels Federation could play in responding to this public education issue. It is important to know that in Wallonia, it is possible to ensure that your children have a good knowledge of the language of Shakespeare, from a very young age, thanks to a certain number of public schools that offer immersion learning of English. In Brussels, on the other hand, there are no public schools offering English as an immersion language, and the 22 schools that do offer immersion do so only in Dutch. The solution may be in front of us, but we must have the courage and ambition to invest in it.

Hugues Lastien

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