European schools - perk or necessity?
by Justin Stares
European Union officials are worried the next round of budget cuts will hit their cherished European schools, where class sizes of just one pupil are not unheard of.
It would be politically incorrect to deny the child of a European Union official religious education in his or her mother tongue. For this reason, the standard threshold for running a course in one of the European schools - five pupils - is often waived. "There are derogations allowed for religious education and you can have classes for one or two pupils," says Wolfgang Munch, chairman of the parents' association at the European school in Woluwe, Brussels. There might, for example, be a requirement for a class in Orthodox Christianity, taught in French. "Religion costs four times as much as other subjects," Mr Munch tells PublicServiceEurope.com.
Number crunching has become important because there is downward pressure on the budget of the European schools system. Schools such as Woluwe - which caters for 3,200 children - have already brought the average cost-per-child down to around €11,000 a year, says Munch - a saving of around €500. Woluwe operates with nine language regimes and was designed, he points out, for just 2,400 pupils. The irony does not escape him: while derogations allow for class sizes of one, the school is in fact overcrowded.
Two new European schools will open next year, one in Brussels, the other in Luxembourg, bringing another 1,000 children into the system. This expansion, in part a response to EU enlargement, must be funded from an overall budget that is due to increase by around 6 per cent. "We are willing to find more efficiencies. We are not loonies," says Munch. Derogations for tiny classes in religion might have to go, he implies. "But we want this to happen without compromising the pedagogical achievements of the schools."
Parents are worried about cuts to the core curriculum, about the right of their children to continue to learn in their mother tongue and about the proposed increase in the minimum class threshold from five to seven. Worries are compounded by the fact that post-2013 budget negotiations for schools will take place in parallel to salary negotiations. Some member states want to see cuts to the cost of the Brussels administration.
To limit the damage the parents have put together a formidable lobbying machine. As EU officials they are to a certain extent lobbying themselves. They know the intricacies of the budget process like few others and have already successfully mobilised the European Parliament, which this month approved a report labelling the European schools "a necessity, not a luxury". They have also taken to the street in protest.
The European Commission, meanwhile, has tried to reduce anxiety. "The European schools promote long-term stability for expatriated families and ensure that children of staff can return to their home country during their basic education or for higher education after their Baccalaureate," wrote Irene Souka, director-general of the commission's directorate-general for human resources. "The commission's first priority is to preserve the core curriculum," Souka told the commission's in-house magazine. It was at the same time necessary to distinguish between the core curriculum and "what can be considered for review", she said.
Munch suggests that part of this review should involve an increase in fees for children of non-EU officials. The schools are, in theory, open to the private sector. Fees vary though are typically in the €3,000 to €5,000 a year range. This is much less, Munch points out, than other private schools in Brussels - where fees can reach more than €20,000 a year. Demand has grown to the extent that there is, though, little room for fee-payers in today's European schools.
As with all things European, funding arrangements are hideously complex. Fees and a small EU staff levy contribute, but the lion's share of all costs are borne by the union itself. Member states also contribute by either paying towards maintaining their own language section or by seconding teachers. "But some member states like Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia don't want their own language section," says Munch. "They refuse to participate because they know the other language sections are better. So in the end it is the British, the French and to a certain degree the Germans who are paying for the education of everyone else." Some countries struggle to find teachers willing to be posted abroad. National governments are reportedly less than willing to pay their fair share in protest at what is seen as an elitist system. Any funding gap they leave has to be filled from the EU budget.
European schools were set up in the 1950s and are now 14-strong. Despite the odd criticism - one parent says the system struggles to cope with children with special needs - it churns out a unique brand of multi-lingual students equipped for higher education anywhere in Europe. The education it provides is without doubt a considerable perk for those employed by EU's institutions. Is it a right or a luxury? While parents say European schools are a necessary corollary of a foreign posting, others posted to Brussels - journalists, lobbyists - make do with the Belgian schooling system, which is generally well considered.
I would love to raise my children in an anti-religious way. Is that catered for? I'm willing to pay extra.
Name withheld - Brussels, Belgium
An absolute necessity if the EU is to attract quality staff, working across its many areas - but, here in Brussels, what is needed is the correct level of support from the Belgian government to get the 4th and needed 5th schools up and running so that everyone - who wants to send their children to the schools - non fee paying and fee paying alike- can seize the opportunity to bridge the gap between foreigners and locals.
I have lived in this country for 13 years, and I know that I am priviledged, that my children can attend the Uccle school for free. But i have hosts of Belgian friends, who really want their children to attend too and they are prepared to pay - which would help dramatically with the funding and improve the schools' image here. It is the Belgian government, which is letting us down here and creating the divisions which exist.
=mlkjhngfd - Beersel, Belgium