In defence of the European Schools - An open letter in response to POLITICO

Last week, the European edition of POLITICO published an article about the European Schools. The Euroschools rarely attract any press coverage and the internet has remained generally free of journalists caring about our system until now. Once their article appeared on the front page of their website, thousands of students and parents instantly read their critique of the European Schools.
The article was clearly a hit. After four days it remained the second most read article on the POLITICO website, receiving even more views than the coverage of the Greek crisis. It painted a misleading picture of a crumbling education system that alienated most of its students through bureaucracy, and ignoring nationality in a school system resembling a Kafkaesque nightmare. Contact with students as well as graduates and parents upheld our view that the article was misguided and prioritized controversy over fact. In fact, after talking to one of the students who was quoted in the article, it surfaced that her positive outlook of the schools had been overshadowed by cherry-picked criticisms.

We'd like to begin by clarifying some of the misconceptions that were the basis for many of the criticisms in POLITICO's report.

"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."
Students of the nationalities above are named SWALS: Students Without A Language Section. They take all their classes in one of the three working languages (English, French or German) but are still taught their mother tongue as a first language. SWAL students remain a minority and cannot be exclusively blamed for the current overpopulation crisis.

Half of all students in the European Schools belong to the French language sections.”
This statistic is only true for one out of the fourteen European Schools. The POLITICO journalist focuses on the Brussels European schools and in 2014, the French section accounted for 31% of all students in Brussels. One Brussels school (EEBII) did not even reach 25%. Anyone acquainted with the schools knows that this is a natural consequence of Host Country Language dominance. A European School in Italy will have an unusually large Italian section, as will a German section in Germany. In fact, after verifying the statistics, this is a universal rule for all fourteen schools.

A European School has to try and mimic the education systems of all 28 EU countries. Rather than being simply one school, each one is more like 28 mini-schools packed into one campus.”
Many students we spoke to found this statement to be far from true. Over the years the European School System has developed its own curriculum which ultimately brings students from all language sections together. As the founding aims state, which POLITICO quoted: "Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together". By the time the students reach the end of secondary, they are intertwined through lessons, extracurricular activities, events, school trips and most importantly - lifelong friendships sustained through the different languages they have acquired.

The teachers are told to grade according to the same standards while staying in line with their national marking systems.”
All teachers grade their students on a scale from 1 to 10. There are specific harmonised marking criteria that they are supposed to follow. These criteria hold for any student in the system, regardless of language section. However, it can happen that teachers may lapse from this and grade their students in a way they've been trained to do in their national system. This is sometimes blamed for a disparity of results between the sections. So to all current European School students reading this: if you feel like you are being unfairly marked by your teachers, do not hesitate to make use of the tools such as the marking criteria.

"The school buildings are also old and neglected."
The European Schools have modern, well equipped classrooms as well as up to date science and computer labs. To go so far as to call the buildings old and neglected when half of the Brussels schools were opened in the past 15 years and are extremely well maintained is quite misleading. The Brussels schools are currently being pushed beyond their capacity limit yet manage to cater to their students' needs. The article disproportionately magnifies the daily perils of European School students over a much larger problem. As mentioned by Mr. Kivinen, there is an urgent need for the creation of a fifth school in Brussels. Reforming other aspects of the system, although helpful, fails to resolve the ultimate problem in Brussels. The opening date of EEBV remains the elephant in the room.

POLITICO alleged that the European Schools are plagued with educational failings such as overcrowding and favouritism in a foredoomed system. No one is arguing that these issues do not occur inside the European Schools. However, it has been overlooked how widespread these problems are in most schools. The depressing statement that "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" could be more or less said about any young adult in Europe today.
In the European schools, some may complain about class sizes being too large at the maximum of 30 students per room. Despite how problematic large classes can be for both teachers and students, the EU average class size fluctuates at around 20 students per class. Contrary to the impression given by the article, the average class size in a European school in 2012 was 15 students. Fundamentally, the Brussels schools are overpopulated, but this is mostly outside the classrooms. It is important to note that the problems that occur in the European Schools of Brussels do not necessarily apply to all other European Schools. For instance, there are schools which suffer from under population and have in some cases had to close entire language sections.
Another very clear example of a crisis which is universal to education in every corner of the globe is favouritism. "If a teacher doesn’t like your kid, the teacher can make him or her have bad marks, without any justification". There are ways in which a student or a parent can address issues with teachers. With these complaint procedures, overcoming issues such as favouritism is as possible in the European Schools as in any other.

The European Schools provide their students with a quality education and function at remarkable levels despite the pressure they're under. The language diversity which is often blamed for causing many problems is, in fact, one of the greatest strengths of the schools. The system is far from flawless, but it deserves to be given credit where credit is due. It is such an innovative and original system that certain member states have begun to adopt it in newly accredited schools. Another unique aspect of the schools is how involved the staff and students are in the decision-making process. Teachers, parents and students are present from minor internal meetings all the way to the Board of Governors. The structure is purposefully built so that the independent student body (CoSup as well as individual student committees) can communicate students' wishes as well as take part in the general dialogue. Thanks to this uncommon feature, the statistics we have used in this open letter were made available to us during our time occupying various roles within CoSup.
As a final response to the POLITICO article, blanket statements blaming every aspect of a system do nothing to expose the real threat to it. So we turn to our readers to remind them that the European Schools remain outstanding institutions. We are not the unfortunate and suffering students that POLITICO seeks to portray. Rather, we are a generation of third culture kids, raised to see beyond our borders and we are proud of it. The most important lessons we learned in school, we learned outside the classroom. If it is to be said that "the crisis in the European Schools reflects the crisis in the European Union", then the opposite must also be true:

The virtues of the European Schools reflect the virtues of the European Union.


Miriam Matthiessen and Oisín Nolan

European School of Brussels II Alumni, Class of 2014


  1. Bottom-line, the Politico article is a plea for local taxpayers to fund a bit more the offspring of tax-dodging Eurocrats.
    Typical: those who receive most (tax money), contribute the least.

  2. Dear Mike, if you are not able to present a well structured and informed comment, why bother?

  3. @Anonymous
    Because I, and other readers, did at full length -far more comprehensive than above article and the Politico article (combined).

  4. It's a real pity that Mike's arguments are non-sequitur and lack any supporting evidence, unlike the well written rational response above. When reading such comments, both on this thread and the other, one can sense a certain bitterness which permeates his bones and soul. He's not a happy fellow. One may surmise that he's been knocked back at some point by the institutions and perhaps even flunked the concours; alternatively, he may very well be a member of UKIP such is his bitter tone. The persistent and repetitious nature of his 'critique' may even indicate that he's a shill paid by the comment. There's intellectual cowardice a go-go when the substance of his points are baseless ad hominem attacks on 'tax dodgers'. He'd receive no more than 1.2 if he were graded on the marking criteria of the European Schools. Indeed, the majority of this mark would come from the fact that he's written his name by the comments; however, we only have half of it so perhaps 0.6 would be more appropriate. His last comment has the tone of a playground boast.

  5. @Anonymi, since there seem to be more than one
    Isn't it rather odd to criticise someone's lack of evidence and then fail to provide any himself?
    Instead, Anonymous elaborates a paragraph on someone's (presumed) nature, fortune and experience. How low can you go?
    Actually, apart from ranting Eurocrats (incl. Anonymous, by the way), the commentators of the Politico article provide plenty of evidence, sequuntur and insight, including Mike.
    And, yes, if Mike would have studied at the European School, he sure would not have the academic career he now has. He would be an European School graduate with a poor academic record, one of many.

    1. Mike/mike/Magic Mike/magical thinking mike? I'm all confused now! Not even an imaginative trolling endeavour. Varying the capitalisation and referring to yourself in the 3rd person is more than rather odd. It's a bit like wearing a false nose, moustache and glasses and hoping that no one will recognise you. The evidence you demand is provided above by the alumni in their open letter, if you could be bothered to read it. Refute the counter-arguments outlined above with some facts if you can. Otherwise, all I can hear is the distant drumming of tantrum-engaged feet stomping their frustrations across an uncaring internet. Comment is free but facts should be sacred, even for the likes of you.

  6. 3d Person isn't half as odd as 1st Plural (i.e. anonymi) Perhaps this is Eurocrat-style majestic plural. By the way, tell me: does it take false noses, moustaches and glasses to be anonymous?

    Anyway, not a single comment of yours adds anything to above article. Now, that takes some doing!

  7. I didn't enjoy my high school years in a European School at all, but the education was great. I only had two subjects in my native language, which did not constitute a problem either.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. @ Anonymous: me neither, it was a snobbish, pretentious place in Brussels. No school magazine, student body that did not perform, atmosphere of a factory with teachers who had all power. I know of low-ranking EU-officials (secretaries, couriers) who would not even think of sending their children to this elitist apartheid place. The subtle superiority of classmates who would boast about the rank of their dada/mum at the Commission. Languages are ok, but level of maths and sciences was below level compared to my home country. Had to work hard at university to catch up.

    1. "The subtle superiority of classmates who would boast about the rank of their dada/mum at the Commission" Those always got on my nerves as well (and still do), but they're a minority. I can understand why people would choose not to send their kids there though, but the reasons aren't about the quality of the education. The teachers are the best people around. Some students are awful, some are wonderful. The administration is a bit of a nightmare even if there are very nice people around (Mr Maes, Mrs Svenson)
      Compared to my home country, the level of maths and languages was far superior, sciences lower. A significant difference is that in my home country you can drop certain subjects after a while, whereas in the European Schools it would be unthinkable to not have maths until the very end. I honestly think we're better than average at knowing things outside of our field

  10. Well I was aparently there long before you, had Claude Greck as headmaster. Worst ever, he turned the school into a learning factory without any atmosphere, notorious for bad relations with Parents Association,

  11. Unfortunately, this open letter starts from the wrong foot: “The Euroschools rarely attract any press coverage.” Actually, the EU Schools do make the headlines regularly, both in the international (EUObserver, Euractiv) and national press.
    The authors further add to this that the Politico article on the EU Schools remained “the 2nd most read article on the Politico website, receiving even more views than the coverage of the Greek crisis.” The most popular article on the website, however, covered Verhofstadt’s speech on Greece.

    The authors of the letter then accuse the Politico journalist of cherry-picking. Yet, the open letter itself only counters a handful of issues raised in the article!

    The letter does point out the journalist’s failure to get the names of the schools right and stresses that the article treats only the Brussels’ EU Schools.

    The open letter could do with a bit more accuracy: it swarms with vague sentences (“many students we spoke”, “it can happen that”, “this is sometimes” etc.) Even though the authors met a student Politico interviewed, instead of quoting her to give her the opportunity to correct any misquotation, they content themselves with “it surfaced”.

    The authors refute that EU Schools have to mimic the education systems of all EU countries.
    As a matter of fact, the Statute of EU Schools provides that holders of the European Baccalaureate shall:
    - enjoy, in the member state of which they are nationals, all the benefits attaching to the possession of the diploma or certificate awarded at the end of secondary school education in that country;
    - be entitled to seek admission to any university in the territory of any member state on the same terms as nationals of that member state with equivalent qualifications.
    So, even though the authors and many students think otherwise, the EU Schools have to mimic –up to a certain point– the education systems of the EU countries. After all, the European Baccalaureate is not an International Baccalaureate.

    The open letter is right in correcting that the school buildings are not “old and neglected”. The Politico article reads like a plea for local taxpayers to fund the EU Schools even more than they are already doing. Perhaps the EU officials who administrate the EU Schools ordered the piece?

    Finally, the authors accuse the Politico journalist of using “blanket statements” yet at the same time use such statements themselves. What to think about this one: “Reforming other aspects of the system […]fails to resolve the ultimate problem in Brussels.” Really?
    EU Staff Regulations reform, for instance, would resolve the problem. Instantaneoulsy! To use the authors’ idiom: if there is a white elephant in the room, it is this reform.

    It is a real pity that the letter finishes in a manner that reads a bit clichéd and forced. Whereas the Politico article at least arguments why the crisis in the EU Schools reflects the EU’s crisis, the open letter barely explains why their virtues would reflect the EU’s virtues.
    Reading the last comments on this website, one could even further generalise: the EU Schools reflect the EU per se –a caste system with maharajas.

    Food for thought. What kind of school turns Eurocrat children into even more “third culture kids”: a European ghetto School or a local school where Eurocrat children study along children of natives as well as immigrants, where they have to live in mutual respect with children who have a different religion and where they witness the problems of children who come from far less privileged a background? Which of both would better produce young adults that are “raised to see beyond borders”?

    All in all, the open letter complements well the Politico article. Its authors do a good job in pointing out that certain issues only apply to the Brussels schools. This article certainly is one of the better blogs around!

  12. Just a simple remark concerning the exchanges - it seems to me that Mike has failed and is bitter about it.

  13. @Anonymous

    So, "it seems to me that..." Speculating again, aren't we? When will you add something to the discussion, as you ask others to do?

    Well, to all of us it looks like you are a genuine Eurocrat: someone who, in 5 languages, excels in saying (and doing) nothing.

  14. What Mike fails to say is what he (and others) no doubt learned from his exchanges with Eurocrats: he recognises a scrounger when he sees one.

  15. Mike is right in saying that local taxpayers should not carry the burden of the bespoken education Eurocrat children get -Eurocrats should.
    And, yes, this rectification ought to be part of the next EU Staff Regulations reform.

  16. @ non-Eurocrat Anonymous

    On the Politico site, I drew a parallel between the education Eurocrat children receive and the pension their parents (will) get.
    Prior to the 2014 reform, Eurocrats funded one-third of their pension scheme.
    Fortunately COREPER used common sense. Now, Eurocrats –at least the newcomers– fund about 50% of their golden pensions.

  17. Who would have thought the Eurocrats, always telling people to embrace diversity and to strive towards a union, send their children to an elite school where they are being taught in their own language?

  18. The Anonymous Eurocrat sound like the type of person who grab every opportunity to boast to his children, grandchildren even,about having passed the EPSO exams, his main and only achievement in life.
    But "as more EU Staff Regulation reform was passed, (grand)daddy grew bitter and taciturn."

  19. It gets even better ! The brand-new European School in Strasbourg, which opened last week and has cost the local taxpayers €34 million, will be entirely sponsored by the French state. Strasbourg-based Eurocrats will not pay a penny for the education of their little Buddha’s.