What does the childhood of an ordinary child look like? You are born, your parents raise you in their family, you go to your local school with the other children in the neighborhood and you get to know each other at school, at sports clubs and later on in the pub. However, not all European children grow up in this way. Some children attend bilingual schools in their own country. While some move across international borders, accompanying their parents who work in international jobs. As these children are often unable to speak the language of their host country and thus pursue an education at a local school, they attend European and international schools.
I was one among those many children who had the privilege to attend a European School. From 2000 until 2005, I attended the European school in Luxembourg as a result of my father’s work. As last year the European School in Luxembourg, the first European School, celebrated its 60th anniversary, this article reflects upon this educational phenomenon.
With the establishment of the European Community for Coal and Steel in 1951, several European countries united their industrial efforts to create a Union that would provide for a more stable and flourishing Europe. This implied that civil servants were to move across national borders and settle in other countries in order to contribute to this united European effort. Of course, their families would move with them, creating numerous options for educating their children. Ideas and efforts resulted in the establishment of the first European School in Luxembourg. Many similar schools followed and there are currently 14 schools in 7 European Member States. The main idea behind this concept was to create an equal standard of teaching across Member States for the children of EU civil servants which would result in a diploma recognized across European universities and higher education providers.
By bringing pupils from different nationalities together, a mini-European Union is established. Pupils experience what it feels like to live side-by-side and to cooperate in a multicultural environment; they are taught to cross cultural and linguistic barriers. The school is composed of different language sections enabling pupils to learn together with others from the same nationality. Apart from having classes in their mother tongue, pupils also choose a second, third and fourth (optional) language. Gradually more classes, such as history, economics and geography are taught in the second language. This results in pupils who are bilingual and who are aware of the customs and habits of other cultures.
Even though it is valuable to have some background information, what make it more interesting are personal experiences. In 1953, Jean Monnet stated the purpose behind the European Schools: “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. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their father before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”
This is exactly what a European School does. However, this is the bright and shiny side of it. It has been a great advantage to have spent my teenage years among people from many different cultures. I was close friends with people from Spain, Germany and Denmark, talking to each other in a language different from my own language. Apart from that, I was also still given the chance to relate to my own nationality by being in a class with Dutch and Flemish people. Together we shared our common nationality, which united us, but never restricted us in establishing relationships with people of other nationalities.
For five years I was living a European dream; going to school with people from many different countries, sharing ideas and experiences, accumulating knowledge. Never forgetting my own identity and culture.
However, going to a European School also has a dark side. A European School provides a fantastic opportunity. Most of us were raised in protected environments seeing only the positive sides of intercultural interaction. After graduation, nearly all of my classmates (including myself) went abroad to study as there were not a lot of opportunities in Luxembourg at that time. All of a sudden, we were taken out of this European bubble and put in the real world. We were forced to leave our comfort zone without being able to really go back. The only thing that we could return to was our parents who were still living in Luxembourg. It took a lot of time for most of us to get used to the fact that this European dream was not reality. Most countries still experience intercultural problems within their own borders. However, given this intercultural background, it showed us that it is possible to live together peacefully as we have experienced it ourselves.
Currently it appears that the gap between identities and cultures is widening. With the opening of eastern European borders, and the subsequent stimulation of migration flows, people are becoming afraid of losing their own identity and culture. On the other hand, there is a growing group of people who are identifying themselves as Europeans rather than only referring to the nationality of their country. These people constitute the motor behind European integration. Instead of focusing on the differences between people, the European Schools teach their pupils that it would be more advantageous to consider commonalities.
Hopefully, the phenomenon of a European School and its extraordinary way of teaching will motivate other local and national schools to do the same thing; to encourage bilingual classes, intercultural cooperation, exchange programmes and the pursuit of international studies and careers. Only by motivating and encouraging new generations will we be able to secure a positive and constructive European future, carried by young and enthusiastic Europeans.