|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||16/11/95, Volume 1, Number 09|
THE unique system of European schools originally designed to educate the sons and daughters of EU officials is coming under increasing strain. Frustration and anger is growing among parents, pupils and teachers alike, and demands are now surfacing for an overhaul of the way the schools are administered.
The pressure is greatest in the two Brussels schools which between them educate over 6,000 pupils. Recent weeks have seen persistent complaints about overcrowded class rooms, strikes by teachers and a demonstration by parents, staff and pupils.
Concern over the safety and educational risks to children, particularly at the European school in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, has become so acute that the European Commission has taken the unusual step of discussing the problems at one of its weekly meetings. Commissioners such as Monika Wulf-Mathies, Franz Fischler, Yves-Thibault de Silguy and Neil Kinnock all expressed their concern. Personnel and Budget Commissioner Erkki Liikanen has already raised the problems of overcrowding at the school with the Belgian government.
“European schools are even more complicated than the third pillar on home affairs and justice. It is really the fourth EU pillar. The problem is the Commission pays for 66&percent; of the costs, but has very little say in what happens and no negotiating room,” said one senior Commission official.
The Conseil Supérieur has power over the schools. Its members are middle- to senior-ranking officials representing national governments with extensive say over all aspects of educational, administrative and budgetary matters. Demands are now growing that the Commission and parents should be given a greater role.
The most immediate problem is the lack of sufficient teaching space at the Woluwe school. Originally designed for 1,650 pupils, it now has to cater for a thousand more than this.
The influx has forced dramatic temporary measures. The sports hall cafeteria has been converted into three makeshift classrooms; the children's covered courtyard has also been pressed into use; some classes are being held in corridors; and some rooms are being used by two classes simultaneously.
Greatest concern has focused on fire safety regulations, which the Belgian authorities have confirmed are not being respected because of the large numbers of pupils involved. Under parental pressure, the Belgian authorities have pledged to remedy the defects by Christmas.
Problems of suitable premises are also encountered at Brussels' other European school in Uccle. Under the 1957 Convention which regulates the schools, it is the host country which is responsible for providing adequate buildings and premises. In the late 1950s, with a European Community of just six countries, that might not have appeared too onerous a commitment. Now, faced with the challenge of cutting its budget deficit, Belgium finds it harder to meet its obligations.
Despite that, the government has earmarked 46.7 million ecu for a third European school on the Université Libre de Bruxelles campus. But the problem remains of what to do in the meantime.
That decision lies with the Belgians and it is here that efforts are being made to try and break the current stalemate.
The federal Régie des Bâtiments has proposed a general Plan Directeur which would extend and improve existing buildings at Woluwe. Both staff and parents believe this to be a feasible solution.
But under Belgium's federal structure, planning permission is in the hands of the communes and local mayor Georges Désir is opposed to any extension. That opposition helps explain Belgium's decision to dust down an old idea and suggest refurbishing the old school at Berkendael in Forest which has been empty for five years. The idea is being vehemently opposed by the pupils' parents, who want the plan firmly killed.
Parents' association president Julian Joshua explains: “Only 20 pupils in the whole Woluwe school live within a reasonable catchment area for Berkendael. The others would have to be bussed across town through peak hour traffic jams. Once there, there is no suitable parking.”
It is this impasse which caused parents to first demonstrate and then enter last month's meeting of the schools' supreme body, the Conseil Supérieur. The repercussions of their action are still unclear. Some believe it may force action. Others fear it may be counter-productive.
Teachers played a leading role in the demonstration. They have already held brief strikes this autumn at the nine European schools located in countries which host EU institutions and research agencies. They are opposed to moves to change the structure and terms and conditions, especially salaries, of their employment.
“We feel we are being targeted as part of a wider campaign to attack allowances. If they knock us off then governments may decide to aim at Commission staff. If the changes go through then some staff could have a 20 to 30&percent; cut in net salaries,” complains one teacher.
The problems are still far from over and will surface again when the Conseil Supérieur next meets in January. But unless its members are more prepared to become involved in solving them with the Belgian authorities, problems of overcrowding are set to be a regular feature of European schools in Brussels.
|Subject Categories||Culture, Education and Research, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|