When you think about institutional Brussels, you picture suited up adults carrying a suitcase on their way to work. Cheerful kids are harder to imagine in the grey bureaucratic bubble that many have built in their minds, but evidently, the so-called eurocrats have children too, and nurseries and schools also have a place in the city’s institutional life.
The European School, or Schola Europaea, stands out among all the educational options provided to EU officials and workers because of its initiative to promote European citizenship and common values among the students. Created in Luxembourg in 1953, the project tried to bring together kids from different mother tongues and nationalities, an educational experiment supported by the Coal and Steel Community of the time. Today, there are 12 schools spread across Europe, all financed by member states, and all with the following words sealed in the foundation stones of each building:
“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 fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”
Matilda Sevón, a 31-year-old Finn living in Brussels, arrived at the school when she was 15, after her father got a job in the Parliament. Today, looking back at the statement, she doesn’t feel it quite fits her situation. “I think of other Europeans as much closer to me than I did before going to the European School, but in some ways I have also become more fond of my own country,” she says.
For Carlijn Remmelzwaal, the feeling is slightly different. Both alumnae praise how they can easily feel at home in different countries or comfortable with people from different nationalities. But while the shock for Sevón was abandoning her home country which she has since been idealising, the tough part for Remmelzwaal, who had always attended the European School, was going back to the Netherlands. “It felt strange because I wasn’t like all the other youngsters from my generation,” she says.
In order to keep a balance between the roots and the European mindset, basic instruction is taught in the student’s mother tongue, resulting in different language sections in each of the schools. The difference from other schools is that not only one, but two foreign languages are compulsory, and a third one is optional. Language classes, as well as art, music and physical education, are always composed of mixed nationalities.
Through these experiences, kids end up being multilingual, and their group of friends is often composed of several nationalities. Remmelzwaal remembers hanging out with Dutch, French, Italian, and Swedish friends; while Sevón remembers the Nordic group formed by the Swedish and the Finnish section, that got on well with the German and French but not that well with the Italians.
“I remember chatting to a group of Italians, before they became my friends, and saying something in response to which one of the girls grabbed my arm excitedly and said she had the same experience. This shocked me since in Finland you would never grab the arm of someone you do not know,” she recalls.
Putting it in a simple way, those are the kind of experiences that the European School helps pupils understand, not only in classes, but also through traditional events. Each section celebrates its own national holidays, while the only common official holiday is Europe Day. Sevón remembers learning about other cultures through their festivals, as for instance the Swedes organised a parade through the school to celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day or the Irish wore green for Saint Patrick’s.
“It’s sad to think you grow up in a place you don’t really know.”
The greyer area of this type of education, as most students admit, is the lack of links with Belgian culture. “In a way, it’s sad to think you grow up in a place you don’t really know,” Sevón says. “But it seems kids inherit the older expats’ tendency to dislike Belgium, and the country never becomes home to them.” This way, considering how most families share similar professional backgrounds, students might have different nationalities, yet similar lifestyles.
Perhaps it’s the lack of attachment to Belgium that makes it easier for many of the students to leave the country when school is over, and go to university somewhere else with the possibilities offered by the European baccalaureate they get. However, both Sevón and Remmelzwaal say that, even if at the beginning friends seemed to get spread throughout Europe, many of them ended up having EU-related careers, another sign of the links students develop for Europe.
If they had to choose the best aspect of their school, though, both would choose the possibility to learn about other languages and cultures, or as officials would like to say, how kids end up “united in diversity.”