'Elitist' EU schools come under fire: The children of European officials are getting a privileged education that member states can ill afford, writes Leonard Doyle

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The Independent Online
THE CAR park of the European School is a dead giveaway for the elitist goings on inside one of the most privileged schools in Europe, housed today in a former Anglican teacher-training college in deepest Oxfordshire.

The cars are bang up to date and almost all sport an 'X' registration, indicating they were purchased tax- free: a saving of about pounds 4,000 per vehicle.

The nine European Schools set up to educate the children of Europe's new nomenklatura are now being attacked both by the European Parliament and the Court of Auditors for being elitist, for 'promoting discrimination' and for engaging in dubious financial practices.

Arie Oostlander, a Dutch MEP behind the accusations, says he was threatened with retaliation by officials and told he would make himself unelectable if he continued investigating the feather-bedding practices of the schools.

France is opposed to the concept of European Schools and, despite the fact that Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament, will not have them on its territory. It prefers to set up French schools in other countries instead. Britain, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Greece have also set up national schools in Brussels, so there is no shortage of international education available for the children of officials.

For the 120 or so staff, the parents and the 851 pupils associated with Britain's only European School, the duty-free cars are the least of the perks they enjoy. Here the children of EU officials enjoy free multilingual education in a rustic setting that leaves the ordinary tax-paying parents who subsidise them green with envy. Many teachers at Culham, near Abingdon, earn as much as junior government ministers, when salaries, benefits and bonuses are totalled.

The school's headmaster, Tom Hoyem, is a former Danish cabinet minister. His nine-year stay in Britain is up, so he is running for a Danish seat in the European Parliament. Even if elected, he hopes to hold on to his next job as headmaster at the European School in Munich. He is an ardent defender of the European Schools system, which he calls a 'vital pedagogical experiment'.

There are some at Culham who believe that the entire European Schools experiment is an expensive waste of time and are honest enough to say so. Gunther Schwabe, a German teacher and senior counsellor at the school, fears that the past 40 years of experimenting in multilingual education will bring little long-term benefit to European education.

'I personally think we are overpaid,' he said, noting that teachers can earn more than pounds 4,000 a month. 'It's been a failure if you consider that no other schools have taken up our approach to learning and there are much cheaper and more effective ways to teach foreign languages.'

While multicultural education fosters cross-European understanding, Mr Schwabe says his pupils - the offspring of well-to-do upwardly mobile parents for the most part - probably get that at home anyway.

The school provides top-class education with a slant on European history, geography and culture, with the objective of turning out politically correct European federalists. Some of the pupils are children of scientists working at the nearby Joint European Torus research centre. Others commute from as far away as Reading, where the EU medium-range weather forecasting unit is based. But there are so few EU officials' children in Culham that nearly 70 per cent of the pupils are fee-paying pupils needed to make up the numbers. Teacher- pupil ratios can still be as low as one to one.

Even for paying parents the European School represents great value. Annual nursery fees are pounds 416, primary fees pounds 588 and secondary a mere pounds 798. These are reduced by half if a brother or sister attends, and by three-quarters if a third child is admitted.

British parents not employed by the EU are at a disadvantage, and generally cannot get their children admitted. But the children of an executive from another EU member state are virtually assured of a place.

Thanks to generous subsidies from the British government and the EU budget, totalling some pounds 8m a year, the pupils at Culham are among the most pampered in the land. As at the other eight European Schools, pupils are taught their native language but they must learn at least one of the EU's other nine official languages. They are also taught an important subject, such as history, in a foreign language.

There are about 15,000 pupils in the European Schools. The largest, in Brussels, has 3,358 children. The annual cost to the EU budget is pounds 80m plus an equivalent amount in direct subsidies from the 12 member states. It costs European taxpayers up to pounds 8,000 per pupil per year.

Mr Hoyem says the schools are necessary if the children of EU bureaucrats are to have continuity in their education when they leave home for a foreign country. He rejects out of hand the criticisms of financial mismanagement or accusations of elitism - the main thrust of a report by Mr Oostlander presented to the European Parliament this week.

'Mr Oostlander has a hang up about this word 'elitism', ' Mr Hoyem said, 'but you must realise there is not too much Europe, there is too little.'

Mr Oostlander's report says the European Schools system 'promotes discrimination' because of the priority given to children of EU officials. He says it is 'fundamentally unacceptable' that the schools be paid for by the EU, when they are neither accountable to the European Parliament nor the Commission, but answer only to a board of governors set up by the 12 EU ministries of education.

(Photograph omitted)

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