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Steve Lewis, Director, European School Bergen, Netherlands

International students increase the overall standard and reputation of the system, and this benefits everybody.
March 21 2018
5 Min Read

With Brexit approaching, it’s a busy time for international educators in the Netherlands. Director of European School Bergen, Steve Lewis, dispels some myths about the European Schools and tells The PIE about their unique linguistic makeup – and why a hard Brexit for education is simply not an option.


The PIE: You and other representatives from your school have been attending meetings set up by the European Medicines Agency in view of its move to the Netherlands next year. How did these meetings go?

SL: They went well. We have had a few new contacts. What’s interesting is that some have difficulty around the concept of ‘language 1’ [mothertongue] in the European Schools system and how by taking the language 1 they can do almost everything else in English. So, with us, they will get what they have got already, plus education in their mother tongue. And I think once they understand that they somehow feel very relieved.

The PIE: What is unique about European Schools?

SL: European Schools were founded to provide education to the children of EU institutions employees. Most people don’t know much about them because they were a closed system until about 12 years ago. One of our biggest challenges today is that most people think “oh, the EU Baccalaureate is like the International Baccalaureate”. But our school has a unique linguistic construction.

“We have never been in a position where we were not able to offer a required mother tongue”

I am not aware of any other system that does things this way. In an IB school, there would be one language, usually English, used as the medium of instruction, and other languages would be taught as foreign languages. In our system, we have different language sections with a common curriculum and if you look at exams in our BAC, they are translated into something like 17 languages.

So that is one of the unique features of our system and it is a microcosm of the EU. Schools have an obligation to provide first language education to children of EU employees and they are free for them. Other students can join our classes if we have extra places, paying fees that span from €3500 for kindergarten to about €6500 for secondary a year.

The PIE: How has the European Schools system changed in the past 12 years?

SL: The biggest change was a decision to allow other schools to use the European School curriculum and model. At the moment there are more accredited European Schools than there are classical Type 1 European Schools like ours. And that number is increasing.

“International students increase the overall standard and reputation of the system, and this benefits everybody”

European schools are a really interesting option because they give families the opportunity to have an education not completely led in English.

 The PIE: How do you provide first language education to all students?

SL: Finding teachers can be a challenge, so we have to be very resourceful. We also do a lot of work with embassies and through them, we can often find teachers.

If things really don’t work out, we have a lot of experience of doing things via distance learning. We currently have a couple of teachers who do distance learning in Slovenian and in Czech. We have never been in a position where we were not able to offer a required mother tongue.

The PIE: What pathway do students follow once they graduate from a European School?

SL: At the moment, around 60% of our students in the last 5 years have gone to a Dutch university, 20% to the UK, and the rest spread out across all of Europe and the world. Scottish Universities are very popular because for EU students they a lot cheaper than in other parts of the UK. But Dutch universities have a really good reputation.

Also, students are looking for a more cost-effective higher education opportunity. If you think about it, an English student in Scotland is still paying these big fees, yet they come to the Netherlands and they pay €1800 a year. Economically it’s a huge difference.

The PIE: the Dutch press has reported that some students, lecturers and administrators are voicing concern about the preponderance of English-medium programs and increasing international student numbers in the Netherlands. What do you think about this?

SL: If you look the other way around, UK universities could say the same thing. My daughter is at Aberdeen University, and she told me that all the people that she knows are from other parts of the EU. And arguably Scottish people can say “we are being discriminated against with all these people coming in”.

“I can’t see a hard Brexit for education as an option”

As more international students are coming in, they are raising the standards. Dutch students, in comparison to British students, have got a unique advantage if they wish to take it – they can still do all the courses in Dutch. Whereas at a Scottish university, they can’t do their degree in Gaelic. In the Netherlands, they have got possibilities in either way.

International students increase the overall standard and reputation of the system, and this benefits everybody.

The PIE: When did you start working in the European Schools system?

SL: I started in Frankfurt in 2003. The school was new at that time and it was very interesting to be involved in the European Schools project. But the downside to working in a European School as a seconded teacher is that you only get nine years. I was lucky: because I was able to get promotion on two occasions, I can stay until 2022 – unless of course Brexit accelerates my departure.

“From our perspective here, a hard Brexit scenario like that is completely impossible to conceive”

We are technically European civil servants in terms of our status and we are employed by the government of our country of origin – in my case the Department for Education in England. That is the same for all European School teachers.

The PIE: What would a hard Brexit mean for European Schools?

SL: I can’t see a hard Brexit for education as an option, no. If we were to take the hard Brexit scenario all the way for European schools, we would have to close down every single English section because we couldn’t afford to run it, and English would not be one of the dominant working languages of the EU anymore.

“There is no way that UK Universities can afford to change the conditions that they have at the moment”

From our perspective here, a hard Brexit scenario like that is completely impossible to conceive because the systems are too intertwined.

The PIE: Does that apply to universities as well?

SL: Everybody has become very cautious. However, there is no way that UK universities can afford to change the conditions that they have at the moment.

I have to be optimistic and say I cannot believe anybody in this area would be so stupid as to risk the millions of pounds that have been pumped into higher education to encourage quality lecturers and students from all around the world to come to the UK – and change the situation so much that from Europe nobody would choose to study in the UK anymore. The reputational damage to British education would be so severe that they would not be able to recover it. And it will damage Europe as well.

For example, British students coming to the Netherlands to study in that scenario would be paying €20,000 a year here too – so nobody would come anymore. The Netherlands couldn’t afford this either, as they invested so heavily in English.

The PIE: What do you think, or hope, is going to happen then?

SL: I think things will stay as they are. I hope that our greatest challenge will be to have sufficiently good paying conditions to attract teachers to come from the UK to work in European schools.

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