Listen to this piece read by the author

On 5 July 1956​ , on the Boulevard de la Foire in Luxembourg, construction began on a school designed to create a new type of being. The mission statement, in Latin, was sealed in parchment and buried next to the foundation stone. In future myth attributed to the progenitor of the EU, Jean Monnet, it was actually written by Marcel Decombis, a member of his cabinet. In English it runs:

In this school building children from Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and from other countries which are interested in the construction of a unified Europe, will assemble from their early childhood to the time of their university … 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 on 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.

To achieve this aim, 60 schools inspectors from six countries convened in Luxembourg to agree on a syllabus that would combine national traditions and enable university entrance anywhere: the French and Italians insisted on including philosophy; the Dutch on English; many countries wanted mandatory religious studies, which the French vehemently opposed, and so an ethics class was decided on as a compromise. Pupils would study most subjects in their own language, but would learn geography and history in a foreign language and from a foreign point of view. Just 12 years after the end of the Second World War, French children would be taught history in German from a German perspective – and vice versa. (This daring instance of Euro-idealism was, as Harry Van Lingen showed in his 2012 book on the European Schools,* born from a practical concern: at the time of the school’s founding, there were no Dutch or Italian history or geography teachers available so Dutch and Italian students, along with those from other ‘smaller’ language groups, had to join the larger French or German classes; to make the system fair it was agreed that French and German speakers would also be taught these subjects in a foreign language.)

Intended initially for the children of the international bureaucrats running the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner to the EU, the first European School, as it was named, was meant to show how education might one day be conducted across the continent. ‘May the Europe of the European schools definitively take the place of the Europe of the war cemeteries,’ René Mayer, the head of the ECSC, declared when the building, which took the form of a giant E, was officially opened on 11 December 1957.

As the number of European institutions increased so did the number of European schools. In 1958, after the ECSC became the European Economic Community, a school was opened in Brussels for the children of workers in the European Commission. During the 1960s schools were set up in Mol, Varese, Karlsruhe and Bergen to accompany research centres developing standardised regulations for everything from food to biofuels. In 1974 a second school was opened in Brussels (Boris Johnson, whose father was working in the Environment Sub-Directorate, attended for two years). After the UK joined the EEC a school was opened in 1978 in Culham in Oxfordshire, where research was taking place into nuclear fusion. In each new school the mission statement was sealed in parchment and placed by the foundation stone. Now there are 14 European Schools, teaching 25,000 pupils.

As the number of the schools expanded so did the types of student. Category 1 pupils were from families employed by EU bodies; Category 2 pupils had parents whose companies had signed a contract with the schools; Category 3 pupils applied individually. In Munich, where a school opened in 1977 with the establishment of the European Patent Office, Category 3 pupils were selected by lottery. Prospective parents put their hand in a big plastic sphere full of dozens of neatly folded pieces of paper, one of which represented a favourable outcome. In 1994, a year after the Treaty of Maastricht had transformed the EEC into the EU and pledged the creation of a single currency, and a year before the Schengen agreement abolished the EU’s internal borders, my mother reached into the sphere and pulled out a winning ticket – we had recently moved from London to Munich. She let out a small yelp: she had never won a raffle in her life before.

I was 15 and I was always late. Our apartment was in central Schwabing but the European School was near the patent office in distant Neuperlach, a suburb of Turkish Gastarbeiter, the only immigrant group of any size in smug, wealthy, comfy Munich. Münchners believed they didn’t need the rest of Germany, let alone the EU, and it felt as if the EU and the Turks had been banished together to the outskirts to make a point. On the U-Bahn journey Bavarians stared at me, unblinking: ‘What are you doing here?’ they seemed to say. ‘Go home.’ Or maybe I was just paranoid. I smoked bongs for breakfast.

The school was built in the shape of a star, in honour of the stars of the European flag, with each point of the star home to a different language section. The architects had forgotten to include EU-regulation fire escapes and so the building was encased in a metal exoskeleton of stairs and walkways. At first glance they looked like scaffolding, as if the school was under permanent construction. If I had been on time I would have been greeted by Herr Høyem, the headmaster, who stood by the front doors every morning. This showed a politician’s touch: Høyem had been the Danish minister for Greenland until the island gained more autonomy, and then turned down Denmark’s transport portfolio: he wanted, he said, to help build a new Europe through schools. But Høyem was usually gone by the time I ran across the empty Aula, the glass-walled main hall, panting as I rushed from point to point of the star in search of my class (was it French or biology this morning?), until I bundled breathless into the right one, half proud of my lateness and obvious intoxication, half dreading a teacher would pull me up on it.

There were ten of us in the English section. Only two had a parent working in the patent office. The rest were children of journalists (as I was) or random expats. Many were mischlings: Anglo-German, Anglo-Dutch, Lithuanian-American. The English-English had been in Germany so long their connection to the UK was tenuous. Fresh from London, where I had lived between the ages of three and 15, I was in some ways the most English person there. This was novel. Back in London I had been known as ‘the Russian’, though I had left the Soviet Union as a toddler and had no idea what being ‘Russian’ really meant. Now I was suddenly a representative of England.

Educated side by side, the children of the European School played up to caricatures of their homelands. The French were moody: the boys read graphic novels and the girls wore Chanel. The Italians were appalled by the food and seemed to take badly to multilingualism (one Italian refused, out of a sense of patriotism, to speak any foreign language even though he had never lived in Italy). There were two Swedes in my year, Bjorn and Pontus, who listened to death metal, while the Dutch girls had a reputation, no doubt unfair, for sexual experimentation. The Germans were the jocks. We in the English section, the boys anyway, posed as eccentrics: we quoted Monty Python and made a point of eating Marmite. It’s said of Boris Johnson that he elaborated his cartoon Englishness at Eton, but the groundwork would have been laid at his European School.

Harmonisation was a headache. The English teachers marked up and Italians down: so bad English pupils would get 8 out of 10 (an A) while their cleverer Southern counterparts would scrape by with 6s (C). The Germans and French prized rote learning, the English originality. It felt like several different schools stuffed into one rather than a supra-system. Only teachers’ wages were truly harmonised. European School salaries were pegged to Luxembourg rates, where the original school had been founded. If you were British that meant a 50 per cent raise. They were the happiest British teachers I had ever known. You were meant to stay at the school for no more than nine years but, luckily for the teachers, this was not enforced.

I was taught history and geography in French. For me this was less a case of sink or swim as sinking and having to survive by breathing underwater. I gradually began to grow linguistic gills, and could make out the dim outlines of glowing underwater kingdoms: the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre; Versailles; Napoleon. But this Napoleon was different to the one I knew, a star of democracy promotion not a despot.

I became amphibian. I joined the other pupils in the Aula, where conversations would start in German and flow into French and then English; or everyone would speak their own language but understand everyone else’s. I remember once looking across the Aula at an English classmate and momentarily not recognising him because, when speaking German, he shed his camp grimaces and laughed like a Bavarian, slow and macho. So, on the one hand, national traits were more pronounced as we defined ourselves against one another, but they were also less fixed, things you could put on and take off again, not ‘you’. After an immigrant, bilingual, awkward childhood and then a rapid succession of four schools in three years in different countries as my father switched jobs, here was a system that celebrated moving, the one thing I was actually good at.

But although nationality became less important, there wasn’t the effort you might expect to develop a new, Jean Monnet-inspired ‘European’ consciousness. The European School had no Leitkultur. There were no school uniforms, school plays, school football teams, school chess teams or school prizes. There were no history lessons celebrating Monnet or Mayer (just a brief course on the EU in final-year geography). There were no assemblies; ‘Ode to Joy’ wasn’t sung in the mornings. Perhaps this is less surprising when one considers that for many expat parents the schools were actually a way to preserve their national identity away from home, and to make it possible for their children to return to their domestic systems.

In the absence of a culture you create your own. My best friend was Liam (he was born to Irish parents in Luton, his father worked for Audi). We both had big noses, sat next to each other in English and liked Fawlty Towers. We picked books off our parents’ shelves and shared them: Kerouac, Hesse and R.H. Blyth (all writers who, I realise in retrospect, were attempting a synthesis of cultures). Our search for drugs meant that unlike many other pupils we made friends outside school, spending our weekends with an Afro-American-German and his Mongolian-German dealer, who defined their own semi-foreign status in Schwabing through minute knowledge of East Coast hip hop. We said ‘wack’ and ‘dope’ while quoting Life of Brian, bought baggy trousers so wiggerish and wide that when the wind blew down from the Alps and into Luisenstraße it would catch them like sails, propelling us forwards or dragging us backwards to Irish bars with Republican posters where Liam would get free drinks when he faked an Irish accent while the barmen scowled at me: in Munich I was the English enemy rather than the Russian ally. At night I wrote long, bong-powered school essays about the deeply important connections between Shakespeare, Ikkyū, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Beatniks. My English teacher encouraged me: the system allowed him to set texts and decide on my final mark.

In 1995 my father moved on to another European city with no good English school. I went back to London, where I had to cram my A-Levels into one year. I had to wear a school uniform again. When I handed in my associative odysseys they were binned and I was told to write essays with some logical connection between beginning and end. It made my head hurt. No one had heard of R.H. Blyth and I hadn’t heard of Martin Amis. Monty Python had been replaced with Eddie Izzard. Teenagers said ‘safe’ and ‘sound’ not ‘wack’ and ‘dope’ and listened to drum’n’bass and acid techno (I hadn’t even tried speed or Ecstasy). I found a tiny corner of tokers who loved hip hop, but they didn’t smoke bongs and I was too clumsy to roll their toothpick spliffs. I smoked silly amounts in an attempt somehow to suck myself into this new world, but there seemed to be a glass wall between me and the surroundings, and I could hear only muffled voices through it. Words seemed to have become separated from their meanings and by the time I had deciphered the sounds people were laughing (was it at me?). My heart began to beat arhythmically at night and during the day I would have episodes where I saw myself as if from the side even while I was standing talking to others. The words in my mouth, and in other people’s, felt scripted: they were code for something else – I just wasn’t sure what. Many years later I would discover in some pop psychology book that these were symptoms of ‘depersonalisation’.

Of the tens of thousands of pupils educated at the European Schools, 59 per cent have gone on to pursue ‘international’ careers. A quarter of alumni praise the schools’ multicultural environment, with many describing them as a ‘miniature Europe such as Europe should be’. But 18 per cent complain of ‘isolation’; 6.2 per cent of ‘rootlessness’; 5.8 per cent of no longer fitting in in their home country. ‘The European School was meant to integrate nationalities but stopped me from being integrated into any nation I went to,’ Liam said when I went back to Munich recently.

After he left the European School, Liam went to university (the first in his family) in the west of England. He had thought he was English but soon realised he wasn’t. He was suddenly in a place where your postcode and accent defined you. He still had his Irishness as back-up but when he claimed he was Irish at a pub outside Dublin the locals laughed. He visited Luton but felt totally out of place. After university he taught English in Berlin before going back to Munich, where he married an East German mental health nurse, had a child, and is now managing a branch of Footlocker on the main shopping street, a blaring bit of Americana in Bavaria. In his spare time he writes rap poems featuring an invented character called Greenbo Jenkins: part saint, part thug, part corporate slave, who refers to Liam Green in the third person.

I stayed at his flat in a boxy suburb. ‘Why Munich?’ I asked. His parents had moved on, as expats do: there was no family to tie him here. ‘Because the streets seemed the most familiar,’ he said. For all the free movement between cultural borders, the physical exerted a stronger pull. He dreams of sending his son to the European School but it’s unlikely. Since EU enlargement the patent office has tripled in size and there’s no room at the school for anyone who isn’t related to an EU employee. I took a walk past. There was a new glass and steel cube next to the original star-shaped building. The school’s population has increased from 900 to 2250.

Last year Politico Europe, a new English-language online publication based in Brussels, described the Brussels schools – there are now four of them – as being at breaking point. Parents were mutinous. There were too many pupils to fit into the classrooms. In Brussels 3 the pupils use hallways as playgrounds. Some East European parents want their children not to be taught in their own languages but to join the English or German classes. Around half the pupils want to study in England, which means even more English teachers paid by the UK government. Budget cuts across the schools have led to seconded teachers earning 30 per cent less and made recruitment difficult: the nine-year rule is now enforced and teachers know they risk unemployment back home – in the UK, nobody has heard of the European Schools. Harmonising the curricula of 28 countries isn’t easy, and although there have been several attempts to reform the marking system parents still complain pupils miss university targets because the French mark too harshly.

‘The schools were meant to be a pedagogical laboratory for Europe,’ Herr Høyem, my old headmaster, said when I rang him up. ‘Instead they are becoming isolated company schools.’ He had only just retired after going on to be headmaster of the school in Karlsruhe, where he now serves as a town councillor for the Freie Demokratische Partei: ‘Vote Tom Høyem for a Liberal Future in Europe and Karlsruhe,’ his website said. Høyem thought part of the problem with the schools was bureaucratic. They are governed by the European Commission’s HR department, which sees them as expenses to be saved on. Høyem believes they should be overseen by the Education Agency and treated as a core mission to be invested in. ‘The Category 1,2,3 system should go,’ he said. ‘Schools should be open to everyone in the community.’ The schools were meant to push Europe into ordinary people’s lives, not barricade a Eurocrat elite away from them.

Høyem isn’t the only person to think this way. In the 1960s the European Parliament strongly supported the project but with each decade the criticisms mounted: the effectiveness of the governance system ‘could not be ascertained’; the budget was non-transparent; smaller schools were opening which it was hard ‘to argue needed to exist’. In the early 2000s the parliament started threatening to block the budget. Teachers sometimes didn’t know whether they would be paid. In 2006, Van Lingen relates, the Dutch assumed the EU presidency and, sensing the whole project might collapse, pushed through reforms that, inter alia, made it possible for any school to adopt the ES curriculum and baccalaureate. Anyone can now found a European School. Copenhagen council is building one in the grounds of the original Carlsberg factory in the hope of attracting foreign professionals to the city. There’s one in Strasbourg, the first in France. In the UK, the free schools legislation has allowed parents to set up a new European School in Oxfordshire to replace the EU-funded school that’s winding down with the end of the European nuclear fusion experiment.

I took a taxi there from Oxford station. The Estonian headmistress of the old school met me at the entrance to the building, a faux-medieval 19th-century former teacher training college with a quad and winding staircases. ‘It’s like Hogwarts,’ she said. The new free school is housed in some prefabs on the other side of the playground. It’s oversubscribed. Most of the parents are British but have a multicultural background. They don’t necessarily expect their children to attend schools abroad, but they want them to have a multilingual education. BMW is a big employer locally, and fluent German helps. ‘We are going to take the best from each educational system,’ the new headmaster, Mr Ashbourne, told me. I asked how they were going to include ‘British values’, a UK government requirement. ‘From what we can tell British values just mean respect for human rights and democracy. No different from European values.’

The next morning I was back in London, walking my six-year-old twins up the hill to school. They were born during the decade I spent in Moscow after leaving university, trying to work out what being Russian meant. The twins are ‘slow to speech’ and their English and Russian are both bad. They communicate with each other in some hybrid tongue that only they can understand. Their primary is in a Victorian pile, but when you walk in there are flags of all the nationalities of the children who attend: it looks like the UN, and I don’t know half the flags. In the London I grew up in, I was constantly wondering what rules to follow in order to assimilate to the English majority. The twins live in a city where – thanks, in part, to EU legislation on free movement – being an immigrant is as normal as being native.

If I had the temperament to set up a school, it struck me, the European School model wouldn’t be a bad option. I would have Russian, Urdu and whatever non-EU language sections parents wanted. Instead of ghettoising children in faith schools they would all be under one roof, making identity less a matter of life and death. It’s an idea that fits in London, where, due to the English mix of tolerance and cold-shouldering, new immigrants aren’t integrated into some British Dream but retain their difference while working alongside the majority every day. In my London life I find myself using the skills I picked up at the European School more often than the Englishness I learned in my London schools. The capital of the country perhaps most sceptical about its EU membership, which may even vote to leave the union, is now closest to Monnet’s vision, and was run until last month by a mayor educated at a European School who acts like a comedian’s parody of Englishness but who presided over the city’s total internationalisation. And although I live down the road from where I grew up as ‘Russian’, I am, compared to new arrivals, a native of this rootless place. After the school run, immigrant parents ask me about SATs levels and catchment areas. I am considered to understand the rules. At last I’m seen as an Englishman in London.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences