With free international education, free books, subsidised after-school care and more on offer, the places at these schools are in high demand. From flying in from different continents for Open Days to tutoring their children for the admission interviews parents do not spare any efforts trying to get a place for their child.

I sat down with Carole Lemarié and Michel Hiebel, who both work at the Ministry of Education in the Department for European and International Schools, to learn more about the system, which students it targets and what to look out for when applying.

There are several different choices of public International schools in Luxembourg. The educational offer includes A-Levels, IB, and European Baccalaureate. With a 6th European School opening its doors this autumn, the European School system is the prominent system of choice that the state has opted for so far. Mr Hiebel says: “At the moment, around 3800 students attend the 6 European Schools run by Luxembourg and this number will increase to 7000 students in the next 3 years. We also have new projects but it is not clear if they will be realised as that depends on politics... “

The motivation behind establishing international schools

Mr Hiebel explains the idea behind these schools, which is “to allow pupils, who have less chances to succeed in the traditional Luxembourgish system to integrate at a school which teaches them in their dominant language. In Luxembourgish primary schools, the initial language is German but many families who arrive here do not speak that language. It means that if they send their children to the Luxembourgish School system, the children have to learn German on top of learning everything else that is important in primary school, like reading, writing, maths, and later on they also have to learn French.”

The European Schools, on the other hand, with their different language sections allow the children to learn in their dominant language, the language that they speak at home. French, English and German are the language sections that are offered and in addition other languages like Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian are taught, he explains.

“We have children who are very good otherwise but they fail in the Luxembourgish system just because they don’t speak a language very well.” says Ms Lemarié.

What was the greater motivation for setting up the schools, to diversify and adapt to local circumstances or to create an attractive offer for people potentially wanting to move to Luxembourg?

“We regularly have people who come and who plan to stay only for a couple of years. It is important to offer them a school that allows their kids to continue when they move back. A child that has been at a European School can continue in one of the European Schools elsewhere. Often, the parents’ concern is that that they don’t know how their child can continue their education when leaving the Luxembourgish system. The establishment of these schools meets the needs for flexibility and mobility for these parents. Also, the European Bac is acknowledged in almost all countries.”

Different educational approaches

Mr Hiebel explains that in the Luxembourgish system there is more emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, whereas at the European Schools it is more about building competences: ”It’s a different pedagogical approach and parents are very aware of that."

With two public school systems, the traditional and the international one - would it not make sense to unite them in the long run and to have the same school system for all students?

Mr Hiebel agrees: “You are right, there is the question of the integration objective but it is not easy to create one school for all students,” whereas Ms Lemarié stresses the flexibility of the concept: “This was the answer to the diversification challenges of our country. Even with integration in mind, it is important to offer different alternatives. They are different systems but the students have a lot of possibilities to integrate otherwise, for example they learn Luxembourgish, they do sports in Luxembourgish clubs, play music together, etc.”

To the question if there ever was the idea of creating one unified school system for everyone, Mr Hiebel says: “We have of course thought about it but then found that it was sufficient to make adaptations within the traditional Luxembourgish system so that the two systems complement each other and to find a compromise. We are not there, yet, it is not easy to change an entire system. The minister’s mission statement is that it is necessary to create different schools to cater to the needs of different students. For him, inclusion means that a child who succeeds will integrate well in society. A child who fails, will not integrate well. This is guiding the evolution of the traditional system. Just recently, it was decided that some schools add the option of learning literacy in French instead of German at the beginning of Primary School. That decision is not by chance but a direct consequence of the creation of the European Schools.”

Ms Lemarié adds: “Every system “learns” from the other and they influence each other, there is no competition between them.”

What are the entry criteria?

“For the new public European Schools, the place of residence is an essential criterion” says Ms Lemarié, and Mr Hiebel adds that the linguistic situation and if there already are siblings at the school are important factors, too."

“We look at the languages spoken at home and for people newly arriving, if they only speak one language. Also, Luxembourgish children, who speak French or German very well, can apply.” Ms Lemarié specifies.

A recent online discussion, where we asked parents about their experiences regarding the application process at the schools, suggests that repeatedly, applicants cannot comprehend why one family gets a spot and another one does not.

The whole process can be perceived as being rather opaque, as one mother shares her family’s experience: “We live around Junglinster and our three children’s first language is English, but we still weren’t offered a spot.”

In the case of one of her children, they made it to the Interview but even when providing the report of her daughter’s creche that the school had asked for, they weren’t given a spot.

When asking Mr Hiebel why it is necessary to provide a creche report of a young child, Mr Hiebel says: “I wouldn’t say that is ideal. At the beginning, when the schools opened, there indeed weren’t any rules for the schools [with regards to the selection of students] and we followed the criteria of the national school system. There wasn’t any advice provided to the schools but now we have implemented that sort of service. It ensures that all schools have the same rules to follow and that the same applies to the teachers.

Now, each month, there is a meeting with the directors and everyone else who has an expertise on the topic and each time, the admission criteria are on the agenda to ensure that the criteria are the same.”

Facing challenges

Luxembourg’s school system faces several challenges, as for example revealed in the latest PISA evaluation. There, it was noticeable that the cultural background and the family situation are often a factor behind underperformance of students.

Doesn’t a selective public school branch, that runs parallel to the traditional schools create the danger of even less integration of those children?

Mr Hiebel explains that the system is permeable in both directions and that also Luxembourgish pupils can apply but that there are certain requirements:

“Since the public international schools only offer the classical branch of education, and not for example, the possibility of a more technical oriented education, the previous reports of an applicant are also being considered. We have to be sure from the beginning that the child has a good chance of succeeding. Nonetheless, we will never reject a child with special needs or language problems just because of that, it is important, that the schools are open for all children.”

A large-scale selection process bears the danger of only admitting “good” students to a school, Mr Hiebel shares his thoughts:

“The schools cannot become schools for good students only, since they are public schools. Also, neither the financial situation nor the professional background of the parents is a criterion, the only limitation is the number of places on offer. “

The opening of several new schools in the country means that the demand of teachers has risen significantly. Repeatedly, teachers swap systems to work under the seemingly more attractive conditions at a Luxembourgish public International Schools instead of working with the limited contracts of some private schools here.

Even though they are not publicly governed, does the state not have a responsibility to ensure that the privately or EU-governed schools do not encounter problems due to the fact of teachers leaving?

Ms Lemarié replies:

“There are teachers who switch between the systems, sometimes, because of the contractual conditions which are different at the original European Schools. We work with the general secretary of the European Schools and with the parents’ association and we are aware of the movements between the schools, but that doesn’t affect many teachers.”

After the students are finished with school, how are they prepared for their future? For example, do the schools have connections to universities?

Ms Lemarié replies: “When it comes to further education options, we work the same way that we do it with the traditional schools. There is a coordinator who prepares the students for their options after finishing school but we do not have enough visibility, yet.”

To ensure that the schools follow and meet the European Schools framework, regular evaluations take place:

Mr Hiebel explains: “There is a regular audit about the functioning of the school which makes sure that all of the schools work in the same way and that they have the same program. It is not an easy task, as the school population of Differdange /Esch is not the same as the one in Junglinster, since the catchment area is from the surrounding area.

The experiences with the new schools have been good so far, with Ms Lemarié stating: “The schools are a success, they allow a better integration of the students and accommodate the linguistic diversity of the country. Of course, the system has to evolve though" …and Mr Hiebel adds: “…it is young, we learn from our experiences.”

Ms Lemarié: “Next year, the first students will finish and have their final exams, we are looking forward to seeing how that goes but we are confident that it will work well.”