LIVE AND LEARN
“We don’t regard the student as a statistic,” says Gita Lotz, Co-Director of the European School RheinMain (ESRM). “We need to look at every student individually.” It’s an approach that seems to be paying off. Since opening in 2012 with 400 students, the school has expanded to full capacity with a roll of 1,600 students. Those who leave go on to some of the world’s top universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and numerous Ivy League colleges.
Based in the German spa town of Bad Vilbel, ESRM is the first privately funded institution within the European Schools system, which was originally founded for the children of European Commission employees. Today the school welcomes pupils from different backgrounds and from all over the world. It charges fees but operates on a non-profit basis. “We are not in it for the money,” says Lotz. “That makes us all the more serious about our pupils’ education.” There are assisted and free places available for students from poorer backgrounds. This recently included an African refugee, whose parents never made it out of Somalia. He completed his European baccalaureate last year.
MULTILINGUAL AND MULTICULTURAL
With an age range of four to 18 years old and pupils from over 52 nationalities, the school aims to provide a multilingual and multicultural education. “We believe in the linguistic identity of a child,” says Director Tom Zijlstra. “A child has only one dominant language and that is an essential part of who they are. We encourage our students to be very proud of their backgrounds and their individual identities. We need to respect their native language as the soundest basis for their education. The best way to learn a western European language is to develop your own to the highest standard possible and then take on a second.” ESRM places the most emphasis on a child’s national language while teaching them an additional, “working language” such as English, French or German. As students progress with their studies, they spend more time being educated in their working language.
Confidence is a key part of this learning. “It’s our duty to give the students every opportunity to become independent, confident learners,” says Lotz. “In order to achieve this it is essential that we do all we can to make their studies enjoyable.”
Says Zijlstra: “The key question is what role should the school play in the life of a child? When pupils regard a subject at school as being fun and interesting, it keeps them involved. It is important not to put the children under undue pressure. A child needs to be allowed to develop in a safe but free environment because then a child is receptive and will work. You don’t have to make an appeal to get them interested. We believe in the capacity and the competence of the child to develop, just by giving them the responsibility for their own education in such a way that we offer them all the tools they need. The teachers should in that respect play the role of the ‘inspirator and facilitator’ more and more.”
DOWNTIME IS ENCOURAGED
Unlike many schools, homework is not part of the routine at ESRM. “We work incredibly hard together and then the pupils go home. Children have a life outside and so do their parents. It’s not a good idea to mix the two lives of school and home all the time because if you do, school can become burdensome and cause unhappiness. A happy life does not mean an unproductive or lazy life, just as a happy experience of school can mean a very intensive, rewarding day that doesn’t have to continue into the evening. We think it’s important to show the students that we know there is more to life than study.”
Another factor enhancing students’ experience at ESRM is the design of the building. “We have innovative architecture here,” says Zijlstra. “Next to every classroom is an open space of equal size. The corridors are generous because we don’t want our students crammed into narrow passageways like animals in intensive farming. Instead, what we have at ESRM is lightness, space and openness.
The classrooms themselves are spacious enough to allow for differentiated teaching. “At any one time there are several projects going on,” says Zijlstra. “Half the class will be writing the lyrics of a song while the other half composes the music. That is a fantastic luxury.” Lotz agrees. “We spend a lot of time and effort training the teachers in differentiation,” she says. “We say that as a school we are only as good as the teacher in front of the class.”
HIGH ACADEMIC STANDARDS
“You have to cater for the individual child,” says Lotz, “rather than pulling one child down and pushing one child up, finding common ground and teaching that way. That always goes wrong. This is not to say that our curriculum isn’t demanding. We have very high academic standards.”
These are not only evident in the classroom. “The school is close to nature,” says Lotz, “which means we can offer plenty of sports, especially rugby.” ESRM are German rugby champions for the third year running. That’s out of 85 million students countrywide and across all age groups. “The sports facilities here are ideal,” says Lotz. “We even have a golf course around the corner. So we combine high educational standards with fresh air, blue sky and lots of space.”
Further extra-curricular activities are available from the school’s numerous clubs, which include Chinese, Turkish, Greek, 3D printing, coding, chess and ballet. It’s a multifaceted offering, and one in keeping with Zijlstra’s description of ESRM as “a multicultural – and multicoloured – school”.