The school system is probably the area of Luxembourgish society that has had the greatest impact on us, so I thought I’d share a few reflections on our experiences of it. I’d like to be very clear that they are just one family’s very subjective impressions though – our children have only been in three school classes between the two of them, so we’re hardly experts. Our Luxembourgish school experience has been a bit of a rollercoaster – my feelings have evolved through five (sometimes overlapping) stages:
Our initial view (based on our daughter’s first few weeks at “Spillschoul” at age 5), was very positive: small class sizes, friendly teachers (who, importantly for us, were happy to speak English), lots of fun outings, and pleasant, well-equipped classrooms. Our daughter seemed initially to settle in quickly, forming a strong and lasting friendship with a girl she had no common language with, and we were excited at the idea of her having the opportunity to learn a new language.
After the initial honeymoon period, things got more difficult. We realised that learning Luxembourgish was going to be harder and slower than we’d hoped. The tiny class sizes we’d been so impressed by turned out to be a mixed blessing, as they seem to amplify the natural tensions of children’s emerging friendship groups – especially with children also separating off based on the languages they speak! We’d also made some wrong assumptions about “Spillschoul”: based on the name (play school) & the fact that formal reading and writing instruction starts later, we’d imagined that this would be largely child-led play-based learning, whereas much of it actually seemed to be desk-based, doing lots of (precise, tidy) colouring, pencil control exercises, and crafts.
Some of the crafts they produce look amazing, but (here and in the higher classes) uniformity and correctness generally seem to be valued over individual creativity and independence. We encountered a few other cultural differences, particularly around gender (e.g. separate princess / car themed advent calendars in the classroom) & discipline (such as children being encouraged to retaliate after minor hurts). My reaction to the latter was probably amplified by the fact that just as our daughter was leaving her old school in the UK, they were abandoning their ‘traffic lights’ behaviour charts in favour of a whole-school restorative practice approach.
After a while we came to realise that there are good reasons for many of the aspects of the school system that surprised us. In a heavily multi-national classroom, a truly child-led play-based curriculum could easily support the growth of language-based cliques that teachers here already have to work hard to discourage. Especially in our area (where the majority of children don’t have Luxembourgish as a mother tongue), guided activities where children listen to the teacher and follow instructions do support the Luxembourgish learning & integration that are the priorities of the first few years of the school system.
The reliance on rote learning in some subjects is also largely dictated (excuse the pun!) by the multilingual curriculum. Luxembourgish schools teach writing using lots of repetition and dictation, in contrast to the approach we’d seen in the UK of encouraging independent creative writing from the start – but of course, in Luxembourg the children are learning to read and write in German, which is a new language for many of them, so they need to be learning the basic grammar rules and memorising new vocabulary at the same time.
After coming through a bit of a rocky patch, things definitely got easier for us in this school year. Our son started “Précoce”, the entry year of the school system (for 3-4 year olds). This is a lovely playful environment, similar to the Foundation classes our daughter had attended in the UK, and he settled in there without any issues. We can see already that if we’d stayed longer, having started at the very beginning, picking up Luxembourgish gradually alongside many other non-native speakers and getting used to doing guided crafts etc. in a relaxed way, this would have smoothed his path through the next stages.
Our daughter, at 6, moved up to “Primaire”, where academic subjects begin in earnest, with German being introduced, and through it, reading and writing. Her success at this level has led us to an increased appreciation of the approach taken in the previous year – in particular, we realised that her previous teacher’s strong emphasis on learning the Luxembourgish language has really paid off: speaking Luxembourgish fluently enabled her to make rapid progress in German, reading, and writing, as well as becoming far more settled socially, generally having a much easier time this year.
Comparing notes with friends whose children are at school in the UK has also helped to remind me that every child’s path through school has ups and downs, and that the tendency to idealise the system you’ve left behind is far from helpful. We chose to put our children in the local Luxembourgish system because we thought it would give them the opportunity to learn new languages, which it has certainly done brilliantly, and because we thought it would expose them to different ways of doing things, encouraging them to grow up to be open-minded, independent thinkers. Time will tell what impact the experience of living abroad has had on their developing personalities, but it’s certainly challenged me to rethink my assumptions on a few topics, and to acknowledge that approaches that wouldn’t have been my first choice do also have benefits.
Our decision to leave Luxembourg coincided with another step up in the children’s fortunes at school, leaving me feeling a little wistful at times. Our four-year-old son is on the cusp of learning Luxembourgish, having started to hold mini-conversations with me just a few weeks before we left, and it’s a shame that he won’t get the chance to build this up into real fluency. I also found myself sharing our daughter’s teacher’s sadness about her missing out on consolidating her newly acquired German skills and joining in all the outings planned for her class at the end of the summer term. Leaving friends is also very hard – ironically, both children’s social lives seemed to dramatically improve just after we made the decision to leave the country! – and as we prepare to make the leap to another new school system in the US, I suspect we’ll soon be feeling nostalgic for the friends & teachers we’re leaving behind in Luxembourg, and for the newfound familiarity of its unusual multilingual school system.