The Pieter Groen high school in Katwijk encourages students to be engaged European citizens. Students participating in the school’s bilingual program learn to discuss and debate political affairs in perfect English from 12 years onwards.
On behalf of Interreg Volunteer Youth (IVY), I visited the school last Thursday and entered into dialogue with about 70 students. In three sessions lasting no more than 50 minutes each we shared questions and opinions about European solidarity, European cohesion and cross-border development. The students’ understanding of societal challenges was more than impressive. Their knowledge, engagement and critical attitude make me hopeful about the future. But we should not only listen to young people because of their future potential – their voices matter today. The pure straightforwardness and unrestrained creativity of the feedback I received on European politics (and my presentation) stands in sharp contrast with the carefully formulated documents that policymakers work with every day.
We kicked off by sharing thoughts on the EU in general. Most students are satisfied about the way in which the EU facilitates trade and stabilises our economy. Jesse (15), shares that “the thing I like most about the EU is the single currency and the ability to travel around freely.” Above all, the students are happy to live in a safe and peaceful place. Some students were more critical. Niels (13) thinks that the EU doesn’t work well at the moment. “Not all Member States stick to the agreements once made and sometimes cultural differences between states seem hard to bridge.” But when he thinks about his own local ambitions, he finds that his interests align well with a specific European policy. “I would like to live in Katwijk, where I’m from. I want to help the fishing industry and restore sea life to its old form”. The health of our seas and oceans is a clear example of a common good: we all need to put in some effort to achieve progress. Perhaps the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund can help him turn his solidarity with fishermen into concrete progress.
Solidarity was a new concept to many students. Still, almost everyone succeeded at naming some words that they associated it with. In the European context, I personally related the following concepts to solidarity: unity, team-spirit, agreement, shared responsibilities and shared interests. Nathan (14) added something very valuable. “I think that solidarity is all about honesty,” he said. All groups agreed that solidarity exists between individuals, but also between communities. “People should’t focus on themselves and their own problems all the time,” Paul (14) wrote. Lisanne (14) agreed: “It doesn’t take much to be kind and help others.”
From the topic of solidarity we moved on to the European Solidarity Corps. This is a recent initiative that connects young Europeans to projects that strengthen communities, support vulnerable people and address societal challenges. Anna (14) was first sceptical of her own capacities in an international and political context. “I don’t really know much about other countries. When it comes to politics, I just think that others must be knowing what they’re doing. I prefer staying out of everyone’s way.” Similar to Niels, though, she feels connected to one particular policy domain that she would like to see improved herself. “I would like to do something meaningful for the elderly feeling lonely. I just want to put a smile on their faces.” Perhaps there are projects within the Solidarity Corps that could connect Anna to the people she wants to help. Lisa (13) already knows that she wants to join the Solidarity Corps after school. “I learned today that we can actually be part of the European Solidarity Corps! It sounds really cool. If I were to join, I would like to report on human rights within Europe.” Other students also had specific ideas of what they would like to do if they were to join the Corps. Here are a few examples:
Kick (13): “I would like to contribute to European nature conservation. Preferably in Scandinavia. I am not sure how I could best do this, but I want to be active and work with my hands. I hope to learn more about nature and encourage others to take better care of our environment.”
Sofie (13): “I think that sports can connect people. I would like to organise sports activities between refugees and locals to connect them and make everyone happy, at least for a moment.”
Caroline (13): “There are still a lot of animals in Europe that suffer. I would like to go help stray dogs in other countries. For example by working for a shelter. I would like to say to all Europeans: ‘Take care of your animals’!”
Pien (13): “I think that quality of food is very important. If I were to join the corps, I would like to stimulate research on food quality or teach about food and health. The message I’d like to share with fellow Europeans: ‘Think before you eat’!”
Tim (13): “I would like to go to Italy or Greece and help refugees with their administration. This must be really hard to deal with on top of everything.”
Anna (13): “Education should be similar all across Europe. I would like to contribute to the standardisation of the quality of education.”
Martijn (13): “I would like to help communities after natural disasters, like earthquakes. It doesn’t really matter where in Europe I can go. If I can help, I will.”
The next topics on our agenda were related to Interreg, IVY and cross-border development. As an example, we first discussed the specific development aims of Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland, a program operating not too far from Katwijk. The students were already very familiar with targets such as renewable energy generation and biodiversity conservation. I invited them to take part in an Interreg simulation. Groups of students had to decide on a cross-border region and think of border problems and solutions. They came up with examples varying from the mobility of ships between Danish islands and Germany to multilingualism along the Dutch-German border. Quinten (12) felt concerned about one of Europe’s northernmost regions: “Being an IVY volunteer sounds very nice! I would like to bring people together around the remote border between Finland and Sweden. How do you connect people that live so far away from everyone else? It’s good that the EU tries to support people in these regions.” Stefan (14) expressed his appreciation of the Interreg programs: “it seems like a very good initiative to me. The focus on one region per program allows for tailor-made subsidies that can lead to development.” Together the students came up with a whole set of interesting border issues and solutions. One example: the introduction of entirely bilingual schools along the Dutch-German border, so students no longer have to choose schools on the basis of language. This would also help prepare the large number of German university students who study in the Netherlands. Clearly, the Pieter Groen students are ambassadors of the bilingual education they benefit from themselves.
I hope the students will keep border issues and European solidarity in the back of their minds as they progress their studies. Their motivation and creativity enriches our society.
A big thank you to all students and staff for an inspiring morning!
High school staff or students interested in organising a similar session can send an e-mail to email@example.com until 1 December 2017.