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Decision in case 1024/2020/MMO on how the European Commission assessed an application to the Jan Amos Comenius prize contest

Background to the complaint

1. The complainant is a public school in Belgium, the Lycée Français Jean Monnet de Bruxelles, which participated in the selection procedure for the Jan Amos Comenius Prize for High Quality Teaching about the European Union, awarded by the European Commission[1]. This prize goes to 22 secondary schools from across the European Union, which teach about the EU in a creative way and helps to spread these practices.

2. The complainant disagrees with the Commission’s selection of the winner for Belgium. It considers that its own project corresponds much more to the criteria of excellence, European education and impact, which were promoted in the contest.

3. Having received no comprehensive reply from the Commission on the selection procedure and its outcome, the complainant turned to the Ombudsman in May 2020.

The inquiry

4. The Ombudsman opened an inquiry by asking the Commission to provide the complainant with a comprehensive explanation of the selection procedure as well as of the criteria and scoring system for the award of the prize for Belgian schools, and to share that reply with the Ombudsman’s Office.

5. In the course of the inquiry, the Ombudsman also received the complainant’s comments in response to the Commission's reply.

Arguments presented to the Ombudsman

6. The complainant’s initial concern was that the Commission had not assessed its application in a correct and fair manner as the complainant considered that its application included more initiatives, was more innovative and had a broader outreach in comparison to the application of the winner for Belgium.

7. The Commission said that, because the Lycée Francais Jean Monnet de Bruxelles operates under the authority of the French Ministry, the complainant’s application had been assessed among the French applications. External independent experts evaluated the applications against the award criteria set out in the rules of contest[2]. Subsequently, the Evaluation Committee verified that evaluation.

8. As regards the complainant’s application, the Evaluation Committee found that the school put forward a compilation of different activities or initiatives but it was difficult to understand which specific activity the complainant proposed for the prize. It was also not clear from the application how the activities that the complainant put forward formed an integral part of a specific project or of the school’s curriculum.

9. The Commission further said that the application did not provide any explanations on the methodologies that teachers use to make students participate and, thus, it was difficult to evaluate whether the activities could be duplicated in another school or country. The innovative elements of the activities that the complainant described were limited and lacked clarity as to whether they are of a provisional or permanent nature.

10. After having received the Commission’s reply, the complainant argued that the rules of the contest did not require “a specific project”. The rules referred to various “activities”. Accordingly, the Evaluation Committee applied criteria that were not set out in the rules of the contest when it assessed the complainant’s application.

11. The complainant also argued that it was only in the context of the Ombudsman’s inquiry that the Commission explained that it has assessed the complainant’s application against applications from French schools. The complainant contended that its country of origin is Belgium and that 90% of its actions took place in Belgium. Also, the European Parliament considers the complainant to be a Belgian ambassador school in the frame of the European Parliament Ambassador School (EPAS) programme[3].

The Ombudsman's assessment

12. There are inherent limits to the Ombudsman’s review in cases that concern the evaluation of applications in a prize contest. It is not the role of the Ombudsman to evaluate the merits of an application. The role of the Ombudsman in cases such as this is limited to assessing whether the EU institution in question made a manifest error of assessment in evaluating an application, for instance by not applying the criteria and requirement set out in the rules of the contest.

13. In the course of the Ombudsman’s inquiry, the Commission has given a clear account of how it evaluated the complainant’s application. In particular, the Evaluation Committee assessed the complainant’s application by referring to the relevant award criteria in the rules of the contest, such as the teaching methods used and whether they are active and participative; the innovative elements of the activity; whether the activity is permanent and integrated into the school’s curriculum; whether the activity can be replicated in other schools or other Member States; and whether the activity has an impact on the wider community (beyond teachers and pupils).

14. Moreover, whereas the general objectives of the rules of the contest listed the types of “activities” sought for the prize, the award criteria referred to “work/activity” in singular.

15. Based on the above, the Ombudsman finds that the Evaluation Committee applied the award criteria set out in the rules of the contest.

16. The Commission has also explained that the reason for assessing the complainant’s application together with French schools was that the complainant operates under the authority of the French Ministry, which is a fact that the complainant has not contested. Given that the rationale of the prize refers to a Council Recommendation[4] inviting “Member States to step up their efforts to promote the common values enshrined in article 2 of the Treaty of the EU[5]”, it was reasonable for the Commission to consider applications based on which Member State has authority over the school in question. However, as this aspect of the contest may not be clear to applicants, the Commission could consider spelling it out more clearly in future contests. The Ombudsman makes a corresponding suggestion below.

17.  The fact that the same school has been classified as a Belgian school for the EPAS programme is not relevant in this case as the criteria for participating in the EPAS programme are different.

18. On the basis of the above, the Ombudsman finds no maladministration by the Commission in how it assessed the complainant’s application.

Conclusion

Based on the inquiry, the Ombudsman closes this case with the following conclusion:

There was no maladministration by the European Commission.

The complainant and the Commission will be informed of this decision.

Suggestion for improvement

The Commission could make clear in future Jan Amos Comenius Prize contests the criteria for determining from which Member State an application comes. 

 

Emily O'Reilly
European Ombudsman


Strasbourg, 04/12/2020

 

[1] Procedure EAC/30/2019 https://ec.europa.eu/education/news/jan-amos-comenius-prize-winners-announced_en

[2] The call and the rules of  contest are available here: https://ec.europa.eu/education/resources-and-tools/document-library/rules-of-competition-jan-amos-comenius-prize-for-high-quality-teaching-about-the-european-union_en

[3] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/belgium/fr/ep_teachers/ambassadors-school.html

[4] Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching [https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32018H0607%2801%29]

[5] Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.