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Let's think about education

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The great grammar school debate: why Dutch education is better than ours

The great debate on grammar schools is descending into the usual 'black and white' debate between elitists and equalists. On the one hand are those who believe that the bright few should prosper from a true academic education while on the left is the belief in a one-size-fits-all system (except for their own children who can go to private or grammar schools).

But are these the only options? What is missing in all this is the importance of the individual. It is a fact that children are very different and progress at different rates with very different abilities: some love science, others love art, some are skilled at sports, others prefer making and mending things. Some love to read at an early age but stop completely as teenagers. Some hate history but grow to love it. The list goes on and on. All this is swept aside by the elitists and equalists. Yet the true meaning of diversity is to welcome and rejoice in these differences.

My own children enjoyed a very different education through the luck of growing up in The Netherlands while I was working there. The Dutch system recognises that children do not merely fit into one of only two categories. Instead, Dutch secondary schools are divided into four branches – practical education (praktijkonderwijs) for pupils who have the ability to learn a trade, and three different academic branches called VMBO, HVO and VWO (see below for an explanation).

In the case of my own children, these branches were on the same campus so the children met up during breaks to play football and generally run around together. There was no apparent elitism - only respect for each other's abilities on the play ground. As a result, children are not brought up to despise those in 'lower' or 'higher' walks of life and their society feels more united than our own.

It also seems to breed a better respect for the non-academic professions. In Britain, to confess to being an engineer can make you a social pariah. In The Netherlands by contrast, people are so proud of their engineering qualifications they announce them on their door bells!

The Dutch system also takes care of the fact that children progress at different rates. My own son suffered when we moved from the north of The Netherlands to the south during his first year. This upset him greatly and he did badly at the new school. He was then moved down from his academic branch to a lower one. However, once he had made local friends, his motivation returned and he made very good progress. After a year, he was moved up again and prospered. There was no drama, it was considered as a very normal development which the system was well-equipped to handle.

This stands in stark contrast to the old British system which many fear might return. You either passed a test and went to a grammar school or you failed and were sent to the local sink school from which there was little or no escape.

The Dutch show us that there is an alternative to this black-and-white system: but does it work?

Comparing education systems is difficult as there is no universally-agreed method. However the UNESCO rating system of Reading, Maths and Science is a useful guide:

What this table underlines is that there is no magic bullet for educational success. Countries can and do use different systems in line with their traditions, customs and national needs. I have chosen The Netherlands for us to think about because I have personal experience of the Dutch system and because the Dutch are very much like us in many ways so their system might well suit us.

 

It is clear that we cannot change our existing systems overnight; it must be a process of evolution within existing academies and grammar schools to a more varied but truly selective system based on discovering what is best for each individual child. It needs to start with the realisation that neither the elitist nor equalist systems are appropriate in the modern world. A truly child-centred system like that of The Netherlands is a good starting point; I hope we can learn from it.

 

How does the Dutch system work? (Extracted from http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/local/move/dutch-education-system/vmbo-havo-vwo

The process starts early with a report from the primary school advising which branch best suits the child. Children undergo a test to assess their aptitude: usually the CITO-test (CITO-toets). The results of the test and the recommendation, as well as pupils’ and parents’ own preferences, determine the type of curriculum the pupil should follow at secondary school. However, the school’s recommendation usually outweighs the test results.

 

VMBO (preparatory secondary vocational education)

The VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs) trains pupils for secondary vocational education (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, MBO) or, in some cases, to move on to senior general secondary education (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs, HAVO). A VMBO education takes four years. After two years the pupil chooses the educational direction that best suits them.

There are four different directions varying in their practical and theoretical education balance, alongside general subjects:

  • Basic vocational training (VMBO-B), with 12 hours a week devoted to practical subjects. The pupil can move on from here to MBO levels 1 and 2.

  • Framework training (VMBO-K), with 12 hours a week devoted to practical subjects, aimed at a particular profession. The pupil can move on to MBO levels 3 and 4.

  • Mixed training (VMBO-G), with 4 hours a week devoted to practical subjects and for the rest general subjects. The pupil can move on to MBO levels 3 and 4.

  • Theoretical training (VMBO-T), with only general subjects. The pupil can move on to MBO levels 3 and 4 or to a HAVO education.

Pupils may also choose a sector in which to specialise and, within that sector, a particular department. There are four sectors:

  • Technical, which is sub-divided into construction, graphics, metal, vehicles, electrical, installation, transport and logistics.

  • Agriculture, sub-divided into agriculture and natural surroundings, and food technology.

  • Economics, sub-divided into administration, catering, commercial services, fashion and clothing.

  • Care and welfare, sub-divided into external care, care.

HAVO (senior general secondary education)

A HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) education takes five years and is a preparation for university or a professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO). However, a pupil can also move on to pre-university education (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs, VWO). At the end of the second year the pupil chooses a ‘profile’- a package including both compulsory and elective subjects. The following profiles are offered:

  • Culture and society

  • Economics and society

  • Nature and health

  • Nature and technology

After the fourth year, the pupil goes through a period called the ‘study-house’ (studiehuis), where independent study is essential. In addition to traditional lessons, the study house offers a broad scope for individual approach.

VWO (pre-university education)

A VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs) education has different branches, such as atheneum, which may include bilingual education, gymnasium, in which pupils study the two classical languages, Latin and ancient Greek, and ‘technasium’, with an extra focus on science and engineering. The VWO takes six years and prepares the pupil for a university education. In the first two years, pupils study the fifteen subjects which form the basic curriculum. All VWO-pupils must study French, German and English up to the end of their third year. At the end of the third year the pupil chooses a ‘profile’ - a package including both compulsory and optional subjects. The following profiles are offered:

  • Culture and society

  • Economics and society

  • Nature and health

  • Nature and technology

After the fourth year, the pupil will be in a period called the ‘study-house’ (studiehuis), where independent study is essential. In addition to traditional lessons, the study house offers a broad scope for individual approach.

Bilingual VWO

A bilingual VWO means that, after the first year of secondary school, about half the subjects are taught in English. Little wonder that the Dutch do well in this global age!

 

NB

The above are personal views and do not represent UKIP policy.

 

 

Norman Taylor, September 2016

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