Thursday, 22 July 2010

Academy schools?

Dutch students at Ulenhofcollege , a Dutch comprehensive state funded school for secondary education, flaunt their caps as a sign of attainment in bi-lingual education. Their formal clothing and the caps are a tongue in cheek imitation of Anglo-Saxon educational folklore.

To me, looking from across the Channel, the British educational system seems unduly awkward. A recent initiative, academy schools, which was piloted under Tony Blair, and is now strongly advocated by the new education secretary, Michael Goves, seems to make an already unwieldy system even more complicated.

All Dutch schools are state funded

Independent schools are virtually non-existent in Dutch education. All Dutch schools are state funded, school education is free until the age of sixteen. A school like Durham School couldn't possibly exist in the Netherlands, as no parent feels that the quality of education at such an institution justifies paying through the nose a fee of £11,022 for a day pupil, or £21,414 for a full boarder. Farming out the raising of children to a boarding school doesn't fit in the Dutch mindset, for that matter. Dutch parents send their children to a school of their own choice in the near distance. Dutch students ride to school on their bikes which means that every school within a distance of twenty kilometres can be reached. The school may charge possibly a couple of hundred Euros annually for extracurricular activities. Even this fee is not mandatory, no school can go to court when a parent refuses to pay.

A constitutional right

This does not imply that all Dutch schools are state or community schools. Starting a school of your own is possible, however one must comply with national law which is quite strict about housing, the basic curriculum, and teacher qualifications. When you pass muster you will be state funded.

This educational freedom (“Vrijheid van onderwijs”) has been invoked by religious communities to start Protestant-Christian or Roman-Catholic schools in the past, recently a lot of Islamic schools were initiated. Also parents' associations have built schools with an ideological stance towards education, based on the ideas of, for example, Maria Montessori, Helen Parkhurst or Rudolf Steiner. So parents do have choices. Homeschooling is not an option though.

Standards in education

The quality of education at the various schools is checked by national inspectors annually. Schools that fail to meet the standard will lose their funding or even will be forced to close. This was incurred by an Islamic school half a year ago.

The results for national exams gauge the quality of all schools in implementing the basic curriculum. These results and the inspection reports are published in national newspapers and are available on the internet. Next to that schools are vying for students by choosing for a clear educational profile, thereby distinguishing themselves from other schools in their catchment area. So parents do have choices.

Though the complaint about deteriorating education is a perennial phenomenon in the Netherlands, just as it is in the United Kingdom, this hasn't been vindicated yet by international comparison. Pisa results of Dutch education have outstripped the UK's results so far. On the other hand the Dutch can't preen themselves on having an illustrious institution like Eton to provide for eloquent prime ministers. Also the UK is doing far better in the number of Nobel prize laureates per million inhabitants which possibly may be the result of outstanding education at university level in the UK.

Social segregation

As seen through Dutch eyes, English education is utterly class defined. The idea of academy schools is meant to solve the problem of poor attainments of pupils in inner cities and backward rural areas. Most peculiarly, schools have to raise £2m to become an academy - from private organisations such as business, faith or voluntary groups. Quite predictably the academy school will deepen class distinctions in education as middle class parents will seize the opportunities while lower classes will fail to do so:

But a leading academic at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, found that even in Sweden — one of the world's most egalitarian countries — free schools increased segregation. The schools are predominantly based in rich, urban areas and middle-class parents take their children out of community schools to attend them, Dr Susanne Wiborg found.

When it comes to raising the level of education for all, including the lower classes, it would be better to aim for egalitarian free education for all. The Dutch example shows this can be done. The figure on the left makes clear that it doesn't even take more spending in primary and secondary education. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are both spending below the average of the European Union in percentage of their Gross Domestic Product. Both are doing better on the Pisa tests than Denmark, which allocates most to education.

Albeit, the Dutch can learn from the British how to achieve excellency with gifted students. We definitely need eloquent prime ministers, but only if the politicians' verbosity does not whitewash the state's failure in providing the means to escape the vicious circle of culturally deprived background, unhealthy food habits, poor education and unemployment too many kids are in.

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