Category Archives: Leading Futures Series

Leading Futures: Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform and Policy

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty describe an alternative approach to improving teaching that challenges predominant forms of accountability. Drawing from their public lecture at Bath Spa University on May 17, 2017, with a focus on the potential of Gore’s work in Australia on Quality Teaching Rounds, they suggest that the approach should now be trialed elsewhere.  Jenny Gore is Professor of Education and Geoff Whitty holds a Global Innovation Chair at the University of Newcastle, Australia. 

Improving teaching: some lessons from Australia

Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty

Why on earth would we look to Australia for lessons about education? After all, its PISA scores have dropped down the rankings where they now sit alongside those of many other OECD nations. What does Australia have to offer that differs from the apparently more successful countries in Scandinavia and East Asia that have often been the focus of policy tourism?

One answer is, of course, that PISA is not the be-all and end-all of educational assessment. But another reason is that other factors have overridden ‘PISA envy’ for countries like the US and UK, which are much more similar to each other than they are to either Finland or Shanghai-China. Their continuing mutual interest in each other’s reforms probably lies with shared social and political networks and assumptive worlds – and, of course, a common language with which to describe reforms.

Indeed, readers in the US and UK, and many others influenced by Anglo-Saxon policies, will readily recognize the major challenges identified by Bentley and Savage in a recent book on policies changes in Australia in recent years. These include:

  • a national curriculum
  • standardised national assessments in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN)
  • national reporting on schools (through the My School website)
  • professional standards for teachers and school principals
  • a universally accessible year of pre-school
  • partial implementation of needs-based funding reforms (Gonski).

But they also point out that, despite these reforms, there is unfortunately very little sign of positive impacts or outcomes. For example:

  • The percentage of Australian students successfully completing Year 12 is not improving.
  • State and federal school funding policies are still reproducing a status quo that entrenches sectoral division and elitism.
  • New evidence-informed methods, such as clinical and targeted teaching models, are being taken up very slowly in teacher education degrees and schools.
  • The status and efficacy of vocational learning have shown little meaningful improvement.
  • NAPLAN and My School have not led to improvements in literacy and numeracy, with 2016 data showing either stagnation or decline.
  • The performance of Australian students in international assessments of maths, science and literacy skills has steadily declined.

Depressingly familiar stuff to many of us, isn’t it?  Similarly, take this recent statement by Geoff Masters, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

There is no shortage of challenges in school education. Some of the biggest challenges we face can appear frustratingly intractable. Despite reform efforts, regular government reviews and ongoing calls for change, progress in addressing our most significant challenges is often slow and solutions continue to elude us.

Equally familiar are the five key challenges he identifies as facing Australian education:

  1. Equipping students for the 21st Century, including by increasing reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels.
  2. Reducing disparities between…schools, particularly along socioeconomic lines, by ensuring that every student has access to an excellent school and excellent teaching.
  3. Reducing the ‘long tail’ of underachieving students who fall behind year-level curriculum expectations and thus fail to meet minimum international standards.
  4. Getting all children off to a good start, by reducing the number of children who begin school with low levels of school readiness and so are at risk of ongoing low achievement.
  5. Raising the professional status of teaching, by increasing the number of highly able school leavers entering teaching.

While this last challenge resonates with the aspirations of many countries, and policy direction of initiatives like Teach for America, Gore et al. have demonstrated that the solution identified here by Masters may be misleading. Rather, the sort of approach we describe below may be a better way to enhance professionalism in teaching.

Bentley and Savage say of Australia, over the past decade ‘the policy landscape has become riddled with reform “solutions” that subject students, teachers, administrators and policymakers to mounting levels of pressure and stress’ and that ‘the short-term cyclical churn of today’s politics and media clearly exacerbates these problems.’

Although the policy context of other countries differs in detail, their actual policies have much in common. In many countries, regulation and accountability have taken a hold on government attitudes towards the teaching profession, alongside (though in different degrees) a belief in market forces as providing a way forward. Education academics (ourselves included) have been rather better at critique of such developments than in pointing to an alternative way forward. What we want to argue is that widely sought-after improvements in teaching will remain elusive unless teachers are afforded more respect, trust and, especially, professional support.

One tested example of such an approach lies in work conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, which puts down a challenge to policy makers who seek genuine improvement in teaching. The approach, known Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR), has produced measurable impact on the quality of teaching while simultaneously enhancing teachers’ morale and confidence.

QTR is a form of teacher professional development designed by Bowe and Gore to bring together the benefits of professional learning communities (PLCs), instructional ‘rounds’, and the Quality Teaching (QT) pedagogical framework (NSW Department of Education and Training [NSW DET], 2003). The framework centres on the three dimensions of Intellectual Quality, Quality Learning Environment, and Significance. QTR involves teachers working in PLCs of three or more teachers to observe and analyse each other’s teaching, using the QT framework, followed by extended conversation about their collective practice. QTR is a distinctive form of professional development which: is applicable across stages and subject areas; addresses teaching comprehensively; requires minimal external input; and is adaptable to the specific teaching context. This is in contrast to professional development that: is stage or subject-specific; addresses a part of teaching practice only; requires ongoing provision of external expertise; and is highly prescriptive of practice.

In a recent randomised controlled trial, 24 NSW public schools participated in an investigation of the impact of QTR. Eight teachers at each of the schools were involved in the study, with lesson observations carried out by researchers, who were blinded to group allocation, at three time points – baseline, post-intervention (6-months), and follow up (12- months). There were two intervention groups (QTR-Set and QTR-Choice) and a wait-list control group.

Participating in QTR was found to significantly impact on the quality of teaching (d =0.4-0.5) within the relatively short timeframe of this intervention (most teachers were involved for four days or less) across a diverse range of schools. Moderators of intervention effects were explored for: type of school, SES, location, teaching experience, and gender of teacher.

The key findings were that the quality of teaching improved for both intervention groups and these effects were sustained six months later, signaling the sustainability of impact into a new school year. Effects were independent of school type (primary/secondary) and location (urban/rural) and years of teaching experience. Effects on teacher morale and sense of recognition and appraisal yielded similar results for the two intervention groups, relative to control group. In interviews, teachers reported positive impacts on their own and their colleagues’ teaching and professional confidence, on collegiality and school culture, and on their students. The next study in this programme of work is another RCT designed to investigate further the impact of QTR on student learning outcomes.

The findings from the earlier study demonstrate the value of QTR in not only improving the quality of teaching but simultaneously enhancing teacher morale and teaching cultures across a range of schools and classroom settings in diverse communities. QTR was found to be an effective form of professional development, improving the quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools across subject areas and for teachers at different stages of their careers. The positive effects of QTR are thus highly generalisable across school contexts.

The approach not only builds on widely accepted ‘principles of effective PD,’ but can be implemented at scale and at a relatively low cost. It supports teachers in improving their practice while also developing their efficacy, well-being and professional engagement. This is in stark contrast to approaches that subject teachers to greater levels of accountability, evaluation, and performance review.

This Australian approach simultaneously, and ambitiously, provides evidence of a kind that is persuasive to governments and education systems that want to be sure their investments have pay-off and empower teachers. Such an approach is part of the jigsaw of educational improvement that has somehow been missing in many contexts. We argue that improving teaching in order to improve pupils’ learning depends, in large part, on teachers’ confidence in themselves and each other. This differs from prevailing approaches that seek to improve teaching through forms of accountability premised on a lack of confidence in and respect for teachers. In short, QTR is an alternative that can build public confidence in teachers from the ground up.

Leading Futures – Unions: The Last Bastions of Progressive School Improvement

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Dean Fink argues that unions play an important role in maintaining and enhancing the professionalism of teachers and principals and as a result improve the quality of education. Fink is an international educational development consultant.  He is a former superintendent and principal with the Halton Board of Education in Ontario Canada. Fink has published numerous book chapters and articles on topics related to organizational effectiveness, leadership and change.

Recently, with considerable help from colleagues from seven nations, Australia, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, the United Kingdom (England) and the United States, I wrote and edited a book that examined the relationship between institutional, relational and self-trust among the professional staff in schools and student achievement. What motivated the book was an interesting correlation between national measures of trust, and student achievement as measured by PISA (Program for International School Achievement).  For example, the World Values Survey  asked people in many countries around the world the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Possible answers included (a) most people can be trusted, and (b) you can never be too careful when dealing with others.

The first question reflected people’s trusting nature and the second their cautious or distrusting nature.  Of the seven nations in our study, Finland and Sweden scored highest on the trust measures, Canada and Australia followed closely, and the United States next in that order, then England, and well behind, the post-Soviet nation of Lithuania.  A second trust measure The Corruption Perception Index measured the perceived trustworthiness of a nation’s public sector on a scale from 0 to 100. The pattern was similar to the World Values Survey – Finland and Sweden scored at 89 %, Canada and Australia at 81%, the United Kingdom at 76%, the United States at 73% and Lithuania at 53%.

These rankings correlate closely with the 2009 and 2012 PISA scores. These results have now become the ‘gold standard’ by which politicians, academics and educational officials rate school systems. When one averages the reading, mathematics and science scores from the 2012 PISA as one measure of quality, the results follow a familiar order – Finland (529), Canada (522), Australia, (512), the United Kingdom (502), the United States, (492), Lithuania (484).  Sweden is an anomaly (482) when compared to its high trust scores. While scores in general for western countries are down from the 2009 PISA, with Lithuania as a significant exception, the rankings in 2012 were similar.

This suggests that there is a clear pattern, on admittedly flawed measures, that suggests that high trust countries produce higher student achievement. To prove this conclusively was beyond our resources but we were sufficiently intrigued to try in each of our countries to understand the trust dynamic and how it affected student and teacher performance at a much deeper level. To do this each member of our team surveyed samples of principals and teachers using the same 30 item five scale survey developed jointly and translated for non-English speaking nations. With these results, each country’s researcher(s) conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers and principals using a few generic questions on trust and distrust and then more specific questions arising from their survey results with specific reference to their trust in institutions like government and unions, relational trust among individuals in and outside of schools, and individuals’ trust in themselves in the current political climate.


Context Counts

The first and most obvious conclusion from our study is that each nation’s educational system is unique and levels of trust in each are dependent on local conditions. For example, Australia, Canada and the United States have federal systems of government with potentially three levels of government having involvement in education, national, provincial or state, and local. The national governments in Australia and the United States play an increasingly activist role in education, whereas the Canadian federal government has very limited involvement. The other four nations in our study have unitary systems of government that usually involve only a national and local government in education. While local governments are deeply involved in education in Finland, Sweden and Lithuania, the national government in England has severely undermined the involvement in education of local authorities. As a generalization, levels of trust among policy makers and policy implementers are directly related to their proximity to each other.  A teacher for example would have more trust in a local school board or local authority member than she might have in a member of the national government.  Conversely national politicians seem to have less trust in educational professionals than more local policy makers who actually meet teachers and principals in their daily activities and can learn from personal experience how their policies play out in practice. Recognizing the uniqueness of each education system and its patterns of trust well known Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg offer this caution:

…politicians and policy makers should be careful when borrowing ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada, or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policy makers should also be aware of the myths about these systems and what made them successful.


Unions and School Improvement

A second and somewhat unanticipated revelation of our study related to teacher unions and levels of trust.  If one accepts the widely-held view that the most significant factor in the educational achievement of students is the quality of their teachers, then it follows that trust in institutions that impact positively on the lives and efficacy of teachers are vital ingredients of school improvement.  While a highly debated concept, especially in the United States, our data suggests that strong teacher unions contribute to better student results.  Unions appear to enhance the status and well-being of teachers in nations like Canada and Finland by providing professional push back against the forces of privatization and New Public Management, and by demanding reasonable wages and working conditions for teachers which in turn make the profession more attractive to younger people.  Both of these ‘high trust’ nations attract high quality university graduates into the profession and neither nation has had to resort to ‘quick recruitment fixes’ like Teach for America in the United States or Teach First in England.  Conversely underachieving nations, such as the United States, have undermined unions’ efficacy through right to work legislation which bans mandatory union membership (closed shop) and the payment of union dues which allows individual teachers to avoid financial obligations while still receiving the collective bargaining benefits of unions. In this way, governments have sought to erode the financial support for unions and weaken their ability to provide a counter narrative to the privatization agenda of many governments and to bargain for increased wages and improved working conditions.

A major motivating factor for such legislation is the widely-held belief that unions distort the natural process of labour markets by protecting inferior teachers and artificially driving up salaries for incompetents. In fact, the opposite happens.  For example, in the United States where unions are under extreme pressure, teachers experience 17% lower wage levels when compared to comparable workers. Unionized teachers have a 6% less wage gap when compared to nonunionized teachers but still below comparable workers.  Is it any wonder that most American states have teacher recruitment problems?

Dr. Eunice Han’s exhaustive study on the relationship between unions and teacher efficacy provides further evidence that unionization is in fact good for teachers and students alike and does indeed improve students’ performance. Han says that highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.  She argues that by demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them.  In 2010-2011, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin changed their laws to dramatically restrict the collective bargaining power of public school teachers. Han compared these states to States where no change had occurred.  If teachers’ unions protect bad teachers, then teacher quality should have risen in the ‘reforming’ states, instead she found that the opposite happened. The new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about 9%. With lower salaries, school districts had less motivation to dismiss underperforming teachers which resulted in the ‘right to work’ states. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, which contributed to a decrease of teacher quality and a related fall in student’s achievement. Since teacher unions or some kind of teachers’ organizations will continue to play a part in every school jurisdiction it seems to make sense for governments that want to improve schools must work collaboratively with these organizations rather than to constantly confront, demean and ignore.


Principals and unions

A third and not unexpected result of our discussions with principals internationally is that principals find themselves in the crosshairs between big governments and more militant teachers’ associations and unions.  Strong unions complicate life for on-site school leaders.  On one hand Principals are mandated to implement policies that reflect policy makers distrust of teachers’ professionalism such as standardized testing and school inspections, and in which they themselves often have profound doubts as to their educational soundness.  In response teacher unions in some countries have grown more militant as the values of a market driven, production model of educational delivery become more established and ‘right to work’ legislation and other means to curb the power of unions including workplace agreements, becomes more popular among right-leaning politicians. This is especially so in countries such as Canada, where, in some provincesteachers and principals are represented by different associations.

Our survey of principals and teachers included this item – “Unions are an agency for school improvement in school systems and schools” – among the 30 items on our survey.  It is interesting therefore to consider how principals responded to our survey item on trust in unions.   Those principals who were not part of the teachers’ bargaining unit in Canada, such as in Ontario and British Columbia were very negative on the item.  Of our seven nations on the five-point scale, Canada scored lowest at 2.41. This low score probably reflects job (industrial) actions at the time of the survey’s administration in both large provinces as well as the legislated exclusion of principals from the teachers’ unions by production leaning governments that believed that education should be run like a business and principals as managers must be separated from their workers – the teachers.

These political decisions removed the moderating effect on unions of principals who generally see the larger picture and, as a result, unions in British Columbia and Ontario particularly, over the past 20 years, have become more strident and militant. Principals are now in the uncomfortable and often contradictory position of representing their school districts’ and provincial policies while trying to bring about school improvement with a staff that follows the lead of their unions.  Building collaborative cultures is difficult enough for principals without the added burden of negotiating these political waters.   Once again, education politics and policies that are designed to drive a wedge between principals and their staff on industrial matters cannot be seen to be conducive to developing high-trust relationships at the individual school level.  Ironically, Canadian school achievement is among the highest of our seven nations, and as stated previously, in general teachers are well paid and enjoy decent working conditions. There is no shortage of teachers in most Canadian jurisdictions with the exception of more remote and isolated areas. This is not the result of more benevolent political decision makers but rather the strength of teacher unions that are well financed and willing to push back. Principals, caught in the middle on a daily basis and excluded from unions tend to perceive only the short-term challenges presented by unions and not the long-term benefits.

Except for Canada in our seven nation study, there is no discernible pattern concerning principals’ support for and trust in teachers’ unions or their degree of influence on government policies.  Finland which includes principals in the teachers’ bargaining unit scored highest on our five point scale at 3.1.  Australian principals who are part of teachers’ unions in each state and nationally scored 2.68, and do play a high-profile role in influencing government policies.  Sweden scored 2.73 on our five-point scale.  Its secondary principals, who appear to be quite influential in an advisory position to government, operate outside the teachers’ union whereas most of their elementary colleagues are within the teachers’ union.   The two lowest achieving nations on PISA in our sample, the United Kingdom and the United States scored 2.92 on this item.   The United Kingdom’s two major principals’ organizations and three large teachers’ unions appear to have little impact on policy. The United States, that has a mixture of union and non-union States and separate principals’ organizations in most states, has had only modest success holding back the forces of privatization.

Lithuania at 2.59 on our measures, with its four teachers’ unions that include some principals and a rather ineffective principals’ association[i], tend to weaken their influence on policy by competing among themselves.  Where governments face multiple unions and principals’ associations, such as in Lithuania and the United Kingdom, governments often overcome opposition by playing one organization off against another. These large-scale dramas often add to the political challenges of principals in schools. Our study has suggested that, with the directions and destiny of the teaching profession controlled by the political process in each of the jurisdictions, and with principals called upon increasingly to be policy advocates and implementers, not designers, or at best recognized as having a limited voice among many in the policy-making process, it has been teacher unions more than any other group that have had the power to act as a voice on behalf of the teaching profession.


In our book, we portrayed the educational landscape internationally as a contest between two visions of educational change – a production model based on trust in the efficacy of markets, standardized test, privatized schools and invasive verification schemes and a progressive model that places its trust in well qualified, well paid, well treated, well-regulated professional educators. In this paper, I have tried to argue that unions play an important role in maintaining and indeed enhancing the professionalism of teacher and principals, although at times it may not seem like it, and as a result improve the quality of education.

Since unions were only a small and serendipitous part of our study this paper can only talk in terms of correlations not causes. What is needed is rigorous research to examine the relationship of unions and student achievement and to address such questions as:

  • what kind of unions are most effective – single interest unions such as the Ontario Secondary Schools Federation or inclusive teacher unions such as the Alberta Teachers Association;
  • what kind of legislation is needed to protect unionism while caring for the interests of taxpayers and students;
  • what are the most successful union configurations;
  • should principals be considered management and separate from teacher unions or as head teachers and part of a collaborative teaching unit included in Teacher unions?

As the foregoing discussion suggest, the field of unions and school improvement is wide open for bright young scholars to explore deeply.


Leading Futures: Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform and Policy

Series Editors Alma Harris and Michelle Jones

The global discourse about educational policy and change has narrowed considerably because of a preoccupation with the high performing systems, as defined by large-scale international assessments, and the factors that contribute to their success. Building on Alma Harris and Michelle Jones’ book, Leading Futures: Global Perspectives on Educational Leadership, the Leading Futures series is premised on the contention that more contextual and culturally sensitive accounts of educational change are needed in order to consider broader attributions and explanations of educational performance.

The Leading Futures series provides a platform for sharing different views on the process and practice of changing education systems for the better. Its intention is to open up the contemporary debate on school and system performance through critical policy analysis, empirical enquiry and contextualized accounts of system performance.

This post by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians is the first in the Leading Futures series.

The Dutch Way: Is the Netherlands a best kept educational secret?

Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians.

Unlike many other education systems, the Netherlands appears to be delivering both educational quality and equity. So why does the Dutch system do so well? To attribute its success to a handful of structural features or to certain strategies is one way to go. However, accurately identifying causal attributions for better system performance is far from straightforward or fool proof. In complex education systems there are often multiple reasons for better outcomes that interact and intersect.

In this post, we argue that the Dutch system provides an example of “principled educational performance,” combining a focus on democratic values with an approach to policymaking that relies on both collaboration and autonomy.

The Dutch system in context: Educational quality and equity

The global interest in the high performing education systems shows no signs of slowing down. The interest in borrowing from the best has placed the international spotlight on a select group of education systems and not others. Earlier this year, the OECD published “Supporting Teacher Professionalism,” drawing upon the 2013 TALIS survey in order to explore teachers’ and principals’ perceived professionalism. Thirty-four countries were scored on three measures: teachers’ professional knowledge, work autonomy, and access to peer networks. Of all the education systems that scored highest on the index of professionalism, seven were in Europe and the Netherlands placed fourth in this group.

The Dutch education system is not necessarily on the radar of policy makers in search of better performance but a quick look at the Dutch system makes interesting reading. The evidence shows that Dutch students perform very well in international student assessments and as a country, the Netherlands has remained just outside the PISA top ten, for successive rounds. At the primary level, results from both the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessments indicate an exceptionally good performance for Dutch students aged nine to ten. Among all participating countries, in these international assessments, the Netherlands was only outperformed by seven countries in mathematics and science, and by nine countries in reading.

Turning next to the all important PISA scores. In 2012, 15-year-olds in the Netherlands achieved results significantly above the OECD average in the 3 areas tested (mathematics, reading and science). Only two other OECD countries achieved significantly higher performance levels in mathematics. In 2011, the Netherlands had the lowest rate of 15-29 year-olds not in employment, education or training across all OECD countries: 7% compared to an OECD average of 16%. While there are some who argue that above average is not good enough, from different vantage points and using different indicators it would appear that Dutch education system is performing well.

Yet, the Dutch seem to be remarkably quiet about their educational successes and accomplishments. Possibly this is because unlike some of their near European neighbours, they are not among the big hitters in PISA. Yet, they have a track record in educational equity that should be the envy of many countries in Europe and beyond. Take for example the fact that the Netherlands has fewer low performers and more high performers than the OECD average. Significantly fewer Dutch 15-years-olds scored below the PISA performance level 2, which is believed to mark the basic competency which enables active participation in a society. The impact of student socioeconomic background on performance in mathematics was less pronounced in the Netherlands than at the OECD average. The Netherlands also has an above average proportion of resilient students i.e. students who manage to overcome difficult socio-economic circumstances and exceed expectations, when compared to students in other countries.

It is no accident that the Netherlands is one of the OECD’s most devolved education systems, with schools enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This particular brand of autonomy however is not to be confused with increased privatization of schooling or the erosion of local control of schooling. Rather, this particular brand of localalized empowerment is based upon the principle of freedom of education where public and private schools are on an equal footing and all schools receive public funding, provided that they meet the requirements for schools in their sector. In the Netherlands, all teachers receive high quality teacher training at bachelors and masters level plus there is a great emphasis on teacher autonomy and professionalism. The Education Cooperative, which involves over 200,000 teachers, is run by teachers for teachers with the chief aim of safeguarding the quality of the profession.

Before concluding that the Netherlands is some educational utopia where schools and teachers are blissfully free from any interference, think again. The central government sets learning objectives and quality standards that apply to both public and private schools. The Inspectorate of Education monitors school quality and compliance with central rules and regulations. Unlike many other education systems however the Dutch system balances support and pressure in a positive way. While there is a framework of standards, with broadly formulated goals, there are also additional resources and teaching support in schools that need it the most. If schools improve, they are rewarded with more autonomy and freedom to innovate, if they are considered high performing they can apply for Excellent School status.

Of particular note is the fact that the Dutch education system is not overly encumbered with regulation, prescription and standardisation. There is no national curriculum in the Netherlands, however certain learning objectives are stipulated by the Ministry and are expected to be met at the end of primary and lower secondary education. There is testing in the Netherlands and notably, the system stands out internationally for its high-quality standardised assessments. While the issue of testing remains for some Dutch educators somewhat controversial, on balance, the pressure to compete and perform is not as acute as in many other countries. The norms of the Dutch society are collaborative and this threads its way through the very fabric of schooling. Competition hardly plays a role in Dutch educational culture; students are seldom graded against each other or expected to compete against one another.

In terms of equity, the Netherlands is a particularly strong system example. It is the only country participating in PIRLS where all students achieved, at least, the low international benchmark of performance in reading. In addition, 99% of the Dutch students achieved at least the low international benchmark in mathematics and science in TIMSS. Young people in the Netherlands, up to age of 18, must attend school until they attain a basic qualification and there is a strong policy on truancy and absenteeism. The Ministry has signed performance agreements on student dropout with municipalities and schools in 39 regions, which ensures that the most vulnerable young people are supported. In 2006, the government introduced a successful program (Aanval op de uitval) with a regional approach to promote school success and to avoid early school drop outs. A recent OECD report shows that in terms of low-performing students, the Netherlands is far below the OECD average. In the Netherlands, students from low socio-economic backgrounds are 1.72 times more likely to be low performers than their peers with high socio-economic status which is below the OECD average (2.37 times). A higher proportion of Dutch disadvantaged students attend schools with students from better-off backgrounds than the OECD average.

In summary, the Netherlands demonstates a strong comitment to collective and equitable development. As Professor Wilma Vollebergh, University of Utrecht and Netherlands Institute for Social Research reports, it has a social culture and Dutch educational policy-making reflects power-sharing and consenses in decision-making. Such strong cultural norms and values are at the heart of educational practice and largely explain the performance of its education system. The national belief in fairness, equity and justice not only drives the education system but also, at a practical level, translates into a collective effort to ensure success for every child in every setting. A recent study of 200,000 students from 42 countries concluded that Dutch students are happy and have high levels of well-being.

What can we take away from the Dutch approach? 

So what can we take away from the Dutch education system? Essentially, there are three things. First, that the Netherlands does not rely on school competition or market forces to secure better educational performance. Conversely, it relies on strong collaboration between teachers and schools to raise achievement and attainment. Second, it does not exclude students from its education system who are disadvantaged, marginalised or are refugees from another country. Instead, it makes every effort to ensure that young people, from all backgrounds, do not leave school early and that they enter the workforce qualified to participate.Third, the Dutch system shows that it is perfectly possible to combine educational equity and quality. While some may argue that there is more work to be done, compared to many other countries the Dutch education system is undoubtedly moving in the right direction.

For those interested in navigating the slopes of quick-fix, high performance, the Netherlands is categorically off-piste. The Dutch way is epitomized by a long history and a proud tradition of building civic society around democratic values that continue to define both an education system and a country. In years to come, when the high-octane remedies for better educational performance have been over-sold to the point where they have lost their lustre and attraction to policy makers, Dutch educators will still be striving, in their quiet but determined way, for educational excellence through equity. With hindsight, it might indeed be the case, that one of our most principled educational performers was there all along.

Notes on Authors

Dr. Alma Harris is Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Malaya.

Dr Michelle Jones is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Malaya

Dr. J. Heijmans is Chair of the Executive Board KPZ (teacher training Center Zwolle) in the Netherlands.

Job Christians is a former teacher and founder/director of Onderwijs Maak Je Samen (organization for professional development) in the Netherlands.