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 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.