The Dutch Way in Education (review)

30 May, 2017

Biesta, Context, Emacipation, Harris, Inspectorate

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It looks like Holland has become the next Finland. Alma Harris *1 calls our educational system ‘a hidden gem’ *2. And indeed we are not doing that bad (typical Dutch expression for being proud) in international comparisons. Not only in PISA, but also in PIRLS and in OECD rankings (though spending less than the OECD average). We have a high rate of participation in higher education and 94% of our population is speaking two or more languages (p. 7). We have considerably success in ensuring that equality of opportunity is prioritized and realized *3. In addition: our children are ‘the happiest in the world’. (p. 236)

Reason for a publication about our educational system: The Dutch Way in Education; Teach, learn & lead the Dutch Way. The immediate reason being the celebration of the centenary of the Pacification of 1917, that brought an end to the battle between the Protestant and Catholic schools over freedom of education, and introduced equal funding for all schools. (p. 5)

The first aim of the book is: to take proper pride in showing that the Dutch education system makes some original choices and has a great deal to offer. Others aims are to contribute to the worldwide discourse on ‘good’ education, and to position the Netherlands as an alternative in the discussion about paradigms. (p. 8)

The book is meticulously well designed and edited in the style of one of the publishers Onderwijs Maak Je Samen: Only Together You Can Make Education. (The other publisher is De Brink Foundation).

The editors (Jan Heijmans and Job Christians) state that we are successful because our educational policy does justice to our national context and culture. (p. XI)

Alma Harris summarizes about our educational system:
- The education system reflects a strong commitment to collective and equitable development;
- Dutch educational policymaking reflects power sharing and consensus in decision-making;
- The national belief in fairness, equity and justice. (p. 237)
(For details see note *4)

The editors present as new insights:
- Our broad focus on all three categories of educational objectives: qualification, socialization and subjectification (Biesta *5);
- A holistic look at what is good for the development of children/young people: Equal opportunities for all children, targeted development of multi-faceted talents and cultivation of excellence;
- We have a long tradition of dealing with diversity. Our famous ‘polder model’ helps us in dealing productively with apparently insurmountable contradictions. (p. 12)

Apart from the introduction and the concluding chapter of Alma Harris and Michelle S. Jones, the book contains 9 chapters from professors of research universities and professors of universities of professional education. The chapters are mainly well written and informative. Having worked for projects abroad in the last two decades the chapters helped me to discover trends I had missed.
The themes of the chapters are: freedom of education, good education, inclusion, the teaching profession, supervision and accountability, emancipation, super-diversity, vocational education and an innovation mindset.

Together the 9 chapters present an overview of what are the current interests of a good selection of Dutch professors in education.
Some chapters present an historical view; most of the chapters present the current situation, the main problems and wishes or suggestions for the future (typical Dutch: not yet satisfied, aiming for more and better).

The authors indeed describe the situation in the Dutch educational system, although not for all relevant components. In contrast with the title there e.g. is no chapter about school leadership. It is true that we did not have that much professors with a focus on educational management, but already since the seventies we started with training for principals and their teams, and in the last decades the number of organisations offering such training exploded.

The ‘Polder model’
Given the assumed relevance of the ‘Polder model’ I also miss a chapter about the advisory structure for the Ministry. It changed considerably throughout the decades, growing and shrinking, showing the changing preferences of the Ministry whom to talk to, but also being the result of power struggles between the different stakeholders (religious based organisations, boards of education, principals, teachers, support organisations). Especially the key role of the ‘Education Council’ and its functioning could have been dealt with. *6

From the 9 chapters I especially liked (apart from Biesta) chapter 5 about the Inspectorate and chapter 6 about emancipation.

- Chapter 5: Supervision and Accountability in the Dutch Education System (Inge de Wolf, Jos Verkroost, Herman Franssen). It is well-balanced and takes into account critics on the role of the Inspectorate in the different phases of its development.

The first of the four supervisory dilemmas in the concluding paragraph of this chapter is: Checking or Motivating. The authors state that ‘Over the decades, the role of the inspectorate has switched from checking to motivating and vice versa’ with a return now to motivating. (p. 122)
That might bring the Inspectorate close to the domain of the (former) National Pedagogical Centres and the local and regional School Advisory Centres. In the past the NPC’s and the SAD’s considered motivation and stimulation to innovation just their terrain. The Inspectorate should stick to inspecting (or even was considered as unnecessary).
What a difference with the situation of today. Now there are only two of the NPC’s left (The APS – Algemeen Pedagogisch Studiecentrum - ceased to exist in 2016). And the SAC’s like the NPC’s had their difficult times, going through mergers, getting accustomed to outspoken clients and a more business-like operating.

In the book the history and functioning of the NPC’s and the SAC’s really is missing. The well-established advisory and supporting function in the Netherlands was (is) a key factor in our innovation of education. Because this is different from other countries it might be an important factor in explaining the results in Dutch education.

- Chapter 6: Excellence in Emancipation, a Century-Long Search for Balance (Marc Vermeulen & Sietske Waslander). It is written crystal clear and draws a surprising conclusion.

Apart from Harris and the editors only Vermeulen and Wassink reflect on what is typical Dutch and they present a hunch why we are so successful.

They conclude that four mechanisms provided a basis for emancipation in the Netherlands: congruence (alignment of values), (peaceful) competition (between religious groups), (targeted) compensation and (formal and informal) coordination.
However: ‘In a way those mechanisms have lost their strength in the Dutch educational system. Coordination became elitist and bureaucratic, competition between school sometimes brought a waste of energy and budgets. Parents hardly feel strongly committed to their schools (with an exception for Muslim schools). Specific compensation has lost its rationale and became a bureaucratic burden’. (p.147).

So for emancipation ‘the Dutch way’ seems to have lost some of its meaning.
Whether that holds for other goals in our educational system requires additional studies.
For such studies I consider this book as a good starting point for defining the Dutch Way in education, for explaining why we are so successful and thus being able to inspire others.

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*1 Alma Harris is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy, at the Department of Education, University of Bath, England, former Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of the 'Institute of Educational Leadership' at the University of Malaya, Malaysia and author (with Michelle S. Jones) of ‘Leading Futures: Global Perspectives on Educational Leadership’. See my blog: Leading Futures by Alma Harris.
 *2 Back cover of ‘The Dutch Way in Education’
 *3 Although with some recent disappointments: The Ministry of Education is not able to report how efficient/effective the large special budgets on appropriate education (passend onderwijs) are spent because of the autonomy of the boards of education in spending.
 *4 Characteristics of the Dutch educational system:
- Schools enjoy a high degree of autonomy;
- This autonomy is based on the principle of freedom of education (in the Dutch constitution);
- All school receive public funding;
- High quality teacher training;
- Great emphasis on teacher autonomy and professionalism;
- Balance of support and pressure (monitoring by the Inspectorate);
- Framework of standards;
- Additional resources and teaching support in schools that need it the most;
- Not overly encumbered with overzealous accountability, prescription and standardization;
- No national curriculum but certain learning objectives;
- High-quality standardized assessments;
- Pressure to compete and perform is not as acute or demoralizing as in many other countries;
- Norms and values of the Dutch society are collaborative.
*5 See my blog: Biesta, Educational Leadership for What? 
*6 See: https://www.onderwijsraad.nl/english/about-us/item35

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