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Monday, 7 February 2011

Primary education is ruined by good intensions and fuzzy politics

Just two news items of the past weeks:
·    The city council in Almere (the city where I live; a very new city of 200,000 inhabitants in The Netherlands) considers to close kindergartens to settle a deficit of 800,000 EUR in the city’s budget

·    Dutch government considers decreasing the access age for primary schools to 2.5 years for children with delayed development.

Both news items are connected with my youngest daughter that will be 2 years old in May. She wanted to go to a kindergarten in Almere, but this is now threatened with being closed-down. Also, as a child of a Dutch father and Russian mother, she might be in the group of children with delayed development, because of her bilingualism.
So instead of having two happy and safe years in an excellent kindergarten with very motivated and suitable guides, she might have to go to a primary school when she is 2.5 years old.

As two concerned parents, we think this might have a bad influence on our daughter and we have our reasons for this:

Primary education in Almere is extremely weak in general, compared to other large cities in The Netherlands. At this moment there are 6 very weak primary schools and 33 weak schools (source: educational inspection report).

These figures are overwhelming, especially compared to other large cities in The Netherlands that are often 2-3 times as big as Almere. Only Amsterdam (750,000 inhabitants)  has 3 very weak schools and Den Bosch (400,000 inh.) has 2. The four other largest cities (300,000 – 600,000 inh.) have none.

Besides that primary education in common suffers from four influential factors:
·    The continuously changing political requirements for primary schools, laden with political objectives (“integration”, “cooperation”), put schools in a permanent state of confusion and make them change educational curricula every few years. Schools become afraid and show NIMBY (not in my backyard) behavior. They are regularly testing and evaluating these very young children and every child that shows any form of delayed development, is put under stringent surveillance, as it forms a risk for the school’s statistics. Problem children get a subsidy or they are removed from schools.
·    Teacher have insufficient knowledge of basic school subjects, like Dutch  (spelling, parsing), calculation, geography and history and don’t know basic principles of teaching: the Excel and spelling checker generation has entered the classroom. My 18-year old nephew (and with him many others) can’t calculate 6*9 without a calculator, as he didn’t learn how to do this.

·    Boys get oppressed by the excessive attention for cooperation and working in projects, as they in general need more discipline and control than girls. Teachers don’t ask themselves what children learn from working in projects?! The answer is probably: nothing!

·         Digital technology is very much penetrated in the class room these days: PC’s, I-Pad’s, smartphones and digital blackboards as side-issues, are threatening the main point: good education. The ‘computer’ is like a digital nanny that keeps the children quiet, without teaching them anything.I only want to ask two things from primary school legislators:
·    Stop with the continuous renewal and politicizing of education and let the schools build up knowledge and competence with the subjects that really matter: Dutch, calculation, geography, history, biology and gymnastics. All other things they can learn at home and in secondary education.

·    Expel the computer, the smartphone and the digital blackboard from the primary education and let the teacher stand literally at the head of one class.
I hope we can prevent with these measures that more generations of morons grow up, turning The Netherlands from a knowledge-based society into a country of nitwits.


1 comment:

  1. There is a large variation in quality among Dutch schools (primary as well as secondary). There is also a large variation in quality among teachers, some of whom work un- or underqualified for many years without the parents ever finding out.

    The 'average quality' is not so bad, but hardly any child visits an 'average school' with an 'average teacher' in class. Some children get lucky and get an above-average teacher in in above-average school, but many children are not as fortunate.

    As the main cause for the large variation in quality I consider the long-time neocon ideology of the Dutch Ministry of Education. For almost 30 years the political wind is blowing in the direction of 'freedom for school boards', 'less rules' and 'more room' to spend their own Big Bag of Tax Money.

    Because lowly educated or unqualified teachers are cheaper, the Dutch got less qualified teachers than ever before. In 7th to 12th grade, about 25% to 30% of the lessons are taught by insufficiently qualified teachers or people who have no teacher training at all. Schoolboards are free to do so, and the Dutch Ministry of Education does not want to know. Literally: it created a law stating that schools do not have to report the use and appointment of unqualified teachers.

    What is at least as exceptional in Dutch education, is that there are hardly any rules, demands, programmes, norms, assessments etc. to which schools must adhere. All primary schools are free to dream up their own curriculum, and the rather vague 'common core goals' for 8 years of education fit on two letter size pages. There has never been an obligatory assessment programme in Dutch schools; yet at present the Dutch minister 'considers' this for two subjects (language and calculus).

    Every teacher is free to choose their own method, pedagogy, teaching materials, pace, tests, and norms. If teachers are really, really good (such as in Finland, where they are chosen from the best & brightest students), they deserve that autonomy. But if teachers are less qualified, the question arises if such responsibility is really earned and in place.

    In short, the large variation in quality among schools and teachers is the result of ideologically-driven qualitative neglect by the Dutch minister of Education. She leaves it up to the school boards to hire people for 'teachers' and organize some sort of education without clear parameters viz. content and level. The school boards leave it up to their sometimes good, sometimes so-so teachers to organize daily practice.

    Without clear minimum demands for school, teaching programme and teacher quality, the variation in quality will remain and children will remain either lucky or unlucky. Because the people in control make sure that their own children get lucky, the chances of a serious quality revolution in Dutch education is close to zero.