I am sitting in the evening sun in the town (actually classified as a city) of Franeker (Frjentsjer) in Friesland/Fryslan at the end of a really productive and informative day – we have visited OBS Fugelflecht, our host public primary school in Franeker, where we were entertained by the children, learnt a lot about their classroom routines and activities, spoke to lots of children in both English and Dutch (more interaction with children than in any other school I have been to in Comenius visits) and done some activities with them, had an excellent introduction to the Dutch education system and learnt more than we needed to know about care for those children who fall behind. Everything about the children and the best of their teachers was really a delight – to the extent of being accosted by a gang of Y5-6 children whilst I was cycling down by a canal on the edge of the town at the end of the day. However, what we heard about the Dutch education system, and what we learnt about the plight of small rural schools and the downward pressures on them was really disheartening and in some ways quite scary. I have always, since my visit to this part of the world in 2005, felt that Dutch schools were close to UK ones in general outlook and structure, and there was little feeling of oppression or threat in 2005, even from an inspectorate that has been around for years. But recently, that they have been made to suffer some of the worst effects of inspection, early years baseline assessment and lack of funding was pretty sobering to discover. This is not a universal picture in Holland (well, the baseline assessment is, and there is a lively debate about it here), but still, for what seems like a relatively wealthy part of the world, it felt today as though this corner of rural Netherlands was getting the worst of it.
Young people are leaving the rural communities that gave us rich dairy and beef and are going to where new jobs are being created in the cities, and the government is doing little, so it is felt, about restoring or attracting new jobs to the rural areas so that communities, full of life and tradition and a rich culture, can be sustained. Pupil rolls are falling – in the Franekerafdeel this is particularly severe – and the group of schools combined under the Stichting Radius are finding that they are losing schools from time to time – amalgamations and closures are inevitable, and loyal staff who have served the schools for a long time (and people are local and loyal here, providing the leadership is of good quality) are being made redundant. Money is tight and you can feel the stretch here – no teaching assistants and very limited special educational provision. This at a time when the government is panicking about outcomes of the most able and international standing (they have no reason to worry, by the way) amongst developed nations. There is clearly not the gap between rich and poor here that we have in the UK, and yet the Dutch system is beholden to a law of Freedom in Education that dates to the early years of last century and means that the levers the government has to use are limited. Parents can still choose schools, and whilst this should support localism, it often doesn’t, especially where denominational and public schools (the former in the large majority) are picking from the same pool. The question – what is best for the educational provision for our children in this village or town – is sacrificed on the altar of parental choice. This could be one of the weaker scenarios for education for the UK as we move to a more choice-based system.
The outcome, in schools like OBS Fugelflecht, are a renewed constraint on resources. Classes often have ages of children across year groups, and in a laudable attempt to keep classes to below 25 pupils, the staffing ratios are under pressure. Little in the way of SEN support is given, despite the existence of a “plus” group that is additional provision, and the feeling of everything being at near breaking point is quite palpable.
Maybe it isn’t. The children were great, and the teachers, despite the overegged planning demands and pressure from the inspectorate, were of an obvious quality provided that they were able to do their jobs properly. But still. The feeling didn’t go away, and the Dutch teachers, as keen as we are in the UK to honour and live within the conventional accountability framework, just get on with it.
A series of 4-year old baselines is a case in point. Nobody in the school system that I have met or spoken to wants it. Nobody knows anyone who would benefit by it and yet it has been put into place by a panicky government who wants more stuff to measure, and another stick (so it is felt) with which to beat schools and dishonour teachers. I have not found anyone who thinks that the data is worth either measuring or using as a baseline. Whilst much of Netherlands education feels like our primary school set-up in 1997-8 just before the introduction of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, in the matter of baseline assessment, the Dutch are providing high quality data of the impact of these assessments on 4 and 5 year olds, that wise English observers can use. It was a talking point among our group today when comparing the different experiences of 5 year olds in Slovenia and Holland – the latter began to feel like an abuse of both the children and of the teachers themselves. I have not yet tracked down the issues in the debate yet, but they are clearly live, and I imagine that they would not be very different from the problems that UK educators have with our own approach to the 4-year old baseline.