Radical solutions: lessons from Holland

The Guardian, July 12 2000

If Tony Blair can do it, then so can we. Let us think the unthinkable. Repeatedly.

First, we should be clear about the problem. Remember the Bleeper man in the first story in this series, racing through the corridors of his Sheffield school, rattling from crisis to crisis, quelling outbursts of imminent disorder. He was dealing with the central riddle which continues to trouble every education system in the developed world. What do we do with the underclass of failing children; with the 10% in this country who still leave school without one single qualification; with the 54% who still leave without the five A to C grades which is the government’s chosen measure of success? How can schools compensate for a society which produces so many children who see so little reason to learn?

We have seen some of the roots of the problem, particularly the acidic effects of the surge in child poverty in this country since 1979 and the chronic shortage of school funding, both of them essentially untouched by current government strategy. In the culture of blame which envelops the Department for Education, failure is still seen primarily as the fault of teachers and LEAs; sometimes of parents, too. But is there not something else in there; some fault line in the very organisation of our schools; some assumptions with which we have lived for so long that we have ceased to notice them?

If you can begin to see these faults, you begin to see the potential solutions. The interesting thing about them is that they not only challenge a lot of current government policy, they also uproot some of the most cherished landmarks on the educational landscape of the left as well as the right. Consider first this question: why have we accepted for so long that education is academic? Take two scenes.

First, come to Holland, to the small town of Hoorn, about 20 miles northeast of Amsterdam, to Tabor Secondary School. On the first floor of a teaching block, a group of 14-year-olds are running a company. They are trading in sports equipment and DIY tools, ordering raw materials, organising production, sending out invoices and bills of sale. They deal with other companies in Holland and further afield, as far as Russia and China, fielding phone calls, typing letters, sending e-mails and manning a reception desk for visitors. The teacher is the company president, the oldest pupil is the chief executive, the rest rotate their jobs, one week a sales manager, another week a secretary or a book-keeper. They carry business cards. At the end of the year, they produce their annual report, declaring their profit or loss.

This is education, but it is also, in a sense, a game. The company which they are running is a simulated one, as are the companies with whom they trade, set up either by other schools or by commercial outfits who supply this as an educational service. There are two crucial points about this Dutch classroom: first, this is a form of secondary education which scarcely exists in this country – practical, vocational learning – but in Holland (as in several other developed countries) it is part of the mainstream of school life, with some 60% of pupils on some form of vocational pathway. And it is on an equal footing with academic learning. Second, it seems to work: by and large, the disaffected Dutch pupils are learning. They are scoring far better results than their British counterparts, particularly in mental arithmetic, science and foreign languages. Their attendance is better, their staying-on rates are higher. They are enjoying school.

The key point here is not the obvious one. This is not about training pupils for vocational careers (although that may be a helpful side effect). This is about motivating pupils who fail to engage with conventional academic schooling. The timetable is deliberately constructed so that children move between practical classes, where they can use their hands, talk to friends, score some success; and then academic classes, which may test their concentration. Dutch teachers say that as a result of lifting their students’ motivation in the practical classes, they get much better results in the academic ones. The head of Tabor School, Henk Verreijen, said: “The good thing in our system is that when they come to this school, they study at their own level so they also can get sufficient marks, which is good for their self-esteem. It gives them self-confidence and that is why a lot of children flourish here.”

Now come to Barking, on the eastern edge of London, to the college of further education on Dagenham Road, where a group of students in a workshop are working with bricks and mortar, laying the foundations of a house, the kind of vocational training that is normal in a college like this. But these are not the normal students. They are 14-year-old GCSE students, who are based down the road at Robert Clack Comprehensive School, and they are part of a breakthrough, explicitly modeled on the Dutch vocational classes.

There are two things you need to know about the Local Education Authority in Barking and Dagenham. The first is that, although its SATS results now challenge national averages, its intake of children has the classic profile of a deprived community and, until 1990, this was reflected in the very worst GCSE results in the whole country. Second, it has now become the second-most improved LEA in the country by accepting the DFEE’s campaign for better teaching and management and then, crucially, by moving on to tackle the problems of its intake by adopting ground-breaking new ideas from Holland and Switzerland – and leaving the DFEE scrambling to catch up behind it.

Barking turned to Holland not just because of its relative success but also because of its structural similarities to Britain. The Dutch, too, have free parental choice and a market in school places, which is causing problems by polarising schools, so that some of the inner city ‘black schools’ take more than 90% of their children from poor, often migrant families. They, too, have experimented with league tables and have become so worried by their inaccuracy that they are now considering returning the business of quality-control to their schools. Finally, and perhaps most important, their system is as underfunded as the British one. Despite the Dutch history of generous support for welfare services, their schools sit with the British in the lower reaches of the OECD tables for education funding in Europe. The Barking officials have been working with a raft of ideas from Holland, all of them controversial, if not heretical. The first is the concept of vocational education.

After a series of visits to Dutch schools, including Tabor, in the mid 1990s the Barking LEA created six new courses for its GCSE students – in engineering, electronics, catering, construction, printing and industrial model making. All of them used industry-standard equipment, demanded real skill and provided lessons of hands-on practical work. Demand is booming: 600 of the borough’s 2000 secondary students have signed up for the courses; at Robert Clack School, the special GCSE in construction has been so successful that they are having to set up a similar course for sixth formers.

And this demand is coming from the disaffected and difficult students, who usually turn their backs on learning but who were hand-picked for first priority on the new GCSE courses. The LEA’s technology inspector, Nigel Sagar, said: “You need to have a sense of all moving forward on pathways which may be different but which have parity of esteem and which produce qualifications of equal value.” The key point is that, for the struggling pupil, these courses provoke interest instead of boredom. They offer a chance of success to those who are not academic and who are forced by our current curriculum to fail every day of the week, a guaranteed technique to generate disaffection. The Barking officials think they are on to something of fundamental importance.

However, amidst the excitement, there has been a real frustration, for British schools have suffered one fundamental difference from their Dutch counterparts. In Holland, vocational education is established nationally with the full support of its government. In Britain, it has been squeezed through a sieve of restrictive national rules and unchallenged assumptions. The DFEE argues that it is encouraging vocational courses. Mr Blunkett now allows schools to ‘disapply’ the National Curriculum for some students, so that they can drop up to two GCSE subjects and take up ‘work-related’ training instead; and last week, he announced he would introduce new vocational GCSEs in September 2002. However, these moves disguise a history of prevarication in Whitehall. The gulf between Holland and Barking remains huge.

Dutch children in vocational streams spend up to 18 of their 32 weekly lessons in vocational classes – running catering outfits which serve meals to outsiders in real restaurants, building mock houses, wiring and plumbing bathrooms, running shops with goods and tills, printing posters, designing and manufacturing clothes, repairing cars, learning transport logistics by shuttling simulated goods around the country. In Barking, schools so far have been able to smuggle no more than five practical lessons a week into the timetable. In Holland, the schools have industry-specification workshops for every vocation. In Barking, they have to borrow space from Fords’ at Dagenham or from the college of further education. In Holland, practical education is generously funded through mainstream budgets. In Barking, the DFEE has provided only £18,000 a year under its ‘demonstration project’ fund for experimental work, and the LEA is now being forced to turn to the European Social Fund to find £180,000 to set up adequate workshops in some of its schools.

The first fence in this bureaucratic obstacle course has been the National Curriculum. The headteacher at Robert Clack School, Paul Grant, unilaterally dismantled his timetable, without consulting the DFEE, to make room for a ‘more accessible curriculum’. Ofsted recently grumbled about this, but Grant has stuck to his guns and wants to do more to beat boredom. “Although it has been relaxed, the National Curriculum is still constricting,” he told us. “Nobody has hauled me over the coals for driving a small coach and horses through it, but we are certainly running against the spirit of the National Curriculum if not the letter. If I was given carte blanche, the children in the lower bands would be working with a very, very different curriculum.”

Then there are the league tables, which encourage schools to focus on middle-range children who may be able to score more A to Cs, rather than on the least able. Mr Blunkett’s new programme to provide special help for ‘the gifted and talented’ aggravates that trend. LEA officials and teachers generally have been complaining that it is a move backwards to offer a fast stream to the brightest children if the mainstream is left clogged. Chris Woodhead’s beloved idea of ‘wholeclass teaching’ sits uneasily with practical vocational work: in Barking, it has been adapted in favour of an interactive technique, which the Barking officials discovered in Switzerland, where children learn and then demonstrate their methods to the rest of the class.

Last week’s announcement by Mr Blunkett that he would introduce vocational GCSEs in 2002 is the first sign of a breakthrough in a long struggle which has seen the DFEE cling like a drowning man on a raft to the ideal of academic education. Their own advisers looked at vocational study and told them: “The pupils attack their work with a seriousness and satisfaction not always found in schools for pupils of their age. They concentrate because they are interested. They have the air of knowing what they are doing and exactly why it is worth doing.” That report was written in 1930. For seventy years, while Holland and Germany and Austria were embedding vocational classes in the core of their state schools, Whitehall has turned up its nose at the very idea.

One very experienced LEA official told us: “There is an extraordinary long-term tendency in the DFEE to have a predisposition to certain educational positions which just go on and on. ” One of the things that has been going on and on beneath the surface is this presumption that the only real education is academic. Why? Because our schools were originally run by monks with bibles? Because politicians still routinely recite an empty phrase about ‘preserving the gold standard’ of academic qualifications? Or is there no good reason at all?

Barking have had to negotiate step by step to set up their new courses, entering ‘stormy waters’ with the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency. For catering, they managed to find one exam board which already offered a suitable syllabus; for printing, they persuaded another exam board to accept their vocational version of its syllabus; with others they were rejected – one of the boards, which are now private companies, said the change would be too expensive – and they had to create their own hybrids. The overall, dominant aim was to give their low-ability children a chance to secure qualifications on an equal footing with their academic classmates. Whitehall, however, was working in the opposite direction.

In the 1990s, the DFEE agreed to introduce some new vocational courses in secondary schools but insisted that these could not lead to GCSE qualifications. Instead, they made them GNVQs. Teachers say that stands for Getting Nowhere Very Quickly. LEA officials complain that employers do not understand the GNVQ, that it suffers from the lack of any national syllabus, and most of all that it is a second-class qualification, the very opposite of what they want – “effectively pushing the low achievers into the hut at the back of the school,” as one official put it. Earlier this year, there were reports that the DFEE were thinking of pushing even further in the wrong direction by shunting any remaining GCSE with a vocational element into the GNVQ siding – GCSEs in horticulture, agriculture and nautical studies were all at risk.

Last week’s announcement suggests that the DFEE, acting on new advice from the QCA, is finally admitting the error of its ways. It was particularly significant that Mr Blunkett spoke of the new courses not just as a source of skill for industry but as a means of motivating disaffected children. However, officials are waiting to see whether this marks a real change of direction. The DFEE has made no commitment to providing the workshops, without which the courses would be weak shadows of the Dutch ones. And it has made no commitment to sweep away the restrictions of the National Curriculum to allow headteachers like Paul Grant to provide vocational classes on the Dutch scale. One official who has been pushing for the change said: “Unless there is a fundamental shift to accepting this principle of different pathways for different children, the comprehensive system will not achieve Mr Blunkett’s objectives. They are trying to drive a broken car.”

The DFEE’s enormous reluctance to re-think its ideas about vocational education is part of a wider problem. An Ofsted inspector, who has spent his life in education, put his finger on it: “The whole debate has been deproblematised. They behave as though the fundamental questions had all been answered. We don’t need to discuss curriculum because we have the national curriculum; we don’t need to ask what history is, because we have national notes on it. The truth is that we have not even asked the questions, let alone answered them. There is a lot of ‘deeming’ in education. Sport is deemed to be character-forming without the slightest evidence to support the idea; I would say ensemble music is far more character forming. Reading, writing and arithmetic are deemed to be crucial; these are the old tools of the artisan, and they don’t include music or art. Where is the thinking about the big problems?”

As the Barking officials dug deeper into the Dutch system, they found more of these untested assumptions and started to entertain the possibility of increasingly radical solutions. In a sense, all of them revolve around one wicked little paradox. With the small but powerful exception of those who run Ofsted and the Department for Education, everyone involved in Britain’s schools has recognised that children are different – their social class, their gender, the position of their birth month in the school year all have a recurring impact on their ability to achieve. For the left in this country – for anyone who cared at all about social justice – the gospel for dealing with this has been to provide equality of educational opportunity. The goal has been to offer all children of all classes the same curriculum in the same schools and to invite children to take the same exams at the same time. But what happens if you offer a level playing field to children of different abilities? The strong move ahead and the weak fall behind. Equality of opportunity preserves and promotes the inequalities which afflict the children at the outset.

The alternative is to set up a system which is based on needs, in which all of these elements are varied to assist different kinds of children. Wim Meijnen, professor of education at Amsterdam University and a member of the national council which advises the Dutch government on schooling, said: “The Dutch philosophy is to overcome these problems, in particular of poverty. Pupils which need the most, can get the most assistance.” The use of vocational courses is their way of moulding a different curriculum for different children. But there is more.

For example, the Dutch reject the idea that all children should move up a grade or sit their exams at the same age. Simply, they recognise that some children will take longer to reach the agreed goals and so they allow grade-repetition in attempt to ensure that as many as possible reach the same minimum standards sooner or later. Professor Meijnen says that nationally up to 15% of primary pupils and up to 30% of secondary pupils repeat a year. Pupils in this country in exceptional circumstances can do the same; some are being offered summer schools to catch up, and a pilot project in some secondary schools offers children a chance to re-sit their failed SATS; but for the most part, they are pushed unthinkingly forwards, trapping them in their failure at every stage.

The Dutch recognise that a child who is held back for a year may feel like a failure but they argue that they can mitigate this (particularly when so many others are being held back) and that this is a lesser evil than processing an unprepared child through a more demanding syllabus which will condemn it to an accumulating failure, ending in an eary departure from education. The classic example is of children who arrive in secondary school without being able to read and who simply cannot do the work. Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, Greece and Belgium all encourage varying degrees of grade-repetition. Why not Britain?

In Britain, this processing by age is aggravated by an exam system, from which the Dutch also suffer, which is, in technical terms, based on norms and not on criteria. What this means is that each year, examiners establish a pass mark – a norm – which guarantees that a proportion of children will fail. (This again is all about ‘gold standards’). A criterion-based exam sets a minimum standard and allows every child to pass; some of them can score distinctions. Why do we cling to the norm-based version?

The combined effect of these two features of our system is not merely to allow failure but positively to insist on it. Politicians express their horror at the rate of failure without seeing that they are presiding over a system which guarantees it as a structural requirement – with all of the emotional and professional damage which that inflicts on the children who suffer as a result.

An even more striking feature of the Dutch needs-based system is funding. The money supply to Britain’s schools is notoriously unsatisfactory. Each student attracts a basic sum of money, but there are bizarre disparities between neighbouring areas; and the formula for adding extra money for various special needs (students who cannot speak English, who come from poor families, who have special educational needs) is inadequate in its total and inaccurate in its targeting. In Holland, all funding is systematically moulded to need.

In the Dutch primary schools, each student attracts a basic unit of funding, but those whose parents have a low level of education get 1.25 of this unit; the children of barge-dwellers get 1.4; children of migrants and travellers get 1.7; children of ethnic minorities with a low level of education get 1.9. No local disparities, no unreliable extras: this is core funding. In secondary schools, vocational students attract more money than academic ones simply because their workshops are more expensive to clean and maintain. A typical Dutch secondary school spends 2,537 guilders (£730) running a course for each of its vocational students and only 764 (£220) on each of its top band of academic students.

The right abhor the idea of needs-based funding as a reward for failure and furthermore, one which tends to siphon money away from high-achieving middle-class children towards the poor. The Dutch, however, having negotiated these political rapids, can now point to real evidence that they are overcoming the inheritance of educational disadvantage. Their Ministry for Education points out that the number of children who are eligible for 1.25 funding, as the off-spring of parents with low education, is falling sharply.

Pulling together these themes, a thought that dare not speak its name emerges: that we might reconsider the value of selection. The British experience of selective education was a nightmare – arbitrary in assigning children on the basis of a single exam at the age of eleven, inflexible in allowing only the scarcest chance of escape, unfair in assigning extra resources to the children with the greatest ability, and all of it polluted by the politics of class, since overwhelmingly it was the children of the poor who tended to end up trapped in the second-class schools.

The most striking feature of the Dutch system is that they have worked assiduously to develop a structure which in the UK is synonymous with elitism – precisely in order to avoid elitism. It is a conscious act of social justice. It is not perfect, but in principle they have thought their way through the wicked paradox of equal educational opportunity. The selective system is really the logical outcome of the rest of their needs-based system.

Dutch students on a vocational pathway will find more than half of their time table is devoted to these subjects; therefore, they are separate from the academic students. But in the academic remainder of their timetable, they also will be separate so that they can move at their own speed instead of being forced to fail at the rate of the more able students. And so they are separate – but within the same schools. The question is whether this amounts to the same arbitrary, inflexible and second-class system which afflicted this country. The answer is that the Dutch have almost cracked it.

All Dutch children go through the same non-selective primary schools, repeating a year if they need to. They then go through an assessment process which is far more sophisticated than our old Eleven Plus. They sit tests in intelligence and/or achievement; staff produce written reports, all of them are discussed; the headteacher talks to the parents and then produces a recommendation to the secondary school. As they enter secondary school, pupils are divided into four pathways – all within the same school – each studying the same 15 subjects from the same books but at four different levels and speeds. Each of these pathways run for two years.

Crucially, if schools discover that the primary school’s assessment was wrong, they will transfer children to a different pathway at the end of either of these first two years. Up to 25% of children do so. After two years, these four pathways take radically different routes. About 15% of the children take the most demanding academic route (VWO) which lasts a further four years; some 25% take the slightly less demanding academic route (HAVO) which takes three years; 45% take a two-year academic route which includes some practical vocational work (MAVO); and the remaining 15% take an essentially vocational pathway with some academic extras (VBO) for two years. As a further key element of flexibility, students can finish one pathway, take a diploma and then continue their secondary schooling by moving across to a more academic one. Some 5% do so.

In other words, whereas the old British system of selection encased children in pathways, the Dutch one encourages movement between them. Supported by vocational lessons, Dutch schools invite the failing child, first to succeed at its own level; and then, where appropriate, to move on to a higher level. Dr JJ Molenaar, the headteacher of Martinus College in Grootebroek in northeast Holland, told us: “It is a structural way of drawing in the children of the poor. ”

And here is the key statistic: at the end of their vocational pathway, 94% of these least academically able students pass exams for a diploma in six subjects, some of them academic. Compare that to our startling rates of failure. And this is not about the exams being easy: wiring a bathroom is inherently no easier than learning Latin. Professor Wim Meijnen said: “There is no hidden talent in Holland.”

But even if their structure avoids being arbitrary and inflexible, has it nevertheless created a system with two classes of education? Everyone we spoke to in Dutch schools acknowledged that there was a residual problem of stigma. At Tabor School, Henk Verreijen said: “Ask any parent, they will hope their children will become professors.” This latent stigma is aggravated by the fact that, to attract graduates, the top academic pathway (VWO) pays its teachers more than the rest. The pay differential is worth about 2,000 guilders a month (£575). One of the vocational teachers told us: “Yes, it does irritate me. But not every day.”

Against this, the Dutch have done a lot to reduce the stigma. Some of this is cultural. With that striking Dutch affection for common sense, headteacher Dr JJ Molenaar reflected: “We need a lawyer once or twice in a life time. But we need a baker every day.” Some of it is social: the schools use outings and the staging of drama to bring together students from different pathways. (Their schools provide virtually no sport, the other obvious opportunity for the mixing of pupils.)

Most of all, the attack on stigma comes from the needs-based education policy, which feeds more money to the vocational pathways and therefore more esteem, and which provides a real chance of success and therefore secures more approval from parents and employers alike. Recently, the Dutch education ministry has tried to raise esteem still further by merging the pathways for the two least able groups (MAVO and VBO) to allow more of these children to study more academic subjects if they wish to.

Even if the Dutch have got it more or less right, would it be right to dilute our comprehensive system? There are two points. The first is that, as we have seen earlier in this series, with the exception of secondary schools in particularly well-mixed communities, this country no longer has comprehensive schools. The reality is that, under pressure of middle-class parents and Kenneth Baker’s market reforms, most of them have slipped back into a divided system, effectively of grammar schools and secondary modern, with the additional disadvantage that selection now is by estate agent, with middle class parents buying their way into the catchment area of the new ‘grammar schools’.

The second point is that there is one respect in which the Dutch look across the North Sea with envy: we have a comprehensive infrastructure. Their worst problem is that even though their different pathways are within the same schools, they are still scattered across different sites in their communities. Each tends to become home to a different pathway, which exaggerates the separation between the different students and makes transfers more difficult. They would like to start where we already are – with a comprehensive infrastructure which would allow them to run their different pathways under one roof.

But, even if we all agreed that we should re-arrange our comprehensives into selective pathways, the future here would not be as easy as that. Even if the DFEE learned to think the unthinkable, even if all the detritus of the National Curriculum and the league tables and the GNVQ and the whole strategy of confusion were cast into the dustbin of history, there would still be a problem – arguably the most significant problem in our system. Class politics.

Just look back to the 1944 Act which created the disaster of our selective system. On paper, it was no disaster at all. This was a system which was designed to deliver different education to satisfy different children, which foresaw a whole pathway of vocational learning in technical colleges which would sit alongside the secondary moderns and the grammars, all of them enjoying ‘parity of esteem’. It was always likely to be arbitrary and inflexible, but the vision disintegrated because the technical colleges, with their working class intake, either failed to materialise or were merged with other types of school; and the grammar schools, with their middle class intake, hogged the best of the funding.

Britain is the most unequal society in Western Europe. In the first part of this series, we quoted a 1999 Treasury report: “Going to school does not reduce the differences in early development between advantaged and disadvantaged children.” That line encapsulates more than fifty years of failure – of grammar schools and secondary moderns, of comprehensives and of market places. Equally, it represents a triumph for class politics, for the power of the British middle class to corner what is best for its children, much of it disguised as the exercise of parental choice, as though that did not involve the exercise of power by the financially strong, buying their way into attractive catchment areas and the private sector.

This government has produced some good initiatives. An outstanding example is the Sure Start scheme, to build a bridge into school for infants from poor families, which may well make a real difference, but it lives in a chaos of educational improvisation, a strategy dismembered by political compromise.

There are very senior figures in the Department for Education who believe that Chris Woodhead has discredited Ofsted, and yet he has been left in his job. There is overwhelming evidence to destroy the 1980s Tory claim that the primary cause of school failure is incompetent teachers with ‘trendy teaching techniques’, and yet that analysis has been left in place, to distort all subsequent policy on school improvement.

Kenneth Baker’s reforms are clearly causing structural havoc, and yet his entire package has been left intact.

Private schools are skimming bright children off the top of the state system and yet they have been left unchallenged, together with the state subsidy of their charitable status.

Every level of education has been crying out for new money to reverse the chronic underfunding of the Tory years, and yet – as we revealed in March – the £19 billion which they were promised by Mr Blunkett has turned out to be a concoction of book-keeping tricks, disguising the impact of conservative fiscal policy. Schools all over the north suffer special financial penalities because of the bizarre local weighting of their funding, and yet the system has been left untouched for fear of alienating the electorally-powerful south east, which would lose money in any reform.

All of these fundamental and deeply damaging decisions have been made not for any educational reason but purely and simply to appease the right.

The DFEE’s reluctance to go back to these basic problems and to think the unthinkable reflects more than mere lack of imagination and absence of intellectual energy. It is part of a deep-seated political retreat. There is plenty of politics in British education, but it is not the politics of enlightenment, not the injection of moral strategy or social justice into public life, but the eye-scratching, shirt-pulling, snickering, bickering, sneering silliness of the Parliamentary playground.

As things stand, any attempt to introduce into our comprehensive schools the kind of selective pathways which have been pioneered by the Dutch would be vulnerable to being kidnapped and mutilated. So long as the people at the top of the DFEE behave like intellectual Quislings, appeasing the enemies of social justice in education, they will not think the unthinkable, or fight the real battles, and they won’t save the schools from failure, and they won’t help some of the most disadvantaged children in Europe and, in ten or fifteen years from now, the Bleeper Man is going to be carrying a weapon.

Additional research by Helene Mulholland