Harris, A. & Jones, M. The Dutch way in education. (2017).

This review was written for `Van twaalf tot achttien’, Dutch magazine for secondary education

Dutch education’s best kept secret

After reading The Dutch Way in education, I was filled with pride. According to the latest PISA global education survey the Netherlands may not belong to the best performers globally, but some of our education system’s aspects are truly unique. For me, these are the most amazing elements of Dutch education:

In the Netherlands, the state finances both public and private education (special needs schools). This dual system enables parents to pick a school of their choice. Also, freedom of education is guaranteed in the national Constitution. Dutch schools have a high degree of autonomy compared to the situation in other countries. This means that they are allowed to make their own choices, enabling them to follow an independent line of thought and – to a certain measure – to enjoy self-regulation. This high degree of autonomy is promoted by a balance between public control and self-management. It is not only the state that determines what actions should be taken and what regulations should be followed. Schools confer with municipalities, parents and other stakeholders about their education, and their opinions are taken seriously in the decision-making process. In this process, consensus building is key. Therefore, managers are not restricted to the implementation of rules, which often negatively affects power of reason, creativity and autonomy. Autonomy, in this respect, is very aptly defined by school leader BartJan Commissaris:

I am unbelievably proud when I see how everyone at school shares in this process. It is not just the teachers, but the other staff and parents as well who are of key importance for the whole development of the child.” (p. 67)

The sense of self-regulation may have an effect on Dutch students as well. They, too, feel they have a high degree of autonomy, having a large influence on the course of their own lives and being able to make choices. They experience little stress and competitiveness. Is this the reason why Dutch students generally are very happy? This is a striking observation when set against the situation in other countries.

A second strong characteristic of the Dutch education system is that it combines the pursuit for excellence and the provision of equal opportunities. The system reflects Dutch values: honesty, equality and connectedness. They ensure that every child is able to come into his or her own. School results are fine and at the same time, no single group is excluded from education. Contrary to recent media reports about increasing inequality, the Netherlands is performing very well in comparison with other countries. Here, obtaining a diploma is generally unrelated to students’ social background. This equality first gained importance in 1917, when it was decided that private (`special’) education would receive public funding, just like public education already received. Education has contributed to ensuring equal opportunities for all. It has played a large role in the emancipation of women, people from a background with low socio-economic status and people from various religious backgrounds. In the words of Dutch student Isabella Diney:

The first word that springs to mind when I think of the Dutch education system is ‘opputurnity’.’ As a pupil you get to choose what kind of school you go to and you also get the opputurnity to move on to different levels within that school. For example, I started at the lowest level of secondary general education but will soon finish at the highest pre-university level. That would never have been possible if the Dutch system didn’t offer everyone the same opputurnities. (p. 153)

Another factor determining the Netherlands’ positive school results may be found in the Dutch view of high-quality education. The Dutch Education Authority finds inspiration in experts like professor Gert Biesta. Biesta argues that for high-quality education the three educational goals of skill building, personal and social development need to be balanced. An increasing number of schools are open to the view that education is more than just achieving good results. New learning is about facilitating and creating learning opportunities. For schools it is important that students are acquainted with our society’s values, enabling them to find a place in that society later on in life. At the same time, personal development is gaining importance in education: who am I, what do I want, what are my abilities?

There is much more in The Dutch Way in Education that is of interest. However, I like to focus on the strengths of our education system, as our country is very apt in complaining about anything that could be improved. The authors Harris and Jones are amazed at the Dutch’ lack of pride in their education. Could it be that this modesty is part of the success?