The Dutch education system used to have a great reputation, didn’t it?

“Since World War II, entire generations of poor pupils have studied their way to better lives. We used to have more of a meritocracy, a system that was all about pupils’ individual efforts, merits and level of motivation, rather than about their parents’ level of education or income. It’s a special system, as is the collective conviction that it actually works. Along with the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands was one of the highest-ranking countries in the world. We were all convinced that we’d improve our lot in life if only we did our best. By the way, it should be noted that that’s not something that happened overnight. It was our government’s policy for the past fifty years. Only, our society has begun losing that special achievement in the last ten years.”

How did that happen?

“The Education Inspectorate first found that things were heading in the wrong direction in 2016. For instance, they found a link between the secondary school recommendations with which primary school pupils were issued and their parents’ level of education. Children of poorly educated parents were relatively often issued with a recommendation to attend a preparatory secondary vocational college, whereas children of highly educated parents were relatively often issued with a recommendation to attend senior general secondary education (whose graduates are allowed to study at a university of applied sciences afterwards – ed.), even though they had obtained the same scores on their CITOs (a standardised test taken by primary school pupils to determine what kind of secondary school they should attend – ed.). In addition to that, Dutch pupils have their school path chosen for them at a relatively young age. The differences between children are growing more prominent at moments of transition – for instance when they switch from primary school to secondary school. We have always selected our pupils for ability-appropriate secondary schools at a young age, but we used to allow them to take different routes to a good school-leaving certificate. Pupils who started out at the lowly MAVO level could eventually make their way to a university. This has become considerably harder in recent years. But another, more important cause – which isn’t discussed often enough – is the growing difference in quality between different schools. Your child’s future largely depends on which school he or she attends – this one or the other one.”

Why have these inter-school differences grown more prominent?

“Back when the Netherlands was segregated along religious lines, poor people and rich people, as well as highly educated people and poorly educated people, lived side by side. If you hailed from a protestant family, you attended a protestant school, regardless of whether your father owned a huge shipbuilding company or was a lowly ship builder. Now that the country is more secular, it is segregated along socio-economic lines. Highly educated parents all know exactly which schools to send their children to – the best schools around. And generally speaking, these highly educated parents will also have more social, cultural and economic capital, meaning their kids’ schools will, too. If their kids need tutoring, they can hire a tutor through their network, just like that. They have no difficulty organising a trip to Florida or Rome, because they have more disposable income. And on top of that, such schools attract higher-quality teachers, because all teachers wish to work in an inspiring environment, with keen pupils and parents.

“In the Amsterdam city centre you’ll find schools where eighty percent of the pupils’ parents are university graduates. Whereas in the Bijlmer (a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Amsterdam – ed.) or in Rotterdam-Zuid, you’ll see the exact opposite, because poorly educated parents tend to select the school that is closest to their home. Sociologists of education call this the ‘Matthew effect’. The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.”

That’s not a good thing. What kind of consequences will this trend have?

“The main question to be answered is what happens when large groups of adolescents no longer believe that the education system will afford them the same opportunities it affords others. You can see one of the results in France, in the banlieues: resentment, frustration, dissatisfaction. Adolescents there seek upward social mobility through alternative careers. The great examples of this are people who are successful in sports, dance or art. The not-so-great examples are the informal economy and crime.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

So crime is a direct consequence of an education system that promotes inequality?

“Indirectly, it is. But it’s not about inequality per se. There will always be differences between people and between groups of people. In a way, I find that less interesting. What I do find interesting is the inequality of opportunity. Let’s take two pupils who have the same cognitive ability, but come from different backgrounds. What kind of opportunities can we offer them? As a society, we have reached a T-junction of sorts. It’s going to be an exciting time.”

When Dutch schools reopened earlier this month, a relatively high percentage of pupils from poor families turned out to be absent. Moreover, the Education Inspectorate found that online teaching didn’t work all that well in some places. Are you even more concerned now than you already were?

“A lot of people are fussing about children having supposedly fallen behind during the lockdown, but to be quite honest, I think that’s the lesser evil. Children are tough and resilient enough to catch up again, possibly by means of a summer school or some other programme. The underlying question is a lot more relevant: why do these pupils lag behind their peers in the first place? We’ve now established great programmes in which children from certain neighbourhoods are given laptops, allowing them to take online classes. That’s great, but it’s not going to solve the problem. Such children live in sixty-square-metre apartments in Rotterdam-Zuid with four brothers or sisters. There isn’t much money to go around, they aren’t encouraged to read at home and their parents aren’t used to supervising their kids’ schooling, or to showing some appreciation whenever the kids do something well. In a society that offers all pupils the same opportunities, such children should be attending the very best school in the city. But the city’s best school is likely to be located in a neighbourhood such as Kralingen or Hillegersberg, where most children are fortunate enough to come from a privileged background anyway.”

What is the axis along which this inequality in the education system turns? Are we talking about black schools versus white schools?

“It’s a multi-faceted issue. Working-class neighbourhoods in the big cities tend to be on the wrong side of the average, and that’s where we tend to find more families from a migrant background. But take Mayor Aboutaleb’s children, for instance – they are very successful academically. There are elites in every group. I think the debate on ethnicity may be a smoke screen created to get us to discuss the underlying structures. Here in Rotterdam, we have people from 206 registered countries of origin. A report on the impact of the coronavirus crisis recently published by my colleague and mentor Godfried Engbersen shows that the degree of loss of income is largely determined by one’s level of education. Fifty-two percent of poorly educated people are currently experiencing a loss of income, versus 21 percent of highly educated people.”

How do we address this increasing inequality of opportunity in the education system?

“First of all, we need to be aware of the aforementioned Matthew effect. Many municipal governments aren’t even acknowledging this. They keep up the pretence that all schools in their city are equally good, which simply isn’t the case. But even if it were the case, that wouldn’t mean that everyone has the same opportunities. Creating an equality of opportunity means investing more in some schools than in others – in other words, actually differentiating between schools. If 80 percent of your pupils come from homes where there are no books, schools must do something to promote reading. If you know that your pupils’ parents or neighbours don’t have enough time to supervise their kids, you must focus more on life skills. In Amsterdam we now have a municipal government that doesn’t operate from the theoretical premise that each school should be the same, but rather acknowledges the actual situation on the ground, which is that the Education Inspectorate has found that different schools have different needs, and that they therefore need different types of funding. It’s quite the breakthrough.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Shouldn’t schools be given more funding in general, thus allowing them to attract better teachers?

“I talk to headmasters who’ve never experienced any shortages of teachers. Every time they have a vacancy, it will be filled by an excellent teacher. The problem is that these teachers then leave a void at their previous schools that cannot be filled. People must be given an incentive to start working at a school. In some cases, that incentive will be money, or a higher rank, but I’ve also met students who tell me that they’d rather have their boss pay an additional master degree for them.”

How likely do you think your proposal – investing more in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to compensate for disadvantaged pupils’ home situation – is to be implemented now that neoliberalism is all the rage in the country?

“That’s the question to be answered. Most people tend to focus on their own kids and on making sure they’re in a good place. I’m hopeful, though, because right before the coronavirus outbreak, Minister Slob (the Dutch Minister for Primary and Secondary Education – ed.) and the mayors of the big cities were about to address this issue. Perhaps it’s good to remind people that this is not some leftist tale. From an economic point, as well, the healthiest societies are those in which everyone thrives, in which everyone is granted a genuine chance to make the most of their talents. In the long run, equality of opportunity will benefit all of us.”

Iliass El Hadioui is a sociologist of education affiliated with the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). He is a member of the Research Council, a research project leader at Amsterdam VU University and a programme manager for De Transformatieve School’s professional development programme.