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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Blair II - The Sequel: What now for schools?
Tony Blair's success or failure is likely to be judged on three key public services. So what are the benchmarks? In the third and final part of our series, we look at schools.

In education, Labour's second term focus is on improving standards in England's secondary schools, "modernising" the principles of comprehensive education.

In practice this will mean a greater variety in the types of state secondary school - moving away from the "bog standard" model identified by the prime minister's spokesman.

Specialist schools will be greatly increased - with more than half of secondary schools set to have specialist status in five years.

The Netherlands' s secondary school system of pre-vocational, general or pre-university education is widely admired.

In the final year of primary school, pupils and their parents decide which sort of secondary schooling they will follow.

Tony Blair cycling in Amsterdam
Should Blair go Dutch on education too?
But from the age of 12, all pupils have the same sort of basic education for a couple of years, which allows for a transition between the different types.

School-leaving exams similarly tend to match the sort of education students have been following - usually in six subjects.

In upper secondary education students are then working towards post-school job-related qualifications, managerial training in "higher professional education" institutions or university education.

What's so good about it?

Students have a transitional period before deciding which sort of education to pursue.

They then focus on courses and qualifications which best suit their aptitudes, but still are able to move between the different types of courses to an extent.

In the Netherlands, unlike in England, there is not the same "pecking order" attitude to academic versus vocational qualifications.

Changes have been made in recent years aimed at tailoring courses even more closely to individuals.

One result of this should be that pupils go on to further education places or jobs which offer a closer match with their interests and abilities.

The proportion getting an upper secondary qualification - equivalent to England's top grades at GCSE - was 92% in 1999, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In England it was 48%.

Compulsory full-time education ends at 16 but young people have to continue studying at least part-time until they are 18. Less than half the proportion of the youth population is not in education or work in the Netherlands than in the UK.

The vast majority of students go to comprehensive schools, but the government intends that by 2005 half of these will be specialists in technology, arts, languages or sports, with three new categories - engineering, science, and business and enterprise.

New Education Secretary Estelle Morris gets her homework
So increasingly children will have to opt for a specialist school before they begin their secondary education - where a choice exists, which will not be possible in sparsely-populated areas.

Ministers are keen on specialist schools because they have raised educational achievement faster than the norm. Critics say that is simply because they have benefited from much greater resources.

The pattern of exams is changing, with the introduction of vocational GCSEs and A-levels, to replace GNVQs.

These are intended to appeal to disaffected pupils who have lost interest in general schooling because of its academic focus.

New "foundation degrees" are being introduced to extend this idea into higher education.

Come up with a system which engages the interests of teenagers in their education by matching it to their aptitudes, so that:

  • fewer do not achieve five or more top grade GCSEs or the equivalent - 51% did not last year
  • more continue in education or training post-16 - currently about 6% do not
  • more go into higher education after school - currently about a third of the age group does.
Hardest of all to achieve will be a cultural shift which attaches greater value to vocational qualifications, rather than seeing them as something people do if they cannot manage more purely academic courses of study.

Your comments:

We despaired of the school system for one of our children who had had nine different teachers in his first year at school. My wife now teaches him at home, which many parents do not realise is an option. So far it has been a great success - he is happier and learning well
Ian Anderson, United Kingdom

I'm sure there are a lot of valid arguments about how best to come up with a education system for the future. However I have one view which I think is paramount to the success of any system, and that is I think the school leaving age should be raised to 18.

At the moment pupils can leave school at 16 without a job to go to, which is an open door to quickly get disillusioned and very quickly fall into the trap of hanging around street corners, drugs, crime etc etc.

Making them stay at school another 2 years does not guarantee anything but just might convince them that education is not a bad thing and might geerate enough interest for more applicants to apply for higher education.
Tom Nicholls, Netherlands Resident (UK Born)

As a former secondary school English teacher, the Dutch system sounds like heaven. Under the UK system, I often felt like a cattle-driver, pushing reluctant pupils through a curriculum seemingly designed for the most conceptually able and academic children. The onus was on the teacher to get results from students who were uninterested and frequently resistant to both the coursework and exams.
Paul Morris, USA

The start of secondary school is a very young age at which people should choose what they are going to do with the rest of their lives - most people don't know at 16 what they want to do (and many student friends I have also don't know), so making people chose which "specialist school" to go to when they are 10 or 11 years old seems a little ridiculous.
VG, Cambridge University student, England

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