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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 15:37 GMT
State-funded self-rule in Dutch schools
Teacher shortages, concerns about pupil behaviour in inner-city schools, over-subscribed popular schools and worries about the value of qualifications.
This could be a debate about education in England - but these are topics raised by teachers in the Netherlands.
The Conservative party is looking for ideas as it develops an education policy for the next general election.
And as part of the policy building, party leader Iain Duncan Smith and education spokesperson, Damian Green, visited two Dutch schools.
In particular they wanted to study ways that schools could be state funded while run independently.
In the Netherlands over two-thirds of state-funded schools operate autonomously, with many of these schools being linked to faith groups.
And the Conservatives were exploring how vocational education can be taught alongside an academic curriculum.
For every similarity in the teachers' comments, there were other very different experiences.
The Conservatives visited De Driestar College in Gouda, which is a large comprehensive school, with 3,000 students, taking pupils of all abilities from over 85 primary schools.
Divided by ability
These pupils are placed in four separate ability streams, with the pupils taught in separate classrooms and taking different levels of exams.
These bands are initially set according to tests taken in primary school - and a pupil has to stay in the same stream for all subjects, which teachers say is difficult if a pupil is very good at some subjects and poor at others.
The least-able pupils are able to take advantage of the well-resourced vocational facilities and teachers say this is a way of addressing the needs of pupils who otherwise might have lost interest in education.
In terms of truancy and pupil behaviour, the Dutch teachers in Gouda and later at a school in Maarssen, did not see these as major problems - but they believed these to be bigger issues in the inner city.
What was apparent was a strong social consensus about education, with teachers assuming that parents will be supportive of school rules.
At De Driestar College, linked to the Dutch Reformed Church, there are three parents evenings a year, and more if there are difficulties.
And the Dutch teachers seemed baffled at the idea of the police becoming involved in catching truants, as is the case in England.
Exclusions were rare, not least because schools needed to find another school to take pupils who were to be removed.
This could involve "twinning" arrangements, where schools agreed to swap excluded pupils with each other, giving the pupils a fresh start in a different environment.
As in England, recruiting teachers has become more difficult in the Netherlands.
But Dick Bac, head of vocational teaching, said that the largest factor in this was the cycles of the jobs market - when there were more jobs about, people tended to look for better-paid jobs outside teaching.
And when the employment market became tighter, people would be drawn to the security of teaching.
There were also concerns about the status of teachers. Jose van Kooten at the Rientjes Mavo school in Maarssen, near Utrecht, said that teachers did not always feel that society respected their profession.
But teachers in England might have been surprised that teachers at this school vote to decide who should be head teacher.
The Conservatives were particularly interested in the funding arrangements for this school, where the state gives the school a lump sum each year - and then allows them considerable autonomy.
This flexibility might have echoes of the former direct grant schools, or the new academy schools, being pioneered in England by the government.
This flexibility is applied to the admissions process - and Rientjes Mavo, a Roman Catholic school founded in response to parental demand, does not take a full range of abilities.
The lowest ability range, as determined by primary school tests and assessment, is excluded from the school.
And the application process for 530 places involves interviews and advice from primary schools.
Parents are also expected to make voluntary contributions of about 65 euros to the school each year.
The level of autonomy is questioned by teachers at the school. Marie-Theresa Reichmann says that they might receive four or five government directives in a week.
She also rejects the awarding of qualifications to almost all students as a gimmick, which does not reflect educational achievement.
A teacher at De Driestar College had had experiences of both the English and Dutch systems.
Jannette Schreuders, an English teacher, believes that there is a closer link between staff and students in the Netherlands.
She was surprised to see pupils in uniform in England - and did not like the sense of a divide that existed between teachers and the taught.
But the visits to these well-equipped schools with their well-motivated pupils and their impressively thoughtful staff also raise bigger questions about education policy.
Political parties talk about the levers that they can apply to schools - funding, organisation and external control.
But they might have less influence over what might make a much bigger impact - which is the expectations of young people and the broader social attitude towards education.
Last week's annual report from the Chief Inspector of Schools in England highlighted a hard core of demotivated pupils who seemed to have been untouched by all the changes in education.
And prefacing the introduction of reforms to the secondary school system, the government drew attention to the fact that Britain still has one of the worst educational drop-out rates in the developed world.
In the Netherlands, perhaps the questions from the perspective of England, with concerns over truancy, disaffection and low attainment, emphasised the cultural divide.
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