From where I sit - Different strokes for different folk

February 19, 2009

"Europe's diverse school systems contain a host of innovative and excellent practices. We should make better use of this diversity." So says An Agenda for European Co-operation on Schools, a recent communication from the European Commission and the first time it has spoken out about the subject.

Good, I thought. Evidence-based educational policy is useful, but within national educational systems it is hard to compare strengths and weaknesses. In this light, diverse European practices are an ideal testing ground.

But reading on, my enthusiasm dwindled. The report applauds diversity in theory, not in reality. Majority views and "common" practices are the rule, as if diversity were a weakness, not a strength.

Let's look at an interesting case. The Netherlands' system of secondary education differs from many others internationally. About two out of ten 12-year-olds attend pre-university school. After six years' study, the resulting diploma is their ticket to a research-intensive university.

This is a time-honoured arrangement that is greatly appreciated by students, parents and universities. The gymnasium, the classic pre-university school where Latin and Greek are compulsory, is very popular.

These schools give students entering university excellent preparation in a broad array of subjects. They are a relatively homogeneous group in academic terms. And if schoolchildren struggle, schools and universities work together to help.

Yet the Dutch approach is rare and is regularly criticised. External critics blame the pre-university system for the Netherlands' relatively low level of participation in higher education.

The reasoning seems to be that in a uniform secondary-school system, it is easier to attain the desired participatory rate of 50 per cent or more.

But there is something wrong here. Participatory rates in places such as California are high because of enrolment in community colleges, not because its research universities attract more students. In fact, the rates for research-intensive institutions in the Netherlands and California are almost identical.

Another common criticism relates to early choice. Isn't it unfair to limit university access to those who qualify at such a young age? In my view, one should not blame pre-university schools for this.

The problem is easily remedied by flexible-learning pathways in parallel schools, with transfer points between them. For example, polytechnic students qualify to attend a research university on the basis of a successful first year.

Critics rarely spell out the advantages of pre-university schools. Such institutions and their cultures, which keep students motivated throughout the stormy teenage years, deserve support and congratulations, not brickbats for deviating from the common path.

A truly European learning process for schools should stimulate diversity and learn from it, not kill it by advocating majority views and practices.

Talking about lessons learnt, the topic of early choice and exclusion should be moved from the secondary-school level to primary education.

It is there that the all-important preparations for a successful school career take place, or not. The under-representation of some ethnic and socio-economic groups at university has its causes at the primary level, not in pre-university schools.

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