Public Management

Dutch education: Excellence in emancipation

By Sietske Waslander | September 4, 2017 | 4 min read

During the last century, education was without a doubt one of the great equalizing forces in Dutch society. Due to unique historic circumstances, the Dutch education system has some very specific characteristics. 

These features have contributed in important ways to the emancipation of women, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and religious groups, particularly
Catholics. The emancipatory role of education has in that sense been exemplary. However, educational opportunities are by no means distributed equally today. For example: students from ethnic minority groups in the Netherlands do relatively worse when compared to other European countries. Also, inequality of educational opportunities by socio-economic background is increasing. With the turn of the century, characteristics that for so long contributed to excellence in education, have come under increasing pressure. This poses new challenges to The Dutch Way. 

A Turning Point

In Dutch politics, 1917 was a remarkable year. After very contentious elections in 1913, no coalition government could be established in the highly divided political landscape. An extraparliamentary government of many non-politicians took office. Under pressure of the First World War – in which the Netherlands did not take part and kept its neutrality – this unusual government did remarkable things. By revising the constitution, the so called Pacification settled several issues that had almost torn the country apart. Two revisions were particularly important for emancipation. Firstly, the process of achieving gender equality in political representation was started. Secondly, equal funding rights for schools were secured in the constitution. Publicly and privately run (religion-based) schools gained the right of equal funding, while upholding the freedom of education. This meant that all religious groups were free to start their own schools, which were all eligible for public funding.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the Netherlands was struggling with a combination of three major emancipatory issues, all related to industrialization and modernization:

  • the so-called social question: how could capitalism be balanced with social demands of
    laborers, reasonable payments and fair and safe working conditions;
  • gender equality: social, political and economic male dominance was challenged by women;
  • religious emancipation, particularly of Catholics

For over a century, the Dutch educational system has undeniably played a crucial role in the emancipation of women, people from lower social economic backgrounds, and people with various religious backgrounds.

Expansion in Education

As in many other Western countries, educational participation has increased enormously in the Netherlands. Roughly one out of four inhabitants in the Netherlands is in one way or another in education. The teaching sector is a very large sector, with over half a million employees.

Educational participation has definitely enhanced the educational levels in the labor force. In the sixties of the last century, only one out of ten employees had higher education, now it is over 40%. This in itself is a necessary precondition for high-level economic development (knowledge economy) and is stimulated for this reason. However, there is some overproduction. The educational level of the population increases more rapidly than the labor market can absorb. Almost one quarter of all employees has a higher degree than necessary for their job. For higher-educated employees this is 40%, and this has not changed between 1990 and 2010. Women have caught up on their backlog in educational level. In the first year enrolment in higher education, female students are a small majority (52%). Interestingly, this is not evenly distributed over the various sectors, as men and women still tend to have rather traditional patterns in their choice for specific disciplines and sectors in education. Differences in educational attainments between religious groups have disappeared, with the important exception of migrants (Muslims). Migrants are still at a distance in educational attainment from non-migrants, but they are catching up. The percentage of migrant students entering higher education has increased more than this percentage for non-migrants. Interestingly enough, it is specifically the group of female migrants that seems to catch up rapidly.

The End of the Meritocracy?

The large expansion of education also implies that the emancipatory role of the Dutch education system may slowly but surely grind to a halt. Many people attain more or less the highest level of education available within the current system. Education was a motor for emancipation and for a long time, parents’ ideal was for their children to reach for a higher level of education than they had attained themselves. However, when parents complete the highest level of education, by sheer logic their children cannot reach higher. Therefore, chances of downward education mobility – when children complete lower levels of education than their parents – increase. The percentage of men with a lower-level education than their parents increases over time. For women this is not (yet) the case. Concluding that education dug its own grave by expanding so much, could be considered tragic, but this would be too pessimistic. A new realism, looking for new ways of providing social positions and emancipations might be more fruitful. Going back one hundred years, four mechanisms provided a basis for emancipation in the Netherlands:

  • Congruence: an alignment between values of schools and the larger social group they worked for. This brought a strong sense of ownership in society for education.
  • Competition: a peaceful competition between religious groups – organized in their own pillars – provided a mechanism to deal with possible toxic social differences. Each group could show its quality and compete with others.
  • Compensation: the differentiated system provided some forms of targeted compensation: not all schools were treated in the same way, not only on a financial level, but also in terms of political support, etc.
  • Coordination: although school systems were pillarized, in the top of the system all forms of coordination took place, both formal (national educational policies) and informal (elites looking for forms of mutual understanding).

In a way, those mechanisms have lost their strength in the Dutch educational system. Coordination became elitist and bureaucratic, competition between schools sometimes brought a waste of energy and budgets. Parents hardly feel strongly committed to schools of their pillar (with an exception for Muslim schools). Specific compensation has lost its rationale and became a bureaucratic burden. The challenges education face are complex and dynamic, may even be framed as wicked problems. Such problems call for new forms of organizing education, social innovations and out-of- he-box solutions. It may be seen as a call for coordinated anarchy, where many different types of schools may grow, but within a larger institutional frame. Flexibility and balance is what we are looking for. The distributed system we still have, may -with some re-invention – provide a good basis to answer current challenges. If we, for instance, would define new pillars, this might induce new forms of commitment and give new energy to coordination. A distributed system also provides better opportunities for specific and situational extra compensation both in terms of budgets and in terms of moral support, networks etc. And lastly, smart competition may help to bring out quality again and may open options for new initiatives, challenging old institutions.

This article is an excerpt of The Dutch Way in Education, featuring among others prof. dr. Sietske Waslander, prof. dr. Marc Vermeulen, and prof. dr. Edith Hooge of TIAS School for Business and Society. 


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