Research and Secondary Education: A National Rescue Plan for Dutch Secondary Education


Dutch secondary education is in crisis. Although progress has undoubtedly been made in some areas in the last 25 years--independent work by pupils, for example--a catalogue of spending cuts and politically motivated reforms has taken its toll. There is a great shortage of teachers, especially those with university training, and as a result few school-leavers opt to go on to academically challenging studies. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) is calling for a national action plan to improve the standard of secondary education.

Nothing stimulates pupils? interest in academic studies better than teachers who can talk enthusiastically about research and who can offer their pupils guidance in this area. The ?realistic? education that is currently in vogue does not challenge pupils sufficiently to learn to think in an abstract, scientific manner. Schools must help pupils to develop their scientific talent and continue developing it.

They do not have to do this alone: Fortunately, universities are increasingly working together with secondary schools in their catchment area, for example by making available facilities for carrying out research. At the same time, teachers also benefit from this regular contact with their colleagues at university.

Too Little Young Talent

Both the business and the scientific communities are suffering because of the present situation in education. During the last decade, we have lost the advantage of the Dutch as a nation of linguists, who have a good command of other people?s languages. At least as serious is the small number of school-leavers going on to study science subjects: Things are now so bad that the universities can no longer supply enough graduates to meet the industry?s needs for highly qualified employees. In response, the business community is now looking at ways of obtaining sufficient qualified personnel.

Above all, however, Dutch universities are being affected by the greatly reduced interest in science and technical subjects. This poses a threat to the continuity of our scientific research and education. Too little young talent is coming through the system to provide for the large-scale replacement of university lecturers and researchers who will be retiring within the next 10 years. Aggravating the problem, our facility to attract talent from abroad has fallen off sharply in recent years.

The academy believes that secondary schools, and in particular pre-university (VWO) schools, must be given a key role in resolving these problems. Raising the standard of secondary education demands a comprehensive plan--not a plan that perpetuates the unrest in our secondary schools for years into the future, but a system of targeted measures aimed at teachers willing to deliver quality. Not a managers? plan, but a teachers? plan, in which the teacher is the central focus.

Combined Teaching and Research Careers

To start with, the system of teacher training must be scrutinised. The standard of Dutch teacher training programmes compares unfavourably with those of our neighbours in North Rhine-Westphalia and Flanders. German and Flemish teachers are predominantly university-trained, and their courses also last 1 or 2 years longer than in the Netherlands. The Dutch training programme for grade-one teachers (i.e., qualified to teach at all levels in secondary schools) must also once again be firmly embedded in an academic setting. A programme could be set up, for example, that trains student teachers for a combined teaching and research career. It would be fantastic if secondary schools could once again be staffed by teachers with university doctorates.

Teachers should be given greater freedom in choosing their teaching methods. Acquiring knowledge, understanding, and skills in a range of subjects demands a pluriformity of methods and approaches. How can teachers start making optimum use of their own teaching experience again, teaching what they consider to be the essence of the subject and in so doing challenging pupils to embark on university study and other career paths?

Finally, teachers must have a clear picture of the targets for which they are aiming and of the way in which they will be tested. Examinations should focus on the essence of the subject; a surfeit of detail undermines the effectiveness of the teaching. How can the learning outcomes of pupils be defined, monitored, and upheld nationally by independent bodies without constraining the didactic freedom of schools and teachers unnecessarily?

A Special Committee for Secondary Education

The academy hopes that the newly appointed Minister of Education, Culture and Science, who has her roots in education, will take these points to heart. Naturally, KNAW will be willing to work alongside the minister and to provide advice on teacher training, teaching methods, and the content and quality control of final examinations. The guiding principle here should be the match between pre-university education and university education. In order to bring together the full range of ideas on this subject, the academy has installed a special committee for secondary education, in which all disciplines are represented and which will be intensively concerned with issues such as these.

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