Education: Holland's working classes: Boys at the cutting edge of their future careers

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The Independent Online
Jan van den Hoogenband admits that his class of 12-year-olds frightens him a little. Teaching butchery to children in their first year at secondary school requires sharp eyes and nerves of steel. Today the pupils are making decorations out of pork fat for cold meat platters, but even this relatively simple task cannot be done without sharp knives.

'It's scary sometimes. I have 26 pupils in this class, and I have to watch their every move. But at the end of the lesson they are always pleased with what they have done.'

The Francois Vatel School - named after a French chef who committed suicide when asked to prepare a meal for 2,000 with only 1,400 portions of fish - in the Hague, is a junior pre-vocational school. Its 500 pupils must complete the basic 15- subject national curriculum, but they also gain experience which will give them a route into a career.

In their first two years at the school pupils can try out different vocational areas - including butchery, bakery, retailing and catering - before settling on a career path at 14.

These are the sort of children Sir Ron Dearing hopes to motivate with new vocational courses in British secondary schools. Many of them have not shone academically at primary school, and without such opportunities they can become disaffected and drop out of the education system. Tineker Tuizenga, who teaches English at Francois Vatel, says that when pupils put on their white coats and chefs' hats, they seem like different people.

'When they are in their own clothes, they are just kids, but the whites make them look older,' she says. 'They also behave differently, because they feel they have been given some responsibility. When they are actually making something, they are more motivated. It's better for them to concentrate on this kind of work than on learning.'

The school also tries to teach the basic curriculum through practical subjects as much as possible - so, for example, English lessons might include more food and catering terms than they would in a purely academic institution. It boasts a restaurant and a butcher's shop which are open to the public.

In one of the bakeries, fully equipped with professional ovens, a smaller class is making almond cakes. These pupils are receiving what is known as 'individual' pre- vocational education, offered to those with special educational needs, and are taking several different vocational courses.

Stefan van Schyndel, 15, whose grandfather was a baker, says he decided to be a baker when he was nine or 10 years old. 'It was easy to choose. When I finished primary school I just thought that I would go to a bakery school. But now I think I might also like to be a butcher - I can do anything I want to do.'

Most of Francois Vatel's pupils will take up apprenticeships when they leave at 16, and attend college for one or two days each week. Some will take up courses at the nearby Haagland College, specialising in hotel and catering trades.

Haagland's main job is to provide what is known as senior secondary vocational education. Many students in this sector are aiming to become managers, and they take full- time college courses with block- release for work experience.

Haagland has a total of 8,000 students on different sites in The Hague, 3,000 of them in its hotel and catering section. Students in other parts of the college prepare to work in electrical, mechanical and constructional engineering, business, laboratories, administration, health and social services and tourism.

Berny van der Torren, 17, who is training to be a hotel manager, is in the kitchen preparing lunch for diners in one of the college's two public restaurants. He came to Haagland not from a pre-vocational school like Francois Vatel but from junior general secondary education, which follows an academic curriculum. 'I wanted just to be a manager, so I took courses in things like economics, cooking and French,' he says.

Martin Lely, the college's education manager, says its staff usually prefer pupils with a good general education to those who have taken pre-vocational courses. 'I think at school the most important thing is to learn to learn, to know how to get information and how to adapt yourself easily to new circumstances. The training, we can give here.'