Education: Holland's working classes: Fran Abrams looks at what we could learn from vocational training in the Netherlands

Click to follow
Sir Ron Dearing would probably flinch at the sight of the sugar bowl in the office of Theo Muntingh, head of policy-making in secondary education at the Netherlands' ministry of education. It is a small replica of one of Amsterdam's municipal rubbish bins, made by pupils at a pre-vocational school that trains 12- to 16- year-olds for the plastics industry.

After presenting his report on the future of the national curriculum and testing last week, Sir Ron said he did not intend the 40 per cent of 14- to 16- year-olds' lesson time now to be free for vocational and other subjects to be used to teach trades such as plumbing or bricklaying - or, one may assume, the plastics industry. Instead, general vocational qualifications in subjects such as leisure and tourism or health and social studies are being developed.

In Holland, almost a quarter of secondary school pupils are in pre-vocational schools, which cover a variety of specialisms including car mechanics, carpentry, food technology, forestry and farming. Almost all specialise in more than one subject area, and some in seven or eight. Despite the different emphasis from the courses proposed for British schools, these 'junior pre-vocational' schools may have something to teach us.

The major question for the Netherlands in its educational debates over the last 25 years has been whether its four-tiered secondary education system should be dismantled, reformed, or left alone.

Pupils take ability tests at 12, and are advised to follow one of four streams: junior pre-vocational education, consisting of four-year courses preparing for apprenticeships; junior general education, also four years, which prepares pupils for advanced vocational courses; higher general secondary education, which lasts five years and which prepares students for advanced vocational courses or, after an extra two years, for university; and pre-university education, which lasts six years. Equally vociferous groups have wanted either to preserve this system or to dismantle it.

'We finally got over the problem by saying we are not talking about types of schools, but about the contents of education,' says Mr Muntingh. 'At that point, we started to find solutions.'

In 1992 an the Dutch parliament passed an Act introducing a 'basic curriculum' of 15 subjects which all 12- to 15-year-olds must complete. It has 238 'central aims' which lay down what pupils should be able to do in each subject. In vocational schools, these may be achieved partly through practical work.

'It is, of course, true that some children are motivated by things like this,' explains Mr Muntingh, holding up his sugar pot. 'So we should try to combine the two things. You can teach children difficult science by letting them do things.'

He has little doubt that the vocational track helps to motivate pupils who would otherwise emerge from the education system having learnt little that is of any use. In Holland, 90 per cent of children stay in education after 16.

'We are saying pupils mustn't think they can't do it, because we know they can. They should be taught the general subjects in a different way - but putting what they have learnt into practice. It's learning by doing, learning to be self-reliant.'

The system still has its critics. Pupils may be well-motivated, but the ministry admits that parents do not see vocational courses as having equal status with academic ones. Many parents resist the advice of their children's teachers if they are told a pre- vocational school would be best, and in the past 10 years the proportion of pupils in this sector has declined from 30 to 23 per cent.

The Dutch government's policy is to allow children to delay the choice between academic and vocational courses for as long as possible, and most pupils in vocational schools do not now choose a specialism until they are 14. However, once chosen, the vocational stream is difficult to escape from, and many pupils have to repeat a year if they want to change.

Some might also argue that the system is too closely geared to the labour market. But Michael Hupkes, project co-ordinator in the Netherlands' directorate of vocational education, insists that most employers do not want to get involved with the under-16s and value the general academic education all pupils receive. Machines in today's factories, he adds, are too costly for employers to want to trust them to people who are not fully literate or numerate.

(Photograph omitted)