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Challenges Facing a Top-Ranking Educational System: The Netherlands

by guest blogger Katie Fitzgerald

The Netherlands scores in the top 10 in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, yet their education system still faces challenges. This interview with Martin van Os, an educational advisor in the Netherlands, explores the pressing issue of CTE or VET (Career Technical Education or Vocational Education and Training). This interview was conducted by Katie Fitzgerald of NASDCTEc as part of our ongoing partnership with NASDCTEc's Learning that Works! blog (National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium). 

What does CTE/VET look like in the Netherlands?
For some background context, the Netherlands has one of the densest populations in the world, our economy is rated eighth, and our PISA scores are in the top ten, with national goals to move ourselves into the top five. According to UNICEF, our children are the happiest in the world.

Recently, consensus was reached on the nine "Top Sectors," or the categories in which we excel and want to maintain our excellence. Among them are: water-management, food technology, energy, creative industry, high tech, and life and health. To continue to excel in these areas, Netherlands will need 30,000 people with the proper educational skills each year to account for job replacement and industry growth.

NeterlandsMap-300x186.jpg

Currently, the educational system is categorized by "streams" where students are tagged as low, intermediate, or high performing. The big challenge is that not enough students choose a technical area of study in post-secondary education. Research shows that the perception among students is that technical courses are difficult and a career in a technical field is dull.

After primary education, a student can participate in secondary education within seven different streams, although many secondary schools combine them. Still, this many options for pupils at the age of 12 is a unique feature of our system.

Regardless of a student's categorization as belonging to a certain stream, our system is focused on providing pupils with the education that meets their needs, which has resulted in a very low dropout rate. Despite this, we have little upwards mobility in the school system at a time when we need everyone to reach their highest potential. In addition, secondary CTE is typically taken by students with lower academic achievement, while the academic track is taken by students who perform at a higher level. This has resulted in a very negative perception, and has made promoting CTE difficult.

Another cause of this negative perception is the improvement in primary education and the ambition and pressure from parents, resulting in fewer students enrolling in the CTE streams and more in the academic paths. Also, academic pathways include little focus on Career Technical Education. While the traditional pathways through secondary schools for vocational education are decreasing in participation, we had hoped CTE in the academic route would develop. As this has not happened, it has left us with a skills gap and a sense of urgency.

Please describe the current landscape of Career Technical Education/VET in the Netherlands.
Overall, there has been a decline in CTE participation and in particular, a strong drop in the traditional courses for technicians and craftsmanship.  However, there is some growing interest in newer courses, which combine technical education with entrepreneurship skills.

The two trends combined means CTE enrollment in the upper grades has stayed somewhat consistent over time. A little over a third of third-year secondary students engage in CTE, out of about 200,000 students in total.

Another opportunity is that more of our students are eligible for technical or science programs in higher education, particularly in the higher streams, even if they are not choosing CTE programs at this time. In fact the economic crisis was a big boost for students actually choosing technical and scientific careers. This is all to say there is potential for more students to choose CTE at the secondary and postsecondary levels.

Every system has its challenges—what are yours? What are some solutions you are looking to implement?
Our first challenge is changing the perception of CTE  in the country. We need to spread CTE throughout all schools for all students of all abilities. We need to eliminate the stigma that only low ability students should participate in CTE in our school culture, and instead make CTE available to all students on all levels, especially in the intermediate streams where there is a vast potential of talents and young people who wish for more attractive curricula and CTE.

In addition to making CTE available for all students, we need to convince students and parents that there are attractive careers in CTE fields. Though increasing the number of CTE students is admirable, we need to convince students to go into CTE careers.

Along with changing the perception of CTE, we need to nourish successful initiatives by schools and support them through legislation, intelligent governance, and smarter systems of funding.

There also needs to be clearer links between education systems. The three steps in a student's education are primary, secondary, and tertiary education, which all have their own systems and rewards.  Essential skills for students to be successful in the next step of education are not sufficiently included in the reward system.

Come back on Monday to read some of the potential solutions and unique programs being implemented to improve CTE in the Netherlands.

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Martin Van Os began his career as a physics teacher, became a school principal, coordinated the national in-service courses for science and technology, was the senior organizational advisor for the National Center for Urban School Improvement, worked for government on secondary vocational education and was founding director of the Vakcollege support company.

Image credit: NASDCTEc

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