This summer I went to The Hague to attend an education conference and visit some Dutch schools. Afterwards, whilst walking from the hotel to catch my train back to the airport I had to slow down because a four-year old was cycling on the pavement in front of me. Her father was a few metres ahead pushing a buggy with a baby. The pavement ahead of us forked and the young child took the path that rose steeply to above a metre which lead to a sudden drop of stairs on the other side. I watched as the father turned his head with a casual glance. The little girl looked over the edge and thought about it for a moment, then turned her bike around and cycled back down the pavement. Seeing this the father had walked ahead and the girl had to cycle furiously to catch up.
In the recent UNICEF report, Dutch children were declared the happiest children in the world. British children ranked at the very bottom as the unhappiest. What is it that Dutch schools and families are doing that is different to us? A great deal. One of the main reasons that Dutch children are happier is the prodigious degree of early independence ‘priming’ which is thought of as an essential life skill. Children have more freedom and are not overprotected or micromanaged. Parents are encouraged to let go of their anxieties and allow their children to make mistakes. ‘Street wisdom’ is viewed as crucial and deemed only to be acquired through independence training, and they believe in giving their children a sense of responsibility or otherwise they will become helpless later.
According to research the happiest and most successful children are the ones whose parents respect their autonomy, however, remain responsive and involved when needed. Moreover, the Dutch culture is child-led, not parent pushed – parents have realised that the happiness of their child is of far greater importance than some external validation of academic success. The UNICEF report found that Dutch children were the least pressured by school and children in the UK felt the most pressurised. This lack of pressure and competition is the key reason for their increased happiness. The Dutch believe in learning for its own sake in order to expand the mind, not to over-burden the child with tests or just to pass exams. Teachers believe that they are a better judge of a child’s ability than a test.
The Dutch system is inclusive, no child is eliminated on the academic battleground, it keeps every child involved until the end. They also believe that in the end your school career does not really matter, it’s what you do afterwards that counts. This is in stark contrast to our overly ambitious culture and drive for perfection which has a high price tag for children’s well-being. Happiness should be a central part of school life. Happiness is all about being friendly with a strong social support group opposed to being competitive with your peers at school. It’s also not surprising that Holland has the third highest number of ‘Leader in Me’ schools in the world – these schools focus on developing personal leadership by teaching character and life skills to build emotional intelligence and well-being within the child. The Dutch are so far ahead of us its absurd. We must lobby for an education system that our children deserve – one that develops true learning, character, resilience, social skills and well-being opposed to pushing our children through a rat-race of exam factories. One that develops independent and happy children like the little four-year old girl who can overcome adversities without the need for stabilizers.
Clinton Lamprecht – Chairman of United Education Group