One of the major differences between Dutch and British schools is that we focus much more narrowly on academic achievement. Imbedded in the Dutch psychic is the golden mean philosophy that emphasizes the healthy median of moral behaviour. It warns against extremes – at one end excess, at the other deficiency.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council said, “GCSE and A-level students must revise for seven hours a day during the Easter holidays if they did not want to get poor grades.” Mr Lenon has suggested that students should cram for 100 hours during the two-week Easter break and cover 50 topics in two-hour slots. A 14-day regime starting at 9am and finishing at 6pm is recommended. Mr Lenon, previous headmaster of Harrow says that, “public exam results are important as they can determine the course of your life.”
Is this excessive workload and immense pressure healthy for our young? A highly motivated adult would struggle to commit to this super human regime and a 16 to 18-year old could easily be pushed over the edge with this kind of pressure. If our children in the UK do need to commit to this kind of regime something is drastically wrong with our education system.
Academics is important within the Dutch curriculum but many headteachers have a belief that any school can do this and this is not where they seek to be better than other schools – what is more important is what you do over and above; such as developing social skills, emotional learning and leadership. Dutch headteachers tend to have a strong desire to make their schools stand out from the crowd by adding value beyond academics.
The OECD study rated British teenagers last for literacy in the table of 34 developed nations and second last for numeracy. Holland, Finland and Japan finished in the top three. How is it possible that a country that starts to teach structured learning later than us and pushes academics less hard can out achieve us?
Could it be their culture that provides a child friendly education where it is absolutely critical that a child must be happy at school? Could it be their Aristotle golden mean philosophy that emphasizes the healthy median that avoids the dangers of the two extremes? This has created a non-competitive system in primary and secondary schools that is fair and avoids pressure. Senior school children receive a grade out of 10 and a six is considered a good grade with majority of pupils scoring sixes and sevens. Only around two percent score eights and children are told there is no need to score above a six as this means you are on track.
This is in contrast to the rat race British children are subjected to with excessive pressure to excel in exams. In the UK there have been a number of high profile suicides by bright pupils who have suffered from too much pressure and anxiety.
Last year, 14-year old Elena Mondal, who was an ‘A’ grade pupil hanged herself in the grounds of her high achieving grammar school. The coroners court revealed this week that there were fears of her being bullied and snubbed by friends on social media. Elena had received counselling for eating problems, self-harm, complaining of depression and for feeling excluded by other pupils when she was not added to a WhatsApp group. Kelly Barry the schools well-being manager was asked if the schools “hothouse culture” could be putting pupils at risk. Ms Barry suggested that it was not unusual for teenage girls to self-harm and develop eating problems, and that one in ten of her pupils could have mental health problems. She thought that this was a typical proportion. This may be typical in the UK, but it’s most certainly not normal in most countries and the apathy regarding pupil’s mental health is disgraceful.
By over-emphasizing academics and neglecting the whole-person, our children are left vulnerable and in danger of missing out on the true value of education – expanding the mind, better life choices and aspirations, intellectual stimulation, 21st century life skills, character development and a hunger for life-long learning.
Research shows that a much larger percentage of Dutch children remain in education until 19 years of age and that after leaving school, they maintain a high level of education throughout their adulthood. It appears that the Dutch schooling years create a ripple effect that turns children into lifelong learners. Is this not the ultimate outcome our education system should be striving for? The Dutch system proves that academic achievement is possible without hot-housing, enormous pressure and excessive competition.
Many schools in the UK have been slow to offer any stress-management lessons for pupils and are far too reactive in their approach. Dutch schools build a culture that supports healthy relationships and offers fear of failure coaching and confidence boosting training in their secondary schools.
Research from Leiden University in Holland showed that teenagers show less brain activity than adults after receiving negative feedback, but showed more brain activity when receiving positive feedback. The research further concluded that good family relationships were the single most important contributor to subjective well-being. It would appear the teenager’s brain is wired to perform to encouragement and affirmation. Dutch parents and teachers embrace this by regularly dropping positive comments casually into their daily conversations with their children.
Another factor is that it’s almost a rule that every child cycles to school and Dutch cycling lanes impact a transformational culture of well-being. One of my school visits in Holland coincided with the school drop off. I saw a swarm of children, all cycling to school with the odd parent cycling with their younger children. I never saw a single overweight child, but that’s not surprising with the amount of cycling they do. Whatever the weather, children cycle to school as it is thought that this builds resilience and independence that are vital skills for life. They subscribe to the philosophy that there is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes. The cycling culture seems to build independence, resilience and grit in children.
The UNICEF study reflected that children were happiest at school when they rated their classmates as helpful. UK schools finished 14th out of 15 schools in this study and it seems a culture of bullying could be a factor. It was reported that half a million 10 to 12-year old children are physically bullied in the UK. Could it be that the excessive pressure that our children are under leads to a comparison-based identity causing higher stress levels and bullying which makes it more difficult for children to get on with each other. I found this definitely to be the case when we sent our son to a local high achieving prep school. The bullying levels were through the roof which forced us to remove him after a couple of years when it became apparent that there was no improvement.
The Dutch way is best captured by the golden mean philosophy that allows for the natural development of their young. The two vices of excessive external pressure and inadequate internal independent motivation are avoided. Our culture assumes that education at school is most important, their culture assumes that schooling is for preparing the ground in the young’s mind so that learning can become their lifelong pursuit. By having less academic pressure to perform, they achieve more in the long run and are ultimately happier and more successful.
Written by Clinton Lamprecht – Chairman United Education Group