While cycling through the buurten (neighbourhoods) of Den Haag, on the way to explore the beautiful sand dunes that make up the Meijendel reserve between Scheveningen and Wassenaar, I was fascinated by the sight of numerous, seemingly liberated school bags suspended from flagpoles that protruded from houses and apartments. Fluttering Dutch flags shared the poles with the less breeze-responsive bags.
I learned that this is a way of letting the neighbours know that your son or daughter has passed his or her final school exams (eindexamen) at the end of secondary school. I guess that social media also has a big role to play here, but it’s still a practical way of checking if your friends/friends’ children have passed their exams without being intrusive. At least then you can avoid the embarrassment of asking cheerily how people went, only to discover that they have failed and need to retake their exams in a couple of weeks (herkansing). I found myself trying to imagine the impact this rite of passage may have on the often fragile teenage psyche. The pressure of sitting final exams would surely be enough to manage one would think, without looming thoughts of naked flag poles.
Nevertheless, societies have different ways of marking aspects of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and who’s to say that the Dutch way is any more traumatic than elsewhere? It does raise the perennial question, though, of why we need high stakes final examinations as a measure of our capacity to move forward in life to further study, or to enter the world of work. Universities tell us that they are now looking for more than just exam scores in profiles of their future students, but still rely on these formal tests to funnel innovative young minds into their old-fashioned knowledge silos. As Sir Ken Robinson keeps telling us, it seems that it is difficult to make even minor edits to the social reproduction function of the education system.
The Dutch secondary school system, as is the case in many other societies, is also all about sorting and classifying children according to their perceived ability. Future career and study paths are determined very early in the piece. Students are tested and selected at the age of 11 or so, and sent to a school that reflects how academic they are. The top 20% of pupils go to a VWO school for 6 years, the first step on the path to university or university of applied science (HBO). The next 20% go to a HAVO school for 5 years, from where they can go to an HBO or progress to the final two years of a VWO. The majority attend VMBO/MAVO schools for 4 years, which points them towards a vocational college (MBO/ROC) or progression to the final two years of HAVO. VMBO schools are further categorised into four levels in decreasing order of academic level. Complex, but distinctly stratified.
Social stratification, the categorisation of people according to factors like occupation, wealth, status, class etc. is a subject of great interest to anthropologists and other social scientists. The rigidity of people’s relative social positions can, and often does lead to social inequality. It would be interesting to research the longitudinal social impact of the highly categorised Dutch education system, in comparison with a less rigid, but still stratified system such as the Australian one. On the surface state schools in Australia provide the same educational opportunities for all, regardless of socio-economic status, but having the postcode of a wealthy suburb can give a family access to a better performing school. Then there is the great social and economic divide between state schools and independent schools with fee structures that effectively exclude many students. This socio-economic gulf poses many questions about allocation of resources and access to opportunities. Interestingly, aside from a relatively small number of ‘international’ schools, independent schools do not feature in the Dutch educational landscape. Perhaps social engineering is is just more evident in Dutch society than in Australia.
But back to the school bags….it’s interesting that so many flag poles are there in the first place. These are also used to proudly display the national flag on special days like King’s Day. Most Australians don’t express their patriotism that way, and are unlikely to have flag poles on their houses, or even in their front yards. If they do, passers-by might raise an eyebrow and wonder if the householder is one of those white supremacists who have appropriated the national flag to cloak racist, anti-immigration attitudes. Harmony Day, an annual celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity, may be the one occasion when, at least for many people, the flag is inclusive of all in our pluralistic society. An enduring image I recall from a recent Harmony Day, one that resonated with respect and a sense of belonging, showed a group of Muslim Australian women from various cultural backgrounds who had fashioned scarves out of Australian flags. A sight to gladden the heart and conjure up imagination of a better, more peaceful world.