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.

7 thoughts on “Schooltas op de vlagpaal

  1. Hallo Robin,
    Op jouw verzoek schrijf ik mijn commentaar in het Nederlands. Ik heb je stukjes over je ervaringen,J observaties en wat je nog meer is opgevallen in het afgelopen jaar met veel genoegen gelezen. Je toont daarin met een scherpe blik de verschillen aan tussen Australië en Nederland/West-Europa op het gebied van politiek, onderwijs en cultuur. Je weet evengoed als ik dat geen enkel systeem perfect is, maar hoopt denk ik ook op een samenleving die “the best of both (or more) worlds” combineert. Je belangstelling is niet alleen beroepsmatig vanwege je studie antropologie, maar berust mijns inziens ook op een natuurlijke aanleg om met mensen om te gaan en je te interesseren voor hun leefomgeving en leefwijze. Vanaf het eerste begin was duidelijk dat jullie zoveel mogelijk wilden integreren in onze samenleving. Jullie bezochten in dit jaar meer plaatsen dan menig Nederlander in tien jaar. Mijn suggesties voor museum- en concertbezoek bleken zowel voor jullie als voor mijzelf een succes, evenals de gezamenlijke fietstochten en wandelingen met andere buren.
    Wat voor mij behalve de inhoud van je stukjes zeker ook een compliment verdient, is je mooie, vloeiende stijl en rijke woordgebruik. In mijn vroegere leven als vertaalster heb ik vaak te maken gehad met teksten, zowel Nederlandse als Engelse, waarin de nodige correcties aangebracht moesten worden. Het was daarom een verademing jouw voortreffelijke Engels te lezen. Ik hoop dat er nog veel van dit soort stukjes zullen volgen. Wij hebben een spreekwoord dat luidt: Een goede buur is beter dan een verre vriend. Het is mijn oprechte wens dat wij nog lang goede buren én vrienden mogen blijven. Jullie buurvrouw Rim.

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  2. Thanks again for sharing your insights and observations.
    There is even talk here of introducing selective primary schools. Bill McKeith wrote a piece for the SMH sensibly setting out his opposition to this push. It would seem logical that the more we divide our school students, the more our society becomes divided.

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  3. Once again, a well considered and constructed blog, Rob. Unfortunately inequality seems here to stay and no amount of social engineering will be able to overcome it. The ruling classes certainly have no wish to change the status quo unless there is a wedge that can be exploited. I will be interesting to see how Shorten’s war on wealth plays out to the proletariat.

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    1. Thanks Tom, yes, for social engineering to work at all you need an agreeable populace and very wise social engineers……a virtually impossible collision of circumstances! Yes, Shorten seems to be in the gradual ascendancy; meanwhile, will the real Malcolm please stand up (for same sex marriage, meaningful climate policy etc.).

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  4. A wonderful insight into the Netherlands education processes and the human responses to ‘the system’. The flying school bags are certainly a very curious image I would never have imagined without your story. Thank you so much for your wonderful insights and sharing.

    The Australian education system with the ‘postcode apartheid’ and the examination focus you alluded to certainly does a more than capable job delivering and reinforcing a stratified society. These aspects of our education machine seem more suited to the Industrial Revolution rather than fulfilling the educational needs of the Information Revolution. And I feel poorly placed to preach on the failings of the system when I have built a career around supporting it: setting exams, marking them, advising students on how to ‘play the game’ better. At least one aspect of external assessment which focused on senior students completing a research project (the HSC Personal Interest Project) was a dimension of their learning that was sound and relevant preparation for the contemporary world.

    For the Australian education system the current Federal Government funding changes heralded as Gonski 2.0 may deliver a revision and greater equity in funding across our public and private educational systems. It is so vital that all education offers opportunity and capacity for all students to aspire and to excel to delivery on equity across our society. However, these changes to funding have been predicted for a good many years now and I expect capacity for elite schools to maintain their ‘privilege’ has been well planned for and stratification will not disappear at all. Is it endemic to the human condition? I dream and hope that it is not.

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    1. Thanks Marshall, yes, a curious image indeed! I have to fess up to the same feelings a you regarding either compliantly or purposefully supporting the system in various ways, but yes, the Personal Interest Project is a definitely a beacon in the darkness of high stakes exam-focused education. The extended essay in IB too. I too hope that Gonski 2.0 may make something of a difference, but you can bet you life on elite schools already having worked out ways to stay well clear of the hoi polloi.

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