What can Wales learn from post-16 education in the Netherlands?

This post originally appeared on Universities Wales.

Post-16 education in Wales has undergone significant changes over the past ten years with mergers, reconfiguration, regulatory changes, and new legislation for further and higher education. With the publication of the white paper on the reform of post-compulsory education in Wales there will soon be further changes to how post-16 education is funded and regulated, and the relationships between sectors and the government.

With this in mind, Universities Wales was pleased to form part of a study visit to the Netherlands to get a sense of how their post-16 education and training system works, and what Wales could learn from it. Netherlands is a strong performer both in the OECD’s PISA and PIAAC tests, basic skills are very good on average and the system is described as minimising weak basic skills among teenagers effectively. Their universities perform well with the Netherlands’ research universities placing in the top 2% of universities worldwide. The Netherlands also ranks in the top 10 most productive countries by productivity per hour worked.

To get a real sense of an education system in the few days we were in the Netherlands is challenging, to convey an education system in a few hundred words is even more so. Perhaps the most immediate difference in the Dutch system is selection at the age of 12 – at which point children are set on either a pre-university route, a general secondary route, or a vocational route. Typically the pre-university route will lead to an education at a research university, the general secondary route to an education at a university of applied sciences (the closest approximation being the UK’s old polytechnics), the vocational route initially to a vocational college before giving pupils an option to go onto higher education.

There is a clarity in the structure of post-16 education in terms of who does what – in the short time we had there it seemed that the boundaries between research universities, universities of applied science, and vocational colleges were clear and distinct. But much of this clarity seems to be the result of selection at 12, and the creation of three separate pools of young people ready to go through the three different pathways.

One difference that is inescapable is the level of investment into the system. On higher education alone, the total government expenditure for both research universities and universities of applied sciences was €7.9bn in 2015, not taking into account expenditure on student loans and grants. Adjusted for Wales’ population this would be the equivalent of a government investment, excluding student loans and grants, of £1.3bn a year in Welsh higher education.

Our party was also surprised to hear that nearly all young people leave education with a level 2 qualification. The expectation in the Dutch system is that you do not leave education until you achieve at least level 2, and young people are given opportunities to achieve this regularly until they’re 23.

This expectation that everyone will reach level 2 and work at it until they’re 23 is indicative of what appears to be very different attitudes towards education in the Netherlands.  There is throughout the system an apparent willingness to provide young people with the luxury of time and the opportunity to change their minds or make ‘mistakes’. For example, less than 40% of students complete their degree within three years, with as many as one in three students choosing to change courses after their first year.

The participation of employers in the education system is also more formal and established. Vocational students on a work-based learning route, the closest equivalent of an apprenticeship, spend four days a week with an employer. These employers must be accredited by the national vocational body, SBB, with a staff member spending three days on a training course to ensure that they are well-placed to support the students placed with them. Those vocational students who are not on the ‘work-based’ pathway spend four days in college and a fifth with an employer as an intern.

Many of these differences seem to be to do with the oft-discussed ‘polder model’ of the Netherlands, a consensus-based decision-making approach. In recent years the model has been under pressure but many we spoke to continued to make reference to poldering, with one organisation referring to it as the principle of ‘working together or else we all drown’.

But just as there are differences, there are similarities. Many of the organisations we spoke to described how employers believed new employees to not be work-ready and lacking in work-place skills and attitudes. And differences in the public perception of academic and vocational routes, routes firmly separated by selection at 12, persist in much the same way as they do in Wales.

So too do the tensions between ensuring education provision meets employers’ needs and provides a rounded education in its own right, with one university telling us that increased involvement by large businesses in curriculum development had led to an outcry from students. Similarly, we frequently heard about the need to strike a balance between the Government providing direction to education providers on priority areas and the need for both student choice and education provider autonomy.

Which brings us to the question, what can Wales learn from this system? Firstly, assuming that selection at 12 is undesirable in Wales and that large increases in government funding are currently unlikely, we should discount these elements and look at the system more widely.

And when looking at another countries’ education system the question is not just about what works, but why it works. Looking at a post-16 system in any country means grappling with historical structures, cultural norms and ideals, and the pragmatic realities of public finance.  But perhaps that is why what we can learn most is not the specific features of a system but rather the attitudes that enable a system to perform well.

There remains in Wales a sense that there is a blurring of edges between different post-16 providers at different levels. In a way, the clarity of the Dutch system will remain elusive because we do not have, and very likely would not want, the clear boundaries that exist in 12-16 education in the Netherlands. But developing a firmer sense of the education pathways available to young people in Wales, and where those pathways lead, could serve us well.

One way to help develop a sense of this is by aiming to build upon the sense of shared ownership over the system and its outcomes in Wales, the sense of consensus and collaboration encapsulated in the ‘polder’ model. Such a model recognises the autonomy of institutions and the importance of student choice, and does so in a structure where government, sector bodies, and institutions from across the post-16 space work together and recognise each other’s roles within the system.

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