The role of primary education is to ensure the broad-based development of pupils. This means ensuring that all pupils are able to develop their cognitive, social, emotional, cultural and physical skills to the best of their abilities, preparing them for their further school career. Carrying out this task places demands on a school’s structure, teachers, school leaders and parents. This is discussed in greater detail in the advisory report on A firm foundation for every pupil (2011). This case file sets out the key recommendations made by the Education Council.
The broad remit of primary education means that attention must be paid to both cognitive and intellectual aspects as well as to the social and emotional development of pupils. The Education Council believes that proficiency in language and arithmetic is an essential condition for continued development. Particular attention for these subjects is therefore justified. As early as 1999, the Education Council recommended the development of learning standards for language and arithmetic (Knowing for Sure. Learning Standards as a Basis for Accessibility, 1999). Reference levels were developed by the education ministry in response to this.
For the sale of clarity, when we refer to language, we mean Dutch and English. In the light of increasing internationalisation, it is becoming increasingly important to start early with foreign language learning so that every pupil has attained an adequate standard of ability in languages by the end of their school career (Foreign language teaching in schools, 2008). The Education Council therefore recommends that reference levels are also developed and introduced in due course for English.
It is important that the attention for language and arithmetic does not lead to a fall in quality in other subjects (e.g. world orientation, cultural education or science) or less attention for social and emotional development. The Education Council advocates an integrated vision on learning and development. This is arguably more important in primary education than in other sectors of the education system because it is here that the foundations are laid for the later school career. Finally, society in the future will demand attention for learning and thinking skills as well as other advanced skills, even in primary education (Social disadvantage in the future, 2011).
A further requirement for the good development of pupils is education that sets challenging targets for every pupil. It is therefore important that schools adopt an outcome-oriented approach and that pupil and school performance is regularly evaluated. This will make it possible to respond quickly if pupils or groups of pupils need either extra help or more of a challenge; individual tailoring can be provided.
A compulsory final examination in group 8 (final year of primary education) and a compulsory pupil monitoring system also form part of this vision on education. However, the Education Council considers it important that schools have the freedom to choose their own examination as long as it meets the requirements set by the education minister (Toetsing in het primair onderwijs (Assessment in primary education), 2011).
Appropriate and challenging education requires a professional school structure with good teachers and school leaders. In the Netherlands, schools have a relatively high degree of autonomy in relation to how they teach and how they organise the education. The Education Council believes that this autonomy should be retained. At the same time, a professional approach means that schools should also be prepared to be accountable to pupils, parents and society as a whole.
An outcome-oriented approach means that teachers and school leaders need to be able to translate exam results into actions and targets. The Education Council believes that there is scope for improvement in this area. Compulsory registration of teachers in a professional register with linked training requirements could provide a positive stimulus for teachers to further their professional development in this area (see also the case file on Teachers).
The Education Council also believes that a challenging environment is important for children in their early years. Preschool and early years education is already available for children at risk of educational disadvantage: these are special programmes for children from the age of 30 months which focus in a playful way on developing language and arithmetic skills. Only basic childcare is available for other children, and this is often not focused on playful learning. In Naar een nieuwe kleuterperiode in de basisschool (Towards a new early years programme in primary schools, 2010), the Education Council therefore advocates that all children from the age of three are offered four half-days of educational childcare within primary schools. This could also help prevent undesired segregation. The Education Council also calls for specialisations in teacher training programmes specifically for younger children (age 3 to 8) and older children (age 6 to 12). The education minister intends to adopt this recommendation.
It goes without saying that child development does not take place solely within the confines of a school environment. Parents also play an important role in the school learning process. The Education Council believes that parental involvement offers clear added value and therefore advocates a greater involvement of parents in the school (Parents as partners, 2010). Educational partnership provides a stimulus for pupil development. The Education Council has no wish to further formalise the relationship more than it already is, but we do see great value in particular in developing the community of stakeholders in the school.