Secondary education

Secondary education is a wide-ranging sector of education. It covers general and vocational education, both offering a variety of levels and learning pathways. The many educational pathways mean that school organisations are also varied, with small traditional grammar schools existing alongside large heterogeneous multi-site schools offering a variety of programmes. This variety in secondary education means that the recommendations made by the Education Council sometimes relate to specific levels or learning pathways. But our recommendations also cover a number of over-arching themes.

Improving learning achievements by an outcome-oriented approach

The quality of the education programme benefits from clarity about the goals to be achieved and the subject matter covered. The Education Council believes that the position of knowledge in education could be strengthened by monitoring levels (by periodic measurement), by eradicating knowledge gaps in critical core subjects, such as Dutch, English and maths, by improving the system for establishing and recording educational content (e.g. by the introduction of reference levels), by focusing on educational content during process changes, and by strengthening the standard of learning of teachers (Reinforcing Knowledge in Education, 2006).

The Education Council believes that schools could introduce more focus in their programmes, with an appropriate level of attention for the critical core subjects of Dutch, English and arithmetic/maths. A common core could be formulated for the other subjects. It is also recommended that subject content is periodically re-evaluated.

An outcome-oriented approach based on clear targets leads to better pupil performance. The Education Council believes that all schools should have a system which is able to track the progress of students and can fine-tune teaching at the individual student level. Target levels are needed to act as a stimulus for pupils’ ambitions. The Education Council also believes that clear benchmarks are needed (based on an annual national survey among 20% of schools), related to the characteristics of the pupil population. This would allow schools to compare their own performance with that of similar schools. An outcome-oriented school culture goes hand in hand with rewarding performance, e.g. schools that have achieved outstanding results (Towards higher educational performance in secondary education, 2011).

Make the most of pupils’ talents through timely tracking and by improving transfer opportunities

Delayed tracking should not be should not be made compulsory. Instead, improvements are needed to address existing weaknesses in the current system. Delayed tracking does not lead to an improvement in school performance for all groups of pupils. This was the opinion of the Education Council in its report Early or late tracking (2010) in response to the question of whether the Dutch education system tracks pupils too early (i.e. at the age of 12 when the decision on secondary education is made).

It is important that learning delays are identified and eradicated as early as possible (see also the case file on social disadvantage). An extra year at the start of secondary education and mixed bridging classes with pupils from VMBO-TL (preparatory secondary vocational education, theoretical learning pathway) and HAVO (senior general secondary education) could create the space needed to allow talents to blossom before the school career progresses any further. The system that allows transfers to other types of education and combinations of programmes could be refined and the strict distinction between general secondary education and vocational education could be softened to make it easier to transfer. The Education Council also proposed experiments with ‘junior colleges’ which offer joint schooling for 10 to 14 year-olds.

In 2007, the Education Council investigated the opportunities of improving transfer and talent development opportunities for pupils between 12 and 18 years (Transfer and Talent Development, 2007). The Education Council concluded that more could be done to challenge pupils to achieve higher levels of attainment (including through the definition of learning standards for critical core subjects). Furthermore, the orientation phase when choosing further education or a career needs to become firmly embedded in the curriculum so that pupils gain a better view of their options and make better choices. Schools should be given more incentives to offer transfers and tailored pathways, and teachers should be better trained to identify talent and disadvantage.

Profiles in senior general secondary education (HAVO) and pre-university education (VWO)

In 2011, the Education Council made recommendations on the profile structure specifically for the upper years of senior general secondary education (HAVO) and pre-university education (VWO) (Profielen in bovenbouw havo-vwo (Profiles in the upper years of HAVO and VWO)). In the view of the Education Council, reducing the four profiles in secondary education without new policy measures will not lead to any substantive improvements, organisational benefits or increased effectiveness. In fact, it might result in new transition problems. In the longer term, the Education Council does not rule out any review of the profile structure in the upper years of senior general secondary education (HAVO) and pre-university education (VWO). However, this will first require a thorough analysis of the HAVO and VWO programmes, and substantive changes to these must not be ruled out in advance. In consultation with the higher education community, schools will have to make new choices about the subjects they offer and the combinations of subjects needed.

Continued confidence in the value of diplomas

It is important that society has confidence in examinations and consequently in the value of diplomas. A balance needs to be struck between standardisation and made-to-measure, and between the subjective and objective valuation of diplomas. A diploma must do justice to increasing differentiation in the education system. However, a certain degree of standardisation should be assured: it must remain possible to judge diplomas in comparison to others. Furthermore, diplomas must have a subjective and an objective value (see also the case file on Examinations and Examination Procedures).

The Education Council previously made two recommendations specifically for preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) concerning assurances of the basic levels of attainment by pupils (Examens in het vmbo (Examinations in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO)), 2009).[1] The Education Council proposed the introduction of a diploma supplement to provide additional information on the pupil, for instance, further information about exam results and/or evidence of other achievements. This information could be used by providers of further education to offer programmes specifically tailored to VMBO graduates. Furthermore, the Education Council proposed that no more than one score of five should be allowed for the core subjects in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO), with the exception of vocational learning pathways in which English should be replaced by a vocational subject.

Sufficient teaching time is a condition of quality

Sufficient teaching time is a factor in the quality of education, and schools need to deliver this. A reduction in the number of classroom hours can have a detrimental impact on the quality of education, and ultimately on the learning achievements of pupils. In its report entitled Koers voortgezet onderwijs: nieuw vertrouwen (The way ahead for secondary education: new confidence), the Education Council argued that it is important that schools are able to make their own choices about the length of a lesson, school opening times and especially about how they structure teaching times. However, schools would have to keep within the nationally prescribed minimum teaching times.[2]

[1] Education Council (2009). Examens in het vmbo (Examinations in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO)).

[2] Education Council (2004). Koers voortgezet onderwijs: nieuw vertrouwen (The way ahead for secondary education: new confidence).