Early or late tracking

Delayed tracking should not be made compulsory. Instead, improvements are needed to address existing weak-nesses in the current system. This is the view of the Education Council following a request for its opinion on whether early tracking in the transition from primary to secondary education needs to change. 

Reason for these recommendations: a call to ‘think again’ about the Dutch education system

In February just gone it was again time for children in year 8 of primary education to take the ‘Cito’ test. The test results together with advice from their school teacher is used to choose a suitable school for secondary education. It is an important step that can affect the rest of their school career and working life. Some say that this step is too important to take the decision so early, and that the choice and associated selection process should be pushed back a number of years. This would make it possible to make a better assessment of the level and the talents of pupils. Yet others are against delaying the timing of tracking, and are concerned about a loss of quality.

In 2007, the OECD published a report that was critical of education in the Netherlands. Based on a international comparative study, the OECD argued that the early tracking in the Dutch education system disadvantaged pupils from deprived groups. They also believed that it hindered transfer between programmes. Countries that track pupils later perform better on both scores, was the conclusion of the OECD. The criticism led to nods of agreement, but also to opposition. The Minister for Education, Culture and Science called for a “rethink” of the Dutch education system. He asked the Education Council for its opinion on the current system “in the light of the early tracking”.

He also asked the Education Council for its views on the flexibility of the system. The Dutch education system enjoys a reputation for flexibility because of the opportunities to change, to progress and to combine programmes of learning. Schools themselves also conduct various activities to increase this flexibility. On the other hand, there are developments that also reduce this flexibility. Examples include the disappearance of broad bridging classes (first year of secondary education), the falling number of school sites where various types of education are offered under one roof, the introduction of bridging classes in grammar schools (gymnasium) and the introduction of extra requirements for pupils wishing to progress to a more advanced level.

Early tracking has negative consequences for pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds

A selection of the literature on this subject consistently shows that early tracking has negative consequences in particular for pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds. They perform less well in an early selecting environment, although the causes of this are not entirely clear. What is clear is that they are more likely to be advised to a less advanced level. It is possible that the peer group effect may play a role: in less advanced classes, pupils are taught in homogenous, low-performing groups and they do not have the opportunity of being able to look up to better performing peers. The study into peer group effects is complex, however. A highly heterogeneous group composition has been found to be equally undesirable. Pupils benefit primarily from education among other pupils whose level of performance is slightly higher than their own. A certain mixing of level therefore has a positive effect, but excessively large differences within a single group work less well. Furthermore, mixed composition groups have been found to have detrimental effects on the highly talented, well-performing pupils. In the Netherlands, positive effects have been demonstrated with mixed MAVO-HAVO (senior general secondary education) two-year bridging classes, compared to homogenous MAVO (junior general secondary education) bridging classes. The results of the HAVO pupils was not found to be negatively influenced by the mix with MAVO pupils. It is not clear whether these effects would also be seen if the bridging classes were made even more diverse (e.g. all levels in one group).

Another point of criticism is that early tracking contributes to segregation. Pupils from varying socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds enter different streams of education, and these are generally located in physically separate accommodation. So pupils grow up in segregation, and this may hamper social cohesion. This view is not easily supported by research. This may be because an early selecting system offers opportunities to mix groups of pupils from varying school types, although this does not happen often enough at present. But even within a comprehensive education system, there is still a danger of segregation occurring. In the United States, for example, parents may choose private education or move to a neighbourhood with prestigious schools. Moves like this undermine the authority of the public system. Research in the Netherlands has also show that the heterogeneity or homogeneity in the living environment of the school bears no relation to the development of citizenship competencies of the school children.

Performance of the system is not strongly related to the timing of pupil tracking

To put the Dutch situation into perspective, we compared how some other countries deal with tracking. We looked at Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Flemish region of Belgium as examples of early selecting countries, and Canada and Sweden as late selecting countries. The comparison makes a number of things clear. Firstly, not only the age of the pupil at the time of tracking is relevant, but also the length of time spent in primary education. The shorter this period is, the more difficult it is to make an accurate assessment of the capacity level of pupils. This period is considerably longer in the Netherlands than it is in Germany and Austria, and also longer than in Belgium and Sweden. Secondly, the availability of an independent performance and capacity test (such as the Cito test) also plays a role. If there is no test, the decision on the type of school is dependent on more coincidental and subjective factors, such as an assessment of the pupil’s motivation and the ambitions of the parents. In the third place, institutional factors also play a role. The Netherlands, Canada and Sweden generally have combined secondary schools that offer various learning pathways and school types under one roof (although there is a tendency in the Netherlands towards separate sites). Austria and Germany general have separate schools. Furthermore, it was found that the various countries have diverse reasons for delaying the timing of pupil tracking, often in parallel with other measures. Apart from combating the assumed disadvantages of early selection, important motives include falling numbers of pupils and the image problems of lower school types. Other measures include increased investments, increased teaching time, better training of staff, and increased autonomy of schools. Because measures are taken together, it is very difficult in the international comparisons to discover what effects are attributable to delaying the timing of tracking.

Delayed tracking should not be made compulsory

At present, there is insufficient evidence that a compulsory delay in the timing of tracking for all schools would lead to an improvement in school performance for all pupils. The great number of scientific studies provide insufficient support for such a general measure. In international comparisons, the Netherlands performs reasonably well. Progression to higher education is around 50%. And participation by Dutch pupils with an ethnic background is approaching their proportion of the age group. However, the ‘return on investment’ needs further attention. There are however weaker elements in the education system, the most important of which – apart from the mediocre performance of the best-performing group – is the reduced opportunities of pupils from a lower socio-economic background. This problems needs addressing, but in the Education Council’s view, it can be better dealt with in ways other than by delaying the timing of tracking for all pupils. The Education Council advocates a tailored approach: some pupils benefit from a longer orientation period and the option to defer their choice of second education, while other pupils benefit from making a clear choice earlier.

To combat the weaknesses identified in the current system, the Education Council makes the following recommendations.

1) The issue of pupil tracking does not start at the transition of primary school year 8 to secondary education. It is important to identify and eradicate learning deficiencies as early as possible. Poor readers in years 3 and 4 should be identified early and taught well. It is very difficult to catch up again after falling behind at this point. Intensive remedial language classes for year 8 pupils have been shown to have tremendous benefits. This progress could be made early in the school career.

2) An extra year of intensive classes, either at the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary school, has been found to be beneficial. The Education Council is an advocate of an extra initial year at the start of secondary school. An extra initial year would particularly benefit children who do have the potential (e.g. as shown by intelligence tests), but who have failed to make sufficient progress because of language delays. Every local authority should be able to provide sufficient places. This could be achieved, for example, by linking the number of extra classes provided to the number of pupils in a given region.

3) Pupils in separate VMBO-TL classes (preparatory secondary vocational education, theoretical learning pathway) run the risk of lagging behind. This speaks in favour of mixed bridging classes, with pupils from VMBO-TL and HAVO (senior general secondary education). In these classes, pupils would be taught in the assessed subjects on two levels, and assessed in accordance with VMBO-TL standards and in accordance with HAVO standards. A number of teachers in the assessed subject will need to have a HAVO teaching qualification. It goes without saying that the classes would actually have to include the two groups of pupils who have been advised to go to VMBO-TL and HAVO schools, respectively.

4) A strong aspect of the Dutch system is the opportunity to transfer to another type of education and to combine programmes of learning. This aspect should be cherished and, where possible, refined. Many secondary schools currently adhere to transfer requirements that hinder upward transfers. It is important that the national government and the sector organisations address this issue with schools. Transfer rules should, as far as possible, be formulated objectively and transparently. Furthermore, the opportunity to follow and take exams in subjects at differing levels – in particular at higher levels – should be expanded.

5) Undesirable negative effects of the current system, such as segregation between groups of pupils, could be combated by jointly organising the non-assessed subjects. Subjects such as physical education, life philosophies and cultural education can be offered to pupils of differing school types without problem. Schools could display a lot more creativity in this area, for example, by regrouping internally or by setting up partnerships with other schools.

6) The dividing line between general secondary education and vocational education should be less strict. This could be achieved by strengthening existing learning routes (from higher general secondary education (HAVO) to higher professional education (HBO), and from senior secondary vocational education (MBO) to higher professional education (HBO)), but also by combining general and professionally-oriented learning content. The combination of subjects in, in any case, HAVO and possibly also in pre-university education (VWO) could include one or two profession-oriented subjects that fit in with and form part of the chosen profiles. There is a possible role to play here for secondary vocational education, but also for higher professional education. The mixed learning pathway in preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO), which is now relatively unpopular, could ideally be combined with the theoretical learning pathway (TL) so that VMBO-TL would include at least one profession-oriented subject.

7) The Education Council proposes that experiments are conducted at ‘junior colleges’ to combine the best of primary education (independent learning, coherent subjects, and only one or two teachers) with the best of secondary education (depth of content and grown-up atmosphere). This could be achieved by providing a stimulus for a number of development projects that could be taken up by school governing bodies in primary and secondary education. These projects would involve primary school year 8 and classes 1 and 2 of secondary schools working together. The junior college offers access to all types of continuing education.

8) A project for the longer term could include an exploratory study of the possibilities for education based on ‘learning outcomes’: this is where a school for secondary education teaches a small, centrally approved core offering. In this variant, secondary schools themselves decide which learning pathways they offer. They provide the core offering – the compulsory assessed subjects of Dutch, maths and English at various reference levels – and complement this with an elective offering that matches the capacities, the learning style of the group and the pupil, and the transfer agreements with the next level of education.