How OCW purchased help for schools from consultancy firms
Not only schools, but also the Ministry of Education itself hires private consultancies for the National Education Programme. The department appears to have outsourced the NPO helpdesk for boards, school leaders and teachers that was launched in mid-May to an association of consultancy firms, paid for from the NPO fund, the Education magazine discovered.
Questions about the National Education Program or do you need advice? Call for free, on weekdays between 10:00 and 14:00. Helpdesk: (0800) 424 04 24', tips the OCW website.
The telephone is not answered in The Hague, but at a desk in Groningen. It is one of the nineteen members of Educational Development Netherlands, an association of consultancy firms for education and youth care. Schools that are not sufficiently helped by a telephone call and that require more guidance are forwarded to a national 'expert pool' of about ninety educational advisers for whom affiliated agencies provide employees.
Earlier this year, education minister Arie Slob presented the National Education Program: a one-off emergency package of 8,5 billion to overcome the consequences of the corona pandemic, of which 5,8 billion for primary and secondary education. Afraid that it would largely disappear into the pockets of educational advisers, the House of Representatives passed at the end of February a motion from SP and GroenLinks. He calls on Slob to 'build in extra safeguards in the elaboration of the plan to prevent education money from leaking out to private agencies'.
'OCW was up, there was a great need and the request was whether we could help them'
But the ministry itself turned to outside agencies – not for the first time. At the department, they were up this spring with the promised support for schools, who had to get to work immediately to make repair plans. The Netherlands Education Development Association received a request from The Hague: to set up a first-line NPO helpdesk with an 'expert pool' of advisors who can also provide second-line advice and guidance to schools in making the plans. “OCW was up, there was a dire need and the request was whether we could help them”, says director Margreet de Vries.
At the end of April, an agreement was concluded for a period of two months: 17 May to 16 July. The contract was signed for an amount of 'maximum 125 thousand euros including VAT', after which a final settlement is drawn up based on an hour statement. It has also been agreed that advisors in second-line guidance may invoice up to 125 euros per hour. The assignment is paid from the primary and secondary education part of the NPO budget.
To questions from the Education magazine answers an OCW spokesperson that the support of schools requires specific expertise. “This expertise was and is insufficiently available within our own OCW organization and certainly not with the urgency required for this, hence this route.”
'This is not what we had in mind with the NPO helpdesk. Privatization of education through private agencies is increasing in all sorts of ways'
AObdriver Jelmer Evers is unpleasantly surprised. “This is not what we had in mind with the NPO helpdesk. It's a shame that we don't have a public infrastructure for this. The privatization of education through private agencies is increasing in all sorts of ways, this is another example of that.”
“The obvious with which private consultancy firms are playing an increasingly important role in education, both at schools and at OCW, is a major concern for me,” responds Member of Parliament Lisa Westerveld of GroenLinks. “I fear that the NPO billions will give a huge boost to the private sector, while education is a public service. But I am also unpleasantly surprised by this article because the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science knows that the House is critical of the use of private consultancy firms for education funding. Certainly in light of our motion, they should have just reported this.” D66 MP Paul van Meenen: “The hiring of external parties to the government has been a thorn in my side for years.”
Although ministries must offer interested parties equal opportunities when awarding contracts, that has not happened here. The contract has not been put out to tender by OCW, but has been awarded directly to the association. Formally it is called a 'provisional award'.
"Given the urgency to help the schools quickly, a public tender has not been chosen," said the spokesperson. “There were already good experiences with Educational Development in the Netherlands. That party already had an expert pool. OCW was not clear with other parties whether they could easily arrange such a pool and there was not enough time for a market survey on this point. Since it was a temporary assignment that had to be started quickly, this well-known party was chosen.”
With these previous experiences, OCW refers to the so-called Equal Opportunities Alliance and to a samenwerking around the subsidy scheme 'catch-up and support program' last spring to combat backlogs due to corona. That assignment, which also involved the creation of an expert pool of educational advisors, had been put out to tender.
It is of course not a very large order: both the duration and the costs are relatively limited. But it could be a prelude to a sequel. External parties will also be called upon for NPO support for the 2021/2022 school year. That contract will be put out to tender, according to OCW. The text of this tender states that it cannot provide an OCW spokesperson because the procedure has “not yet been fully completed”. It is obvious that Educational Development Netherlands will compete, but that has not been announced.
In recent months, Slob pointed out the NPO helpdesk several times as a service of OCW. During a debate with the House of Representatives, Slob indicated that the information line also serves as a reporting point for teachers in the event of a lack of participation and participation: “We have also opened an information point especially, as we have also done with work pressure resources. We don't call it a hotline, but it can be, because you can also go there if you have questions about whether things are going well at your school and whether the teachers are sufficiently involved. So if people want to, they can call 0800-4240424.”
The helpdesk is staffed by employees of the Groningen bureau ViaSocium, one of the members of Educational Development Netherlands. The bureau has two employees on standby for phone calls, according to association director De Vries; so far the line has been called 400-450 times. The helpdesk works with a call protocol from OCW and falls under the responsibility of the ministry.
ViaSocium, specialized in youth care, 'lends' remedial educationalists and other experts to other agencies and does not maintain direct relations with schools. In this way, conflicts of interest in first-line contact are prevented, says De Vries.
Some “forty to fifty” schools have now been referred to the second-line expert pool. Colleague offices within the association make employees available for this pool. Depending on regional availability, area of expertise and customer base, schools are linked to an advisor from one of the affiliated education consultancy firms. These are organizations that, as market parties, do provide services directly to schools and already have their own customer base in education, such as BCO and CED-Groep. The schools they are referred to are "mostly" existing customers, but some are also new contacts, so let these agencies know when asked.
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According to association director De Vries, schools can request an additional four hours of extra supervision within the NPO funding if necessary.
But doesn't the construction raise questions about unfair competition vis-à-vis other, non-affiliated education consultancy firms? Director-administrator Margéke Hoogenkamp of the CED Group: “This construction has been temporarily tinkered in order to help schools get started. OCW chose this route because it wanted to speed up. There will be a public tender for the longer support work next school year. We believe that a level playing field is very important.”
'This construction has been temporarily tinkered with in order to help schools on their way'
“I think we should be proud of it. OCW asked us if we could help them out and we succeeded," says association director De Vries. She herself once worked – until 2004 – at the ministry, where she was a policy advisor. “That didn't play any role. That was almost twenty years ago. I've been away for so long, the colleagues from then no longer work there.”
De Vries sees no advantage in the awarded contract. “The contract was not awarded to one agency, but to an association representing nineteen members. Everyone is free to join us.”
And the fact that the supervision for schools has been outsourced to a group of private market parties? De Vries: “These are not listed companies or tutoring agencies that are set up just as quickly to earn money quickly. Our members bear a quality mark and work with a social goal in mind. The aim is to contribute to the sustainable development of the school.”
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