'Temporary money will not structurally improve education'
In the coming years, the cabinet will pump 8,5 billion euros into education to make up for corona arrears. Last week, the National Education Program was discussed in the House of Representatives, parties will vote on the motions on Tuesday. In the meantime, many schools are faced with a difficult task. “With temporary money, Dutch education will not improve structurally.”
Unprecedented in nature and size. With those words, outgoing Education Ministers Arie Slob and Ingrid van Engelshoven presented the one-off support package of 8,5 billion euros in mid-February to eliminate corona arrears among pupils and students over the next two and a half years. 5,8 billion for primary and secondary education, 2,7 billion for MBO and higher education. In addition, 645 million per year is made available on a structural basis to accommodate the growth of students in higher education. Light at the end of the tunnel, the party leader of Slobs party tweeted euphorically in the House of Representatives.
But soon many questions arose about that staggering amount. About the distribution, implementation, conditions and timeline. And not long after, the worries followed. For example, the Court of Audit warned in March that the results can only be determined retrospectively if clear goals are put on the table beforehand. And the Education Inspectorate contributed a month later: look further than just a repair of corona backlogs, education urgently needs a thorough renovation.
And so the social task of schools has become an almost impossible mission in just a few months. Not only tackling the cognitive and social-emotional disadvantages of students, but en passant also ensuring that education is structurally improved with one-off money. Despite the cutthroat timetable and a dire shortage of qualified teachers for the class, which is also greatest in neighborhoods where the opportunities for children are already limited.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The momentum alone is remarkable, says Simone Fomenko, teacher at the St. Bernardus School in Epe and chief board member of the AOb. “A caretaker cabinet that throws a hefty amount over the fence just before the elections, that is unprecedented. The danger is that people will now think: they have nothing to complain about in education for the time being. And if you do, you will soon get the stamp of caterpillar-never enough.”
The risk is also with a slant to the formation of a new cabinet that some political parties will use the support package as an argument against new investments: let education first spend those billions well before we put more money on top of it. Is the billion-dollar contribution a blessing, a curse or perhaps both? "It also feels a bit like a poison pill," says Acting AObchairman Tamar van Gelder. “For years we have been fighting for substantial structural investments to tackle the crisis in education: the teacher shortage, work pressure, inequality of opportunity, declining performance. And then the cabinet suddenly comes up with such an enormous amount of billions. Mostly one-time money. Should you just reject it? No, we must continue to insist on structural investments and we must ensure that this money ends up with the people who know what to do best with it: the teachers.”
“We must continue to insist on structural investments and we must ensure that this money ends up with the people who know what to do best with it: the teachers.”
Before the summer, schools must map out the backlog and make plans with suitable interventions that have been approved by the participation councils. But more than three months after the launch of the support package, much is still unclear about the financing. Exactly how much goes to school boards and when? In February, Slob mentioned extra money for schools with many disadvantaged students, but we don't know any details yet. The ministry referred in mid-May after questions from the Education magazine still to the first letter to parliament from February. 'In the middle of June there will be more information about the exact distribution of the funds. Then we'll get back to you with the full information."
“Yes, that is of course a bit strange”, responds Martijn Meeter, professor of educational science at the VU University. “You can be cynical about it, but officials at the ministry are also working themselves to the bone. This is just as impossible for the ministry as it is for the schools. What I understand is that all schools get a good deal of money and schools with many disadvantaged students a little more. Part of the money will therefore end up at schools where there is little or nothing to repair and that is very unfortunate. You would like that to be taken into account more.”
At the school of history teacher John Arts, the Over Betuwe College in Elst, there is already a global picture of the backlog. “The team leader and student coordinator have spent a lot of time mapping out the backlog, especially to spare teachers. 20 percent of the students are really bothered by the corona situation, 60 percent are lagging behind, but they are doing quite well. And with 20 percent it has actually gone better, those students are a bit of a waste in large groups and flourished with distance learning. What you also see is that things like planning and looking ahead have changed considerably, also because teachers at a distance were of course less able to sit behind the rags of students. But I can see that coming.”
What worries Arts more is that all those billions will be of little benefit to education itself. Because you cannot map out a policy for the future with one-time money. “You know what I'm so afraid of? Soon we will be more than two years and 8,5 billion euros further and at the end of 2023 we will be back to the level of early 2020 with the entire education, when corona reared its head. With the same backlogs and problems that were already there then. It takes a lot of effort not to get super cynical about that.”
“Soon we will be more than two years and 8,5 billion euros further and by the end of 2023 we will be back to the level of early 2020 with the entire education, when corona reared its head. With the same backlogs and problems that were already there”
“With temporary money, Dutch education will not structurally improve,” says professor Meeter. “I understand the inspectorate, because they have seen education decline for a decade now. I also understand the ministry, because they have a bucket of money and they see that there is an urgent need. And I understand schools, because they have to do too much with too few teachers and too little time. That's how they keep each other captive. It will be up to schools to carry out that renovation. That is a very tough assignment, for which they also get very little time. Many schools will use the money in a way that does not sustainably improve education.”
For example, by outsourcing all updating activities to external agencies. Because yes, the team is on its last legs, longs for the summer holidays to refuel and from September the current lesson program has to continue. Many schools can already squeeze their hands if they can staff regular class hours with qualified teachers.
"It is tempting to opt for the quick solution, sticking plasters," responds professor Inge de Wolf, affiliated with Maastricht University. As director of the Educationlab research network and co-founder of the Education OMT, she focuses on sharing scientific knowledge (see box). “I hear from education that the mailboxes are flooding with offers from agencies that promise to eliminate backlogs without costing the school team much extra time. The champagne bottles will have opened there in February. There are excellent agencies that schools have been working with for some time and that have an interest in maintaining a good relationship. But there is also a lot of junk. Those agencies also promise great results, so it's important that you as a school don't blindly accept them.”
“There are excellent agencies among them that schools have been working with for some time and that have an interest in maintaining a good relationship. But there is also a lot of rubbish in between.”
The great danger, of course, is that shrewd tutoring cowboys eagerly fill the cash register with mediocre or substandard support, leaving education itself empty-handed after two and a half years. A concern raised by the AOb is shared. The House of Representatives also sees the storm coming and recently adopted a motion by SP and GroenLinks calling on the cabinet to ensure that no education money 'leaks away'. The sector of private education agencies has grown enormously in recent years, according to figures provided by the Chamber of Commerce upon request. The number of companies specifically focused on tutoring, exam training and tutoring has doubled since 2014 to 3466 at the beginning of April this year, with nearly 3600 branches. As it turns out, the largest growth is in the Randstad. The news about the billions in corona support did not pass them by either. Just google 'National Education Program' (NPO) and the targeted advertisements will fly all over you. 'We have put together intervention programs for the National Education Programme.' Or: 'How do you quickly and effectively achieve results as a team and read what does work. Tackle educational disadvantages (sic.) with interventions that have been proven to work.'
“I got a friendly, commercially savvy salesperson on the phone, who pushed me to make quick decisions”
Elementary school teacher Fomenko called one of those tutoring companies incognito a while ago. “I got a friendly, commercially savvy salesman on the phone, who pushed me to make a quick decision. While the costs for the entire process were still vague. At first they only offered qualified teachers, but when I inquired they became fourth-year PABO students and then at least third-year students. Then I think: then as a school you can also contact the teacher training colleges yourself. Hiring an agency right away is the path of least resistance.”
“It is said too quickly: We don't have the people, so we outsource the extra lessons”, says AObPresident Van Gelder. “First look at the possibilities within the school, the own team. The teachers already know the students through and through. This way you keep knowledge and experience within the school. For example, you can give part-timers a temporary extension of hours, of course on a voluntary basis.”
History teacher Arts also part-timer has already raised his hand. He would like to teach an extra hour and have more colleagues with him. “We don't have a teacher shortage, but a shortage of teachers who stand in front of the class. Some boards say 'We don't have the manpower' when they have just dismissed a few starters with temporary appointments.”
Visual arts teacher at Erasmus in Almelo Marzena Broniak became NPO coordinator at her school just before the May holidays. Last year she was already closely involved in the use of the covenant resources for work pressure relief. Then it was 154,96 euros per pupil for two years, now about 700 euros per pupil per year. Even now, the staff is included in the decision-making, says Broniak. “The board can assist us by collecting information, but it is important that we just think with our own team about what works best at our school.” She also sees the division of roles in this way: the board supports the teams in the schools and not the other way around. The management also plays an important role in this, she emphasizes. “Fortunately, that gives us the space to do this.”
“The time pressure is very high, but we should not be rushed by that. We have to make sure it's done right, step by step.”
Despite the tight time frame for inventorying the backlogs and formulating an approach with interventions, Broniak mainly tries to see the possibilities. “The time pressure is very high, but we should not be rushed by that. We have to make sure it's done right, one step at a time. It is one time money for a short period of time, I understand that criticism. However, I mainly see opportunities, also to structurally improve education.”
Broniak calls on teachers not to stand aside. “Of course teachers are very busy, especially in this crazy corona year. But I advise everyone to look into it and get involved in school. It really pays off. Make sure you respond and participate in the discussion in a timely manner and not after the decisions have already been made. It comes from two sides: if the staff keeps quiet, it becomes very easy for a board to make the choices.”
That's how Fomenko is in it. “Now you get the chance to do things that there was no money for before. But there is no time to wait. This operation is like a whirlwind that sweeps over you if you don't step forward and reclaim your professional role."
What works (but not always)?
At the beginning of May, the ministry put an overview online of scientifically proven interventions. This so-called 'menu card' is a translation of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit of the British Education Endowment Foundation, with the intention of expanding it further along the way. A good first step, thinks professor Inge de Wolf, co-founder of Education OMT and director of the Educationlab research network. “I think the menu is very focused on brushing up on cognitive skills, such as language and math. The emphasis is therefore more on repair than renovation. But professionalization of teachers is also among them, for example, as a team you benefit from that for a long time.”
It is logical that foreign studies are looked at across the border, but there is a caveat to this. Not all interventions can be transferred one-to-one from an (Anglo-Saxon) education system that differs strongly from ours in some respects, warns the professor. She herself hopes, through her research network, among other things, to not only share knowledge, but also to increase the 'fertile ground' for a scientifically substantiated approach in schools. “Worldwide scientific knowledge about education is growing rapidly, but in the Netherlands we are still doing far too little with it. Dutch teachers rely more on experience and intuition.” De Wolf, together with school leader Eva Naaijkens, provided the AOb a webinar about promising interventions (can be viewed online). 'Promising' is an important nuance, because whether an intervention will be successful depends on many factors and differs per situation. “That is also a danger of a menu. It gives the impression that you are in the pharmacy and can choose a jar of pills for every ailment. That creates a false sense of security.”
At least as important as the science-based interventions themselves is the time to implement and evaluate them. A time frame of two and a half years is much too tight for that, says De Wolf. “For some students, a quick repair is necessary to limit backlogs. At the same time, I would extend the term to four years, so that teams have the time and space to assess how the interventions are working out and adjust if necessary.”
This story appeared in the June issue of the Education magazine, which is published eleven times a year AObmembers falls on the bus. Look here for all the benefits of a AOb-membership. Also the AOb shares knowledge with guides, webinars, faqs and articles. A good starting point is the NPO page.