In Defense of a Dutch Education Reform: Why Graduating High School Should Not Have Been That Much Work

education-systemAbout a month ago, I first read about the possibility of a “customized” secondary school diploma in the near future, meaning that students would be able to graduate in subjects on different levels. Paul Rosenmöller, chairman of the Secondary Education Council (VO-raad), wants to implement this proposition soon. Aside from a few hang-ups, I am a big proponent of that and will explain to you why.

Dutch students have officially dropped their pens a few days ago: finals are over. If you graduated with a Dutch pre-university diploma (VWO), you know that the requirements are no easy feat. They weren’t for me, at least. In order to get your VWO diploma, you have to graduate with an average of 5 for math and at least a combined average of 5.5 for math, Dutch and English. As 5.5 is a narrow pass, this might not seem too difficult, but my math grades hardly got close to a 5 during my first years of secondary school, let alone a passing grade. I did well in all other subjects, but boy, math certainly made up for most of my schoolwork!

For me, math tutoring began while I was still in elementary school. However, when I went to a Gymnasium (grammar school), I had to triple my efforts. At one point, I had to be tutored three times a week (yes, really) and would feel stressed about an exam a month in advance. Nevertheless, my grade average still circled around a 3,5 out of 10. Ouch. At one point, my math teacher told my mother that “he had never encountered a case like [me] before.” I transferred to a different school over the Christmas holiday and, with my new teachers’ support, even more tutoring and an intensive three-day prep course at Leiden University, managed to graduate with a 6 on my diploma. Victory was mine.

I can still look at my diploma with great pride, as I invested hundreds of hours in getting it. But the downside of this story is that wanting to go to university would not have needed to be such a battle if I would not have had to take math at a VWO level. I knew I would never go into any sort of profession where math would play a role, so what was the point of fighting for it? I did it not only because I wanted to go to university, but also because I did well in all other subjects. It felt like a waste to go for a less challenging diploma.

According to Rosenmöller, it’s “old-fashioned to receive a diploma at your worst subject’s level.” I agree and believe that a shift in the way we look at secondary education is necessary. There are plenty of people who do not exactly have what it takes to be a VWO graduate but would make a fine or even excellent university student.

I hope that Dutch politicians will come to realize that a pre-university diploma should not be a one-level, one-size-fits-all sort of thing and allow all Dutch secondary schoolers to be able to reach their maximum potential without having their worst subject(s) stand in the way of their future career.



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  1. rura88 says:

    Good read. I went from HAVO to VWO and the transition initially was not very difficult. It comes down to personal effort.

    I partly agree with you. Regarding the work(load) though I have to say there is something inherently beneficial to saying VWO pupils have to go the extra mile. It is VWO and the extra work(load) makes a difference.

    Basic skills in mathematics, sciences, language and culture make sense. After the second year though more “room” for specialisation for students who want to go the extra mile should be available. I personally missed that so I took up extra hobbies. School suffered but hey, fuck school I still passed.

    I also have something to add. In the final year of HAVO and VWO there should be, in my opinion a serious class for research skills that addresses writing and methodology. It eases the transition to university and prepares future students for the required effort of “academic reading.”

    Higher education requires you to read and research more yourself at the cost of your spare time. Some new students are not used to that. I certainly was not in the beginning.

  2. Frieswijk says:

    I disagree; it is a dumb plan designed to flatter students, but without much thought about the purpose of a diploma.

    A diploma is meant as a proof of a certain minimum level of education. It has to be recognized as such by schools and employers. They use it to compare students/possible employees.

    But if a diploma becomes a personalized item, than every diploma will have to be valued differently. Schools will no longer accept the diploma, but will demand an extra test (toelatingsexamen) to make sure they can compare the results.

    Employers will most ;likely value these new diploma’s as null and void, and will demand extra schooling.

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