Out of all 195 countries in the world, the Netherlands is ranked 9th place for best education according to the OECD (Auwera, 2015). Quite impressive for a small country that is home to only 0.2% of the world’s population (Wereldreizigers, 2021). The inseparable connection between strong education and the welfare of people would make you think that everyone, if they wanted, could become wealthy by leaning on this educational system. However, the documentary Klassen that was aired in November 2020 revealed a painful flaw in one of the world’s best educational systems. The influences of the background of a child are bigger than the influences of the educational system. Meaning that the chances you get in education are highly connected to where you came from. The meritocracy of the Netherlands is largely an illusion (Heinen, 2020).
My journey through the Dutch educational system has been quite an interesting one. It felt more like a search for meaning and identity than gaining applicable knowledge. It was not until the age of 19 that I became motivated to learn, seek for knowledge and fully utilize this great educational system that the Netherlands hosts. What happened? During my second year of Leisure and Event management I chose a specialization called Social Innovation. Within this specialisation, community-based learning is central. A way of learning that motivates the individual to seek for their intrinsic motivation in order to benefit to their learning community. The community as external motivation, in order to find your intrinsic motivation. Motivation that is necessary in order to succeed in education. It took me 19 years to find my motivation. All those years I could safely wonder, not worrying about anything else but my not yet defined ‘goals in life’.
What I did not notice during these 19 years was that I have been quite lucky to have the possibility to wonder. To not worry about anything but the formation of my personality. Because what would have happened if I did not have a steady financial situation? If I had parents that were not able to guide me in this search or had no stable home situation at all. Would I then still be able to wonder in education for this long? I think the answer lies in effects of the current corona crisis. The current home schooling is especially hard on vulnerable children. Children that already have a language delay or have parents with a lower income or low educational attainment. (Universiteit Utrecht, 2021) The current debate about the need of quality education and the overall health is shining a new light on our current educational system and the vulnerability of a lot of students. However, the current crisis is not the cause of this inequality, it is just a very much needed reminder. Research shows that students with well-educated parents can lean on their parents when they need help with study related matters. For this reason, in particular children with migrant parents are creating a social and cultural backlog (Schoenmacker, 2020). Fact is that the broader society and thus their social surroundings always will have more influence on the individual than the institutional context. (Last, 2020) Meaning the educational system is great when you have a good foundation and enough help at home. Nevertheless, it results in a vicious circle in which highly educated parents pass on the stick of knowledge to their children. A privilege that not every child has.
Besides the Corona Crisis there are more developments that can be seen as a good indicator for the gap in benefiting education between social classes. One of them is the current loan system we have in the Netherlands since 2015. Study of the Ministry of General Affairs shows that lending money is more common in higher social economic environments because of more financial security than in lower social classes. Furthermore, first generation students (being children of parents that both did not acquire a university degree) more often have payed jobs than students from highly educated parents. (Ministerie van Algemene Zaken, 2019) In essence, a loan system makes it possible for everyone to get equal study funds. Nevertheless, it does not contribute to the equality of education. It turns education into an interesting investment for people from higher social classes.
It is rather unfortunate that this strong education cannot be used equally by everyone. One of the most important things I learned in my studies is that a societal challenge is never secluded. Like society, also the challenges of society are intertwined, influencing each other and all parts together form a living and everchanging system. What interests me in this system is finding new dynamics, new alternatives, making connections and aiming for small interventions that can have a butterfly effect towards bigger change. Rather than ‘blaming’ the educational system for the imperfect factors, appreciating what is great and using positive energy to generate an equal system. Out of this interest, I decided to do an Internship at a movement called Cities of Learning. A movement that believes in a fair and equal distribution of knowledge and acknowledgement of learning. Adding to an already great educational system without the direct intention of changing the system entirely. It is these initiatives that become essential leaders in the adaptation towards a more equal system.
‘We need new stories to face the contradictions of our times and to imagine alternative futures.’ (Drift, n.d.)
After being part of a new alternative in the educational system, I now want to focus on the dynamics within the current educational system. How can the current system be influenced, changed, grow in order to make the inequality shrink? Learning from the system that education is embedded in by keeping a systemic overview, finding potential connections and focus on making learning a common good. I am not alone in striving for innovative education. In 2012 in Rio De Janeiro the United Nations produced a set of universal goals that meet the urgent challenges facing our world. (UNDP, n.d.) Number four on this list of sustainable development goals is aimed towards education. Intending to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (United Nations, n.d.).
I am not targeting to change this 9th in the world educational system. What I am aiming for is that everyone in the Netherlands can benefit from this strong educational system by making education, or learning, more inclusive. Finding out how the well-formed educational system can give to those labeled as ‘vulnerable’. How education can positively influence all students, even when these students are highly influenced or set back by factors that are outside of the ‘boundaries’ of education. Because equal access is not enough to break the rut of inequality in opportunities in life. Inequality goes beyond generations and cannot be isolated in one challenge or solution.