Take two six-year-olds, both equally smart. One lives with two highly educated parents. There are books, he is read from birth and taken to museums. The other grows up in a family with a single mother who left school without a diploma, is in debt, reads no books and has no time or knowledge to read to her children and help with the first calculations.
Three guesses who will go to VWO six years later and who will go to VMBO.
It matters what family you are born into. Increasingly. Although the number of students in higher education in the Netherlands has been growing for years, a university degree is not for every smart child, no matter how hard it tries.
This has always been the case, but in recent years it has become even more difficult for some children to transcend their background.
Five years ago, the Education Inspectorate first put its finger on the sore spot in the annual report State of Education. “With equal intelligence, it becomes increasingly important for your choice of school and your school career from which family you come,” she concluded.
The education of parents appears to be more decisive than, for example, income or a migration background.
In group eight, children with highly educated parents receive higher advice for their further education and therefore more often attend pre-university education. Pupils with low-educated parents end up in pre-vocational secondary education more often than you might expect based on their capacity and intelligence. And once at the VMBO level, it is difficult to ever obtain a diploma at a college or university. Stacking education has become more complicated and studying costs a lot of money, certainly since the introduction of the student loan system.
Emancipation engine falters
The strong correlation between the education of parents and the educational opportunities of their children has been established in several studies. A research by the Central Planning Bureau from December 2020, analyzing data from thousands of children between the ages of 2 and 15, shows that differences between parents are already visible in the performance and skills of their children at the age of 2 years. They no longer catch up during their school days, according to the CPB. It has negative long-term consequences: “Relative performance in early childhood helps determine a person’s later labor market opportunities.”
That is shocking in a country where many people still think that every child has equal opportunities and that education is a smoothly running engine for emancipation. After all, a country where working-class children have also been able to go to university since the 1960s and 1970s and where the Cito test, introduced in 1970, was seen as a fair yardstick with which all children, regardless of their origin, would have equal opportunities in their school career. .
What happens in our education system is a mirror of society
Eddie Denessen professor of socio-cultural backgrounds and differentiation in education
But despite all the good intentions – because who wouldn’t want every child to have equal opportunities? – and the many millions that have been spent on policy on disadvantage in schools in recent years, the emancipation engine falters. Opportunity inequality is now the most important problem in Dutch education, next to the teacher shortage.
Opportunity inequality is ingrained in our culture and has become stronger under the influence of neo-liberalism in recent years, says Eddie Denessen, professor of socio-cultural backgrounds and differentiation in education. “We strive for the meritocratic ideal, the idea that children’s careers cannot be traced back to characteristics of their parents. There may be differences, but they must be explained by individual student characteristics such as intelligence and commitment.”
However, this ideal has sharp edges and puts pressure on solidarity, says Denessen. “If you can’t succeed in life, it’s your fault.”
In addition, the Dutch education system is enormously differentiated and ‘focused on selection and settlement’. There is special education for the gifted, there are plus classes at primary school and universities now all have an honors program. “But with that you don’t just choose the best pupils and students, you also exclude others. We offer opportunities, but we also take chances.”
The inequality is not only caused by the difference in baggage that a child receives from home. The teacher also plays an important role. “A child starts to behave according to the expectations that others have of him,” says Trudie Schils, professor of educational economics at Maastricht University. “If a teacher thinks that you, like your parents, can handle pre-university education, you probably can too. And vice versa, if someone tells you that learning is not for you, there is a good chance that you will go to pre-vocational secondary education.”
The growing inequality of opportunity is not only unjust for the children who are disadvantaged by it, but it is also harmful to the economy in the long run. It is not for nothing that economists were concerned about the missed education due to corona: missed education time means missed income. according to OECD estimates As a result of the pandemic, students would have 3 percent lower incomes “for the rest of their lives.” Also, the closures of schools during corona would lead to a 1.5 percent lower gross domestic product than normal “for the rest of this century”.
Whether these bleak predictions will come true remains to be seen. The fact is that the closure of schools was not equally harmful for every child. Several studies show that children from socially and economically weaker families were most disadvantaged. Because they couldn’t work quietly at home, for example, or because their parents couldn’t help with schoolwork.
Corona also disadvantaged the same group of students in a different way. Because the final test was canceled last year, only the teacher and the school determined the school advice of students in group eight. Result: girls and students from lower socio-economic classes in particular received a lower recommendation.
And that, says professor Schils, will lead to economic damage in the long term. “If people can’t do what suits them, there’s a mismatch. This is always sub-optimal and therefore incurs costs. Children who go to pre-vocational secondary education, while they could have coped with pre-university education on the basis of their intellectual capacities, relatively often drop out or drop out and ultimately have no basic qualification for the labor market. Which in turn leads to a higher risk of crime, lower health and therefore a higher pressure on social security.”
A diploma is literally worth money, says Denessen. “The average income of people with a VWO diploma is almost twice as high as that of people with a VMBO diploma: about 45,000 euros versus 23,000 euros per year. And look at the difference in life expectancy between the highly and less educated: that’s six years off.”
Opportunity inequality tends to perpetuate or even reinforce itself, Schils says. “It stops intergenerational mobility. A child with lower-educated parents runs a high risk of also remaining lower-educated and will therefore not progress. That way you maintain the dichotomy in society.”
Due to the great importance of the highest possible education, the battle for diplomas is becoming increasingly fierce. The winners? Higher educated. After all, these are the parents who know their way around school, demand higher advice for their child and have the money to prepare their child outside of school for a higher education.
In April, the Education Inspectorate warned of the rapid growth of so-called shadow education. The number of children following Cito training courses or receiving homework guidance is increasing every year. Annual expenditure on additional education has increased from 26 million to 284 million euros over the past 25 years. One in three secondary school students, one in four primary school students and one in five students in higher education are now using it. Alida Oppers, Inspector General of the Education Inspectorate, warned in NRC about the consequences of this for the already growing inequality within education.
A child will behave according to the expectations that others have of him hem
Trudie Schils professor of educational economics
It is a development that cannot be seen separately from the growing dichotomy in society, says Denessen. “As inequality grows, the pressure on parents and children to perform well increases. Children of higher educated parents are the victims of this: they have to learn to deal with that pressure to mindfulness and yoga. And on the other side are the children who do not make it in this system because they have received less from home.”
There is no simple solution, says Denessen. What can help, however, is selection later, as the Education Council recently proposed in an advice to the cabinet. Denessen: “We know from research that the influence of the background of children decreases with age. Selecting three years later, i.e. not at the age of twelve but only at the age of fifteen, really makes a huge difference.”
But, he warns, you can’t just blame the inequality of opportunity on schools and teachers. He cites a quote by the American sociologist Basil Bernstein from 1971: Education cannot compensate for society. Denessen: “I completely agree with that. What happens in our education system is a mirror of what happens in society. Opportunity inequality is a social problem that can only be solved by tackling the current dichotomy. By taking better care of the weaker groups in society. Those are political choices.”