Networking with Nuffic

Sue Williamson, CEO, SSAT, writes…

SSAT has been collaborating with the European Platform in the Netherlands for over ten years. Both organisations have undergone change.

The European Platform, which represents passionate advocacy of the importance of internationalism in education, is now part of Nuffic, a government funded organisation working closely with schools that offer bilingual education. Nuffic aims to provide opportunities for young people to gain international experience at every stage of education.

Students who opt to do this have most of their lessons in English, though they also have to sit the Dutch language examination. SSAT and Nuffic are both committed to working closely with schools to help young people to be ‘world citizens‘ – a phrase the students use to describe themselves.

Just before Easter, it was our turn to travel to the Netherlands for our annual meeting, attend the Junior Speaking Contest and visit Farel College in Amersfoort. Amersfoort is a beautiful old walled city to the south of Amsterdam.

Before the speaking contest, we had a business meeting to organise the coming year’s programme of activities. These will include a study tour to England focusing on STEM and STEAM; and attendance at the National Conference in Manchester and the Aspiration Show in London. Dutch headteachers are keen to explore the best practice and research from around the world, and to develop links. This applies to all headteachers, not just to the heads of bilingual schools.

We will be delighted to welcome them, not least because our educational climate and budget constraints have rather reduced the opportunities for heads in England to travel overseas. It is important that we do not become isolationist, so if we cannot travel overseas, we must bring the best practitioners and thinkers to England.

The junior speaking contest was a real eye-opener. The first speaker we heard was a young man from Poland explaining the challenges of learning Dutch – in perfect English. All the speakers presented on complex topics and were at ease answering questions from a distinguished trio of adults. The students showed impressive confidence in speaking English. Students from Farel College were among the contributors, and raised our expectations for the visit the next day.

The visit to Farel College provoked a lot of thought and discussion about the differences between the Dutch and the English systems of schooling, including:

  • The college was very open, with no system of locked gates. When we walked in we were not asked to show evidence of identity nor to sign in.
  • Justin Winton, head of international at the college, told us that just over 50% of the students in a year group followed the bilingual programme. Students not on the bilingual programme still studied English as well as other languages. The college tended not to have partnerships with schools in England, as they perceived too much emphasis on health and safety, which restricted what the students could do.
  • Justin, an Australian married to a Dutch national, has three children in the school. His children have friends in every country in mainland Europe – they use Skype and social media to network.
  • Technology is used in numerous ways. Timetables are available to parents on a smart app. The college sends messages to the students’ mobile phones. Students have different starting times. There are only two lessons (70 minutes per lesson) per day that are compulsory for students to attend – for the rest, they choose which to attend. Teaching staff monitor a student’s performance carefully and will intervene if satisfactory progress is not being made. Students can access a year’s curriculum online plus tests through the college’s Google drive. Considerable emphasis is placed on students taking responsibility for their own learning, from age 11 onwards. Pre–work, what we might call ‘homework’ in the English system, is set online for each subject and teachers know whether a student has completed it or not through the online tracking system. If they haven’t completed it they are not allowed into the next lesson; they must use that time to complete the pre-work before being able to move on.
  • Students on the bilingual stream study English, German, French and Spanish, as well as Dutch. Great emphasis is placed on understanding the culture of the country as well as the language. Other lessons are taught in English – eg geography, history and maths. Most teachers are bilingual, which has a positive impact in the college. However, not all teachers are happy about the time given to languages for the bilingual students – they would rather have more subject time.
  • For those studying the bilingual pathway, parents pay approximately €450 per year per pupil plus €650 for the activities they will undertake, including exchanges.
  • Bilingual universities target these students very early with offers. All the students we met had very high aspirations strong work ethos. They learnt from an early age that if they did not commit to doing the work, they would fall behind.
  • The students did not wear uniforms. Walking around the college, you would find them working in social places. They did not eat just in the canteen area but also in corridors. Students were clearing up after breaks, which is part of the expectation. Relationships between staff and students seemed good – the teacher shook hands with each of the students going into the classroom.

We came away greatly impressed by the work ethic and friendliness of the students. They believe that the Netherlands is a nation that needs to trade globally and that they must be outward-looking to secure their future.

The Netherlands does well in the PISA tables – should we be looking in more depth at their system and how it creates such independent learners?

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