Kirstie Donnelly considers whether in looking abroad for a model skills system — with the Netherlands offering the latest template — we neglect lessons that might be learned closer to home.
The latest country to emulate, apparently, is the Netherlands, with Skills Minister Nick Boles this month advising MPs to look there for a ‘transferable and applicable’ education system.
And it’s true the Dutch set a good example — ninth to our 20th in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development school rankings, with lower youth unemployment.
As the government will know, Dutch teens can opt for interchangeable pathways that don’t restrict what they do at 18, and more than half take a vocational route. That’s a figure we in this sector can only dream of, so perhaps he’s right that it’s time to ‘Go Dutch’.
But let’s take a step back because we’ve been here before. It was only recently that debate in FE and skills was dominated by the German model, and we all remember the spirited discussion about the merits of the Swedish schools model.
We should be advocating continuity over constant tampering, set within the UK’s own unique economic and social context
Yet evidence then emerged suggesting the German approach wasn’t the best fit for the UK, and that the ability of the Swedish model to transform school standards was questionable.
What they want is evidence-based policy reform, stable funding and the freedom to respond to local demand.
And the truth is, we’re already embracing the most relevant aspects of the Dutch design, making good progress towards enhancing flexibility and expanding access to technical options, for example via university technical colleges and career colleges.
During the election campaign there was endless debate about apprenticeships, and giving vocational education parity of esteem.
This suggests we are moving in the right direction, in allowing young people to pursue alternative professional and technical education routes while also keeping their options open, as is the case in the Netherlands.
But realistically, we’re not simply going to remake the UK system in the image of the Netherlands — or another country we admire.
Ultimately, I’m not sure this tendency to look abroad with rose-tinted glasses is that helpful. It overlooks the fact we are rarely comparing like with like.
Already, it’s clear that beyond the general emphasis on flexibility, core aspects of the Dutch system are not easily transferable.
There are definitely elements of the Dutch model that could work here, and we clearly have a good deal to learn from the experiences of other nations. However, it is also important to learn from Britain’s prior experiences — (something we know from our Sense and Instability research into 30 years of skills policy) — is not done nearly enough.
Certainly, it’s important for policy-makers to look at the most effective elements of the world’s best education and skills systems. But there is also a limit to what this can instructively tell us about our own.
As the Minister pointed out about the German model, every country has its own unique economic and social cultures and so we also need to look closer to home. That’s not to simply accept the status quo. But change has got to be incremental and we should be advocating continuity over constant tampering, set within the UK’s own unique economic and social context.
So let’s rephrase the question. Rather than looking abroad for what is ‘transferable and applicable’, let’s raise our voices about the lessons we can offer to other countries.
Education is a vital export market for the UK, yet too often it feels like we focus only on our shortcomings and not our successes. By all means, let’s look at what the Dutch can do for us, but let’s look at what we can do for the Dutch and the rest of the world too.
Click here for an expert piece outlining the Dutch Vet system and comparing it to that of England by academic Jeroen Onstenk