Competitive Education Systems: Good or Bad?

Since I decided to apply for placement at Trinity college I’ve been thinking about the education system we have here in the Netherlands, and how it compares to the ones in countries like the USA, England and Ireland. This is just yet another attempt to write things down as a way to figure things out. There’s no point to be found in it per se.

Let me first explain how the Dutch education system works.

At the age of four you go to elementary school (which we call the ‘basisschool’). You stay there until you’re twelve. At the end of elementary school you take a test, called the CITO test, dependinding on your score you are adviced to enroll into high-school (which we call ‘middelbare school’) on a certain level.

Right now there are four levels: VMBO, HAVO, VWO and Gymnasium. VMBO is mainly for people who are more do-ers than thinkers, the people that work at bakeries, fix cars etcetera. HAVO is for those who like doing, but on a higher level. They usually go to college afterwards and end up with a bachelors degree. VWO is for the thinkers, which most probably go to college and end up with a masters degree. Gynmasium is for the children who like doing something extra (I suppose), the only difference compared to VWO is that they take Latin and ancient Greek. Many high-schools teach multiple “levels”, some do all, some do only Gymnasium, others do only HAVO and VWO. Usually, it is possible to initially enroll in a certain level and move one up or down as you go (in practice this can only be done in the first two years). All schools in the Netherlands are public, there are no private schools. There are Christian and Muslim schools, but they are not considerably better or more expensive than the others.

Once you finish high-school you can choose what to do. I’ll focus on VWO and Gymnasium for now. After you got your diploma you can go to either a university (which targets at getting you ready for science and makes you end up with a master of science degree) or HBO (which targets at getting you prepared for the industry and makes you end up with a bachelor degree). If you choose to go to university, you can pick any university you like. Again, there is no concept of a private school or community college. The level of education is roughly the same (at least not as big of as a difference as the ones in the USA). They all cost the same amount of money. There are only a couple of exceptions, if you want to study medicine for example, you’d better get good grades, because there are more applicants than the universities can accept, and they initially pick the straight-A students. The rest is accepted at random.

The result of this system is that grades are not very important, as long as they’re good enough. We have a grading system where grades range from a 1 to 10, where a 5.5 is enough to pass. Why work for that 9 or 10 when you can just as easy settle for a 6 or 7? The only reason to work hard and get as high grades as possible is because you think you have to, or your parents do. Future employers may look at them once, but you had a good education, so you’ll find a job anyway.

All of this is fine, until Dutch students become export products, to put it crudely. That it works this way in the Netherlands is fine, but what if a Dutch student wants to study in England, Ireland or the USA? All of the sudden grades do mean a great deal. You may be the smartest kid in the world, but they’re not going to know because they look at your grades. Grades may not be the best indicator around here.

In a highly competitive schooling system, Dutch students have little chance, unless they already know at age 12 that they want to study in foreignia at some point and choose to work really hard for it. I didn’t, and now I regret it.

Now let’s compare this to how it works in the USA. As I understand it, there are public and private high-schools. The private ones are expensive, but also very good. If you want to go to a good college, you better work hard throughout your high-school career. There’s a reason to work hard and get high grades: if you don’t you may not be able to go to that great school that you want to go to. Top colleges in the USA are not only the best schools in the world and hard to come into, but also very expensive. If you’re not rich you got a problem. Unless you can get a scholarship of some sort.

Now, is this a good or bad alternative to the “Dutch way”? I think there’s so simple answer to that. For schools it’s very nice to get motivated students. In some cases students have worked hard their entire life just to get into that particular school. You know they’ll try to get as much out of the school’s education, because they worked so hard for it. If you compare this to universities here in the Netherlands, some students do as little as possible. They don’t really care about it, as long as they get their diploma with as little effort as possible. I would hate to imagine what it’s like to teach students like that.

The money issue is big in the USA. Here everybody can get a good education, whether you’re from a family that has basically zero income or one of the Queen’s children (yes, we have a Queen). The government will support it, if necessary. There’s no discrimination on the amount of money your parents have. The good thing about high fees is that the school gets it and can use it to hire the best teachers and provide the students with the best facilities.

Then there’s the student to think about. While walking through high-school I had a good time. I wasn’t forced to study very hard, got good enough grades on my own. Never was pressured very hard. It was fine. Imagine how it would be in a well-off USA family with ten generations at Harvard, though. Having to get A’s for years and years and study your ass off. I’m sure that children get mental break-downs from this.

Ok, so this would be the place to draw a conclusion. But I don’t have one. The trouble is that the world is getting more and more of a global village. Within the coming twenty years or so it would be very normal for your kids to go study in a foreign country. And what’s better than to study at a good school? Yes, indeed, this is the kind of situation in which if one starts doing it, everybody has to follow eventually. Good schools all over the world will get overloaded with students and will only accept the best ones. It’s natural if you think of it.

Am I happy to have had a pressure-free education? That depends on whether I get accepted at Trinity.