The eleven page letter published by the Education Council yesterday is actually intended for the successors to the current, outgoing ministers. The 8.5 billion euros in emergency funding for the educational sector? That’s only the beginning, the letter’s authors suggest.
Or, as formulated by the Council itself: the acute problems caused by the coronavirus crisis should be viewed ‘in conjunction with the underlying, structural problems affecting education’. ‘Recovery alone is not enough’, chairperson Edith Hooge asserts.
Of course the crisis has caused damage to students — from falling behind in school to a diminished sense of wellbeing. The Council believes that in higher education, health and wellbeing are often bigger problems than setbacks in course work.
In the words of the letter: ‘Many have been hit hardest by the substantial loss of their social contacts. The loss of exercising, playing sports, meeting friends and part-time jobs has had a negative effect on students’ mental wellbeing. This has magnified students’ feelings of loneliness, decreased their motivation and led to programme setbacks and rising debt payments.’
Their most important finding: the 8.5 billion euros is to cover a period of two-and-a-half years, and that’s too short. ‘The crisis isn’t over yet. We are still living with measures intended to drive down infection, such as social distancing, quarantine advisories and restricted school and campus openings. Moreover, there has not been enough time to itemise the setbacks in detail.’
If you only allow yourself two-and-a-half years to repair the damage, then you are only looking at the short term, ‘while what’s needed is a long-term approach’. Most importantly, the teacher shortage must be addressed, as must the decline in reading skills.
The Ministry of Education is actually aware of this, an article in NRC Handelsblad revealed this week. The Ministry wanted more time to rectify the shortage of teachers. From documents, email exchanges and WhatsApp messages that the newspaper obtained, it seems the Ministry had wanted to take until the year 2028 for recovery. Under pressure from the Ministry of Finance (‘We believe that a period of this length cannot really be the ambition’), the term was reduced to 2.5 years.
According to the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education’s original plan did not communicate enough urgency and creativity. The Education Ministry should take more control and not be so ready to listen to complaints from the educational sector. Thus, for example, you could extend the school year by sixteen weeks and have the new school year start after the Christmas holidays, which would allow all students to catch up on missed schoolwork.
But this did not seem feasible to the officials at the Ministry of Education. They did try to impress upon schools that they should make use of scientifically proven effective interventions, like summer school and tutoring.
This is also highly promoted by the Education Council — and not just for the crisis period. The government should invest in teachers' knowledge, is one of their recommendations. ‘It’s important that research findings are used and that schools learn from each other.’
Will politicians listen to these recommendations? We’ll only know when the next government releases its coalition agreement, and we might have to wait a while before that is ready. Negotiations seem to have hit an absolute roadblock.