It’s been another week of report card meetings for me the last few days. All online meetings, discussing the performance of our pupils in these extraordinary online educational times. Academic achievement stands central in the discussions. And in the Dutch educational system, a child’s ability in the area of Mathematics stands towering above everything. You may be a gifted language expert, a pupil totally engaged by historical perspectives or on with tremendous creativity in the cultural world, but if you struggle at Maths, you are in trouble.
Time and again the Maths or Physics teachers are asked for their perspectives on the chances of a particular pupil being able to perform well enough to be able to progress to the next school year or remain studying at their current level. The art teacher, sits quietly in the background, but if I’m honest, so do the history, geography, social studies ones, and often also the language teachers.
If a child really struggles with languages, even in the multi-language learning Dutch system a slightly lighter learning route can often be found, but struggle with Maths and the options are limited.
Coming from the British system of A-levels this has always struck me as strange. In my final two years of school in the UK I did the standard three A-levels. In the British system, it is really not that unusual for pupils to drop Maths altogether for the final two years of their secondary education. Choosing just three subjects it is inevitable that you are going to let go of something that others may see as crucial.
Ironically, for my argument here, I didn’t drop Maths or Physics and took them as A-level alongside Art. I did however drop English and History, which on reflection may actually have been more useful to me in the long run.
The truth is, you more often than not simply don’t know what is going to be useful to you, and what is equally true is that just because you don’t choose a particular subject at school, doesn’t necessarily mean that a whole chapter of your life is going to be closed off. My lack of English lessons at school hasn’t held me back from becoming an effective teacher of English within my art lessons in a Dutch bilingual teaching stream. Interestingly in the Dutch education system you can go on to study many subjects at university level without even having them as one of your final exam subjects.
Surely we should be aiming at creating more rounded and genuinely broadly educated young people and ones who at the age of fifteen seem stricken by the stress of choosing subjects that they seem to perceive as being the ones that will set them on a direct railroad to their final career.
In order to this there has to me a greater awareness and value placed on the skills, knowledge and insights that are gained inside all the classrooms and for that matter outside the classroom too. It depresses me hugely to see pupils who feel like they are failing at school because they are struggling in maybe one or two subject areas, whilst they are achieving excellently in the remaining eight. It just feels like or educational focus is simply out of balance, and the pupils are the victims.
Lauren Martin’s excellent article covers a good few of my Art teacher frustrations in this area: