Are Dutch primary schools capable of offering ‘needs-based education’?
Among the objectives set by the Dutch government for the country’s primary schools are, firstly, the adoption of a system of ‘needs-based education’ so that they can offer vulnerable primary schoolchildren a form of education that is aligned as closely as possible with their individual needs and, secondly, producing better learning outcomes. Schools will need to meet these objectives in the face of shrinking budgets and lower staffing levels. They are finding it increasingly hard to strike a balance between what is expected of them and what they are actually capable of delivering in practice.
We performed this audit at the request of the State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, who was himself responding to a motion tabled in the Dutch Senate. The promoters of the motion asked for the Court of Audit to investigate whether the long-term primary education budget was sufficient to enable primary schools to offer needs-based education on a sustainable basis (motion tabled by Senator Linthorst et al., 2 October 2012).
Our audit had two aims. Firstly, we wanted to find out whether primary schools were managing to strike a balance between revenue on the one hand and the amount of manpower and time available for performing their duties on the other. Secondly, we wanted to examine the progressive steps taken by school governors and managers in order to adopt the system of needs-based education with effect from 1 August 2014.
Dutch primary schools have their financial position weaken over the past few years; nor is it likely to improve in the years ahead. This means that the conditions – in terms of both funding and staffing – are hardly ideal for the adoption of needs-based education. To ensure that primary schools are capable of offering needs-based education, both the Minister of Education, Culture and Science and all actors involved in the educational sector must remain alert. The delicate balance between manpower, funding, duties and time in primary education represents a risk to the successful adoption of needs-based education. Moreover, it could also detract from the ability of needs-based education to provide better pupil support.
The Minister of Education, Culture and Science would be wise to view the introduction of needs-based education in the light of the broad range of tasks schools are expected to perform and the way they are funded. The Minister should keep parliament closely informed about the progress made in the adoption of needs-based education, and should be aware of specific vulnerabilities.
Primary school governors should prepare themselves in good time for the new budgetary and educational responsibilities associated with needs-based education. Due to the limited amount of freedom available to schools to adjust their financial management, school governors need to focus their attention on the medium term.
For the State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, the most important finding in this audit is the fact that the financial position of primary schools has become more precarious. Nonetheless, he claims, most school governors manage to strike the right balance between the available resources and the need to provide good education. In response to the audit, the Primary Education Council has said that, in these circumstances, the introduction of needs-based education is a high-risk undertaking. The Court of Audit suggests performing an all-round review of lump-sum funding and the introduction of needs-based education in a few years’ time.