Equal Access Equal Success?

How Amsterdam is struggling to combat school segregation

In 2015, one out of five Amsterdam citizens was living in poverty. Especially families and children in the backward neighbourhoods of the city were trapped in a negative spiral of long-term poverty. Poverty and the level of education are interrelated. Several research reports – for instance, the SCP report ‘Voorbestemd tot Achterstand’ – show that poverty leads to a lower level of education and vice versa. Children from low-income households are often excluded from social events. As a result, they are less able to develop social and cultural capital, which is needed to successfully get through high school. Schools in Amsterdam are getting more and more segregated. We interviewed headmasters of Amsterdam high schools located in mainly low-income areas that are coping with this issue.

Eradicating poverty is one of the priorities of the municipal authorities of Amsterdam. Their executive agreement 2014 – 2018 is called ‘Amsterdam is van iedereen’ (Amsterdam belongs to everyone). One of the key-points of this agreement is that every child in Amsterdam should get the best opportunities possible. In their programme ‘Aanvalsplan Armoede’ (Poverty Approach), 20 million euros a year was allocated for poverty eradication – on top of 60 million euros that were already available for poverty programmes. The Poverty Approach aims to help people get out of poverty by providing them facilities like 100% discounts for low-level incomes on several activities and free public transport for the elderly. Another goal of the programme is to improve the accessibility of special facilities designed for target groups.

One of the aspects the Municipality of Amsterdam wants to address with the poverty programme is equal chances for all children, regardless of their background. Education is considered to be a powerful tool to escape poverty. However, one of the outcomes of the recent report ‘Nieuwe segregatie’ in ‘Amsterdamse onderwijs’ is that equal access to education does not automatically mean that all children will have an equal chance for success. The research was carried out by OIS, a research department of the Municipality of Amsterdam. In the report, the level of parental education and the ethnic origins of students were also taken into account, which brought to light a couple of important insights about high school students.

©Glenna Gordon

Children from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds hardly meet.

First of all, the number of students with high educated parents is increasing. Still, students with low-educated parents hardly interact with students of high-educated parents (and the other way around). In addition, the report states that approximately 8 high schools out of 60 are (social-economical and ethnical) proportionally mixed. Especially at high schools with atheneum and/or gymnasium (VWO, preparatory scholarly education), the majority of students have high-educated parents. The numbers offer more clarity: 70% of the students have high-educated parents and less than 20% have a non-western background. In contrast, less than 20% of the students with high-educated parents enrol into a VMBO school (preparatory middle-level applied education), where more than 60% have a non-western origin. In short: children with different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds hardly meet in a school environment, where they spent a great part of their daily lives.

Another aspect showed by the research program is that school choice is an indicator of segregation. Every day, approximately 9,000 students cycle a long distance to more wealthy parts of the city to go to a renowned high school. This leads to twice as many students going to schools in the South and Centre of Amsterdam than are actually living there. The majority of these children have high-educated parents, which results in increased segregation between high schools. The report concludes with the notion that this issue is less present in primary schools, which are in general more mixed.

As parents, we want to choose what’s best for our children.

What causes this segregation? According to the report, the advice teachers give their students at primary school has a big impact. While children of parents with a high-educational background are more likely to receive a recommendation for pre-university level, children with parents who have a low-educational background are more likely to get an advice like VMBO (preparatory middle level applied education), even if they have achieved good grades. In addition, children of high-educated parents tend to prefer a school which offers only one level of education (like a gymnasium) instead of multiple, increasing further segregation. The motivation behind this is that if there is only one level offered, the child is less prone to subside to a lower level.

As stated before, (the lack of) cultural and social capital could be another explanation of segregation in high schools. In general, it can be said that high-educated parents pass on more cultural capital to their children than parents with lower education. Children with extensive cultural capital are more likely to attain higher education and will go to a high school with students of a similar background. This is an ongoing pattern and undermines social mobility of children from less privileged backgrounds.

Hetty Mulder is the principal of 4e Gymnasium in Amsterdam-West. This high school was set up in 2005 by three renowned gymnasia (Ignatius, Vossius, and Barleaus) in cooperation with the Cartesius Lyceum and Esprit Schools. The school was founded with the intention to bring children from different ethnic and social groups together, regardless of their social-economic or cultural background. Mulder says that this goal has successfully been achieved, even with the new matching procedure of the Municipality. Enrolling in high school happens through an online matching system where children and their parents pass on their top 10 preferred high schools. The system aims to promote diversification at schools, but despite the good intentions, it makes the goal of reaching diversity harder for 4e Gymnasium.

‘The school is still relatively diverse: about a quarter of the students speaks a different language at home, it clearly is a more mixed school than other gymnasia.’ – Hetty Mulder, headmaster 4e Gymnasium

She admits there are large differences in economic background visible, though. The school has found a solution for that. They introduced the 4e Fonds, a loyalty fund where parents donate money that is directly used for students whose parents can’t afford certain services or necessaries, like school trips and books.

When asking headmaster Hans van Dokkum about the diversity at Hervormd Lyceum West, he explained that there are students from 39 different nationalities at his school. His school is situated in Nieuw-West and is a reflection of the demography of that part of town. Because of the diversity, students have different cultural capital. To make sure students are able to develop and exchange this capital, the school came up with an empowerment programme called ‘Hallo Wereld’. The school offers extra classes until half past four, where students are able to learn new skills, like learning a language or playing an instrument. The school has ambitions to become an English bilingual school.

‘Sixty percent of the classes will be held in English and this suits the Hallo Wereld project. We want our students to grow up as global citizens’ – Hans Van Dokkum, headmaster Hervormd Lyceum West

With his forty years of experience, never before he taught at a school where students with a different background get along so well.

Also located in Amsterdam Nieuw-West is Calandlyceum.

‘A school with a lot of students from different ethnical backgrounds and around 30 different nationalities’ – Jan-Mattijs Heinemeyer, headmaster Calandlyceum

He thinks the population of his school is a good reflection of Amsterdam’s demography. High schools should reflect the city’s diversity and to achieve this, high schools should provide different levels of education, according to Heinemeyer.

‘I strongly believe in the power of schools where as well as VMBO as a gymnasium are present and can lead to the upward mobility of students’. – Jan-Mattijs Heinemeyer, headmaster Calandlyceum

Instead of launching a special campaign to attract different students, Heinemeyer believes that a wide range of educational levels will attract more students with different backgrounds. The current debate focuses too much on students with a pre-university background. To make sure his students mingle, Heinemeyer organises events like an open stage or field trips that all of his students between the ages of 12 to 18 can join.

‘There are too many ‘categorical’ schools with only VWO, even though most of those students have a lower level. This should change. This way, students can get to know each other on a personal level, interact and learn from each other. This will help them to become empowered and involved citizens.’- Jan-Mattijs Heinemeyer, headmaster Calandlyceum

High schools should reflect the city’s diversity.

Cartesius 2 in the centre of Amsterdam has just opened its doors in August 2016. It is a small school with only 90 students at the moment. Headmaster Martijn Meerhoff explains that the school is a concept school, where students with HAVO and VWO are in the same class for three years. This makes it easier for a student to grow to a next level. With this concept, the school hopes to attract students with of various backgrounds. When asking about diversity, the school is mixed but not an accurate reflection of the city’s population. Yet.

‘Segregation at high schools can be tackled in two ways’. – Martijn Meerhoff, headmaster Cartesius 2

Just like Jan-Mattijs Heinemeyer, he believes that schools could offer more educational levels than just one.

‘However, parents nowadays rather send their children to schools which are categorical. Another option is to tackle the problem earlier, by motivating and encouraging the students at primary school to reach a higher level of education.’- Martijn Meerhoff, headmaster Cartesius 2

Meerhoff thinks the root of the problem of segregation is that there is a difference in the cultural capital between the students. Students with a weak socio-economic status are unlikely to achieve the same success as their wealthier peers. He illustrates this with an example:

‘If you send a boy who has good cognitive skills, but grew up in a deprived area to a gymnasium, he can feel very out of place, because he doesn’t recognise the language, customs, and behaviour that belongs to that school.’- Martijn Meerhoff, headmaster Cartesius 2

The above cases are illustrative for how high schools in Amsterdam are struggling, but also taking an effort of finding and exploring ways of dealing with (lack of) diversity. Fighting segregation is a joint effort, we are all responsible. We need to keep on finding innovative ways to empower children to explore and develop their talents to their full extent. Every child, regardless background, should be able to pursue their dreams and goals and become active members of society.

This publication was written by Simea Knip together with Eva Kassaye, and originally appeared in New Amsterdam Magazine #10. You can access the original publication here

Watch the video below for a quick overview of the Dutch education struggles.

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