Dutch pupil power

11th July 2003 at 01:00
A visit to schools in the Netherlands by a group of English heads last year was described by one them as "one of the best weeks of professional development I've ever undertaken". Mike Chapman, head of Driffield high school in East Yorkshire, has since initiated a pupil exchange between his school and St Gregorius College in Utrecht. Neither school could have predicted that the trip would lead to a longer-term relationship.

Mr Chapman wants his pupils to learn the self-sufficiency and self-management skills that secondary school pupils in the Netherlands acquire from an early age.

"Dutch pupils were taking on levels of responsibility at 11 that in our schools would be given only in the sixth-form," says Mr Chapman. "There is no culture of spoonfeeding. Pupils took on more responsibilities, which led to more motivated and enthusiastic learning."

This was impressive, not least because "it frees teachers from being tied to supervisory duties, to enable them to do more teaching", he says.

Paul Mortimer, head of Hollingworth high school in Rochdale, Lancashire, says "pupils in Holland are part of the solution of the problems of school management".

One Dutch school, Revius Lyceum in Doorn, near Utrecht, is well-known for the radical new responsibilities it gives its pupils, treating them as advisers and partners in decisions about the running of the school. "We speak to pupils rather than about them - they act as advisers," says the headteacher, Joost Kentson.

For example, the student board persuaded the school to spread exams throughout the year to reduce pressure on pupils. They asked for fewer exams overall but - surprisingly - also for more maths exams during the year. Pupils at the school interview candidates for teaching posts, although not without some training.

"If you give pupils responsibilities you must train them how to use them, or it is not useful," says Mr Kentson. "It is important to show them early on how to use power. We have people from outside school who train our pupils - people who run their own businesses and consultants who make decisions all the time."

At St Gregorius, pupils are responsible for working without supervision but progress is monitored by a teacher-mentor.

"It is a continuous process, but we can pull back if pupils do not handle their responsibilities in a good way," says the deputy head, Marcel Voorhoeve.

Mr Chapman believes some aspects of the Dutch system can be replicated.

"That's why we are are excited by the exchange," he says. "There are elements of best practice that we can apply here."

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