Flying Dutch show the way

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
Record results have propelled the Prins Willem school into headlines as 'The best school in the Netherlands'. It just happens to be in Surrey

there are no windmills in Woking and clogs have yet to catch on. Yet this Surrey commuter town is home to a Dutch primary school that has achieved the highest score ever in the Netherlands' national tests.

The private Prins Willem school, which caters for children of ex-patriots, has been making front-page headlines in the Netherlands after its results in a series of tests in Dutch and maths, which children take at 12 to go to the Dutch equivalent of grammar or secondary modern schools.

Although league tables do not exist in the Netherlands, schools are told their average results, which they can promote. Prins Willem gained a score of 549.3 out of a maximum 550, attracting envious comments. One Dutch newspaper wrote that it was "the best school in the Netherlands - and it's not in the Netherlands!"

The school's results are only part of the reason why it is remarkable. What may seem more surprising to British teachers is its progressive approach to education.

The children direct their own learning, deciding for themselves when they need a lesson, helping each other when they get stuck and sometimes even taking over the teaching.

When a TES reporter arrived at a classroom to speak to teacher Tom Navis, he was nowhere to be seen. His 12-year-old charges were entirely alone but engrossed in their work, barely looking up when the visitor entered. It later emerged that Mr Navis, 34, had left the class to make a phone call.

Teachers in the Netherlands say the Woking school, which charges fees of Pounds 11,460 a year, is helped by small class sizes: its average is only 15, while classes in the Netherlands are up to 30. This, they claim, allows staff to take much more control over the children's learning, directing operations from the front of the classroom at all times. But the approach at Prins Willem seems the opposite.

However, Mr Navis said there was always a fall-back position: if the children seriously underperformed in their tests at the end of each week, he would revert to a more "classical" didactic teaching approach.

Among the school's admirers has been Ofsted, whose inspectors rated it as outstanding last year.

Pupils also appear uniformly enthusiastic. Annet Kraght, 12, and her friend Tessa Spansgersberg, 11, believe lessons are more fun because they can work through problems together.

"Two heads are better than one," said Tessa.

Sceptics point out that the school has a well-off intake. Set up by Shell for its employees' children, it also caters for parents who work in City banks and with other large firms, such as Unilever.

But Mr Navis said the independent learning approach has been successful elsewhere. "The teacher is not that important in the class," he said. "They learn more from each other than they do from you."

PUPILS DIRECT THEIR OWN LEARNING

Every week Tom Navis's Year 7 pupils are given a set of learning objectives, some of which will be tested on Thursday or Friday. It is then up to them to decide how they reach these goals.

The 12-year-olds decide the week's teaching schedule among themselves. All Mr Navis has to do is direct affairs from the front in a few 10-minute bursts during the day, with the rest of lessons given over to independent work.

During this time the children are either working through textbooks, completing worksheets or researching on the internet. They are split into two groups and are instructed to help each other with any problems.

The children are also given the scope to work "fun" activities into the schedule to break up the maths, Dutch, English and other subjects. All this week they have been practising their end-of-year drama performance, a version of the comedy hit Men in Coats, which they decided to perform themselves after laughing at a clip on the YouTube website.

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