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Segregation or Education? The Decision is Ours

“Because of all of the problems at black schools, I would send my child to a white school, or ideally a mixed school, but not a black school…I wouldn’t want my child to be a minority.”

Mayke Perquin, Teacher

According to the report, “Inside Game / Outside Game: Segregation and Spatial Planning in Metropolitan Areas”, a NIROV report by David Rusk,  “Dutch schools were much more segregated than Dutch neighborhoods and somewhat more segregated than American schools.” The demographic trends in Holland within the past ten years have been for the wealthier and whiter to move out of cities and into suburbs, while the poorer ethnic minorities have concentrated within cities. Furthermore, even those wealthy whites who chose to remain in the city are chosing more and more to send their children to schools outside of the city—schools that are inevitably whiter. The result has been an extreme segregation of Dutch schools along both ethnic and socio-economic lines. “The distance between what we used to call ‘worker’s children’ and children of more well educated parents has increased,” notes education sociologist S. Karsten of the University of Amsterdam in a November 22, 2002 Trouw article entitled “Segregation In Education takes on Great Proportions”. In that same Trouw article Karsten adds that “Research we have done shows that children from these two environments used to be in school together more often.” Since social class in the Netherlands correlates strongly to ethnic identity, this segregation between children from white collar families and children from blue collar families translates into a heightened and tangible ethnic segregation; and as Karsten notes, that segregation is on the rise.

According to another Trouw article of May 23, 2002, “Education: Black Schools,” the number of primary schools in the Netherlands with a student population of over 50% ethnic minorities has increased from 457 in the 1996-1997 school year to 500 in the 1998-1999 school year to 580 in the 2001-2002 school year. The number of students with a “non-Dutch cultural background”  in Dutch primary education increased by 8% from 1999 to 2002, whereas the number of primary schools with more than 50% of its students from a “non-Dutch cultural background” had incresed twice that amount—by 16%—in that same three year period. It is clear, then, that ethnic minorities are becoming more concentrated within the school system, and that the rate of such concetration is far higher than the rate of the increase in the ethnic minority student population. Black schools are becoming blacker, and white schools whiter.

Rigid Complexities: The Dutch School System 

The education system in the Netherlands has a variety of learning tracks. Starting out at the primary school level, one can distinguish between public schools, confessional schools and special schools, which are for children with learning and/or behavioral problems. In the final grade, group 8, of primary school students have to do a CITO-test. This is a test that assesses the overall performance level of a student. In combination with a teacher’s recommendation, the CITO-test determines the type of secondary education track that the student should, and in most cases must pursue. From that moment on the student either goes to the VMBO, the HAVO or the VWO. If one has succesfully completed the VMBO, one can either go to the MBO or start working right away. If one has succesfully completed the HAVO, one can choose from the different higher vocational trainings at the HBO level. And if one has succesfully completed the VWO, one can move on to either the HBO, for a more practical education, or to the WO, for a scientific education at a university. In theory one can go all the way from VMBO to the WO level. “But this is a very long way, and it is rare” as Hans van Dam, a teacher at the VMBO-school “De Koogmolen” in Purmerend, adds. Tjebbe Jansen, education manager at ROC, an MBO school in Amsterdam, warns “In our new system it has become much more difficult to go from MBO or HBO to University. It is possible, but it is a difficult and long path.”

According to the Minority Report 2001 by the Social-Cultural Planning Bureau (SCP), the newly introduced VMBO has turned the possibilities for the student to plan his or her school-carreer upside down completely (SCP, 2001). Four years ago the VMBO was created out of two different school tracks, VBO and MAVO. Prior to the creation of the VMBO it used to be possible for students in the first two years of secondary education following the VBO and MAVO tracks to be in the same class with HAVO and VWO students, in so-called bridge classes. Nowadays these broad classes have been greatly reduced, and the tracks are segregated earlier. The VMBO itself, on the other hand, has been divided into four levels, further segregating students based on so-called levels of potential and predicted proper career paths. First of all there is the practical education, which is for low-wage professions. Second come the profession-oriented learning-paths, which consist of the basis and “kader” (staff) level. Thirdly there is the mixed learning-path, in between the staff and theoretical level. The highest level is the theoretical learning-path.

Many ethnic minority students, especially Moroccans and Turks, perform poorly at the end of primary school and on their CITO exams, thus resulting in an inordinate number of such minorities pursuing a vocational education on the VMBO track. According to Hans van Dam, at his VMBO school the “ethnic minorities usually end up at the staff level, so they can pursue a white-collar carreer. Their parents want them to do better than they did themselves.” But then again, says van Dam, the parents are satisfied easily. “As long as their kids don’t have to get their hands dirty, most parents are satisfied.” The Dutch system of professional prediction and educational tracking, nevertheless “is very good and accurate.” Mr. Van Dam was unable to explain how he could measure whether or not a low-level tracked, underpriveleged student might have found success at University.

Equal Opportunity Policy: Show Me The Money

In order to compensate for the (potential) risks, due to social, cultural and economic factors, of lagging behind in education, the Dutch government has, since the early 1970’s, instituted an “equal opportunity policy”. This official policy makes a distinction between white students with low educated parents and ethnic minority students with low educated parents. A primary school gets 1.9 times the funding that it receives for a modal student for every ethnic minority student with low educated parents. For a white student with low educated parents a primary school gets 1.25 times the funding. The extra funding goes directly to the school budget. The school can then resdistribute this money for extra facilities for the students that lag behind. This most often amounts to reduced class sizes and the engagement of remedial teachers, who give personal language lessons, most of the time during normal class hours.

It is striking, however, that 1.25 students make up about 16% of the primary school attending public, whereas the 1.9 students make up about 12% (Kriens, 2001). As Paul Jungbluth, education sociologist at the ITS institute for social-scientific research, notes, “The group of white students with low-educated parents is bigger, and in some respects has just as little opportunities as the ethnic minority students. But these white lower-class students are being ignored, because the emphasis in the equal opportunity policy is on ethnicity.”

A Report From the Front: Segregation Through The Teacher’s Eyes

As a teacher at the predominantly white VMBO the “Koogmolen” van Dam has a desire to identify and connect with his minority students, their cultures and their personal backgrounds in order to provide them with a more appropriate education, he adds frustratedly that “it’s simply imposible…it’s too complicated.” “I’ve got 22 students. I don’t have the time to focus on one student…if they are doing  poorly, it’s not my problem. The kid and the kid’s parents have to solve the problem. I don’t think it’s right, but what can I do?”

This attitude of overwhelmed frustration appeared also within the sentiments of Mayke Perquin, who has been teaching primary school at WSV, a white school in Amsterdam, after having first spent six months interning at the Nellestein school, a black school in the Bijlmer. “If I asked in the black school ‘What swims in the water?’ the kids will say, ‘A fish!’ If I ask the same thing in the white school the kids will say, ‘A shark! An orca!’” In Perquin’s experiences, there is an enormous learning gap between the ethnic minority students she tought in the Bijlmer and the wealthy white students she teaches today. T he informal education, language development and social skills developed by the priveleged students prior to entering primary school was almost non-existent in the underpriveleged students she once taught. “I went into teaching because I love children,” Perquin asserts, but after six months in the Bijlmer, she became disillusioned with the profession. “I had to deal with too much at the black school.” Perquin vividly recalled dozens of anecdotes that demonstrate the troubles she encountered during her internship in the black school. While one would expect the group question “what did you do this weekend?” to be met with answers such as ‘I went to the park’ or ‘I saw a movie,’ Perquin would too often hear reports such as “we stole a jacket,” or “daddy was licking mommy.” These were first grade children. “Everyday in the circle, we had these kinds of stories…and in the black school, you always have to explain.”

Even more frustrating for Perquin was the lack of parental involvement at Nellestein. Parents were almost nowhere to be seen at school, and their presence at home was often a questionable assumption as well. Social education, therefore, was either entirely lacking, or present in an entirely deficient manner. There was also no visible connection being made at home with what the children were learning at school. Moreover, for fear of “being accused of discrimination,” according to Perquin, she was “unable to accurately asses and criticize student performance” with the parents of minorty children. “The parents in the black school didn’t want to hear any negative things about their kids. They didn’t want to hear that their child had stolen something,” notes Perquin. Nabila Bouslam, however, a teacher at the almost entirely black primary school, “De Globe,” in Rotterdam, observed that “the parents are more or less involved at our school, but they are never really critical. Sometimes they get critical when their kids are in group 8, this is the time that the teacher has to give an advice on where their kids should go to for secondary education.” “Because of the extra funding, some of the parents think: Oh, the school can solve the problems.”

The parents of minority students “never come to the school, never; not unless it is something really important and I ask them to come,” insists Mr. Van Dam. Many of the minority parents shirk their responsibilitiy to their child’s education onto the school. “The ethnic minority’s students’ parents have different values. They give full responsibility to the school. In their eyes teachers have authority, so you shouldn’t argue with them.” Mr. Van Dam wasn’t trained in school or in continuing education about the cultural differences of minority students and the effects they can have on teaching and learning, and so he knows of no special “tactics” to use in addressing the problem of parental involvement with minority parents. Perquin, who was educated at the PABO only a few years ago, reasserted the claim that no special attention was given in her training to the special problmes of educating underpriveleged ethnic minorities. Winnie van Putten, a teacher at a special education primary school “De Zeppelin” in Amsterdam complains that “At PABO there is hardly any attention given to intercultural communication.” “The PABO needs to be revised,” notes Bouslam. “It’s messy. More attention should be paid to conversations that should be had with parents.”

But what about the 1.9 funding? Even if there is no special education for the teachers, is there not special education for the students? Leo Kurvers is vocal in asserting that the 1.9 funding makes a difference, but is simply unfair and ethnically biased. “I don’t agree with it. Because of the extra funding we have smaller classes; and we have extra teachers, so we never have to send a class home. I’m not complaining. But this should be the case for all the schools.” Many teachers, however, find the 1.9 funding both useful and justified. Joke van Dam, a teacher at the ROC in Amsterdam comments, “The students with language problems also have problems with other courses.” Since most of the ethnic minority students have language problems due to the lack of proper Dutch reinforcement at home, the ethnic minority students tend to struggle in their classes due to linguistic shortfalls. “The students don’t always understand the Dutch they have to hear, read and write in order to get by in school,” Mrs. Van Dam continues, “especially the Ducth colloquialisms that they never hear at home…actually the writing is usually the biggest problem, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know what I am saying or teaching, it just means they need more grammatical instruction.” Mrs. van Dam adds, however, “It’s not just the language. It’s also the cultural understanding; but, when I have students who are trying to do their best, then they all do quite well, and I can’t notice any difference between ‘black’ and white.”

A Report From Behind: Segregation Through Expectation

When asked what he thinks of the Equal Opportunity Policy, and the 1.9 funding initiative specifically, Paul Jungbluth smiles, laughs and shakes not only his head, but his entire body in a gesture of utter disapproval. “It doesn’t work,” he bellows, as he removes a thick report he compiled for ITS from his rucksack and points to a graph indicating the lack of correlation between 1.9 funding and school performance. “There is too much money…they don’t even know how to spend it.” “Money is not the problem.” In fact, according to Jungbluth’s studies, “elite” white schools, those schools attended mostly by white students with well-educated parents, receive half the funding of many black schools, and yet they outperform those black schools by leaps and bounds. The result? The financially richer schools are actually the black schools, and yet the poorer white schools are performing better. There is actually a negative correlation between funding and performance in Dutch schools. Jungbluth’s findings were echoed in the sentiment of Joan Windzak, an administrator with SIRIUS, an umbrella organization that administers 14 primary schools in the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam. The Bijlmer is home to predominantly ethnic minorities, and the schools administered by SIRIUS are all black schools. SIRIUS not only administers these schools, but organizes special programs designed to bridge the educational gap between the underpriveleged students at its schools and those elite white students elsewhere. “There is a lot of money,” she insists, as she speaks through the same sarcastic smile of castigation donned by Jungbluth when the issue of 1.9 funding was put to him. “It can’t be that this many children are simply too stupid to get it, and it can’t be that we aren’t working hard enough, or putting enough money into it; so I am always thinking, ‘What is it?’ ‘What can we do?’ Sometimes I think we are doing too much, we have so many programs.”

So what is the Problem? Why Are black schools Lagging Behind Despite such Heavy Funding? 

To answer that question, according to Jungbluth, first requires an understanding of the genuine nature of the problem, which, in his opinion, goes beyond a black/white distinction to what lies beyond. Dutch schools, he insists, are segregated in terms of social class. Since ethnicity now correlates to social class, the schools are also segregated along ethnic lines. “European education has always had this classism, and once the minorities came in it became apparent that certain schools were made up of students with low-educated parents. These schools became ‘back schools’. There is segregation. There always has been segregation. It was not ethnic, but has become ethnic, and it now appears to everyone as if it were always ethnic.” The greater degree of visibility offered to the problem by the segregation of ethnic minorities and whites has now drawn attention to a problem that is actually rooted in something slighlty easier to ignore, social classism. The problem is accentuated by the fact that now, with the past 30 years’ influx of immigrants into the Netherlands, a new socio-economic class has been created, and it is one that follows ethnic lines precisely. It is the class not of low-educated parents, but of what Jungbluth calls “zero educated parents.” Immigrants, especially Muslim mothers immigrating from Turkey and Morrocco, are entering Holland without any formal education, and without any knowledge of the Dutch language. Their children are then severly disadvantaged when it comes to integrating into a Dutch educational system that has been erected within a tradition of at least some degree of parental education and parental involvment. 

For Jungbluth and Windzak alike, many teachers seem incapable of doing what it takes to teach such disadvantaged students. “For more than a century, teachers have been migrating to schools with better reputations…because there is a status problem” for teachers in the Netherlands. In fact, Jungbluth whipped up statistics showing that the math and language requirements for 7th and 8th grade primary school students are actually beyond the grasp of many primary school teachers. Not only are teachers teaching subjects in which they may have no special training, they are teaching levels of those subjects that they might not even fully comprehend. “The combination of teacher shortages and socio-economic segregation results in deficiencies in education that correlate to ethnic distinctions, even though the black schools receive twice as much funding as the white schools.” According to Jungbluth, the few teachers there are all want to teach in the wealthier, more elite, and coincidentally whiter schools. Moreover, whether you are an ethnic minority in a black school or an ethnic minority in a white school, statistically you have a higher chance of underperforming—not because you are an ethnic minority, but because you are socio-economically and educationally underpriveleged. Furthermore, because of the Netherlands’ systematic school divisions and rigid tracking system, so-called “success” can be reached at any level. Therefore, positive feedback can be gained by underestimating a student and sending her on a low-level track where she will undoubtedly find success, whereas pushing a student to struggle through a higher-level track where success may come, but at a higher cost, is a less common phenomenon when the student comes from a background that the teacher perceives as underpriveleged, uneducated, and working class.

For visible ethnic minorities, however, this originally socio-economic discrimination becomes a severe racial prejudice. When informed that most of the teachers we had interviewed cited language as the most pressing educational inhibitor amongst ethnic minorities, Jungbluth cautioned, “language, like parental involvment, is perceived to be the problem; but it is really the cosial class behind these things. The visible minorities in the Netherlands were brought in to fill the working class jobs and cheap labor that the Dutch didn’t want to do themselves,” and they were, for a long time, forbidden to learn Dutch, as it was assumed they’d soon return to their homelands. Thus, these minority communities were never even given a chance to integrate 100%. They were never given the chance to become Dutch, in language or in culture. Now, with the government focused more on integration than on educational equality, there is an effort to force cultural assimilation--but it is too late. Educational opportunity, in Jungbluth’s opinion, is the only way toward cultural and linguistic integration. Forced Dutch culturalization is impossible and dangerous when the educational system is forcing them to remain on the fringes of Dutch society in the poor and working classes. By continuing to underestimate ethnic minorities the educational system treats them as if they, too, were born to become the Dutch working class.

Jungbluth does not dispute the fact that upon entering primary school children of low-educated ethnic minority parents have poor Dutch language skills. However, in his opinion, the only way to solve that problem is to start their education earlier or accellerate it once it begins in order to allow them to reach the same point as elite white students are capable of reaching after their 8th grade, when it comes time to take the CITO. The system as it exists today merely shuffles disadvantaged students into the same primary school system and curriculum as advantaged students, and when they reach the other side, the disadvantaged students, that group to which most ethnic minorities belong, find themselves on a much lower educational plane, and have no choice but to follow a lower-level secondary track. It is not difficult to see the relative impossibility of getting ahead in this system of rigid and complex tracking mechanisms when one begins as a disadvantaged student. Even more important than the CITO in determining a student’s secondary school track, according to Jungbluth’s research, is the reccommendation the student receives from his or her 8th grade teacher. If that teacher is underestimating or expecting less from the working-class, ethnic minority student in front of him, then that teacher will fulfill his own prophecy by sending that student on a low-level track from which it is virtually impossible to stray. And the problem, Jungbluth warns, exists just the same for an even larger number of white, ethnically Dutch yet underpriveleged students from working-class families. “The problem is one of social class, and it exists just as much for low-class whites as it does for low-class ‘blacks’.” 

As for his teachers lowering their expectations of minority students, Tjebbe Jansen, team leader at the ROC notes that “I think it is unconscious…although, when you ask people, they will obviously deny it.” Joan Windzak, upon reading Jungbluth’s report commented, “It was not surprising. It was not something we didn’t know; but it is not that big of a problem, and we think we are on the right track…our schools have been doing fairly well in the past few years.” Conscious or unconscious, aware or unaware, these lowered expectations are having real and irreversible effects on the futures of individual students, on the futures of the ethnic minority communities and working class communities  in the Netherlands, and on the entire future of the country itself.  If Paul Jungbluth’s theory is correct, then the combination of a higher rate of procreation among ethnic minorities and a lower degree of education and upward social mobility for such minorities infers a number of dark scenarios in which the majority of the Netherlands is poor, uneducated and only equipped to perform working class jobs that will be too few and far-between to sustain the population. This is not just about segregated schools, it is about the future nation that is to be inhabited and maintained by the students of those schools. The Netherlands must decide if its future is an educated one, or a segregated one. The two, however, cannot coexist.



Hans van Dam, teacher at VMBO “De Koogmolen” in Purmerend (June 17th 2003).

Winnie van Putten, teacher at special primary school “De Zeppelin” in Amsterdam (June 17th 2003).

Joke van Dam, teacher at ROC (MBO) in Amsterdam (June 19th 2003).

Tjebbe Jansen, education manager at ROC in Amsterdam (June 19th 2003).

Joan Windzak, policy administrator at SIRIUS in Amsterdam (June 19th 2003).

Nabila Bouslam, teacher at public primary school “De Globe” in Rotterdam (June 20th 2003).

Leo Kurvers, teacher at public primary school “De Globe” in Rotterdam (June 20th 2003).

Mayke Perquin, teacher at “WSV” (Watergraafsmeerse Schoolvereniging) in Amsterdam (June 21st 2003).

Dr. Paul Jungbluth, education sociologist at “ITS” (June 24th 2003).


“Afwijzing begint al op de basisschool”, NRC Handelsblad January 26th 2003

“Onderwijs / Zwarte scholen”, Trouw May 23rd 2002

“Segregatie in onderwijs neemt grote vormen aan”, Trouw November 11th 2002


Jungbluth, P. (2003) De ongelijke basisschool, ITS Nijmegen.

Kriens, J. (2001) Onderwijskansen: De school in beeld.Internet (http://www.onderwijskansen.nl/info/inbeeld/inb0003.html) Accessed June 25th 2003

SCP (2001) Rapportage minderheden 2001 Internet (http://www. scp.nl/boeken/titels/2001-17a/nl/acrobat/rapmin1.pdf) Accessed June 25th 2003

Rusk, David. (2002) NIROV Inside Game/Outside Game http://www.gamaliel.org/Strategic/StrategicpartnersRuskNIROVdoc.htm Accessed June 16th, 2003


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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2003


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