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Segregation in Dutch Primary Schools


Better Learning Performances in an Unmixed Class (De Telegraaf, June 18, 2010)

Performance Worse in Mixed Schools; Separation of Natives and Ethnic Minorities Work Better (Trouw, June 18, 2010)

Islam Lowers Results in Schools (Het Parool, June 18, 2010)

Preferably a Homogenous Classroom (NRC-Next, June 18, 2010)


These are hardly conclusions that would be considered acceptable, according to prevalent and longstanding Dutch values. The Dutch emphasis on tolerance, multiculturalism and diversity stands in direct contradiction to such statements. Yet, in a study using data from student performance on language tests conducted across a wide swath of countries, Professor Jaap Dronkers concluded that, in fact, the conventional wisdom on these matters may be seriously flawed. Greater ethnic diversity in schools is correlated with lower educational achievement. A greater percentage of Muslims in school lowers the performance of other immigrant children. Socioeconomic diversity in schools appears to make little difference. These are some of the statements in Dronkers’ inaugural lecture at the University of Maastricht that drew immediate media attention.

Before anyone gets carried away, we should mention that the study also showed some results which few would find odd. For instance, the more educated the parents of students at a particular school, the better those students will do. Further, while on the surface the study seems to claim that diversity in terms of parents’ educational background has no discernible effect on student performance at the macro-level, a closer look reveals otherwise. So-called “highly stratified” school systems, which involve different paths for different students when they reach certain grade levels, showed improvement in student performance when economic diversity was higher. Meanwhile, less stratified systems, which simply continue with students in the same comprehensive study plan up until graduation, showed negative effects on performance. The Netherlands, as a highly stratified system, could stand to gain from such diversity after all, the study suggests.

But clearly, the most controversial statements from Dronkers’ study concern ethnic diversity and questions of religion. It appears that in fact, greater diversity in schools leads to poorer results for both the native population and non-native population.

The first half of this equation is hardly shocking. We think of all-white schools as palaces of privilege where better-paid teachers, better facilities and better-educated parents make correspondingly better academic results nearly inevitable. Besides, the study focuses on reading skills, and a class composed of students speaking the same mother tongue would surely lead to more optimal results in that area. But the notion that ethnic homogeneity also aids ethnic minorities is a relatively novel idea, as far as hard data is concerned. Professor Dronkers wonders if the time necessary to bridge cultural gaps is ultimately hampering the pursuit of more concrete educational goals, such as the development of language skills.

Particularly bizarre is the result stating that the presence of students from Islamic countries tend to depress the test scores of other immigrants – yet not those of natives. What is to be made of such a statement? Add to this the fact that in their own right, apart from questions of diversity, “pupils from Islamic countries have substantially lower educational performances”, and the situation appears increasingly dire.

Why is this such a pressing issue in the Netherlands? Quite simply, schools are often segregated, and increasingly so. How has a country that prides itself on multiculturalism allowed this to happen? Many are already asking that question, and in such an environment, the Dronkers study has set off a small media firestorm.


* * *


Immediately after the study was published, headlines—typified in their subtlety by those mentioned previously—began to circulate throughout various media outlets. Even the more nuanced phrases focused on both negative and ethnic components, such as “Lower Achievements at Mixed Schools” (from the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website).

This was followed by a counter-reaction: in little more than a week, over 20 articles appeared on this topic in all seven of the major national newspapers. Opinion pages were filled with reactions from teachers and researchers stressing the importance of diversity in the classroom. Some commentators and journalists, such as Pieter Hilhorst in his June 22 column, “The double curse of the black school” in De Volkskrant, defended integration, explaining the study in the following fashion:

Of course mixed schools have lower test scores than non-mixed ones. The only truly non-mixed schools are all-“white” schools, or those where almost the entire population is native to that country. These schools have the best-educated parents, the most resources, the highest social classes, and so forth. Schools with ethnic diversity tend to be schools comprised of many different immigrant populations; think of schools with Surinamese,Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, for example. These schools are ethnically “mixed”, yet in reality are simply full of students who come from less privileged backgrounds.

We contacted Professor Dronkers to ask whether his study could support this interpretation. His response was that he had controlled for such factors in his study, and that the results were conclusive: greater ethnic mixing results in lower test scores. He did mention, however, that the study did not include the Netherlands among its countries of interest, as appropriate data from PISA tests were not available.

Pieter Hettema, who is currently working as an independent consultant, has decades of experience as a teacher, education administrator and consultant for the Ministry of Education as well as the Municipality of Amsterdam. His take on the situation is fairly dismissive of Dronkers’ conclusions. “His study is based on international data, which were not meant for this type of research. Therefore he was limited to data from just a few countries, but he didn’t hesitate to draw general conclusions, also for the Dutch situation. If you read his essay, it strikes you that his hypothesis is biased.”

Taking this criticism a step further, Anja Vink calls the conclusions of the study “completely crap.” Anja is a freelance journalist and author, with previous experience as a teacher. She recently wrote a book on the subject of “white” and “black” schools: “Witte zwanen, zwarte zwanen: de mythe van de zwarte school” [“White swans, black swans: the myth of the black school”]. Mrs. Vink believes that Dronkers’ study and conclusion was seriously flawed, and that on top of that, the media response was highly uncritical. She partially blames Dronkers for this, believing that he might have highlighted the more controversial elements of his study to gain attention. But she also does not exonerate media outlets, which she claims simply copy and paste incendiary headlines.

In addition, Vink complains that because the study only took into account non-Dutch countries, it leaves little room for variation and differences in context. How can you compare the results of Algerian-French Muslims in France, with Muslim immigrants from Turkey and Morocco in the Netherlands? What about Iranian immigrants, who often tend to perform better than native Dutch?

Furthermore, she maintains, whatever results Dronkers attained regarding ethnicity are completely insignificant compared to the real factor affecting school performance: the financial and educational backgrounds of the parents. In Vink’s view, ethnicity is not an important factor. It is already hard enough to define on its own, let alone its influence upon school performance. She is familiar with plenty of “white” schools with disadvantaged students, that do no better than ethnically mixed schools with equally disadvantaged students. In some high schools – like the one where she used to work – the situation is appalling, with about half of the students in her classes nearly illiterate.

Natalie Markuszower, who works at the Department for Research and Development at the Weekend School, emphasizes that grades are not the only thing that matter in a child’s life. Much harder to measure but equally important is the development of other qualities, such as motivation, a positive outlook on the future, confidence, and involvement in Dutch society. In line with this view, many experts maintain that Dronkers’ research does not address the main point that ethnic diversity is good for children in many intangible ways; some far more important than test scores. Mr. Hettema believes there are two reasons why integration is important: “it is better for the formation of an individual’s identity to be confronted with the diversity that characterizes contemporary society, and it helps people to get along with other cultures and groups when they grow up”.

It is important to note that Professor Dronkers does acknowledge that the benefits of integration represent are a different value than the one he measured (test scores). His argument is simply that policies meant to further integration must also be accompanied by the knowledge that it is not test scores which will be aided by the move. There are two competing sets of values, which science cannot reconcile. Dronkers raises the question in his inaugural lecture: “A political choice needs to be made. What is more important for our society: less social distance between ethnic groups, or better educational performance of immigrant pupils?”


* * *


“People are obsessed by skin color.”

Bowen Paulle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, wrote his PhD on a comparison of schools in the Bronx (United States) and the Bijlmer (Netherlands). For him, the changes required in the system are quite obvious. “I really can’t believe we are still talking about ethnic segregation”, he said. “For decades, we have known that it is socioeconomic factors which play the largest role in school performance.” He believes it is time to move past our “obsession” with race and ethnicity.

Paulle believes we should tackle another taboo in Dutch society: the prevalence of a hidden class system. Parental education and income levels are far more important to a school’s success than ethnic diversity. How did he come to this conclusion? In large part, thanks to Professor Jaap Dronkers. “He knows this,” Paulle said, referring to Dronkers’ appreciation of the importance of socioeconomic factors in school performance. It was a pity, Paulle continued, that Dronkers’ recent study on the topic was not couched in more nuanced terms, and that the media – as it always does – ran with the most racially charged headlines possible; hence, Paulle’s comment regarding the public’s obsession with skin color.

If this is the case, what is to be done? It is no secret that schools are becoming more segregated, not less so. Yet, if the cycle of low achievement is to be broken, and the intention is to raise the educational prospects for minorities and immigrants, Dronkers’ study suggests that greater diversity might have the opposite effect.


* * *


The recent trend toward segregation is in large part due to the Dutch emphasis on free parental choice. Yet, this freedom has existed for almost a century, while the segregation has only occurred over the past few decades. The reason for this is mostly religious, as a 2009 paper from Helen F. Ladd, Edward B. Fiske and Nienke Ruijs, explains: "The Dutch context of parental choice is unusual in that for more than 40 years the standard mechanisms described in the literature that often lead to segregation by socioeconomic disadvantage were overwhelmed by a different type of affinity or bond, namely religion.” But this was not to last. “It was not until the secularization of Dutch society in the 1950s and the influx of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s that segregation by student disadvantage became salient in the Netherlands. Significantly, the Dutch are only now becoming aware of how segregated their schools are, especially in the big cities."

The paper goes on to explain why parental choice leads parents to choose segregation: in general, parents are more likely to send their children to schools that have many students from their own group. In addition, students from wealthier families tend to go to schools where the parents are wealthy, as these schools tend to perform better (or at least, are perceived as doing so). While less wealthy parents might not follow the same logic in deciding where to send their children, the fact that an entire group will act mostly homogeneously leads to segregation relatively quickly. Still, we wondered why less advantaged parents would not simply send their kids to the “better” schools, as is their putative right.

According to John Tyler, political editor for Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the answer has to do with parents’ lack of knowledge about the system. “The best schools tend to fill up early, and parents who don't know the system often end up sending their kids to the nearest school. In neighborhoods where the majority of residents are immigrants, the local primary schools quickly become so-called ‘black’ schools.” According to Vink, this problem affects even wealthy, white, expatriated families from Western countries—they do not understand the system, so their children do not end up in the choicest schools either.

Bowen Paulle, Anja Vink, and many others believe there is a need for a change in the system in order to combat this segregation. They see potential in the ranking system that is currently applied in the Dutch city of Nijmegen. Parents sign their children up for primary education at a central office, listing their six favorite schools. The children are assigned to one of the six options – about 95% get their first choice –, meaning that about 40% of the students will be disadvantaged children who have parents with a low level of education. According to Vink and Paulle, a slow, careful and localized implementation of this arrangement in other towns could foster desegregation.

But what does this discussion mean to those working directly in education, such as teachers or administrators in primary schools? Are schools as obsessed with skin color as the public? Do teachers and administrators believe in the current system of free parental choice? What do they see as advantages and disadvantages of segregated or mixed schools? We wanted to know, so we talked to teachers and administrators from a mixed Montessori school in Amsterdam North, and a mixed/black public school and Islamic primary school in Amsterdam West.



* * *


Sitting in Dineke Valenkamp’s office at the Boven’t IJ Montessori primary school (Amsterdam North), listening to her philosophy, that whole debate seemed far away. Mrs. Valenkamp has been the director of the school for eleven years, and was the director of a primarily “white” school for seven years before that. She was also a teacher for twenty-one years. Needless to say, she has some experience.

Boven’t IJ has four hundred students of nearly fifty nationalities, with at least forty percent of the children born to immigrant parents. Yet, the school has no active policy of recruiting or choosing minorities. We asked Mrs. Valenkamp how the school was so diverse in the absence of such a policy. She replied that it had to do with the name.. The school has a highly respected reputation, and parents want their children to attend such a place. Even teachers want to teach there. Mrs. Valenkamp is in the unique position of not only holding a waiting list for students desiring to get into the school, but also a waiting list of teachers who want to teach there.

She does not believe in forcing integration on parents. They must want their children to go to a school such as Boven’t IJ. Without the parents’ cooperation, the system will not work. At the same time, she extols the benefits of integration, saying that while she does not take issue with Dronkers’ study, she believes that the results of ethnic diversity show up in more important ways than test scores.

We asked her why she thinks studies like these seem to erupt into such controversy, if the important matters are parental involvement, teacher involvement and so forth. “People are afraid to be seen as discriminating,” she replied, and told us a story that sums up her philosophy in an instant. At one of her former jobs, she was charged with the task of determining which level of secondary school her students were likely to reach. After selecting a Surinamese girl for MAVO (a more vocational track), she was visited in her office by four Surinamese men, who accused her of racism. “‘You only put her onto that track because she is black’ they said. And I replied: you are right. If she had been green, I would have put her on the higher track!” The men laughed, and Mrs. Valenkamp spent some time explaining to them exactly why she evaluated the student as she had. By the end, the men were convinced.

This is how Mrs. Valenkamp believes that reform must come: on the local level, with teachers and administrators standing up for academic standards, getting parents involved, and not letting racial or cultural tensions fester. “People must talk—a lot. That is how we move forward. We cannot wait for The Hague.” To that end, Mrs. Valenkamp is actually starting a new school to help deal with some of the waiting list problems they currently encounter.

We also spoke to Julia Lips, a young teacher at a “black” mixed primary school in Amsterdam West. She has 22 children in her class representing ffive different nationalities: Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Dutch and English. In total, the school has students representing over 25 different countries of origin. The school is mostly ‘black’, as native Dutch parents often seem to prefer to send their children to white schools.

Ms. Lips’ response mirrored Mrs. Valenkamp’s. She explains that the diversity of ethnic backgrounds can at times pose challenges, but she is convinced that interaction between students – and even parents and teachers – in such a diverse environment adds to the children's education and upbringing in crucial ways. It is important that students learn how to live together in a multicultural society. Lips has a clear and definite answer to the question of how we could desegregate schools: “Parents need to make their own decision.” She feels that a wide variety of schools exists – both in terms of orientation and educational philosophy – and it’s up to parents to decide what is best for their child.

Mr. Bakas, director of the Islamic primary school Al Wafa in Amsterdam West, held a similar philosophy to that expressed by Lips and Valenkamp. His school has about 230 Muslim students, but religion is not the primary concern there. The focus is first and foremost on general and civic education. He believes in the importance of developing the social skills and understanding of Dutch society that students will need in order to become successful citizens in the Netherlands.

Bakas does not view segregation in the educational system as an inherent problem. He even sees a specific advantage for Islamic schools when it comes to integration: in a more homogenous classroom, teachers will have less difficulty understanding the cultural backgrounds of all their students, making it easier for them to adopt an effective educational approach that can be applied to everyone. Nevertheless, in the long run, he hopes that Al Wafa will become a true neighborhood school that reflects the diversity of the surrounding area.

All three people interviewed appeared to agree that the key to raising or maintaining the quality of a school lies in the quality of its teachers. “Good teachers will get the best out of their students,” Bakas said. Quality of teaching, however, may be of even greater importance in a school with students of low socioeconomic standing, since in some ‘white’ schools teachers do very little but students still achieve relatively well thank to the guidance they receive from their highly-educated parents.


* * *


Of course, not every school is as well run as Boven’t IJ. Not every administrator is as passionate as Dineke Valenkamp or Mr. Bakas. And ethnic diversity does not come easily to all schools. But the comments of our respondents drive home some important points: schools must be run well. Parents must be involved. Teachers must care. No amount of ethnic diversity – or lack of ethnic diversity – will make up for these fundamentals.

One of the problems that we dealt with when writing this paper was that many schools and officials did not want to talk with us. Whether this was only due to time constraints, or whether it was due to reticence regarding the topic, we cannot be sure. For instance, we attempted to elicit reactions from several Islamic schools regarding their opinions on whether ethnic homogeneity helps children develop, but we were only able to speak with one of them; the rest were hesitant. We cannot blame them. This topic has become so charged and politicized that if we were running an Islamic school, we would not want to risk negative publicity either. We also tried to contact the Department of Social Development of the Municipality of Amsterdam and several district offices, but were unable to reach anyone who was willing to comment on the situation. As Mrs. Vink put it, touching this topic is liable to “burning your fingers.”

It appears that issues of class, ethnic and racial diversity are so fraught with danger that it is difficult to keep in mind the main consideration: what is good for the children? We think that the unwillingness to admit that diversity might, in the short run, harm test scores – or an unwillingness to even debate the point – is harmful to the main dialogue. We can, for instance, admit that ethnic diversity might not help test scores, and still believe that increasingly segregated schools is a problem. Either way, the reluctance to be open to certain possibilities cannot be a good thing.

Anja Vink, Pieter Hilhorst and Bowen Paulle regard economic diversity as more important than ethnic diversity when it comes to these questions. Others disagree. With regard to ethnic diversity, even the authors of this report could not agree on its relative importance: one author finds interaction between students from different ethnic backgrounds to form an important part of young children's social education; the other considers it an artificial construction that needlessly distracts from the fundamentals of education. But where we agree, and where this report has hopefully shed light, is that Dronkers’ study –and many others like it – ultimately add to the discussion, while sensationalist headlines, knee-jerk responses, and fears of offending ethnic groups or multiculturalists are deleterious to the situation. We should welcome research on education systems. We can analyze it, and perhaps disagree with it. But we should not be afraid of it. If we are so frightened of what research might reveal, perhaps we should deal with the weakness in our own positions, and not lash out against those who oppose us.



Belien, Paul. “Segregation in The Netherlands” The Brussels Journal, January 18, 2006. http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/680

Buitenhuis, Ron. “Islam Drukt Schoolprestaties” [“Islam Loweres Results in School”] Het Parool, June 18, 2010.

Cunningham, Benjamin. “Europeans Eye U.S. Models to Ease School Segregation” The Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 2008. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2008/0619/p04s02-woeu.html

Dronkers, Jaap. “Positive but also Negative Effects of Ethnic Diversity in Schools on Educational Performance? An Empirical Test Using Closs-National PISA Data.” Inaugural Lecture, Maastricht University, June 17, 2010.

Funnekotter, Bart. “Liever een Homogeen Klasje” [“Preferably a Homogenous Classroom”] NRC Next, June 18, 2010.

Gemeente Amsterdam, Dienst Onderzoek en Statistiek. “Fact Sheet: Segregatie in het Voortgezet Onderwijs” [“Fact Sheet: Segregation in Secondary Education”], 2008.

Hilhorst, Pieter. “De Dubbele Vloek van de Zwarte School” [“The Double Curse of the Black School”] Volkskrant, June 22, 2010.

Ladd, Helen F., Fiske, Edward B., and Nienke Ruijs. “Parental Choice in The Netherlands: Growing Concern about Segregation” Sanford Working Papers Series SAN10-02, 2010.

Ladd, Helen F., Fiske, Edward B., and Nienke Ruijs. “Migrant Education in The Netherlands: Segregation and the Role of Weighted Student Funding”, 2010. https://www.appam.org/conferences/international/maastricht2010/sessions/downloads/276.1.pdf

Obbink, Hanne. “Prestaties Slechter op Gemengde School; Autochtoon en Allochtoon Apart Werkt Beter” [“Performance Worse in Mixed Schools; Separation of Natives and Ethnic Minorities Works Better”] Trouw, June 18, 2010.

Papôt, Thijs. “Lower Achievements at Mixed Schools” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, June 18 2010. http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/lower-achievements-mixed-schools

Telegraaf, De. “Betere Leerprestaties in ongemengde klas”[“Better Learning Performances in an Unmixed Class”], June 18, 2010.

Tyler, John. “How to End ‘Apartheid’ in Dutch Schools” Radio Netherlands, March 19, 2008. http://www.expatica.com/nl/essentials_moving_to/country_facts/How-to-end-_Apartheid_-in-Dutch-Schools__11539.html?ppager=0


Bakas, M. L.. Director of Al Wafa Islamic Primary School in Amsterdam. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

Dronkers, Jaap. Professor, Chair International Comparative Research on Educational Performance and Social Inequality, Maastricht University. Response by E-mail. June 22, 2010.

Hettema, Pieter. Independant Consultant in the Field of Education & Society, Publiek Leiderschap BV. Response by E-mail. June 23, 2010.

Lips, Julia. Teacher at a Public Primary School in Amsterdam. Phone Interview. June 25, 2010.

Markuszower, Natalie. Department for Research and Development, Weekend School. Phone Interview. June 22, 2010.

Paulle, Bowen. Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Amsterdam. Phone Interview. June 25, 2010.

Valenkamp, Dineke. Director of the Boven’t IJ Montessori Primary School in Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

Vink, Anja. Freelance Education and Research Journalist. Author of“Witte zwanen, zwarte zwanen: de mythe van de zwarte school” [“White swans, black swans: the myth of the black school”]. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2010


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