Moving forward? Addressing the needs of young at-risk students in the Dutch education system: the 2007 International Focus issue of Childhood Education examined the topic of inclusive educational practices around the world. We revisit that theme here.
The Dutch Preschool and Primary School System
Most children (94 percent of the population regardless of ethnicity) who enter primary school have been in child care, between birth to age 4, or a play group, between ages 2 to 4. Play groups aim at providing opportunities for social development. Children attend play groups two to four half days a week. Child care is offered for infants to 4-year-olds. The centers that provide child care look after children 2 to 5 days a week, offering cold meals, nap time, et cetera. The Ministry of Welfare, Health and Sports is the government agency with jurisdiction over child care. There is no law requiring type of activities for the preschool period, but Inspection Boards regulate quality of care with respect to staff training, parent involvement, and the building where the care is offered.
Ninety percent of all children in the Netherlands enter primary school at the age of 4. By age 5, school enrollment is compulsory. Grades 1 and 2 can be characterized as kindergarten. Formal or systematic learning of reading, writing, and mathematics starts in Grade 3. At age 12, students enter secondary education and stay until age 16 to 18, depending on the level of secondary school. This may vary from low-level to high-level school education, followed by either vocational training or college and university. There is no national curriculum in kindergarten and primary school, although general educational goals are defined and evaluated on a regular basis by the School Inspection Board. Education is financed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science.
It is characteristic of the Dutch system that policy decisions are the result of extensive consultations between policymakers at various levels as well as the organizations within the institutions. Decisions regarding educational and pedagogical aspects, however, are made autonomously by child care centers and school boards, not by national or local authorities, and child care and schools are all financed on an equal footing (Kloprogge, 1998).
Two Educational Acts
For the past 20 years, the Dutch education system has been highly differentiated. Every child between ages 5 to 17 falls under the system. Two laws have elicited changes. In 1998, the Act on Primary Education (APE) included a movement called "Going to school together again." One main school board includes the boards from several regular primary schools within a specific region and the board of one school for special primary education for students with behavioral and/or learning problems. Board regulations are specific with respect to identifying children with special educational needs. Students from age 3 and older are allowed in special primary education. Acceptance is based upon the results of a referral procedure conducted by an independent committee, which evaluates information from an educational psychologist, a medical doctor, a social worker, and a school report on the child's academic progress. The main school board is financed in such a way that efforts are made to limit referrals to 4 percent or less of the total number of students. However, teachers from regular primary schools can consult with teachers from the special primary school. This way, teachers in regular primary schools can keep students in need of special support in their class (Meijer & Stevens, 1997; Pijl & Meijer, 1997). Although the APE is meant to decrease the number of students referred to special schools, it does not explicitly state that an inclusion policy is required.
The second law of note is the Act on Centers of Expertise (ACE), passed in 2003. This act provides for the restructuring of special schools into four clusters: blind or visually impaired students (cluster 1); students who are deal hearing impaired, or diagnosed as having language or speech disability (cluster 2); motor impaired and intellectually impaired students (cluster 3); and students with behavioral disabilities and or psychiatric problems (cluster 4). Each cluster contains several schools within a region. Assignment to a cluster is done by a board that acts on information from an educational psychologist, a medical doctor, a social worker, and a school report on the child's academic progress. The Act lists guidelines, such as specific diagnostic classifications, that must be followed. The board discusses the reports and decides whether a so-called "indication" can be provided. Indication for a cluster means that parents receive a financial allowance that provides them with the means to pay for professional help for their child. Children may receive an indication for a cluster from age 3 to 4 on. The financial allowance offers means for a consultation with the teacher, and special materials for use within the classroom. Consultation is based upon an individual education plan that is written by the teacher of the classroom where the student is placed. The special care can be offered in a regular primary or secondary school, in a special primary or secondary school, or in a special school within the cluster.
The ACE aims at decreasing the number of students referred to special schools. It allows parents to decide how they wish to receive support for their child's education within the school. Although the Act does not explicitly state that an inclusion policy is required, the result is that the number of students placed in special schools has been reduced dramatically in the last couple of years in clusters 1, 2, and 3. The number of students in cluster 4 has greatly increased, revealing that the Act allowed a shift of placements from one type of special education to another. This finding elicited many studies to reveal the underlying processes (see, for example, Van der Aalsvoort & Eendhuizen, 2005). There are plans to give up special education in favor of identification of special educational needs and corresponding opportunities to offer learning environments in regular primary and secondary education only.
Specific Meaning of the Acts for Young Students Developing At Risk
The APE and the ACE had a big impact on the school careers of young students who were not developing according to their teachers' and parents' expectations. When the history of these children is discussed, we refer to a specific group of students whose at-risk characteristics become manifest between 4 and 6 years. This is the time when they become involved with activities that prepare them for formal schooling. Elliott and Hall's definition applies:
Children who manifest some or all of the following behavioural characteristics: difficulty in using language fluently and effectively in a range of situations, inability to attend to and persevere with tasks and activities, lack of purposefulness, imagination and variety in play, lack of initiative; lack of "normal" social and emotional maturity. (Elliott & Hall, 1997, p. 198)
The definition refers to one percent of the school population. This means that each school year, one of 25 children of each class is defined as being at-risk and is referred to special education under APE. This finding has been stable over the last eight years (Van der Aalsvoort, 2006), regardless of the Educational Acts. The following paragraphs illustrate how we have been studying this phenomenon.
Study 1: Why Are Young Children Referred to Special Education?
The investigation's aim (Van der Aalsvoort & Van Tol, 2002) was to study the possibility of including young at-risk children in regular primary schools. The subjects came from regular primary schools and special care centers in one Dutch town and its surrounding communities. The researchers interviewed the teachers who had referred a child, and conducted content analysis of portfolios of diagnostic information from the 72 children (mean age, 66 months). This analysis included the teachers' decisions in education plans before the referral procedure was set in motion as well as interviews with the preschool teachers who had referred the children to special education.
The portfolios revealed that most information concerned problems with respect to behavioral problems in the institutions. The problems were associated with both child characteristics and parenting problems; information about caring and teaching content was sparse. The interviews showed that referral mostly took place after extended periods of time in which educational plans had been carried out and evaluated without success. The information content of the portfolios, however, was often incomplete or contained descriptions of behaviors, rather than the individual education plans or results of norm-based questionnaires and observation scales. The results raised questions of whether the data collected revealed significantly different data compared to those from normally developing children.
The researchers concluded that individual education plans require realistic aims about which teachers and caretakers communicate effectively with parents, to overcome differences in expectations about the child involved, while also taking into account differences in students' characteristics. Teachers are "directors" of education reform (Meijer & Stevens, 1997) and the APE requires that children "go to school together again."
This means that teachers and professional caretakers are to be personally involved when facing young students developing at risk to enhance the possibility that the children will overcome their problems before they enroll in regular primary education.
Study 2: A Comparative Literature Search on Identification of Learning. Difficulties in Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the United States
The main question from this study was how identification and offering financial support with respect to special educational needs is organized in Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the United States. Van der Aalsvoort and Eendhuizen (2005) studied legislation on education and additional support for learning in the above-named countries. None of the countries outside of the Netherlands formulate the criteria for identification as child characteristics only. Moreover, financing based on indication determined by child characteristics can be costly. It elicits an increasing number of identifications, as it is rewarding to allow many students identified within the school instead of concentrating on specialization (Meijer, 2004). An international comparison of the legislation involved was not possible, since the legislation outside the Netherlands is based upon characterizing the type of special education required instead of child characteristics.
Study 3: Response to Opportunity to Play: Emergent Collaboration by At-Risk Students From Grade 1
Emergent collaboration during play by 26 dyads of at-risk students from Grade 1 from regular and special primary schools was examined from a sociocultural perspective (Van der Aalsvoort, Ketelaars, & Karemaker, 2005; Van der Aalsvoort & Van der Leeden, in press). The study included a quasi-experimental pretest-intervention posttest design and microgenetic analyses of collaboration during the play sessions. The students involved were selected based on age, language development, and intelligence score. Teachers rated behaviors related to temperament. The students were matched within classrooms into same-sex pairs. The intervention included opportunities to play in dyads. Each session included an invitation to build a zoo, using toy animals and wooden blocks, followed by 20 minutes of play time. The pretest measurement was the same for the intervention groups, followed by five play sessions within three weeks and a posttest session after another eight weeks in the experimental condition. The control dyads took part in the posttest session in the same week as the experimental condition. The videotaped sessions were transcribed and analyzed to measure collaboration time, type of play (construction or role-play), and level of collaboration (simple or deep collaboration). ANCOVAs taken during observations at the first session as co-variate revealed that time of collaboration and depth of play had increased significantly. Hierarchical linear models were fit using MLwiN V.2.02 (Rasbash, Steele, Browne, & Prosser, 2004). The findings suggest that individual characteristics, such as agreeableness and stability, affect time played as immediate intervention effects. It was concluded that placement in special primary school leads to distinct developmental trajectories compared to staying in regular primary education. Two explanations were offered to explain the findings. The first one was that students staying in regular primary schools are allowed more play time than their peers in special primary school, and thus profit less from extra play time than those from special primary schools. Students from special primary schools are involved more in one-to-one interactions with their teachers in order to elicit information about academic progress, which left less time to interact with peers, compared to those from the regular primary schools.
The findings presented in the three studies shed some light upon typical cultural characteristics of the Dutch education system. These traits are currently being heavily discussed. One movement focuses on enhancing evidence-based programs within the schools that are comparable to recent education reforms, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (Reyna, 2005). A second movement concerns ensuring that every child is tested before he or she enters Grade 1 to be prepared for meeting the child's specific needs. A third movement strives to eliminate special education in special schools altogether, as mentioned before. It is not yet clear whether the population of young children developing at-risk can benefit from these movements. As always, further research is required to reflect upon the findings suggested and their consequences for young children who stand on the threshold of formal education.
Elliott, A., & Hall, N. (1997). The impact of self-regulatory teaching strategies on "at-risk" preschoolers' mathematical-learning in a computer-mediated environment. Journal of Computing in Childhood Education, 8, 187-198.
Kloprogge, J. (1998). Early childhood education and child care in the Netherlands. Utrecht: Report for UNESCO.
Meijer, C. J. W. (2004). Going to school together again: Reflections. Antwerpen/Apeldoorn: Garant.
Meijer, C., & Stevens, L. M. (1997). In S. J. Pijl, C. J. w. Meijer & S. Hegarty (Eds.), Inclusive education: A global agenda (pp. 115-129). London: Routledge.
Pijl, S. J., & Meijer, C. J. W. (1997). Factors in inclusion: A framework. In S. J. Pijl, C. J. W. Meijer, & S. Hegarty (Eds.), Inclusive education: A global agenda (pp. 8-13). London: Routledge.
Rasbash, J., Steele, F., Browne, W., & Prosser, B. (2004). A user's guide to MLwiN. Version 2.0. London: University of London, Centre for Multilevel Modelling.
Reyna, V. F. (2005). The No Child Left Behind Act and scientific research. In J. S. Carlson & J. R. Levin (Eds.), The No Child Left Behind legislation: Educational research and federal funding (pp. 1-25). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
Van der Aalsvoort, G. M. (2006). Jonge leerlingen met een risicovolle ontwikkeling. Achtergronden, diagnose and behandeling [Young students developing at-risk: Backgrounds, diagnostic decision-making, and treatment]. Leuven: Acco.
Van der Aalsvoort, G., Ketelaars, M., & Karemaker, J. (2005). Social play by young at-risk children: A microgenetic approach to the study of emergent collaboration and numeracy. Journal of Education, 35, 159-180.
Van der Aalsvoort, G. M., & Eendhuizen, K.J. (2005). An international comparative study on identification of learning problems. Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 44, 437-448.
Van der Aalsvoort, G. M., & Van der Leeden, R. (in press). Response to opportunity to play: Emergent collaboration by students from grade 1 developing at-risk. The European Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Van der Aalsvoort, G. M., & Van Tol, A. M. (2002). Where inclusion stops: An investigation of reasons why young children are referred to special education in the Netherlands. Educational and Child Psychology, 19, 59-75.
Geerdina M. van der Aalsvoort is on the faculty of Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.