It is okay again to excel
Forget about John and Jane Mediocre, the brilliant and the bright are flavour-of-the-month again in Dutch education.
The city of The Hague has earmarked 10 million euros for projects aimed at highly gifted children at primary schools. Schools in secondary education are trying hard to lure the extremely talented, while a growing number of Dutch universities have officially labelled the quality of their teaching as 'excellent'.
At the Isendoorn College in the town of Warnsveld, Esther Mestebeld teaches class on migration patters in the United States. Just like her students, she speaks exclusively in English. "Who knows what LEDC means?", she asks the ninth-graders, fully confident they will know the answer: "Less Economically Developed Countries." This is a geography class, not an English class.
The Isendoorn College is one of around 100 Dutch secondary schools which offer bilingual education. This means that all classes - from geography to math - are taught both in Dutch and in a second language, usually English.
"I love London" 14-year-old Esra replies, when asked why she is taking bi-lingual education. Maybe she will go to university there. Her classmate Rico is already dreaming of studying law in the United Kingdom. He feels privileged to study in two languages, which is exactly what the Isendoorn College is aiming for: providing talented children with an opportunity to excel.
Teacher Esther Mestebeld says excellence is no longer a dirty word in class:
"To a certain extent it's Dutch culture. Don't stand out; don't pretend to be anything special. Excellence is often equated with bragging. Previously, highly talented children went to grammar school. That was a safe environment, where excellence was fairly common."
These days, the highly gifted and the ultra-smart are also made to feel welcome at schools offering bi-lingual education, of which the Netherlands has a respectable 15,000.
Money for the highly gifted
Change is also beginning to find its way into primary education. For years, parents of highly talented children have been asking for extra challenges for their offspring. Nora Steenbergen, a specialist in the field, expects now that - for the first time - money has been earmarked for highly talented children, many primary schools will take action.
She argues that in the past 30 years, Dutch education focussed primarily on creating equal opportunities for all. As a result of major emphasis on giving less talented children a boost, there was little attention left for the highly gifted.
"There is a widespread notion that these children will make it anyhow, but that remains to be seen. We know from practical experience that many of these children don't. Highly gifted children often lose interest if they are not stimulated enough."
Society as a whole will benefit if more opportunities are provided to talented children. Nora Steenbergen expects the Netherlands will acquire more top talent, "which would really please our knowledge economy."
However, Alfred Kleinknecht, innovation economy professor at the Technical University in the town of Delft argues that top talent does not play a lead role in the knowledge economy.
"Top talent can be useful if you want to force a fundamental breakthrough in a certain field, like nano technology, or Google, 20 years ago. But the type of innovation that has real importance for our prosperity is not the breakthrough that occurs once every so many decades, but the steady flow of minor improvements that is usually worked on by quite mediocre people."
However, Professor Kleinknecht is running against the tide. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has taken position against the "culture of Cs" and keeps emphasising the need for a stronger knowledge economy. Apparently his wish has already resulted in more room for young overachievers.