The teachers featured in the new Canvas documentary How was it at school? witnesses agree on one thing: things cannot continue like this. ‘There is a growing group of students who they simply can no longer reach.’
If there is one subject that absolutely everyone has an opinion about, it is Flemish education. After every new news of dire news about declining quality or the acute shortage of teachers, a series of accusations, analyzes and (miracle) solutions are invariably fired. However, they are – to put it mildly – not always equally nuanced.
That’s why the makers of the four-part documentary series went How was school?which can be seen on VRT Canvas from Tuesday, will get the most out of those who stand in front of or sit in class every day. “I have gained enormous respect for teachers who have to think of ways to teach their students in a particularly difficult situation,” says editor-in-chief Clem Robyns, who previously contributed to, among other things, Children of migration and We, women.
What exactly do you mean by ‘a particularly difficult situation’?
Clem Robyns:Almost all our teachers point out that the student group has become unimaginably complex. That is why we have not devoted the first episode to classic problems such as the quality of education or the teacher shortage, but to the students. Not only has diversity increased enormously, students also bring many more diverse problems from home to the classroom. That is the reality in which teachers have to work today. Especially if they teach in a school with many students who have a migration background or care needs. When we showed the first episode to all the witnesses, one of the older, more conservative teachers said: ‘Only now do I realize how lucky I can consider myself to have been able to teach mathematics in the third grade of an ASO college for all those years. (the current finality for advancement, ed.).’
Has the ASO determined the image of Flemish education for too long?
Robyns: I think so. If vocational education (now with a labor market finality) or technical education (now with a double finality) is ever in the media, it is usually to highlight a specific problem with those forms of education. When it comes to major educational themes, such as quality, people still look primarily to the ASO. That is why we have been very careful to also allow people with experience in technical and vocational education to speak, just like someone who teaches in a Freinet school and a special education teacher.
Politicians put forward solutions that sometimes barely exceed the level of café talk.
Are they all concerned about the declining quality of education?
Robyns: Almost everyone believes that things cannot continue like this. However, the solutions they propose are sometimes very different. What often comes up is that there is a growing group of students who they can no longer reach. They simply no longer get through to them, and then it is of course very difficult to teach them anything. Those who are most concerned about this are usually not teachers who work in one of the better secondary schools.
Why is it that some young people are so difficult to reach?
Robyns: This has very different causes. What we have heard a lot, for example, is that the level of the lessons does not match the level that the children have already reached. In addition, students’ areas of interest are often far removed from what they learn at school. Many of them also have a lot on their minds. They have problems at home, grow up in poverty or are constantly distracted by social media. The result is that teachers have to constantly devise strategies to at least get through to those young people. This is simply necessary in order to be able to do what they consider to be their main task: transferring learning material. Trying to reach students is perhaps the most important task of a teacher today.
Students also have their say in the program. What do they think of the state of Flemish education?
Robyns: At the moment, they are mainly feeling the consequences of the teacher shortage. Important subjects are sometimes taught by substitutes who are not actually suitable for them or may even drop out altogether. However, most are convinced that their teachers do their very best to teach them something. This does not alter the fact that some students are concerned about the decline in educational quality. They all indicate that they cannot do anything about it themselves: they simply learn the material that is presented to them. But when they hear and read again and again that the bar is being set too low, they sometimes start to worry about their future. In addition, they also testify about the high pressure they feel all the time. It may be said that things are made easy for students today, but they do not experience it that way at all. For example, they often have difficulty with a system like Smartschool, which continuously sends points and passes on assignments.
No one would let a woodworking student switch to Latin, but conversely everyone thinks that is quite normal.
A number of young people who testify in the program have become victims of the so-called waterfall system. Do they realize that themselves?
Robyns: Naturally. One of the students started in the first year of secondary education in Latin and then had to switch to a so-called lower course every school year. When we spoke to him, he was in vocational education. I find it really unbelievable that no one intervenes before such a boy ends up at the bottom of the waterfall. Especially because it still happens on such a large scale. That simplistic, hierarchical thinking completely ignores that you also learn things in those ‘lower’ directions. A Latin student who is dropped into woodworking will lack the skills of classmates who have already been following such a course for one or two years. No one would think of having a woodworking student switch to Latin halfway through high school, but conversely, everyone seems to think that is normal. It is truly a scandalous system that completely goes against the basic obligation of schools to raise all students to the highest possible level based on their competencies.
Don’t parents also play an important role in this?
Robyns: Certainly. As one director put it: ‘It is as if parents are desperate to tell the butcher that their child is studying Latin.’ In the program, even two progressive Dutch teachers admit that they found it very difficult at the time that their own son wanted to become a chef. That’s one of the reasons why I really hope that many parents will How was school? will watch. Then they will see how complex the work is that all those teachers do with their children every day. I can understand very well that your child is dear to you, but that does not mean that you can dictate to teachers how they should do their jobs. If you have a plumber come to your home, you don’t explain to him how to fix a leak.
What is the most important lesson from the program for you?
Robyns: I have been making programs for some time now in which we try to outline the evolution of a phenomenon, such as migration, women’s rights and now education, by letting those involved speak for themselves. What I learned most from this is that I shouldn’t have an opinion so often. Today there are far too many opinions and most of them are not based on knowledge or empathy. This is certainly the case in education. Everyone has something to say about the state of affairs in Flemish schools. But sloganeering statements such as ‘it’s all over’ or ‘everything has to be completely different’ don’t get us anywhere. Politicians could also show more modesty in this area. When it comes to education, they don’t behave much differently than other parents. They criticize and put forward solutions that sometimes barely exceed the level of café talk. And that is the last thing education can use today.
The first episode of How was school? will be broadcast on VRT Canvas on Tuesday, November 7 at 9:20 PM.