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The quality of education is “essential” for the minister, “because we, as a field of education, have control over it”. “The teacher shortage is partly due to a poor labor market and activation policy, but the quality of education is our own responsibility,” he says. “The bar needs to be raised.”
Weyts initially focuses on Dutch and mathematics, because students also need these skills for other subjects. For example, since last school year, toddlers are obliged to take a language test before they can start in the first year.
“I had to pull and drag to get through the language screening for toddlers,” said the minister, but he thinks it is just a social measure. “Children who start primary education must know sufficient Dutch, otherwise you are a bird to the cat and there are no equal opportunities. We must allow children to climb higher up the social ladder through the transfer of knowledge and skills. That is our core task.”
In addition, the Flemish tests will be introduced step-by-step in 2024. Students will have to take these at four points in their school career, namely in the fourth grade, the sixth grade, the second year of secondary and the sixth year of secondary.
“With these tests, we finally have an instrument to look at the evolution of the quality of education. It is an instrument for schools to compare themselves with other schools. In addition, it also becomes clear how a student evolves. These are essential data,” explains Weyts. “Today we still have to rely on foreign surveys, which only take place every five years and with a select number of students.”
A third tool for tackling the quality of education is the attainment targets, says the minister. In June, the Constitutional Court annulled the new attainment targets for the second and third stage of secondary education, after Catholic education instituted proceedings against it. The education partners are now looking at how to proceed. New attainment targets must also be set for primary education. The minister also wants to focus on Dutch and mathematics.
The Educational Association of Cities and Municipalities (OVSG) points out that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the Flemish tests. “On the basis of which attainment targets are we going to develop these tests? After the destruction of the attainment targets for secondary education, all discussions about the attainment targets for primary education have come to a halt,” explains general director Walentina Cools. “Before Flemish tests can be introduced, it must first be determined what students must at least be able to do? The logic is now lost.”
According to Cools, different goals are mixed up with the Flemish tests by wanting to test at the Flemish level, at school level and at individual student level. Moreover, it is only about Dutch and mathematics. “With our own tests, we focus on the level of the schools for all learning areas and therefore on the quality of education,” she says.
Koen Pelleriaux, deputy director of community education GO!, is in favor of the Flemish tests. These will benefit the quality of education, if only because students are tested. “When students have to participate in a test, they study and as a result they reach and understand the subject matter better,” he explains. “In addition, schools get a picture of how they are doing compared to other schools, so that they can improve their quality.”
Lieven Boeve, director-general of Catholic Education Flanders, is not convinced that the Flemish tests on the table benefit the quality of education. “It’s not because those central keys are there that the quality is better. The question is what we are going to do with those tests and there is a fundamental problem there,” he explains. “The tests are made on the basis of the attainment targets, while schools work with curricula. These tests therefore do not correspond sufficiently with what actually happens in a class.”
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Boeve argues rather for a test bank, in which schools can choose from various standardized tests. “That is possible because not only we, but also OVSG already work with their own tests,” he says. “For example, not every student in every school has to take the same test, without taking into account what happens in the classroom.”
It is not yet clear whether and what effect the measures will have on the quality of education. “We will not reap the fruits of our efforts until later. That’s frustrating,” Weyts admits. “We will only be able to determine later whether measures have achieved the intended results.”
Teacher shortage: “The situation is serious but not hopeless”
Various measures have already been taken to tackle the teacher shortage and even more balloons have been released. Nevertheless, many vacancies remain unfilled at the start of this year. According to Weyts, “the situation is serious, but not hopeless”.
Figures from VDAB show that two weeks before the start of the school year, there are still 2,400 vacancies in education. According to Koen Pelleriaux, deputy director of community education GO!, this is only an underestimate and the number will increase during the school year. Not all schools pass on their vacancies to the VDAB and there is now no dropout of, for example, sick people.
Weyts has already taken measures to attract more people to education. For example, lateral entrants can take ten years of seniority with them, there will be a teacher bonus for those who want to teach but do not yet have a pedagogical competence certificate and the rules for permanent appointments have been adjusted so that starting teachers can more quickly see a permanent appointment.
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For the education providers, these measures are not enough. They come up with different proposals themselves. This is how community education calls GO! to organize secondary education differently, more like higher education. “We have to stop organizing all lessons in classes of twenty students,” says Pelleriaux. A history teacher who teaches passionately can also do the same for a group of sixty students, while students can be guided for exercises in groups of four, is his reasoning.
Furthermore, duplication of work must also be avoided, says the GO! CEO. “It remains incomprehensible that thousands of math teachers for the fifth year take the same exam, while they all use the same curriculum,” he says. “Let teacher design teams develop teaching materials and exams that all teachers can use.”
Other tasks can also be outsourced, says Pelleriaux. He not only thinks about the supervision of the playground, but also, for example, correcting tests and exams. “We can outsource that to other professional groups so that teachers have more time to focus on their core tasks.”
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Walentina Cools, general director of the Educational Association of Cities and Municipalities (OVSG), believes that too much is determined from above. The way in which schools organize themselves must be more flexible, based on the specific needs of that school. She notes that schools are looking for creative solutions to the teacher shortage, for example by combining classroom teaching with distance learning or by organizing the days differently. “We now work with standard days, Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 4pm, with Wednesday afternoons off. Schools could also decide to teach Wednesday afternoons, for example, in order to be able to teach all subjects,” she explains. “Let schools decide, for example, to let teenagers take lessons on Wednesday afternoons and to have them start later or stop earlier on other days.”
“Managements are imposed a lot of rules. For example, they receive different colored resources, clearly stating what they can use them for. Schools must be given the freedom to use these resources in a targeted manner. Give them the space and confidence to decide for themselves what to do with it, depending on their needs,” Cools continues.
To be able to do that, of course, a lot of sacred houses in education have to be demolished, she admits. The OVSG top woman again argues for a school assignment, in which matters such as training days, preparations and consultation moments are structurally built in.
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A pilot project will start this school year in which schools are given the opportunity to ignore the existing regulations for a while in order to test other concepts in practice in the fight against the teacher shortage. Lieven Boeve, director-general of Catholic Education Flanders, fears that these living labs can be used as an excuse not to take any more initiatives. These testing grounds are only being rolled out in a few schools and there will therefore not be concrete results immediately. “We can no longer afford to stand still,” says Boeve.
Boeve wants a political context to be created to fundamentally rethink the teaching profession and the organization of schools. Now, the fight against the teacher shortage is too often about temporary measures, bricolage, which complicate the current systems even more.
He again pleads for a sustainable and decisive career pact, so that schools and school boards can pursue a real personnel policy. In addition, teaching staff in both primary and secondary education must be able to consist of bachelors, masters and teaching assistants with their own responsibilities within the school system. In this way a learning ladder is created and mobility is possible during the career.
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Weyts emphasizes that schools and teachers already have a lot of autonomy. “Boards and teachers are the directors of the learning process and already have a lot of autonomy,” he says. “A class doesn’t have to be limited to 25 students and a team of teachers can already decide to have one teacher focus more on improving or preparing lesson plans, while another teacher can spend more time teaching.”
According to Boeve, even more resources could be used to tackle the teacher shortage, money that is provided for teacher wages and that is now not used because of the teacher shortage. “At the moment, the teacher shortage is helping the budget of the Flemish government. That is a pity, because many schools are in the process of failing,” he criticizes.
The minister reiterated that schools that are struggling to find teachers may also use up to 20 percent of their budget for teachers’ wages to recruit other staff, such as technical or support profiles.