Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 3

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

While I was chatting with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas after she interviewed me last week about this whole process, she said something that I can’t stop thinking about. She had asked me during the interview what I thought about the Dutch education system, and in particular about the streaming system that separates kids out by ability at the age of eleven. I’d responded fairly positively (as I have on this blog), partially because I’ve always had an inherent hesitation about publicly saying something overtly negative about the culture in which I live at the time, and partially because I really do see some clear benefits to the system. But the thing that Donna said was that the parents who tend to have positive things to say about the system are those whose kids have ended up with a VWO advies.

I am, of course, one of those parents, and I am thrilled at the array of excellent educational options that are presented to my daughter here. There may be a few areas in the U.S. with public high schools that come close to some of the schools we’ve visited here, but in most places you would be paying expensive private school tuition for the quality of education we’ve seen. However, I think back to when we were first moving here, and how worried I was about the short time Axa had to learn Dutch and get up to speed with an unfamiliar educational system, and I know that if she’d gotten a lower advies I would definitely want her in a more alternative school (like the one where she is now, which is a big reason we chose it) that avoids streaming the children so early, rather than one that caps her abilities at a certain level. Which does make me feel somewhat hypocritical when I speak positively about a system that apparently does leave many children behind.

I’ve informally talked to quite a few people about their opinions on the Dutch education system, and this rather utopian(/dystopian?) aspect of it. The first reaction of most of us as expats is to be so completely bewildered by the complexity of the system we’re initially not really capable of any opinion at all. And there is, of course, always the fact that the system people are used to from their home countries might seem better at first blush just because they’re used to it. Some expats love the Dutch system and feel it serves their kids well; others worry that their kids’ unique strengths and abilities are not fully supported by it. Among the Dutch also, the reaction is mixed. Many Dutch people have told me that there is no stigma about going to any one of the different levels (true perhaps in some circles and situations, but definitely untrue in others). They also tend to point out that havo, the second level, leads to what in many countries would be considered the same as a university-level education, and that separating the children out by ability level keeps all the kids from stressing out.

Still, there is a significant amount of controversy about the streaming system within the Netherlands, both among individual parents who believe their own children have been streamed below their abilities, and among those who (rightly) notice that on a population level certain ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, and other groups are over-represented in the lower streams. Many of the Dutch parents at our school are there because they felt their children’s previous schools focused too much on testing and streaming. And a new high school in the west of Amsterdam, Spring High, was recently formed specifically to address the talent that is being squandered by streaming children in certain areas disproportionately into lower levels.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. Does the system need a major overhaul? Or just a few tweaks? Does it work well for a majority of kids, or would most be better off in a system that didn’t stream them so early? And even if it does work for most, how can the needs of the individual kids for whom it doesn’t work well be better addressed? I’m not sure, really. I guess for now, I just feel grateful that it seems to be working for my daughter, at least pending a good result with the lottery. And even there, I know the way I think about it is certainly self-centred. When Donna asked my daughter what she thought of the lottery, she answered without hesitation that she thought the lottery was a good idea “because it’s fair.” She is definitely internalizing some proper Dutch collectivist values. Good for her.

At any rate, now that I’ve gotten the philosophizing out of the way, I do have a report on a couple more schools from this week.

Montessori Lyceum Amsterdam. This is not a school that’s particularly high on our list; I was mainly curious about it since it’s right across the street from the kids’ current school. And because when I was first researching schools in Amsterdam, back when my main resource was Google, I ended up on the website of the Montessori Lyceum Amsterdam, and stumbled across the idea of gymnasium, and thought it sounded amazing.

It’s a nice school, and like most homeschooling parents, I did have a flirtation with Maria Montessori, and I do think Montessori schools have a lot of great features, even if I wouldn’t consider myself a fanatic. I believe this school appeals largely to families coming out of Montessori primary schools, and there was lots of talk about the virtues of Montessori education. There were also some really lovely decorations, like this pretty hallway mosaic.

And there were plants everywhere. Not sure if that’s a Montessori thing, but it was really nice. Still, Axa didn’t find anything particular here that she loved; in fact, this photograph is pretty much descriptive of her attitude towards this school visit. That’s her current school right out the window.

Barlaeus Gymnasium. Yesterday’s visit, though, was much more promising. Barlaeus is what I think of in my head as the third of the holy trinity–the three dedicated gymnasia with Latin names that are nearby where we live. We’d already visited and liked Vossius and Ignatius, so now that I felt like we really had a basis for comparison, I was excited to see how Barlaeus held up to the other two.

The commute to school is very nice. It’s basically at the opposite end of Vondelpark from us, so almost the whole way was riding through the park. Like several of the other schools we’ve visited, at Barlaeus the art department is up in the attic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo, but the view out over the iconic rooftops of Amsterdam is spectacular.

I think this was the most crowded open house we’ve been to yet, which was saying a lot. Barlaeus is the only categorical gymnasium within the inner canal ring, so I’m sure it’s attractive to families living in the centre, but it’s also just a fun, happening place for teenagers to be (which might be a good or bad thing, especially as a parent of one of those teenagers). Here’s my almost-teenager in the hallway, perfecting her new look.At Barlaeus I was able for the first time to convince Axa to go to an actual trial lesson. I was impressed with the teacher and how he engaged each student. We picked biology (out of an array of a dozen or more subjects), and the theme of the 25-minute lesson was how mammal skeletal systems provide evidence for evolution. I left thoroughly pleased with the idea of the guy below ending up as Axa’s biology teacher.

Like at other schools we’ve visited, the orchestra at Barlaeus was on display. The school is apparently also very in to musical theatre, and we popped in on an impromptu dance performance as well.I actually liked the more bookish feel at Vossius (or Harry Potterish, as Margaret Kearns, whose son is going there, and to whom I am indebted for answering dozens of my panicked questions after Axa decided she wanted to go to a Dutch secondary school, put it). And I also loved the smaller, more intimate feel at Ignatius. But Axa really liked Barlaeus, and puts it at #2, after Het Amsterdams Lyceum, which was the first school we visited, and which I now suspect runs no risk of being dethroned as #1.

And guess what? We are over the hump! Only two more weeks of school visits, and we will be ready to sit down and make the official list.

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