Should families move to an area with more teachers?

Cathelijne Anten (51) thinks for a moment about the question: could her elementary school in Amsterdam-Osdorp handle thirty extra students? “In an emergency, of course. Schools don’t like to turn kids away. But only temporarily, as an emergency measure. Because we already have far too few teachers.”

There are 280 students in this school. Two classes are for ‘newcomers’, children who have just come to live in the Netherlands. They have to learn the language, get to know the neighborhood and the city. Turnover is also high in other classes. Anten: “In my group last year, eleven students had already gone to another school, usually in another country.” Due to the poverty in the neighborhood and the corona period, preschool children have even less knowledge than before. “On average, they know 500 words. The national average at age 5 is 3,000.”

Her school has to teach students a lot in a short time. Many children do not read to, do a craft or play a game at home. And like all primary schools in disadvantaged areas, the school suffers from a severe shortage of teachers. 40 percent of the vacant positions are filled by unqualified teachers. “Of course not a bad one, but they don’t have all the didactic and pedagogical knowledge.”

So they are trying to get a huge job done. With pleasure, by the way. “I travel five days a week from Lelystad to Osdorp [vijftig minuten] and go to work happy every day.”

If the skewed population growth becomes visible anywhere, it is in the schools. De Wilgen primary school is located 93 kilometers south, in Sliedrecht in South Holland. Between March and September, director René de Kuiper received 43 applications from Ukrainian students. A chaotic and also inspiring time, he says: some children stayed for a month, others stayed for the summer holidays and a few did not come at all. But ‘World Class’ now stands. There are nineteen children, mostly Ukrainian, and a few from Syria.

Can be called a miracle

The staff can handle this and even like it. “We have no vacancies,” says De Kuiper, which can be called a miracle. Most elementary schools in Sliedrecht have it. De Wilgen also had a room left, which is why De Kuiper volunteered as a crisis center at the municipality in March.

In contrast to Amsterdam-Osdorp, Sliedrecht is demographically an average municipality. Osdorp has been growing for years; in Sliedrecht (on the outskirts of the Randstad city) the number of children born has been stable for some years now. According to Statistics Netherlands, the number of children will grow by 0 to 20 percent over the next twelve years, and then no more. During that period, Randstad and Midtholland will receive at least 20 percent more new children. In Friesland, Drenthe, Groningen, Zeeland and Limburg, the number of pupils will shrink further in the coming years.

In these provinces the village school has often disappeared in the last fifteen years. “You know: the school building that used to be the pride of the village. That was zoomed in on for minutes in black-and-white movies,” says Marijn Molema, adjunct professor of ‘regional vitality and dynamics’ at the University of Groningen.

Many elementary schools in the Randstaden have waiting lists. Others grow like cabbage. The official ‘abolition standard’ is very different from municipality to municipality: in sparsely populated areas, a primary school must only close if there are fewer than 23 pupils for three years (such as in Ameland and Noord-Beveland). In densely populated areas, a primary school closes if there are fewer than 200 pupils (The Hague), 183 (Rotterdam) or 195 (Amsterdam) for three years.

After a few years of national decline, the population as a whole will grow again in the next twelve years. Reason: immigration. Dutch mothers have only 1.57 children per woman – insufficient to sustain the population. There were 170,000 babies in 2022. According to Statistics Netherlands, there will be 208,000 in 2035. That growth continues. CBS researcher Tanja Traag: “The growth is caused by higher-than-expected immigration in 2022. This is mainly about Ukrainian refugees who are staying in the Netherlands and are about to have children.”

If the immigrants also largely settle in the Randstaden, the question arises: who will teach all those children? There are fewer and fewer teachers. On average, 15 percent of vacant positions are not filled. In exposed areas even 30 per cent. After 2027, the Folkeskolernes Arbejdsmarkedsplatform expects, the shortage in folk schools will increase, primarily because the number of students will increase again.

In addition, according to the platform, the worse the economy, the more people want to work in education. Until a recession, the absorption is open: Half of the new young teachers drop out within five years, according to the trade union AOB. A spokesman: “They think it’s too heavy.”

Make the subject more attractive

There is only one way to get enough teachers in front of the class again, says Thijs Roovers: “Make the subject more attractive. It requires a long-term vision and national direction.” Roovers also taught at an elementary school in Amsterdam for a long time and has recently become a union official. “Education Minister Wiersma listens to us. That’s quite a lot. But it is too late for an entire generation of primary school pupils. We are now aiming for every child to have a qualified teacher in the classroom by 2030.”

The strange thing is that it is precisely in Amsterdam-West, Rotterdam-Syd and parts of The Hague that there is a need for good and a lot of education more than ever before, he says. “The social structure has completely disappeared in many neighbourhoods. The teacher no longer lives there, neither do the nurse and the neighborhood police officer. I lived and worked in a neighborhood, and so sometimes I ran into the mother of an apprentice who, so to speak, had a hard time with the butcher. It has been unusual for the last ten years. And yes, I also stopped being a teacher. I became a trade union official precisely because it worries me so much.”

This has often been warned about. Even without migration, there would be too few teachers. Alexander Rinnooy Can foresee this already in 2007. In the report Teacher he predicted “a dramatic quantitative shortage of quality teachers.”

Spread

Shouldn’t the new families and their children live in the shrinking areas? More teachers and cheaper houses. In short, is distribution policy an option? Not just like that, says Professor Molema. “We want our best fair share for migrants in the north, but then there must be enough work and infrastructure for the parents. And there isn’t. The national government hasn’t invested in this for years.”

A lot of money went to the roads around Schiphol-Amsterdam-Almere, to the Randstadrail in South Holland and to the North-South line in Amsterdam. Molema: “And very few to the northern provinces. And now, through the bonds of demography, would they send all newcomers to the shrinking areas? None.”

Molema: “The basis for the uneven growth in the Netherlands is the attractive effect of the economic core area in the Randstaden. Everyone wants to go there. There’s work there, there’s networking, that’s where it happens. In the 1990s and 2000s, the cultural trend was also: in the big cities, Sex and the City, that’s where you need to be.” It is something of a natural phenomenon. “That’s how it is all over the world.”

Only a strong central government could mitigate this development, says Molema. “But have left everything to the market for the last twenty years. And the big cities also have the strongest lobby in The Hague to attract investment.” How should it be? Molema: “You can make it tax-attractive to invest in shrinking regions as an employer. You can create public services, build roads, houses and facilities.”

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