On shaping educational policy from the ground up, by Rania el Mard

Dutch native Rania el Mard (2000) moved to Asse in 2013. Last September, she was elected
 as the new spokesperson for VSK, a non-profit organisation seeking to enhance student participation in policy-making, and politically representing the students of Flanders. She took the time out of her busy schedule to share her irksome experiences when transitioning education systems, and her optimism for Flemish students’ futures.

Photographer Eva Donckers (c).

Last summer – after my fifth year of high school – I was given a C-grade, which meant I’d be held back from embarking on my senior year of economics and languages.
 I’d been in a car accident earlier 
that year, which led to a mere 0.2% deficit in my French results – still, just enough for me to have officially flunked. It felt like the bottom fell out of my world. I could have dropped out of school legally since I would be turning 18 the following year, but I’ve always been passionate about learning. So I said goodbye, thanks for all the fun times and started looking for other solutions like a maniac. I sat down together with the head of my new school and told her: “Look, this may sound a bit out there, but what if I were to combine the fifth and sixth grades into one year?” And she agreed. This just proved that there are so many flexible school trajectories – even for high school students – but most schools aren’t up for it. As our current system and curricula aren’t adjusted to such alternatives, they require tons of additional work from teachers and school management. This all calls for a serious rethink about secondary education. I was lucky enough to have my mother standing behind me: she raised me to have a serious consideration for the responsibility of my own decisions.

“As our current system and curricula aren’t adjusted to such alternatives, they require tons of additional work from teachers and school management. This all calls for a serious rethink about secondary education.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is fortunate enough and many teenagers just drag themselves through high school without ever thinking about more appropriate alternatives. That’s where the modernisation 
of our educational system should come in. In light of the 2016 Flemish region’s educational decree, Flemish Minister of Education Hilde Crevits reached out to VSK – the Vlaamse Scholierenkoepel, of which I was elected student spokesperson this year – for our input on the matter, and we set up a research project in which several hundreds of students were questioned on attainment targets. What should each and every high school student have mastered by the time they graduate? Should we know how to buy a house, or how to deal with mental issues and stress? Or do we want to continue the pedagogic focus on textbook-based learning? What became increasingly clear
 is that there are plenty of students struggling with certain skills that aren’t being tackled in high schools. The leading reforms have been postponed by a year, but they remain absolutely crucial to the success of the modernisation of our education. On one hand I can see things moving in the right direction: the new decree is much more responsive to the competences and talents of high school kids, allowing them to choose a domain they themselves
are drawn towards and to obtain the necessary skillset to complement these with other fields of study. At best, this would lead to enhanced mobility between various pedagogical forms. And yet the barriers between general, technical, vocational and art education remain, which we
find a crying shame.

Should we know how to buy a house, or how to deal with mental issues and stress? Or do we want to continue the pedagogic focus on textbook-based learning?

I cannot stress enough the harmful emotional
and psychological effects of these distinctions and the waterfall effect it implies. From early childhood we’re told that technical and vocational education are inferior to general education, and parents are all too often convinced by this dogma, regardless of their child’s actual talents. Feeling so displaced from a young age, it’s then hardly surprising that this translates into disappointing grades. Before they know it, they’re repeating a year and are left with a feeling of intense failure. As was the case with my younger brother, who spent an entire summer worrying about his future. The education reform issue has to be approached rationally, without ever losing sight of the emotional impacts on students. Until we find a way to ensure our education system respects the realities of today, we simply cannot expect young people to find their place in this world.

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