On the stigmas attached to different educational paths, by Simon Boone

Simon Boone (1985) holds a PhD in sociology and focussed his doctoral thesis on social inequality mechanisms present in the Belgian educational system. He recently co-ordinated the research component of Transbaso, an inter-university project investigating schools and the educational choices made by children transitioning from primary to secondary education, and makes a passionate demand for change in regards to the current compartmentalisation of Flemish education.

Photographer Eva Donckers (c).

After getting my PhD in sociology, I was hired to work on the government-funded project Transbaso, whose findings we presented back in December 2017. Our research goal was to take a deeper look at the nature and causes of Flemish cities’ massive school drop-out rates – a phenomenon which affects as many as a quarter of Antwerp’s youth population, for instance –, and to focus on the transitional phase between primary and secondary education. What needs to be addressed first are the very serious misconceptions surrounding the different forms of education amongst youths, parents and teachers. General education – known as ASO, including classical languages, economics and sciences – is regarded as the holy grail that all kids should aim for, whereas technical or vocational education are seen as mere second- rate options for those who can’t keep up. Instead of validating each and every pupil’s competence equally, children are branded based primarily on their abilities in Dutch and mathematics at the dawn of their high school education. In reality, there’s only an actual difference to be found between the general, technical and vocational forms of education starting in the third year of Flemish high schools – yet very few people are aware of this reality. Additionally, primary students are insufficiently encouraged and prepared regarding making the right choices for their future, based on their talents and competences. As a result, 12-year olds are unable to make a well-informed decision, leaving it up to their parents instead. At this point, the parents’ socioeconomic backgrounds and highly personal frames of reference come to play a huge role. When you add all of this to the fact that our current educational system is tailored to the needs of the middle class more than anything, you end up with an extremely shaky starting point for many young children. All in all, these circumstances partially relate to human psychology, while the rest is political ideology.

Over time, some of these kids begin to feel out of place – and so begins the rat race implied by the “waterfall system”.

Aim high is the creed most firmly engrained in today’s society, so regardless of  their individual competences, 80 to 85% of all teenagers start their high school careers in ASO general education. Yet over time, some of these kids begin to feel out of place – and so begins the rat race implied by the “waterfall system”. Even those who opt for the technical or vocational routes from the get-go have to deal with a striking sense of failure. The psychological impacts of both situations are systematically underestimated: research has shown that those who feel less involved in their education from a young age are more prone to school fatigue and demotivation, eventually dropping out without a degree. I myself had to face my own prejudices while digging deep into the matter through my studies and the Transbaso project. As a middle-class child I strolled through high school pretty much unscathed, never questioning the fact that I was surrounded only by my socioeconomic equals. I never asked myself where all the other kids were, or how they experienced their education. Today, it’s hard for me to even justify the existence of ASO colleges. We’ve passed the point where our educational system simply needs another reform; I’m afraid that at this moment in time, it can only benefit from a proper revolution. The education system in this country is structurally flawed, and the cut- and-paste solutions proposed by the Flemish regional government in 2016 just won’t do the trick. The time has come for us to find the courage to rethink our schools from scratch.