Speech by minister Bussemaker at the opening of the conference 'Practicing the Commons'

Speech by minister Bussemaker at the opening of the conference 'Practicing the Commons', on self-governance, cooperation and institutional change, on the 10th of July in Utrecht.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Utrecht and its magnificent Dom Church.

We find ourselves on historic ground, the site of a Roman castellum that was later destroyed by the Normans. A site on which a Catholic cathedral arose until in the late sixteenth century it came into the hands of Calvinist Protestants who still worship here today.

A place where the struggle between the Catholic and Protestant sections of society has left its mark.

For a Dutch minister of education, this struggle between Catholics and Protestants is still very much relevant – even if the minister herself is not religiously inclined. For religious struggle has shaped education in the Netherlands, exerting a deep and lasting influence.

You may well be wondering what all this has to do with ‘practising the Commons’. Bear with me just a little longer and all will be revealed. To arrive at that point, I have to start by saying a little something about education in the Netherlands.

Up to a hundred years ago, non-denominational state schools were the norm in the Netherlands, as is still the case in most European countries. There were a number of Christian schools but these were private, fee-paying institutions. Fees were expensive, as these schools received no government funding.

To Dutch Protestants and Catholics, this distinction felt like an injustice. And since both religions had given rise to a host of organisations at all levels of society – in so called ‘pillars’ - they were able to join forces and make a stand. One hundred years ago, their campaign brought about a dramatic change to the constitution. And led to an education system that is unique in the world.

Since that century-old change, it has been possible for any group of parents to set up their own school. This might be a Catholic school or a Protestant school. But it could just as easily be a school run on anthroposophical principles or the educational ideas of Montessori, for example. This puts a specifically Dutch twist on the notion of private education.

As long as parents make sure that their school meets certain requirements, including quality and intake of pupils, they are entitled to receive government funding. In the Netherlands we do not make the distinction between standard public education for the masses and expensive private education for the elite. A Dutch school founded on the basis of a private initiative receives just as much funding as a state school.

Parents who wish to found a school in the Netherlands do not have to set themselves up in a no-man’s land beyond the domain of the state. Nor are they abandoned to market forces. They can count on a place on the common ground – The Commons’ - that surrounds the house of the state.

Which – as promised – brings us back to today’s theme.

In light of this hundred-year tradition, many Dutch citizens have come to identify with this bottom-up approach to organisation. A broad consensus has been established. So broad, in fact, that we are looking to further explore its potential.

The beauty of creating a level playing field for public and private education is that it generates a host of extra benefits:

•        Parents have more choice between schools.

•        They become more involved in how the school is run.

•        There is greater social cohesion.

•        Children are given equal opportunities, since one school is not more expensive than the other.

•        And finally, it makes for a higher standard of education.

The OECD is unequivocal in its opinion: Dutch education is good. It achieves above-average results on an average budget. The OECD also provides an explanation for this: the strength of Dutch education lies in its combination of freedom and accountability. Freedom for parents to establish schools, freedom for teachers to adopt their own teaching methods and freedom for schools to decide how to spend their budget. In return, everyone is expected to account for how they use the freedom they have, not least to an inspectorate whose role is to provide quality control.

International rankings for education, innovation and science confirm the OECD’s assertions about the quality of Dutch education. The Netherlands is almost always in the global top five, and at the very forefront within Europe. I am the first to concede that we should not focus on rankings at the expense of all else. But the Netherlands’ consistently high scores imply that we must be doing something right.

The basis for these scores is laid in our education system. And the essence of that system is the great freedom we enjoy in founding the schools themselves. From the bottom up. By groups of citizens.

As a social democrat, I have always been convinced that you cannot leave everything up to the market. And as a minister, I am well aware that the government has to work with generalised instruments which cannot always serve the specific interests of every individual or group. Grassroots initiatives, generated from within society, can complement these instruments. In doing so, they do more than simply provide an addition to the market: they reinforce social cohesion.

What is more, these initiatives promote the emancipation of groups who would otherwise be less likely to receive opportunities. In the past, these groups included Catholics, the working class, the poor. Later the focus shifted to women as a disadvantaged group and nowadays to people from an immigrant background.

In short, the opportunities for parents to start their own school are valuable in their own right.

They make schools better,

they make science better,

they make society better.

This conclusion creates obligations for education. Because it works both ways: As we have seen, education in the Netherlands thrives by giving responsibilities to parents. But this also touches on the issue at the very heart of our education: what are we educating our children for?

The answer to this key question goes beyond learning about a particular subject or expanding general knowledge. It contains a much broader understanding of education. It is about personal development, about becoming citizens capable of coping with the freedoms and responsibilities that society demands of them. So that they can go on fulfil their role in the Commons.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is this realisation that informs my sincere appreciation of the vital research you are doing. It is therefore a great privilege and pleasure for me to open this conference – the largest ever to focus on this topic. I am particularly encouraged to see so many young scientists here today. It means that this research is not only current but also has a very bright future.

Perhaps it has something to do with the average age of the scientists attending the conference but I was particularly struck by the fact that there is a children’s programme. While mum and dad attend the conference, the children can participate in a parallel programme. When I was still working in science, the only parallel programmes were for ‘partners’, and the word ‘partner’ usually meant ‘wife of’... Tourist trips, a smattering of local culture and of course the inevitable shopping excursions were the order of the day.

Given that emancipation is an important part of my portfolio, I am therefore very proud to see that progress has also been made in this area.

It’s time to move on. I can tell. You are all eager to get to work. To not only practise the commons but to strengthen them too. In doing so, you are doing education, science and society as a whole a great service.

Thank you for your kind attention. I look forward to hearing all about the exciting new insights and initiatives you generate in the days to come!