Parental participation in the Netherlands

1 Introduction

"If parents did not collaborate in school life, then school would become rather dull; teaching would deteriorate, teachers would have to do everything themselves (which is not possible) with the consequence that a valuable contribution in their thinking and behaviour would be lacking". In answer to the same question, a parent says: "If …, then the school would be reduced to basics, it would become a kind of learning factory in which cultural and social activities are reduced to a minimum, the kind of school I went to, and that school consisted of desks".

In a study on parental participation, parents and school heads were asked to complete the following sentence: "If parents did not collaborate in school life, then…" The answers above are taken from this study. They can be replaced by a large number of similar answers. For those directly involved in primary school life there can be no doubt - without the participation of parents it is no longer possible to provide education that is up to standard. By modern standards adequate education cannot be provided without the help of parents. If parents were to decide tomorrow to discontinue their activities in and for primary schools the foundation of the Dutch education system - primary schools - would collapse. Or, as a school head put it, "If parents did not collaborate in the school, I would close down".

In this chapter we will consider the nature and extent of parental participation in the Netherlands. First we will outline the Dutch education system, which is the only one of its kind in the world. We will then discuss the place of the Association for Public Authority Education (VOO) within the education establishment. Next we will look at parental participation in public authority education, making allowance for the different levels of participation.

Secondary education will not be discussed here for two reasons: on the one hand because we do not have any research data for secondary schools. On the other hand because of the greater independence of pupils and the nature of secondary education the extent of parental participation is much smaller. Parents are mainly involved in the formal processes in which parents are represented: the parents' council and the participation council.

2 The Dutch education system

The present education system of the Netherlands has its roots in the nineteenth century. Historically we see opposition between the public authority schools on the one hand and the other three types of schools in what is known as the school funding controversy. In 1917, the present structure of the education system was realised in the education ‘pacification’ (onderwijspacificatie). This pacification or agreement put an end to the (political) school funding controversy. The different currents continued and still continue to compete in day-to-day practice but less fiercely than in times gone by. Nevertheless, each year we see a 'fight' for pupils in both primary and secondary schools. Schools are funded by government on the basis of the number of pupils. Therefore, every pupil counts and sometimes a pupil - more or less - means a teacher - more or less.

In the choice of a school by parents and pupils the old ideological differences between schools are gradually becoming less important. Particularly in primary schools the choice is made on the basis of the actual distance between the home and the school, the perceived quality of the school and (only in third place) the denomination of the school.

We have four major kinds of schools: public authority or state schools, and three other major types: Roman Catholic, Protestant and non-denominational private schools. All these schools are funded on an equal basis and have to answer to the same national requirements on quality and curriculum.

The Dutch education system is characterised by four socio-political groups, each with its own national organisations for parents, teachers and school boards. For state schools there is a consultative platform and each of the other three types of schools has its own national umbrella organisation. Recently a formal co-operation structure was set up between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Teachers' Trade Unions. The two religious organisations of school boards have also decided to a intensify their co-operation. In this sphere of influence the Association for Public Authority Education (VOO) is the lobby for all those involved in public authority education.

3 Free parental choice

In the Netherlands everyone is free to make the choice of a school for their son or daughter. Education during the statutory school age is free of charge. A school board, and also a parents' council, may ask parents to pay a contribution. This contribution is voluntary and must not be used for regular lessons. The contribution is used to fund extra activities. If parents choose not to pay (a part of) the contribution their child is not allowed to participate in these extra activities. The school is then obliged to provide an alternative programme.

Public authority education serves as a so-called 'guarantee': public authority schools are accessible to all. They are not allowed to turn away pupils, unlike the private schools.

Public authority education does not make any distinction between race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation or any other difference. A consequence of these principles is that public authority schools often have the character of a miniature society because of the differences in cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the pupils and teachers. In Amsterdam, for example, there is a public authority primary school in which 56 nationalities are represented. This number is exceptional. However, the fact that public authority schools are characterised by multi-ethnicity is the rule rather than the exception.

Public authority schools actively utilise these differences so that, at the very least, the children develop tolerance for each other. Tolerance, that prepares them for life in the adult world.

Parents can ask a public authority school to provide religious or humanistic instruction. This takes place during school time and is optional. Such lessons must not be provided by the regular teacher. Organisations associated with the churches or a humanistic institution provide these lessons. In the course of these lessons the pupils who do not participate are taught creative subjects or other non-academic subjects. This is done so that the pupils who participate in the religious or humanistic instruction do not fall behind in comparison with their classmates.

In general, over the past decade, we have seen a slight shift from Roman Catholic and Protestant to Public Authority and non-denominational private schools, consistent with the general social trend of secularisation.

4.1 The Association for Public Authority Education (VOO)

During the first half of the 19th century, on the instigation of the State public authority education developed with a Christian character that was consistent with the predominant ideology in society at that time. It was laid down by law in 1806 that pupils were to be taught 'all the social and Christian virtues'. The school day had to start and close with prayer. In 1815, this act was also declared applicable to Belgium as a result of the union of the two countries and voices were raised in protest against the mixed composition of schools. The Roman Catholic clergy suddenly found itself handicapped by the State. To found a school one now required a government licence while previously this had not been necessary. Nor did these mixed schools offer any scope for education according to the true Christian doctrine, much to the dissatisfaction of a number of leading Christian politicians. Some 25 years later when Belgium and the Netherlands were separated again.

New legislation (in 1857) stipulated that schools could be founded freely provided that they bore the characteristics of the public authority school were accessible for all children and had respect for the opinion of others. These conditions applied, if they wished to be funded by the government. Schools that were founded with private funds were not subjected to since state interference.

The campaign of the religious groups, which was subsequently conducted against public authority education exceeded the bounds of decency. They argued in favour of Christian-nationalistic education and condemned public authority education in particular. This misjudgement and imputation of public authority schools went too far for some people. In 1866, the Vereniging tot bevordering van het Volksonderwijs (Association for the promotion of Education for the People) was founded, the legal predecessor of the VOO. Volksonderwijs formed an organisation of people in favour of public authority education. In those days work in a public authority school implied that you became a member of Volksonderwijs. The association flourished and by the turn of the century it already had some tens of thousands of members.

In 1968 we see a merger with the Nationale Ouderraad (national parents' council) an organisation that was open to the parents' councils of schools. A result of this merger was the present name of this organisation: Vereniging voor Openbaar Onderwijs (Association for Public Authority Education). Today the VOO has a membership of approximately 25,000, including almost 2000 parents' councils and 1000 participation councils. The remaining members are individual members of whom two thirds are parents and one third teachers, heads of schools, education officials, politicians and approximately 150 school boards (equal to approximately 30% of the total). A professional bureau with a staff of 16 (=11 FTE) supports the association and the various members with a wide range of activities. Thus, from its beginnings, the VOO has been a broad-based organisation that stands for high standards of education in general and for high standards of public authority education in particular.

4.2 The position of the VOO within the Dutch education establishment

The VOO is generally regarded as a parents' organisation by the Ministry and by other education organisations. Within the context of the nationwide consultations on education the VOO often stands up for the interests of parents, sometimes together with the parents' organisations for private education. Where important educational reforms or changes are involved a coalition is sometimes formed with the public authority and general trade unions and the school board organisation. At such times the interests of public authority education can prevail over the specific interests of parents. However the VOO emphatically strives to give equal attention to all the sections of the population in its membership.

As one of the oldest education organisation in the Netherlands, VOO has a long tradition in education policy. Because of its many branches – from the national to the local level – the influence of the VOO on policy is far-reaching. Local school boards, parents' councils and participation councils apply to the VOO Bureau for advice and information. Individual members – parents, teachers, education officials, and others – request information or advice concerning their problems in writing or by telephone. The press, radio and television reporters, regularly ask the VOO for its opinion about current developments in education.

4.3 The main activities of the VOO

For the other education organisations and for the Ministry, the opinion of the VOO is not without significance. In a number of areas within the field of education the VOO is considered an authority, which is an important factor. Over the past years the VOO has come forward in respect of:

5 Parental participation

The most recent research into the nature and extent of parental participation was carried out on the authority of the VOO by the Algemeen Pedagogisch Studiecentrum (General Study Centre for Education). A random sample of 600 schools was taken from more than 3000 public authority schools that existed at the time. These 600 schools were each sent a questionnaire for the school head to fill in and three lists for parents. The school head was asked to pass on the lists to the parents on the condition that the parents satisfied one of the three following criteria:

The parents' council is a council of and for parents. The council is usually the focal point of all the supportive activities undertaken by parents and organises activities in consultation with the school staff. The participation council is a formal policy-making body in which teachers and parents (in secondary education also the pupils) are represented on an equal basis, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Altogether 339 school heads, and 787 parents returned the questionnaire. Because of the high response rate the results of the study can certainly be considered representative for public authority primary schools although the results cannot necessarily be applied to all the primary schools in the Netherlands. Public authority schools have a long-standing tradition of parental participation, which is not the case in all the private schools. Despite these differences it can be said that the results of the study can give us an indication of parental participation in the Netherlands.

The following table shows what the respondent parents do within the school. The activities in which they are involved can be broken down into five categories. Because most parents are involved in more than one activity the number of answers exceeds the number of parents who participated in the study.

787 Parents

Number of respondent parents per category

Percentage of the response

Odd jobs



Teaching assistance outside the classroom



Teaching assistance in the classroom



Member of the Parents’ Council



Member of the Participation Council



This table shows us that 90% of the involved parents do odd jobs. These are incidental activities that do, however, recur with some regularity - such as the organisation of festivities and the supervision of pupils during school trips, sports days, excursions and such like. These activities are broken down further.

787 parents

No. of parents per activity

Average No. of hours per parent

Odd Jobs    
Assistance with school trips, sports days, etc.



Organisation of festivities



Counselling and supervision of pupils



Chores, refurbishing the school building or playground



Assist with (school) administrative affairs



Make educational materials e.g. an aquarium, games etc.



Other odd jobs



Teaching assistance outside the classroom    
Organisation of evenings for parents or information evenings



Collaborate on the content of the school newspaper



Work for the documentation centre or library



Make teaching materials



Other teaching assistance outside the classroom



Teaching Assistance in the Classroom    
Assist with ability groups for reading, arithmetic, etc.



Assist with visual arts, expressive subjects



Assist with/teach special subjects



Assist with marking or the planning and preparation of lessons



Other teaching assistance in the classroom




Many parents are actively involved in the participation council or the parents' council (316) or in both. The frequency with which parents attend meetings of the participation council or the parents' council varies per school, but averages between 4 and 12 times per school year. On average the participation council meets 8 times and the parents' council 9 times in a school year.

With this we have a picture of the various forms of parental participation. But what do these figures mean without a point of reference? Can we say, on the grounds of this study, that the foundation of the Dutch education system - primary schools - would collapse if parents were to discontinue their activities in schools tomorrow? In order to create a comparable entity the results of the study were transposed onto the total number of parents who are active in schools, the average time they spend on these activities and, subsequently, these figures were converted to full-time equivalents.

From this we can see that 159,000 parents were actively involved in state primary schools and together produce work that is equal to more than 2,400 full-time jobs. For 1993, this works out to be 0.79 full-time equivalent per school. However, it is by no means our intention to make paid jobs out of parental participation. This calculation serves purely as a means of comparison. Moreover the work in question is so diverse and fragmented it could never be replaced by paid employment.

5.1 Activities for the benefit of School Boards

To give people some idea of the forms of administration that have opened up for public authority education since the new legislation at the beginning of 1997 - the School Board need no longer be linked exclusively to the municipal council - the VOO offers a workshop for all parties on location. In four hours information is provided and a choice of options indicated.

5.2 Activities for the benefit of participation councils

Since the introduction of the Participation (Education) Act in 1992, the VOO organised local or regional courses on participation: a basic course and an advanced course. In the basic course the (new) members of participation councils are introduced to the complex statutory provisions and they are given some training in conferencing techniques.

5.3 The role of parents in the future

The structure of undivided participation is being subjected to great pressure. When the Participation (Education) Act came into force in 1992, it was agreed that it would be evaluated after five years. This evaluation was made on the authority of the Ministry by two research institutes. The results were presented in 1997. From this we see a high degree of satisfaction about the scope and practice of participation among the participants. The main point of criticism concerns the inadequate supply of information by School Boards.

6 Strengthening the position of parents

6.1.1 The participation council

Every school is obliged to have a participation council. Certain religious denominations are entitled to apply for collective exemption. (Dutch Reformed school boards have made use of this option). All other school boards were obliged to consult with a (provisional) participation council to agree about the powers in respect of participation in the policy to be pursued by the board.

In 1992, the Participation (Education) Act was renewed on the basis of an evaluation and extensive negotiations with the education organisations. The main difference with the previous act is that the division of powers has now been laid down in the act. School boards and participation councils are free to depart from the law by mutual agreement. However, every two years the division of power must be reconfirmed. If this is not done, the statutory provisions once again take effect. The number of seats in the council depends on the number of pupils and varies from 6 if there are fewer than 250 pupils) to 18 if there are 1250 pupils or more. The seats are equally divided between the staff section and the parents/pupils section.

6.1.2 The powers of the participation council

The council has a number of general powers. For example the discussion, at least twice a year, of the general state of affairs in the school with the school board, or the power to put proposals before the school board, to which the school board is obliged to react within three months.

In addition there are the so-called "special powers": the right of assent, or advisory right in respect of specific aspects of school management. The principle is that the party (parents/pupils or staff) who has the largest stake in a particular topic has the right of assent, and to this is linked the advisory right of the other party. When the interests of both parties in respect of a particular topic are equal the participation council as a whole has the right of assent or advisory right. For example:

6.1.3 The scope of participation

Every potential decision of a school board must be put before the participation council as an intended decision for the assent or advice of the participation council. If the council withholds its assent the school board has three options:

6.2 Upgrading the position of parents

From 1995 the national consultative structure in education changed substantially. Until then, the Minister or the vice-Minister had held structural consultations with the platform for public authority education and the umbrella organisations in private education. The parents' organisations met with the Ministers once or twice a year to discuss specific points in educational policy concerning parents. A recurrent point of was the funding of the organisations themselves which had fallen far behind the funding of other organisations.

From 1995 the 'umbrella' structure was replaced by a so-called 'section' consultation. The members of the Cabinet opted to consult directly with the representative of those who are actually involved in education: parents, pupils, teachers and the school boards, each represented by their own organisation. After some time organisations of school heads also joined the consultation table, either teamed up with a trade union or not.

From this moment onward the parents' organisations have had a structural place in the education consultations. This place they owe partly to the fact that the position of parents in education during the years before had slowly but surely been upgraded on a national level by politicians and members of the Cabinet. To achieve this, the parents' organisations had had to manifest themselves and to lobby in the direction of the political parties. The upgrading of the role of parents in education can partly be deduced from the fact that the national parents' organisations collectively have received increasing finance from the central government. Where, at the beginning of the nineties, the parents' organisations collectively received no more than EUR 90,750 this amount was successively raised to EUR 1,315,950, in addition to incidental subsidies for special projects.

6.3 New instruments for parents

If parents are to judge the quality of education in general, and that of a school in particular, they need to have adequate information. Educational policy and school policy must be transparent for parents. With the passing of the so-called 'Quality Act', two instruments, which can emphatically strengthen the position of parents were added to the existing legislation: the school prospectus and a complaints regulation. The ministry itself took the initiative to produce an education guide.

6.3.1 The Education Guide

Each year the Ministry has published an Education Guide, one for primary education and one for secondary education. The two Guides explain the education system and describe the rights and duties of parents and pupils. The Education Guide for primary education is distributed free of charge by municipalities and to parents of three year-olds who have to orientate themselves to the choice of a school for their child. The Education Guide for secondary education is given to pupils in the last two years of primary school so that they can orientate themselves to their secondary education. These guides are available for perusal in the public libraries and can, if required, be ordered free of charge.

6.3.2 The school prospectus

A new instrument is the so-called 'school prospectus'. Every school is required by law to publish a school prospectus annually for the benefit of parents and pupils. The Education Inspectorate sees to it that the information given in the prospectus is consistent with the reality.

Some of the components are required by law viz

In addition schools can include information they consider to be important. For example:

6.3.3 The complaints regulation

The ‘Quality Act’ includes an important element: in each school there must be a complaints regulation for all parties. The complaints regulation makes provision for the right of complaint and the institution of an independent complaints committee. In view of the structure of the Dutch education system one would expect to find at least four different complaint procedures:- one for each denomination (public authority, Roman Catholic, Protestant and non-denominational Private). The school boards are free to decide how they set up a complaints committee, whether on the national level. or on a regional or a local level.

At the end of 1997 the school board organisation for public authority schools asked the VOO whether it would not be wise to have a single complaints procedure for all schools rather than a separate one for public authority schools. From the point of view of both the school board organisation and the VOO it would indeed be wise, especially with respect to the interests of parents, who may be confronted with different types of schools/denominations for their children and especially when a child needs special attention or care. We agreed and we approached our partner organisations. All the major national organisations of school boards, teachers, heads of schools and parents agreed on a complaints procedure. We submitted the following complaints procedure to the vice-Minister who welcomed this unique co-operation between so many organisations.

We make distinction between informal and formal complaints.

The procedure for informal, everyday complaints is:

The procedure for formal, serious complaints (such as bullying, sexual intimidation, discrimination/racism, aggression, violence) and complaints that could not be solved informally, is:

It is also possible to appeal against the final decision of the school board in court.

6.3.4 Other sources of information for parents

Each year a national newspaper publishes the assessments of the Education Inspectorate concerning the results of schools for secondary education. In 1998, for the first time, the Education Inspectorate took the initiative to publish a so-called Quality Chart for secondary schools. It was striking to see that parents' organisations and some of the unions reacted positively to the Quality Chart while the school board organisations persisted in their unanimous opposition to it. Before it is published the schools will be given the opportunity to respond to the findings of the Inspectorate. Within a period of three years, the Inspectorate shall complete the Quality Chart. It will enable parents to form their own judgements and help them to make their choice of a school. Schools have been advised to incorporate the Quality Chart in the School Prospectus.

At the end of 1998, another newspaper first published data from the Education Inspectorate concerning primary education. Detailed information about 400 primary schools was made available on the website of the newspaper. The data was based on a new research method applied by the Inspectorate, the so-called Integraal School Toezicht (Integral School Supervision). VOO was closely involved in the development of this method.

6.4 The activities of the VOO

The VOO supports the activities of the parties involved in public authority education in various ways. The range of activities offered by the VOO is published each year in a catalogue. In addition, the VOO produces leaflets and/or press notices covering specific activities or publications and distributes information in the form of mass mailings

7 Possible changes in parental participation

It is expected that the participation of parents in (primary) schools will change in the coming years. There has been a discernible trend in Dutch society in which we see that citizens are becoming less willing to dedicate themselves to public issues. Political parties and broad-based social organisations have been confronted with this phenomenon for years. They find it difficult to recruit new committee members and suffer considerable losses of membership. People no longer allow themselves to be organised on the grounds of ideological or idealistic motives. The calculating citizen literally or figuratively wants to see value for money. 'What do I get in return for the effort that is required of me?' 'Why should I exert myself without pay for other people's children?'

In addition we need to make allowance for the fact development that the present generation of parents of very small children frequently makes use of professional day nurseries. The facilities that are the spearheads of welfare policy are way behind the demand. The parents consciously opt for a social career and therefore leave a part of the job of bringing up children to professionals. This acquired attitude will not suddenly change after a few years when the child reaches school entry age.

Parents will have access to more and more reliable information and quality judgements about the school of their child. Well-informed parents are more assertive parents and greater assertiveness can lead to more consumerism instead of participation. A school will be judged and disposed of in relation to its actual performance in respect of the individual pupil.

Whether education should welcome a development of this kind is highly questionable. Studies have shown that the involvement of parents in the school of their child positively influences the child's achievements. Heads of schools and teachers state that the participation of parents in school enriches school practice. Parents have a different point of view and notice things in the school that the teachers no longer see. Parents keep the school young. While the staff of a school may stay in the same school for a long time new generations of parents bring with them new ideas, other values and standards as a result of which the school automatically stays up to date. Or, as two school heads put it: 'If parents did not collaborate in the school then we would have to drop parts of the teaching programme and the pupils would be deprived of school activities that fit in more with their interests'

'the school would be working in isolation to foster the development of the children'.

Parents – often in spite of what one would expect – are still prepared to serve on a parents' council or a participation council, to help with various school activities or to be part of a school board, provided that they are approached in the right way. That will continue to be important.

Rob Limper