About Secondary School...

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About Secondary School...

Create Challenge September 2021 by Freewayriding

I did my VWO exams in Dutch, English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Arts. (If you are interested in the workings of the Dutch school system, I added a not-so-short summary at the end.)

Subjects we had but in which I didn't do exams:

  • French (3 years from first class)
  • German (2 years from second class)
  • History (3 years from first class)
  • Geography (3 years from first class)
  • Economics (1 year from third class, dropped as soon as I could)
  • Latin and Greek (1 year from second class. Interesting except for my grades)
  • Social studies (2 years)
  • KGL (kennis van het geestelijk leven / knowledge of spiritual life a.k.a. religion. (3 years, classes were split into Protestant, Catholic and "Other" groups),
  • PE (6 years)

Dutch educational institutions have a laid-back approach compared to some of the surrounding countries. Students are not required to wear a uniform (as long as they wear something and point in the right direction most of the time). We once had a European project where students from all EU 12 countries came over and marvelled at how undisciplined we were. I hosted a German and a Belgian guy at home and learnt a lot about guilt complexes from the German guy. (He was sorry about the war, even though even his parents probably missed that one on account of not having been born.)

So what have I been up to in secondary school?

KGL and writing:

My teacher for religion gave me a bad grade because of my handwriting qualities. It didn't help that I had to go and ask her what she had written in my notebook. The inability to read the other's handwriting appeared to be mutual. This was all resolved after my father, who was a teacher and pastor himself, wrote a stern letter.

Another religion teacher was behaving quite opposite. He started the year by stating that spelling was not part of his job, so if he understood what was written it would be OK. This led to lots of students writing phonetically on purpose, trying to explore the borders of comprehension. (like writing "bible" as "byeball" or "beibol")

The dictator of History:

One year, I had a true dictator as a History teacher. That is, he didn't use a book, but dictated all of the subject matter for us to write down. This did lead to some resistance at first, but since you needed the information to make the test it died down quickly. In hindsight, this must have been very educational, since we practised handwriting, did a first revision of the subject and got all sorts of insights of the social consequences of a dictatorship. Trias Politica did not apply in class (he was all three in one). That teacher once actually duct-taped the mouth of the girl in our class who never stopped talking (which is really annoying if you try to hear what you have to write down). It surely shut her up, but I think that sort of thing would be frowned upon nowadays. He did warn her up front though.

On cheating:

I still remember one occasion where my best friend, who was known to be good at German, devised a way to "help" others during a German listening test. The test had a multiple choice nature (three options per item), but different versions were distributed across the classroom (to avoid cheating). To get around this, he sat at the front row of the class and placed his foot forward, central or backwards depending on whether the longest, middle or shortest answer was correct. In the end, it turned out that I was the only one in the whole class who didn't join in his scheme. While grading, the teacher's frown got bigger and bigger, eventually exclaiming "I know you cheated, but I have no idea how! Don't do that again, ever!." For the record, my grade was higher, because my friend didn't have his best day, although a lot of classmates were really happy to not fail for once.

During one maths test I was allowed to share my calculator with my friend (since his didn't have all the statistical functions on it) as long as the screen was cleared when we passed it over. The teacher didn't account for the larger than standard memory and hexadecimal functions on my calculator though. As it was a multiple choice test with A/B/C/D options, we were able to at least confirm we had chosen the same answers and rethink things when we had different answers. (I consider this half-cheating, since we effectively did our own tests, only seeking confirmation.)

Another occasion where I did sort of cheat was when we had to write down the Greek alphabet and the teacher forgot to slide the blackboard up to hide the Greek alphabet hanging on the wall. The teacher only realised this when everyone had a score of 10 out of 10 and he looked back over his shoulder.
One geography teacher was hearing impaired, so it was not unusual to hear whispered conversations during tests (which I could hear across the classroom).

Tech pranks

Not every teacher was tech savvy at the time (no change there...). Taking a VCR remote control into class could really mess up video instructions. (stop, rewind, stop, fast forward, eject, mute...)

At some point, we had some lessons in BASIC programming from our nearly retired maths teacher. Since I had already been messing with BASIC at home for some five years, this was a nice opportunity to test my teacher. My best program (or should we call it a virus?) was the one that shifted any keyboard input one position. Even the tried and tested Ctrl-Break wouldn't stop it if you didn't know which way everything had shifted. My classmates also liked and shared my custom siren program (you could choose frequency range and variation speed). Switching keyboard and mouse for computers that were back to back didn't even require programming to annoy the next class.

Cool Chemistry

We had some good experiments that I can still remember. (Do not try these at home.) One was the extremely hot thermite reaction (which is normally used to weld railway tracks together and also melts terra cotta pots and sand). Another was the explosive mixture experiment, done by filling a paint can with holes in the bottom and the lid with methane, lighting it at the top side. Excess methane burns off while air is sucked in from the bottom hole until an explosive mixture blows the lid off. You could check the number of times this test was done by counting the number of circular impacts in the soft ceiling tiles.

School…. Yes, but what school? A summary of the Dutch school system.

Let me outline what the Dutch school system looks like, back when I went through it and now that my kids do the same thing.

Primary school

Primary school in The Netherlands is basically the same for everyone, give or take several different styles in educational systems and religious filtering. Come to think of it, I realise that that last bit stretches the term "the same for everyone" to the breaking point. Originally it was six years, later 2 years of preschool were incorporated to make it 8 years, from age 4.

I was there when that happened, so I went from third class to group six over the summer.

Secondary school

In my time the Dutch secondary school system consisted of four levels, LBO (Lower vocational education), MAVO (Middle general formative education) HAVO (Higher general formative education) and VWO (Preparatory Scientific education).

LBO and MAVO were 4 years and would get you into MBO (Middle vocational education). Currently those two are merged as VMBO (Preparatory Middle vocational education) and the again split into four sub-levels. The merger was probably done to get rid of the bad taste of "Lower", but effectively lowering the perception of what was MAVO, despite the fact that around 60% of students end up there after primary school. After finishing MBO you could follow up in HBO or get a job.

HAVO is 5 years and will get you into HBO (Higher vocational education) and a Bachelor degree. After HBO you can continue for a Master’s degree in university, if you want to.

VWO is 6 years and will get you into HBO or directly into university, based on what you want to become and what type of educational system you prefer. (HBO is more based on learning and applying existing theories while Uni expects you to derive stuff from the basics yourself)

We have compulsory education up to age 16 and a job entry level requirement of at least HAVO, VWO or 2 years MBO until the age of 18 years, at which point you are free to get a job with whatever qualification you have.

In general, the first 2 or 3 years of secondary school have a fixed curriculum. In my time you could then choose about any combination of subjects you liked (some were linked, usually with maths). Together with my best friend I had a unique subset of chosen subjects within my year group. I still feel sorry for whoever had to piece together a schedule for all those students.
Nowadays, there is a system of four predefined profiles to choose from with only limited choice of extra subjects. This is probably much easier to manage if you have to make the planning. It also sets you up for a general direction regarding follow-up studies.

Flowchart for the Dutch school system

This chart shows how you could flow through the school system. Thinner arrows designate possible but non-standard ways to shorten or increase your time spent avoiding a full-time job.


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