Good education through the Educational Agenda Limburg
In 2014 Trudie Schils, professor of Economics of Education, was one of the driving forces behind the start of the Educational Agenda Limburg. The agenda is a long-term project seeking to improve education in the province and the connection to the labour market. The first concrete results have since been unveiled, including a monitor to track pupils’ and students’ development. But she is most proud of the cooperation involved. “Primary, secondary, vocational and higher professional education have joined forces with the university and speak with one voice.”
Why do we need an Educational Agenda Limburg—surely the link between education and the labour market is a national, not a provincial, issue? It’s not the first time Schils has heard the question. She and her colleagues from Maastricht University had to pull out all the stops to get the intended grant providers (including the Province of Limburg) on board. “In several respects, Limburg simply isn’t comparable with other regions. Because of its location, the province is often oriented more towards Belgium and Germany than the Netherlands. And the problems that certain regions face are bigger than elsewhere: ageing, a shrinking labour market. In the former mining areas, unemployment is systematically higher, incomes and labour participation lower. There are fewer people who go on to higher education, and more people with health problems, more school leavers, teenage mothers, young people turning to crime. Cities like The Hague and Rotterdam face specific challenges too, but they’re completely different. And those are large cities, while Parkstad, for example, is a collection of smaller municipalities. That calls for a different approach and greater cooperation.”
Trudie Schils was raised in Maastricht and studied in Tilburg. She worked as a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and moved to Maastricht University in 2008; first as an assistant professor, then associate professor, and now professor of Economics of Education.
The aim of the Educational Agenda Limburg is to ensure that more young people finish their education before entering the labour market. “It’s not about making all children go on to higher education,” Schils says in the lounge of the School of Business and Economics (SBE), where she became a professor in June 2020. “It’s about making sure they choose the type of training that’s right for them, and receive the guidance and support they need to complete it. Research shows that young people from poor families have just as good judgement as their better-off peers, but they feel more insecure. Often they’re less motivated and more fatalistic. They have lower expectations of life and behave accordingly. This is something we can address with targeted education, which is important in terms of equal opportunities and important for the labour market. Companies and organisations in this region need good people. And a healthy labour market attracts new commercial activity, which stems the flow of young people leaving. Locals who leave to study in the Randstad often don’t return, or at least not quickly, because there are no good jobs here. But with the developments on the Brightlands campuses and the growth of the chemical industry, services and the logistics sector, the tide seems to be turning.”
Research shows that young people from poor families have just as good judgement as their better-off peers, but they feel more insecure.
The grant was awarded and the Limburg Educational Agenda was launched in 2014. The initiators—Maastricht University, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, the Open University and Fontys—were joined immediately by school boards from primary, secondary and vocational education. “I sometimes compare the education sector to a block of houses, with gardens separated by tall hedges,” Schils says. “To offer children the best and most appropriate education, you have to look over those hedges and work together. The transitions need to be smoother between preschool and primary school, primary school and high school, and then vocational or higher education. That calls for a different, more personal approach. Some children are ready for secondary education sooner than others. What does a child want and what can he or she do? It means more flexible education, in which teachers, of course, play an essential role.”
The project began with several concrete objectives. Schils, who studied economics and obtained her PhD in Tilburg, summarises the goals: “Extra training for new primary school teachers, recruitment of new blood for teacher training, professionalisation of high school teachers. The idea is to address teacher shortages and reduce dropout rates—a serious problem six years ago. Things have improved somewhat now. We also put a lot of energy into developing a monitor that allows us to track the development of pupils at every stage of their education. Not their performance, but their socio-emotional development.”
The monitor was developed by a broad-based team of educators and has since been used extensively at various schools around the province. “Thanks to the monitor, we know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out. But with the right guidance at school, the percentages improve considerably. That’s a wonderful result—the knowledge that, based on research, we can offer equal opportunities to young people. Of course, this demands a lot of teachers: they’re the ones who have to persuade and encourage parents.”
This year, the project is entering a new phase. “With less money from the province, but more united than ever,” Schils says passionately. “We’ve joined forces in education, we listen to one another, and together we make decisions that improve education in the broadest sense. That’s good for the region. We intend to further refine the monitor, do more research. We’ll be paying more attention to online education—yes, prompted by corona. Education has had to change gears very quickly in the past year. We’ll be studying the consequences of that, too, for young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. And yes, of course, other regions are free to come and see what we’re doing. We’re proud of our approach. This agenda, especially the monitor, can be used widely.”
Based on research, we can offer equal opportunities to young people.