Student Blog VII: The Dutch freedom of education and the implementation of human rights

Author: Borek Slangen

In 1917 the Dutch parliament agreed, after almost a century of political struggle, to give religious schools the same possibility to receive state funding as public schools. A hundred years later, almost 70 percent of Dutch children go to faith-based schools, including catholic, protestant and Islamic schools, but also nonreligious Montessori and Dalton schools.  The freedom of education, included in the Dutch constitution since 1920, gives parents and children the right to choose a school based on their own conviction and forms the foundation of the Dutch school system. This freedom, however, comes at a cost, as it crosses the state’s ability to conform to international educational norms on human rights.

The Dutch have a reputation when it comes to human rights. Ever since the 1960s, human rights have had an increasing part to play in the foreign policies of the Dutch government. The human rights note of 1979, set up by the ministry of foreign affairs, which set out the human rights policy for the decades to come, can be seen as the culmination of this process: The Netherlands was to be a guiding nation on human rights, it stated. The note corresponded with growing attention for human rights in Dutch society. Human rights organisations saw their membership grow significantly during the 1970s and now also started to look for ways to cooperate with each other, in order to form a strong controlling mechanism on the policies of the Dutch government. This resulted in the founding of the BMO, or Breed Mensenrechtenoverleg, a platform for human rights NGO’s to fine-tune their actions and undertake collective activities.

In June 1981, one of the first projects of the BMO, a research project about the education and awareness of human rights among Dutch citizens, came to an end. In its concluding report, the BMO states that even though the Dutch have some general knowledge on human rights, a lot was still to be gained, especially in human rights education which at the time, was almost non-existent.[1] If the Netherlands wanted to be a true guiding nation by giving human rights a central position in its foreign policy, the same should be done in the national sphere. Therefore, to improve this situation, the report gives multiple suggestions, varying in size and possible impact, on how to improve the human rights education Dutch children get at school. However, confronting the Dutch government with the outcomes of the research, soon made clear its intentions on a national level: there existed no will among political leaders to change or improve human rights education, as they reacted with contempt to the plans presented to them. None of the suggestions were eventually put into action.

Thirty years later, initiatives to improve human rights education are still implemented at a national level but have become increasingly subject to international control mechanisms. Through international organisations like the UN and the Council of Europe, nations are increasingly bound to demonstrate progress in this area. Interestingly, in the last ten years, the scope of human rights education has widened to incorporate education for democratic citizenship, an increasingly debated topic in European societies. A clear view on what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society, was no longer deemed to be self-evident, and so politicians in many European nations opted for the stimulation of education for democratic citizenship. In 2006, the Dutch government had already implemented a law on this, stating that children needed to know how to actively participate in Dutch society. However, when compared to the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights, signed by the Dutch government in 2010, it turns out that the Dutch law does not meet the goals the charter sets out. Disagreement on whether the ministry of education should meddle more with school curricula so that charter criteria are met, boils down to the following: Education on Dutch citizenship focusses primarily on how to be a participating inhabitant of the Netherlands, whereas the charter refers to being a citizen in a democratic society. The Dutch view is meant to implicitly incorporate human rights, the charter wants human rights to be explicitly taught in class. But just as thirty years before, confronting the government with this discrepancy between national and international practice and its failure to live up to signed treaties, the ministry expresses no will to intervene in school curricula.[2]

An explanation for Dutch noncompliance with human rights education is twofold. First, the ministry is still under the impression that Dutch norms and values to a great extent guarantee the existence of human rights. A view that dates back to the signing of the Universal declaration of Human Rights, where the Dutch representative is believed to have said that ‘the international convention aims to elevate backward countries’.[3] Initiatives taken by the BMO and the Council of Europe are therefore seen as superfluous. The other factor is the freedom of education, which gives schools the freedom to set out their own curriculum and keeps the ministry at a distance. Meddling with the curricula, to guarantee an explicit inclusion of human rights, is perceived as a breach of this freedom and thus as undesirable.

[1] Baneke, P., Eindrapport van onderzoeksproject voorlichten en bewustwordingsmateriaal mensenrechten, p.11. found in: Archive Breed Mensenrechten Overleg, ARCH03482, folder 100. International Institute for Social History Amsterdam.

[2] Letter from Secretary of State Sander Dekker to the Tweede Kamer regarding citizenship in Dutch education. 16-12-2013. P. 3. Found at: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/kamerstukken/2013/12/16/kamerbrief-over-burgerschap-in-het-onderwijs

[3] Oomen, B., The rights for others, the slow homecoming of human rights in the Netherlands. (Cambridge 2014) P. 8.

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