Pupils tell politicians what they want to learn

Summary

A report by students of what they feel is missing in their curriculum is to be discussed in the Flemish parliament, with life skills, wellbeing and politics at the top of the list

Life beyond school

Citizenship, how to cook carrots and how to resuscitate somebody are just some of the things that kids in secondary school want added to their curriculum. In short, they want to be better prepared for life outside the school walls.

These are the findings of a report by the Vlaamse Scholierenkoepel (Flemish Students’ Chapel), whose members hit all types of secondary schools across Flanders – general, technical and professional schools and art academies – gathering responses from 17,000 pupils.

The report was commissioned by the Flemish Parliament, which is in the process of debating a new curriculum for the eindtermen, or graduation goals, which are the key things that all students should have learned by the time they leave secondary school.

“We have to ram information into our heads all the time when we’re at school, but when we’re put into a real-life situation, we don’t know how to deal with it,”’ says Timpa Vanoosterweyck, a 17-year-old pupil at Xaverius College in Antwerp.

Curriculum review

In February, the Flemish Parliament held the Day of the 100 (pictured), where two pupils from each of 50 schools came to Brussels to talk about what they wanted from their education. Meanwhile, the Scholierenkoepel selected 10 students, including Vanoosterweyck, to put together their report.

As well as visiting schools (Vanoosterweyck was responsible for visiting an art academy after the Day of the 100 showed that there wasn’t any input from these types of schools), the chapel organised a chat-cafe on its website and a super-size ideas board. 

I don’t want to learn about the policies of each party. I want to learn about why they think like that. The bigger picture

- Timpa Vanoosterweyck

Their goal was to be as inclusive as possible in terms of schools, and, rather than presenting what all the students think is wrong with the curriculum as it stands, they wanted to present what they think is missing.

“What we did is to go to schools and try and get students involved. We wanted to have the debate be about what their vision is. It wasn’t our job to push our vision,” explains Vanoosterweyck.

Six themes emerged from the report: health, mental health, nurturing individual skills and talents, getting ready for life after school, more comprehensive sex education, and putting both feet in the world, which includes learning how to look at the world, religion, economics and politics.

According to Vanoosterweyck, what was evident from the report was that pupils want to learn more about citizenship, especially about politics, economics and the world around them. “If there was one thing that everyone was keen on, it was that.

“From about the age of 15, many students feel that they don’t understand what is going on around them. When I say I want to learn about politics, I don’t want to learn about the policies of each party. I want to learn about why they think like that. The bigger picture.”

On a more practical note, students say they want to learn about job contracts, filling in a tax form, how to get a mortgage and how to manage their money. They also want to learn about things like cooking carrots and how to iron clothes.

In Flanders, with its four streams of secondary education – general, technical, art and vocational – there are big differences in terms of what pupils want to see included in the curriculum. “The requests for more practical things were coming from the general schools,” says Vanoosterweyck.

Among the topics common to all schools, however, were first aid, health and wellbeing, and language.

Get with the times

“The topic of first aid really stood out. Loads of kids want to know how to help someone on the street who is hurt. It’s already obligatory in school, but no one really spends any time on this. Most kids just know how to put on a plaster.”

Instead, students really want to know how to resuscitate someone or take care of someone who is seriously hurt. They also want to learn more about taking care of their own health, including healthy food and mental health. The report points to the high risk of burnout among students.

Concerning sexual health, the message is clear: educators need to get with the times. That means teachers should pay attention not just to traditional boy-girl relationships but to homosexual and transgender relations and the dangers of pornography, sexually transmitted disease, abuse and sexting.

In an increasing globalised world, secondary school pupils also want to use foreign languages more, including when studying other subjects. “I’ve been raised with three languages. I think people who speak more languages are more confident and think more globally,” says Vanoosterweyck, who speaks Dutch, English and Japanese.

Next steps

The Flemish Parliament will consider in its debate the input from the students as well as the views of teachers and parents and other stakeholders before putting together a report about how the graduation goals should be reviewed.

Kathleen Helsen, head of the parliament’s education commission, says: “It’s really important to listen to the students and my report will look at what can be done today and what can be done in the future in the review of the goals.”

Students rightly ask to focus on issues that are strongly linked to citizenship

- Hilde Crevits

Meanwhile, education minister Hilde Crevits says: “The debate touches the heart of education. It’s a strong point that 17,000 children under the impetus of the Flemish Students’ Chapel have been working on this. We will take these valuable proposals into account.”

For Crevits, the two things in the report that she is most eager to see included in the reviewed graduation goals are financial literacy and learning about first aid; her office is already organising a symposium about the latter on 11 October.

In general, Crevits noted that pupils wanted more freedom of choice in their secondary education and more tailored learning, as well as taking care of their well-being and putting their feet firmly in society. “Students rightly ask to focus on issues that are strongly linked to citizenship: critical learning to think, form an opinion, reflect on social issues and deal with diversity.”

Vanoosterweyck: “I hope that the politicians will listen to what’s in the report and use it in the whole debate, because students are underestimated and, in general, that’s not really fair. We are the ones who know best.”

Photo courtesy Vlaamse Scholierenkoepel