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New study shows great benefits of the back-pack policy designed for special needs students

Datum:18 maart 2019
Large positive effects of back-pack policy
Large positive effects of back-pack policy

From 2003 till 2013, children with a severe disability who qualified for a school for special education could also qualify for learner-specific funding, also known as a ‘back pack’, to be used for extra support in a regular school. A new study by Roel Freriks and Jochen Mierau shows the back-pack policy positively affected special needs students’ mental health with a relative improvement of 26.2 percent to their regular peers.

A large series of studies show that if children perform better in education this significantly increases their chances in life, as education relates to a variety of outcomes throughout the life cycle. To reduce educational disparities, policies have been developed and implemented. One of those policies is the back-pack policy (Dutch: rugzakbeleid). The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science decided in 2014 to abolish this policy, as the budget to support the system exploded and short-term evidence was not convincing. The study done by Mierau and Freriks looks back on this decision and shows the potential of high long-term cost/benefit ratios for policies that support progression of special needs students in regular education, taken into account the long-term returns to education.

Freriks and Mierau used five waves of data between 2000 and 2013 from 817 regular and 295 special needs students, aged 10 to 12 at baseline, of the Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). In their evaluation they made sure that (1) the observed differences before and after the policy are truly related to the policy and (2) they identified which societal groups were actually reached – i.e. who benefited the most? The study showed large positive effects of the policy on the mental health and academic performance with a reduced inequality of 26.2 and 65.1 percent, respectively. Moreover, the achievement gap disappeared before adulthood, as special needs students did not differ in educational attainment at labour market entry from their regular peers.

The study shows that girls and students from an ethnic minority or a lower socio-economic environment benefited less from the policy. The researchers have no clear thoughts on the reasoning behind the lower effects for girls. Regarding the lower effects for children from an ethnic minority or a lower socio-economic environment Freriks argues the following: “These children have probably harder access to such additional budgets, as foreign-born parents from lower socio-economic environments have often more difficulty with the literacy level of corresponding admission procedures. However, further, preferably qualitative, research is needed to test this argument.”

“Because the economic literature has taught us that often children from a less privileged background capitalise to a lower extent on such policies, the diffused outcomes are not surprising,” Freriks explains, “However, the findings could be surprising for policy makers, as there is no documentation on how the policy effectiveness differed across the different classes in society.”

New policy
The total amount of money used for back-pack funding is now annually divided among the 152 regional school partnerships. Freriks: “We cannot claim with this paper that the back-pack policy is more effective than the current policy, however recent research (published in AD) revealed that since the policy change more students have switched back to special education – due to often financial reasons.”

What would Freriks’ advice be for the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science? “Our results combined with the findings published in AD would suggest that it’s worthwhile to reconsider the current school policy on additional budgets for special needs students. My advice would be to pay more attention to the identification of those students that really need additional help before implementing such enormous budget policies. Furthermore, I would advise to use more ‘data-driven policy evaluation’, as documents based on short-term outcomes were used while many of these policies have their benefits over a longer term.”

“If the Dutch government will not introduce such a back-pack policy again,” Freriks argues, “One of the consequences might be that short-term findings could suggest that cutting budgets for special needs students does not change the school performance of these students, while in the long-term there is a serious difference in educational attainment. And we know from the literature how such a difference in educational attainment could work out throughout their lives.”

Please contact the authors for more information about the study:
Roel D. Freriks
Jochen O. Mierau

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