Primary school governing bodies and local authorities in the Netherlands should be much faster to close schools in response to the rapid drop in numbers of young children in shrinking regions. Keeping a relatively large number of schools open is ultimately unfair for the population in a time of crisis. This is the conclusion of lecturer in cultural geography Tialda Haartsen of the University of Groningen. ‘Particularly in municipalities with a shrinking population, keeping schools open for a long time can mean that other amenities such as the library or swimming pool must close instead or that property tax must increase significantly.’
Demographic projections show the numbers of young children (4-12 years of age) in many regions in the Netherlands decreasing by as much as 30 percent between 2013 and 2020. The urgency is great in parts of Friesland, Groningen, the Achterhoek, Zeeland but also in the Groene Hart area. Haartsen: ‘It is the result of a combination of relatively few women in the reproductive stage of life and the economic crisis, which has led people to postpone having children at the moment.’
However, closing or merging schools is a complicated process in the Netherlands, and it has a firm constitutional basis due to the right to freedom of education. This means that the Dutch educational system not only has to contend with criteria of a minimum of 60, 80 or 100 pupils for a school to be viable, but also with an increase in the number of primary schools due to the right to provide education in accordance with religious beliefs, even in sparsely populated regions.
Local authorities do not have the power to decide to close schools, because this is the job of the school governing bodies. At the same time, however, the local authorities are expected to use public money for the maintenance of school buildings. Haartsen: ‘The decision-making process passes through many layers. It is slow and more expensive than it should be, particularly in a time of spending cuts.’
As school closures are often thought to be a sensitive subject, difficult decisions are postponed, often indefinitely. ‘People think that a school closure is the kiss of death for a village community, but this is not true.’ However, school governing bodies and local politicians continue to use this argument. ‘School governing bodies would prefer the schools of other governing bodies to close, and councillors often have the next elections in the back of their minds. You often see nothing happening for a long time, while the difference between five or eight schools in a shrinking municipality can have drastic consequences for the other amenities in these areas.’ Haartsen argues that the poor economic climate makes this decision-making culture extremely expensive, and believes that the public should be made more aware of the need to make decisions.
Haartsen found that school users are more prepared to make compromises than the school governing bodies. This is also true if it means more collaboration between public and special schools. ‘We know from the research that the majority of parents in shrinking regions send their children to the nearest school, regardless of denomination. If more consideration were taken of the consequences that keeping one amenity open can have for the future of other amenities, other decisions might be made. My point is that residents are not sufficiently involved in these decisions, while they are the ones whom the schools serve and it is their tax money that helps fund them.’
At the moment many local authorities are dreading the thought of expensive maintenance to their buildings. ‘Would this not be a good time to realign primary education in shrinking municipalities? There are already examples of schools of different denominations that work at one site with two entrances and are thus testing more efficient forms of collaboration. However, from a cost point of view things are moving too slowly and this lack of urgency has immediate consequences for other services in villages and municipalities.’
is the coordinator of the Master’s Programme in Cultural Geography and an active member of
Kennisnetwerk Krimp Noord
(KKNN), a network of organizations that studies the consequences of population decrease. The KKNN regularly holds at various locations in the northern Netherlands what it calls ‘Krimp-cafés on tour’, informative meetings about current issues relating to shrinking populations.
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