Chapter 4. Building student motivation and pursuing excellence in the Netherlands

There are growing concerns that some of the most promising students in the Netherlands are not reaching their full potential. Although the Netherlands has a high proportion of top-performers compared to other European countries, there are real challenges of motivation among all groups of Dutch students. Top-performers also lack perseverance and openness to problem solving, despite efforts by the Dutch government to improve the motivation and performance of the country’s most talented students. This chapter examines this challenge by exploring ways to reinforce rewards for excellence at every level of education, and the role of parents in motivating students to strive for excellence in their learning.


Why high-level skills matter

High-level skills are important for the Dutch economy

Advanced economies, such as the Netherlands, depend on high-skilled workers and top talent in order to grow (Daron, 2002). The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) estimates that more than one-third of all job opportunities in the Netherlands in 2025 (34%) will be for professionals (high-level occupations in sciences, engineering, healthcare and teaching), compared to 24% of jobs across the EU-28 countries. Most of these jobs will be for people with tertiary qualifications (CEDEFOP, 2015). Research suggests that the creation of one high-tech job results in the creation of four additional jobs for less-skilled workers (Goos, Konings and Vandeweyer, 2015). Highly skilled workers may also spur innovation and boost technological progress.

But the most highly skilled workers are not always the top school performers

Although performance on standardised tests in mathematics, language and science is highly correlated with future earnings and other positive outcomes, non-cognitive skills also contribute (OECD, 2015; Borghans, Diris and ter Weel, 2014). Emotional intelligence, social skills, motivation, drive and perseverance are frequently cited as related to job performance, health and personal well-being (O’Boyle et al., 2011; Goleman, 2005; Mischel, 2014). Although the skills involved are diverse and fluid, it is generally agreed that education systems do not regard them seriously enough (OECD, 2015).

Excellence in cognitive skills

There have been growing concerns about weaknesses among top-performers

Before 2008, excellence was rarely presented as a concern in the Dutch school system and a common belief prevailed that gifted students “will learn anyway” (De Boer, Minnaert and Kamphof, 2013: 134). However, in view of recent concerns regarding the actual performance levels of the Dutch high achieving students, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (MoECS) has sought to address the issue. A 2014 plan developed to strengthen education for talented primary and secondary students includes over 20 measures, including the removal of legal barriers for students to follow certain subjects at higher levels (Wolfensberger, 2015).

The Netherlands has more top-performers than most of Europe, but is still behind some Asian countries

While Dutch students generally perform better than the OECD average, the strongest Dutch students (those in the 95th percentile of performance) have a relatively smaller advantage (see Figure 4.1). However, these differences are small and statistically insignificant in most cases. An alternative way of looking at excellence is to examine the percentage of “top-performers” according to an absolute standard. When this comparison is made, the Netherlands comes out well compared to European countries, but is still behind some top-performing Asian countries on cognitive skills.

  • In mathematics: 19% of 15-year-old Dutch students score at proficiency Level 5 or 6 on PISA 2012, more than the OECD average of less than 13%, but less than Singapore (40%), Korea (31%) and Japan (24%).

  • In reading: almost 10% of students reach Level 5 or 6, more than the OECD average of 8%, but less than in Singapore (21%), Japan (18%), Korea (14%), New Zealand (14%), Canada (13%), Finland (13%), France (13%), Australia (12%) and Belgium (12%).

  • In science: almost 12% of students reach Level 5 or 6, less than Singapore (23%), Japan (18%) and Finland (17%).

Figure 4.1. Relative performance advantage of Dutch students compared with the OECD average

Source: Own calculation based on OECD (2014), PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I, Revised edition, February 2014): Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Mathematics performance has declined across the performance distribution

The Netherlands’ performance in the PISA mathematics assessment fell by around 15 score points between 2003 and 2012 (OECD, 2014: Table I.2.3b); a decline observed across the performance spectrum (OECD, 2014: Table I.2.3d). In PISA 2003, around 25% of students scored at or above proficiency Level 5, while in PISA 2012 less than 20% of students performed at this level. Similar changes were observed among the weakest students.

Figure 4.2. Relative advantage over the average in literacy scores, PIAAC 2012
Top-performing adults in the five top-performing countries in literacy proficiency

Source: Own calculation based on OECD (2013a), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris,

But the share of highly skilled adults in the Netherlands is similar to other top-performing countries

The 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), shows that the share of highly skilled adults in the Netherlands is large and similar to other top-performing countries. Moreover, top-performing adults (those at the 95th percentile) attained scores similar to those of adults in three of the other four countries shown; top performers in Finland scored significantly higher. Similar results can be found for numeracy proficiency (OECD, 2013a). Young adults in the Netherlands do very well: 16-24 year-olds rank third in literacy and second in numeracy among participating countries. The contrast with school level results suggests that some catch up may take place in early adulthood, perhaps linked to the smooth school-to-work transition in the Netherlands.

National studies suggest that some of the most promising students are not reaching their full potential

A cohort study of the trajectories of excellent students by Kuyper and van der Werf (2012) revealed that between one quarter and one third of the excellent students1 at the end of primary education do not manage to obtain a degree at the higher track level within the foreseen time (Table 4.1). Within this group, the students with a low socio-economic background are especially likely to be down-graded or down-tracked during the course of their educational career. The results show a serious mismatch between the potential of these students and the opportunities they have to excel during secondary education. A meta-study conducted by Mooij and Fettelaar (2010) suggests that many excellent students are insufficiently challenged from as early as first grade.

Table 4.1. Percentage of students on schedule for timely completion of VWO Diploma

On schedule for timely completion in year…

Cito score*







VWO Diploma


















































* The CITO test is an end of primary attainment test that provides information on the school type most suitable for each student in the next phase of education. Schools are required to report on the extent to which their students have reached expected core learning objectives. Schools are free to use different instruments, but the vast majority of schools use CITO’s end-of-primary test.

Source: Kuyper, H. and G. van der Werf (2012), Excellente leerlingen in het voortgezet onderwijs: Schoolloopbanen, risicofactoren en keuzen [Excellent Students in the Secondary Education: School Trajectories, Risk Factors and Choices], GION onderzoek/onderwijs, Groningen.

Weak motivation among Dutch students

Low motivation and drive to learn among top performers is a potential issue

Research suggests that student motivation is a key driver of performance (Broussard and Garrison, 2004; Gottfried, Fleming and Gottfried, 2001; Lange and Adler, 1997). To be successful, not only in education but also in real life, students need to be willing to engage with problems and be open to new challenges. To do this they need to be motivated and driven by the joy of learning (intrinsic motivation) and/or believe that high achievement is important in life (extrinsic motivation). Motivation in children is critical because it predicts motivation later in life (Broussard and Garrison, 2004; Gottfried, 1990). Gottfried (1990) found that academic intrinsic motivation at ages seven and eight predicts subsequent motivation, even after controlling for IQ, achievement, and socioeconomic status. With age, motivation becomes increasingly differentiated. Eccles and Wigfield (2002) note that students attach more value to activities at which they excel at over time, suggesting that they will be increasingly more motivated to learn in subjects in which they experience success. Guay et al. (2010) found that differentiation of motivation for different school subjects did increase with age, with intrinsic motivation especially likely to vary between subjects for older students.

Many students in the Netherlands are not well-motivated

PISA 2012 showed that the Netherlands has one of the smallest shares of 15-year-old students who find learning mathematics interesting or enjoyable among the participating economies. PISA 2009 showed that almost 50% of Dutch 15-year-olds do not read for enjoyment at all, and only about 20% read for more than 30 minutes per day. Compared to other OECD countries, Dutch students are also less willing to work through problems that are difficult, they do not remain interested in the tasks that they start, and, more than in other countries, they are likely to shy away from complex problems (OECD, 2013b).

Top-performing students are less motivated to learn than in other OECD countries

Across OECD countries, motivation to learn is usually higher among top-performing students. In the Netherlands, while the best-performing students reported higher motivation than poor performing students, their level of motivation was still much lower than the OECD average. For example, the index of intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics is negative among students who score below proficiency Level 2, but is close to the OECD average for those who attain Level 5 or 6. Across OECD countries, the index is negative for low performers but positive for top performers, particularly in Finland, Korea and Switzerland (OECD 2013b: Table III.3.8).

Top-performing students also lack perseverance and openness to problem solving

PISA 2012 showed that the readiness among top performers in mathematics to work hard and solve difficult problems is much lower in the Netherlands than in many OECD countries (OECD 2013b: Table III.3.8). At the other end of the performance spectrum, Dutch low performers are close to the OECD average in perseverance and openness to problem solving. This suggests that perseverance and openness to problem solving are particularly low among the best students.

Raising student motivation is a challenge

Schools and teachers can help students learn how to learn, nurture their willingness to solve problems, and build their capacity for hard work and persistence. PISA 2012 shows that teacher practices and classroom composition play an important role, as does parental engagement in the learning of their children. Beyond these factors, the education system and society need to encourage and challenge children to do their best and reward them for their efforts, whether they succeed or not.

School and teaching practices, and their impact

Differentiated teaching can challenge and motivate students

To foster student motivation, teachers must challenge students and demand the use of higher-order skills (Brown, 1994; Klieme, Pauli and Reusser, 2009). A relevant and flexible curriculum is an essential pre-condition. In PISA 2012, less than half of students reported that their teachers give them challenging problems (OECD, 2013b). One reason for this may be the broadly shared belief in “equal education opportunities”, which in practice often results in education being designed for the average student and a similar programme being offered to every student. It is crucial that differentiated teaching skills are linked to the assessment of the learning needs of each and every child. This requires teachers to have a solid understanding of the relevant differences between students in the classroom (Bosker, 2005; Tomlinson et al., 2003). The evidence suggests that the assessment skills of many teachers are underdeveloped (Inspectorate of Education, 2015, 2016). This is further discussed in Chapter 5.

In disordered classrooms, even the most motivated students will lose out

Evidence shows that respectful and supportive relationships between teachers and students and orderly classrooms are a prerequisite of effective instruction (Hopkins, 2005; OECD, 2010; Scheerens and Bosker 1997). Among all top-performing countries in PISA, the Netherlands has the lowest index of disciplinary climate; the difference is particularly striking when compared to Japan, Korea and Estonia. Even in the most socio-economically advantaged schools in the Netherlands there is noise and disorder, teachers need to wait for a long time for students to calm down, and/or students don’t work for a long time after the lesson begins (OECD, 2013b). Kuyper and van der Werf (2012) show that among top Dutch students, those who are orderly are most likely to realise their true potential.

Mixed classes are negatively associated with the performance of the top students

Van der Steeg, Vermeer and Lanser (2011) and Kuyper and van der Werf (2012) show that the performance of the best students at the end of primary education decreases during secondary education if they are not immediately placed in homogenous pre-university education (VWO) classrooms or gymnasium schools. When the best students are placed in mixed classrooms they obtain lower results and are much more likely to repeat the grade and be down-tracked than their peers with equivalent cognitive skills test results. It is unclear the exact role that motivation, teaching practices or peer effects play in this process, but it is likely that all of these factors are interrelated. Given the inefficiencies caused, these should be carefully studied further within the Dutch context.

In other countries, students are more likely to be offered additional lessons for enrichment purposes

PISA 2012 shows that in most OECD countries, the offer of additional mathematics lessons for remedial and enrichment purposes is common practice (OECD, 2013b). The Netherlands is one of the few countries where remedial lessons are more often on offer than enrichment classes. In 59% of Dutch secondary schools, students are only able to attend remedial classes after school, and no additional classes are offered for students who may want to excel. In Japan and Korea, only 12% of schools offer remedial classes only, and the majority offer both remedial and enrichment classes (about 72% in Japan and 80% in Korea).

Dutch parents are less engaged in their children’s education than in other countries

As PISA and many other studies show, students learn better when their parents are involved (OECD, 2012). However, secondary school principals report that Dutch parents are less involved in school activities and that their expectation of academic performance is lower than the OECD average (OECD, 2013b). A minority of parents discussed their child’s progress or behaviour with their child’s teacher on their own initiative during the academic year prior to PISA 2012. Only 12% of school principals in the Netherlands (compared to the OECD average of 21%) reported that pressure for high achievement comes from many parents (OECD, 2013b). The issue of parental involvement (Panteia, 2014) in the Netherlands indicates that schools could make more effort to promote partnerships between parents and the schools.

Strong performers from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to realise their potential

Kuyper and van der Werf (2012) show that among top performers, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less likely to realise their potential. Differences in parental involvement may explain this result. Disadvantaged parents are less careful about the school choice of their children, may find learning less important, or may simply lack the time and financial resources to support the education of their children.

The Dutch school system could do more to incentivise excellence of all students

Dutch educational policy has given more attention to excellence in recent years through a number of initiatives. For example, currently students can formally follow subjects at higher track level or obtain their secondary education diploma with a cum laude distinction. Also, some schools focus on improving excellence by offering special educational programmes, such as bilingual education or programmes for gifted and talented students. While these are all positive developments, there is room to further encourage the performance of each student. The main goal for the majority of Dutch students in each track is still to finish secondary school at that level. As entrance into higher tracks or higher (secondary) education in the Netherlands is mostly guaranteed simply by graduating, there is no real incentive for all students to exceed the minimum requirement. Chapter 3 argued for reform that would increase the possibility of up-streaming to a higher track in order to follow subjects at a higher level. This would help increase the incentive to excel. The reform proposed would remove the threat of repetition or down-tracking, and increase the potential rewards in terms of track promotion. It is well understood that rewards are more effective motivators than threats.

School evaluation has given limited attention to excellence

The Dutch Inspectorate of Education has, in the past, been mainly concerned with school failures. However, more recently a traditional evaluation has been extended to include measures to assess the extent to which average and high-performing schools are fostering excellence.

Recommendation 5: Promote and reward student motivation and excellence

Recommendation 5: To enhance student motivation and promote excellence, build teacher capacity to better respond to individual learning needs, reinforce rewards for excellence at every level of education through the opportunity for track promotion, set high expectations through a relevant curriculum, and foster parental engagement in education

Build teacher capacity to better respond to individual learning needs, focusing on the promotion of excellence

To foster student motivation, teachers need to be able to respond to the different learning needs of all students, including higher performers or those with the potential to be a high performer. Providing students with a challenging and stimulating learning environment that fosters excellence calls for a flexible and relevant curriculum, which requires a solid understanding of the differences between students in the classroom. Further investment in differentiated teaching skills are much needed (see Chapter 5).

Reinforce rewards for excellence throughout the system

In the current system, suboptimal performance can be penalised by grade repetition and down-streaming, while excellence is not sufficiently rewarded. More opportunities could be given to (potentially) strong performing students in each track to pursue promotion to higher tracks and/or follow subjects at a higher level. Entry into higher education could also be more competitive. Many higher education institutions are introducing additional selection criteria for their most popular programmes in the Netherlands, which increases competition between the applicants.

Strengthen parental involvement in the learning of their children

PISA shows that parents’ expectations are strongly and positively associated with positive dispositions towards learning and student performance. The evidence suggests that Dutch parents, especially those from a low and average socio-economic background, should do more to support their children in their learning. In addition, schools should take a more pro-active role in strengthening the partnership between parents and the larger school community.


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← 1. Kuyper and van der Werf (2012) define excellent students as those who score in the top 5% of the performance distribution. They use the results of three different tests for this: 1) CITO test implemented at the end of primary education; 2) entry examination in secondary education; and 3) the intelligence test “NIO”. The study is based on “Voortgezet Onderwijs Cohort Leerlingen” (VOCL) data.