In high school, some things never change. This morning in maths, all the boys sit at the back, and all but one girl at the front. As they are about 13, some girls tower over the boys. The blue-eyed young teacher – “I’ve got another 45 years to go” – is the classic object of schoolboy crushes.

Here in the Blaise Pascal school in Spijkenisse, a lower-middle-class town outside Rotterdam, the mathematics is tough. “How much does a 600mm lens magnify?” the teacher asks. The boy next to me, who failed last year because of truancy, and on this second day of the new school year is still resolved to make it up to his parents, sticks up his hand.

Viewed globally, this is high-level stuff. Dutch children, along with Finns and Koreans, have the world’s highest measured maths scores, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) studies. The kids in this morning’s maths class are average performers, halfway up the Dutch pyramid. This is their year of truth. Next summer, the class will split in two. The better children will join the Havo (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs, or higher general continued education) track – leading to an adulthood of comfortable jobs in management – while the rest will be consigned to the lowest Dutch track, the VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, or preparatory middle-level vocational education), leading to manual work or office jobs nearer the Dilbert level. Slightly more than half of Dutch pupils follow the streams of the VMBO.

In the eternal British debate about how to fix the country’s schools, the Netherlands often serves as utopia. The Tory leader David Cameron says that in educational reform: “We have been overtaken by countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and some states in the US.” His colleague, the Tory intellectual David Willetts, said “school choice … has done wonders for educational attainment” in the Netherlands.

Dutch parents can indeed choose their children’s school. The schools are good, even though the country spends less on education than the OECD average. And, crucially, Dutch schools are selective – something that Britain supposedly lost when it abolished most grammar schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas British kids used to be selected for life aged 11, in Dutch schools selection never stops. At any age pupils can rise or fall a track. In theory, you can enter the VMBO aged 12 and end up a professor. This flexibility is crucial, because schools are society’s best means of redressing the inequality with which children start life. “The Netherlands combines both school choice and academic selection in what many see as an ideal education system,” concludes Reform, the British free-market think-tank.

So should Britain return to selection? And can it learn something from the Dutch? The early selection that Dutch schools practise used to be the norm across Europe. In Britain, from 1944 until the 1970s, most 11-year-olds sat a test called “the 11-plus”. Those who scored well went to grammar schools. The rest were dumped into underfunded “secondary modern” schools, which they generally left for lowly jobs aged 16.

This seemed cruel, but there was a rationale to it. Cyril Burt, a leading psychologist and member of the British Eugenics Society, had shown through studies of twins separated at birth that heredity strongly influenced IQ. If intelligence was largely innate, then selecting children aged 11 made sense. Burt championed the 11-plus.

Only in the 1970s did somebody spot that Burt’s correlation coefficients for the twins’ IQ scores were identical to three decimal places, even after he added new cases of twins to his sample. This looked fishy. It became more so when a newspaper searched for two collaborators cited by Burt and found no trace of them except as reviewers of Burt’s books in a journal that Burt edited. Most scholars now think Burt invented his collaborators and some of his data. The 11-plus may have been based partly on fraud.

But in spite of selection, Europe’s schooling gradually became more equal in the decades before the second world war, says Jaap Dronkers, a Dutchman who is professor of social stratification and inequality at the European University Institute in Florence. This was largely because more money was spent on educating the poor. However, in the decades after the war, social democrats in several countries, particularly Britain and France, decided that the route to equality lay in abolishing early selection. The earlier a school tracks a child, the more it is simply selecting him for his parents’ background.

So Britain and other countries introduced comprehensives: all children would attend the same schools. The conservative magazine The Spectator still calls Britain’s destruction of grammar schools: “The greatest act of institutional vandalism since the Dissolution of the Monasteries.” Most Nordic and English-speaking countries now have comprehensive high schools. The Netherlands briefly experimented with them from 1993, but never went very far, and recently reverted to earlier selection.

In Britain the debate about selection has traditionally been all or nothing: either secondary schools select kids aged 11 for life, or not at all. But this hides the truth that British schools have always remained selective. All that has changed is that they now select on income. Many wealthier parents either send their children to fee-paying schools, or buy houses in the catchment areas of “good” schools – a method known as “selection by estate agent”. The OECD names the UK alongside Belgium and Austria as countries “that score comparatively high on quality in terms of mean student performance in reading literacy, but have low equity on some measures”.

I tried both systems. When I was six my family moved to the Netherlands, and I spent a decade in Dutch schools. Entering high school in the highest track, I found it hard. Dutch schoolchildren spend more hours in class than any others in the OECD. At 14, we were learning three foreign languages, Latin, chemistry, physics, biology and so on, all at the highest level. There was the eternal worry of failing too many subjects and having to repeat a year. At 16, I moved to a London comprehensive, and found it much easier.

The Dutch system seemed fair as well as good. Yes, in the Netherlands we were selected at 12. But it was based more on the recommendations of our primary schools than on an intelligence test, and it wasn’t for life. You could always switch streams later. One friend of mine failed a year early in high school, and then completed the Havo. Afterwards, he moved up to the highest stream, went to university, and is now a wealthy art dealer.

“If you see the light, there is always a way to work yourself up,” says Peter van den Berg, a dean at the Blaise Pascal school. This also helped working-class children to rise. At Blaise Pascal, three staff members told me stories of family advancement thanks to school. “My parents stimulated me to achieve,” said Gert-Jan Alberts, the headmaster. “My father was a truck driver … And if I look back at my life, I can say, ‘You haven’t done badly.’”

Nor did the Dutch system write off the least academic children, as British secondary moderns often did. In the Netherlands, these kids went to vocational schools, where they did some academic work but specialised in trades such as plumbing or mechanics. Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch education minister, is well placed to interpret the Dutch system for Britons. An eminent biologist, he did postdoctoral work in a Cambridge laboratory and knows Britain well. I asked Plasterk why the Dutch did not share British qualms about selecting children aged 12 or 14. He replied that, firstly, the Dutch did not regard technical education as inferior and, secondly, that children could switch tracks.

But didn’t selection at 12 effectively mean selecting kids for social class? “I think that compared with England we have slightly less social class,” said Plasterk.

So the Dutch consider their high-school system a success? “In principle, I think that’s true.” Plasterk was less complimentary about Dutch universities. Citing the Lisbon Process’s target of making Europe the most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010, he said: “As the magazine Nature wrote in 2000, ‘not a snowflake’s chance in hell’.”

Sitting in the classrooms of Blaise Pascal, you can indeed think of Dutch schools as utopia. But gradually you start to wonder. For most of the morning’s maths lesson, the children do exercises from their textbooks while the teacher shuttles from desk to desk supervising. One of the tasks is to draw a dog with a ruler. Most of the kids work quietly, but not the boy in front of me. Finally, he turns round and proudly shows us his canine. It is not drawn with a ruler, and he has added a caption, in English: “Doggy style”.

“Wonderful!” says the teacher ironically. Afterwards, she tells me she can already see that this boy lacks the right attitude for the Havo track. He appears destined for the Vmbo. But he is only 13 and, as one of the school’s deans tells me, the part of the brain that thinks about the future only develops at around 20. At 13, you rarely have a sense of yourself as learning anything – but even if you aren’t thinking about your future, the Dutch school system is.

That boy will have chances to rise later, but fewer than in my day. In the 1990s, the Netherlands decided that switching tracks cost too much money. The practice was discouraged. Nowadays, Dutch students tend to move up a track only aged 18 or 20, after completing the lowest tracks. However, that is often impractical for kids who, from 14, have chosen mostly vocational subjects.

Two hundred metres from the Blaise Pascal there is a Vmbo-only school. In theory, children can switch between the two schools. Last year, none did. The Dutch Education Council, which advises the government, is among many arguing for a revival of switching, and this is starting to happen. But still, only 6 per cent of children finishing the Vmbo now rise to the Havo track, compared with 10 per cent in 1998.

Selection at 12 is more fixed than it once was and, despite what Plasterk says, it is often selection for social class. Seven out of 10 children of highly educated parents enter the Havo or the higher VWO track, compared with only one in four children of non-western origin, or of lowly educated Dutch-native parents. Dronkers says that Dutch gymnasia – schools where students have to take Latin and/or Greek – “are more socially exclusive than either French classes preparatoires or English public schools”.

The OECD commented this year: “The [Dutch] secondary school tracking system, as it currently exists, may be an impediment to achieving greater equity.” It said postponing selection “seems inevitable, although this is a major change in the way Dutch society thinks of itself”.

And the Dutch freedom to choose schools probably increases unfairness. Highly educated parents possess school choice. They know which schools are best, and when to enrol. Less-educated parents rarely do. The result is that many Dutch cities, such as Rotterdam, now have “black” and “white” schools. “I regret that we are not enough a mirror of society,” says Ton Roelofs, director of education at the Penta College, the group of schools that includes Blaise Pascal. “I think it’s bad that so few from immigrant circles penetrate to the higher tracks. Our education system is built for the white pupil. It was never meant for immigrants.”

To some degree then, Dutch schools still do what the 11-plus often did in Britain: separate working-class from middle-class kids very young, and frequently for life. Perhaps the biggest difference is how the Netherlands then treats these working-class children. Whereas in Britain more money tended to go to grammar schools, in the Netherlands it is the opposite. The schools at the bottom get the most funding.

Blaise Pascal’s headmaster, Alberts, says that in the Havo or Vwo tracks a school receives money for one teacher per 20 pupils. In the Vmbo, it’s one teacher per 17. Isn’t it good that the Netherlands overfunds disadvantaged children? Alberts splutters, then says: “It is nice. Though I think the relationship is now at its most extreme point.”

The extra money probably achieves something. Whereas Dutch children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds do not reduce the gap with their richer compatriots during their school years, they do perform better than disadvantaged children in most other countries. In the OECD’s comparisons of the bottom decile of 15-year-olds in different countries, the Netherlands usually ranks in the world’s top five. This is still far from “no child left behind” – 14 per cent of Dutch kids, many of them immigrants, leave school without qualifications beyond Vmbo – but it’s decent. And immigrants on average are improving quickly.

In fact, it’s the top 10 per cent of Dutch children who underperform compared with elites elsewhere. “The highest level is not good,” says Dronkers. Only now are Dutch schools starting to do more for kids at the top. One of Blaise Pascal’s sister schools teaches pupils in the highest tracks in English and Dutch, while the Netherlands’ first “Leonardo” school for highly gifted children opened in September.

In all, Dutch schools are good. Dronkers attributes this to their rigorous final exams, which give a good measure of where pupils stand, and to choice, which forces schools to compete for pupils. But the system is far from perfect. “Inequality in education is so closely tied to inequality in society that you can’t eradicate it. You can only soften it,” Dronkers adds.

Roelofs, the senior man at the giant Penta College, knows something about class and education. His father repaired typewriters, and his trilingual daughter is now doing a degree at the English-language Roosevelt Academy in the Netherlands. “Education always has to do with personal tragedy,” says Roelofs. “If the parents are illiterate, and the child surpasses them, something happens in the family.” I asked him what he would do to ensure that more children could make the same ascent his own family had. Wouldn’t comprehensives help lift more Dutch children from the bottom?

“In the Netherlands,” sighs Roelofs, “we did not succeed in teaching children of different levels together. Children are different. No, I wouldn’t make schools comprehensive. I’d ensure that schools are more mixed.” He means more ethnically and socially mixed. Unfortunately, nobody in the Netherlands knows how to do that. The Dutch are not desperate enough to turn to Britain for tips, but Cameron’s classless high-quality utopia must be somewhere else.

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