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Case studies in secondary public schools in Ghent: a bottom-up approach

towards ‘ideological accommodation'


Dr. Sien Devriendt

Dr. Devriendt is an Assistant Professor at the Open University (Heerlen) and Voluntary Post-Doctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Belgium). She defended her PhD thesis on this topic on 27 September 2022. Her thesis will be published (in Dutch) as a monograph. The generosity of the participants, the University supervisors and the editorial assistance have greatly contributed to this blogpost. Sien wants to thank all of them for their contributions.



Introduction


Transforming societies, marked by increased religious, respectively ideological diversity, are posing complex challenges for European educational systems. The Belgian educational system and its ideological background make reflecting on aspects of their current relationship even more significant.


In Belgium, the right to education is regulated by Article 24 of the Constitution. Article 24 contains the ‘neutrality principle’ of which different interpretations exist. Within this framework, based on the neutrality concept, Flemish public schools (also called Flemish official education’; Flemish public schools are either organized by the community level, or by the provincial and municipal authorities) have established a general approach (further: direction) which defines how they deal with for instance ideological diversity. For instance, public schools organized by the Flemish Community (also called ‘GO! Education’) promote ‘active citizenship’. Public schools organized by the Flemish provincial and municipal authorities (also called ‘Government-aided public education’) present themselves as ‘(actively) pluralistic’.


My recently concluded doctoral research examined how these Flemish public schools ‘accommodate’ ideological diversity while taking these above-mentioned directions (e.g., pluralism, active pluralism and active citizenship) into account. Although I recognize that ‘ideological accommodation’ is a multifaceted concept, for my research I generally defined it as “promoting inclusion and participation of pupils with different ideologies, without losing their different and evolving ideological identities”. In doing so, I explicitly used the term “promote” which contains an important, literature-based, hypothesis. I argued that this working definition of ‘ideological accommodation’ cannot be separated from an active interpretation of the equality framework. An active interpretation of the principle of equality constitutes an avenue to foster substantive equality. More specifically, this research suggested equal opportunities, as an articulation of belief in the substantive equality of all human beings. In this case, equal opportunities for all demand that we acknowledge and respect a pupil’s religious identity; guarantee choices of schools (J. VERNIMMEN, Het ‘hoofddoekenverbod’ op scholen gelegitimeerd: een Catch-22 voor hijabi’s, noot onder GwH 4 juni 2020, nr.81/2020, TJK 2020, 184); favor that every pupil feels equally secure, free, wanted and cared for at school; and ensure school results that align with the abilities of all pupils.


The aim of this study, which focuses on Flemish public schools, is threefold, namely to: a) evaluate the extent to which these institutions meet the standards of freedom of religion and freedom of education as set by international, European and Belgian law; b) explore top-down education policies; and c) examine how ideological accommodation is put into daily practice in full-time regular secondary public schools in the city of Ghent (Flanders). The research project combined a variety of qualitative data collection methods in four stages: reviewing literature; studying school regulations (N=184); conducting semi-structured interviews (with N=10, including experts and heads of umbrella organizations, e.g., an association that represents the school boards of an educational network); and carrying out case studies (data capture comprised of a mix of 21 semi-structured interviews with principals and teachers, observations, field notes, and internal documents in 7 full-time regular secondary public schools in Ghent/data was analyzed by means of the content analysis method).


In this blogpost, I will mainly reflect on the examination of how ideological accommodation is put into daily practice (c). Case study research was used to answer this question. I selected public schools located in Ghent, a relatively densely populated city. Therefore, I was able to cover the entire spectrum of schools in this sense that not only schools from all three tracks preparing pupils for postsecondary pathways were included, but as well schools with different ethnic compositions (high, middle and low), determined by the proportion of ethnic minority pupils. Pupils are primarily considered as ‘ethnic minorities’ if their maternal grandmother had a birthplace other than Western Europe (see also VERVAET).


Here, I emphasize that central policy initiatives led by political decision-makers and school boards or their umbrella organizations need to facilitate bottom-up principal- and teacher-driven action to offer insights on opportunities for improving the likelihood of creating and executing a positive and broadly supported approach to ideological accommodation.

The general results of the case studies conducted in Ghent


The case studies have led to the conclusion that dealing with ideological diversity is perceived as difficult. According to principals and teachers, political decision-makers and school boards or their umbrella organizations provided little to no supportive tools to enable them to effectively interact with ideological accommodation. The ambiguities in the field reinforced the sense that they were left by themselves. This diverted a lot of the responsibility to principals and teachers. Furthermore, principals and teachers did not always agree with either the above-mentioned directions (e.g., pluralism, active pluralism and active citizenship) or the school regulations. Thus, this study showed no clear consensus on the matter.


My general conclusion was that the absence of both an adequate top-down policy for daily professional practice in schools, and a clear consensus, can have significant effects on ideological accommodation. Since principals and teachers were sitting in the driver’s seat, many were putting in a lot of effort to create a learning environment conducive to ideological accommodation. And because they enjoyed a lot of leeway in deciding how to achieve this, this ultimately resulted in an ad hoc approach. This ensured so-called pedagogical freedom, creativity and flexibility, but is also characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and by potential hazards (e.g., missing an opportunity for a positive and broadly supported approach to ideological accommodation in an educational context).


However, this ad hoc approach may also be explained by the current legal framework. This is why I included a discussion on the international, European and Belgian law underpinning freedom of religion and freedom of education in my doctoral research. Although the entire legal framework served as a yardstick for the assessment of legal principles underlying ideological accommodation, such as ‘neutrality’, ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘equality’, states maintained a certain discretion in interpreting these principles and when imposing possible limitations on religious manifestation. Because no clear guidelines established by courts exist, stakeholders on the ground (e.g., principals and teachers) also enjoyed a certain degree of discretion, for instance in the way they address (an active implementation of) the principle of equality (see figure below).




I would like to emphasize that this study is limited to secondary public schools in Ghent and it provides a snapshot of this area.



Discussion


1. As VAN VUGT points out, politicians endow principles of ‘representativeness’ (Article 50 of the Constitution of the Netherlands) with meaning dependent on everyday practice and belief. In fact, the analysis of VAN VUGT can also be applied to the interpretation of the above-mentioned legal principles. In the absence of an adequate top-down policy for daily professional practice in schools and a clear legal framework, principals and teachers end up interpreting the legal principles underlying ideological accommodation, such as neutrality, freedom of religion and equality (this research suggested equal opportunities). Therefore, principals and teachers not only sit in the driver’s seat, but they also hold the key to start the engine (see figure below).


In the absence of an adequate top-down policy for daily professional practice in schools and a clear legal framework, principals and teachers end up interpreting the legal principles underlying ideological accommodation, such as neutrality, freedom of religion and equality (this research suggested equal opportunities). Therefore, principals and teachers not only sit in the driver’s seat, but they hold the key to start the engine.





2. At this point, the question immediately arises as to what preconditions and possibilities allow for the key to be used properly.


Firstly, there needs to be a consensus that principals and teachers are best placed in order to deliver the desired results. On a day-to-day basis, principals and teachers face major challenges when it comes to ideological diversity. Despite the lack of practical and legal guidance, the ingenuity is (app)laudable. So, principals’ and teachers’ commitment cannot be questioned as they show a true willingness to take on the challenge. It is therefore important to support their commitment and efforts to create a positive and broadly supported approach to ideological accommodation, or in other words, to guarantee a successful integration of ideological accommodation in their school(s).


Secondly, I argue that political decision-makers and school boards or their umbrella organizations have a significant role to play in providing well-structured guidance and giving possible solutions to mitigate problems. To begin with, as seen above, there is no clear consensus among principals and teachers on which direction to take. Furthermore, much of what needs to be done cannot be accurately described in neither directives nor clear guidelines of conduct. Ideological symbols are only part of a larger picture. On a daily basis schools are facing overwhelming challenges from compulsory mixed swimming lessons to the doctrine of evolution (denial), etc. These challenges cannot simply be answered in a standardized manner. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the role of the principal and teacher should remain firmly in the driver’s seat. So, it is important to avoid the imposition of top-down (rigid) regulation.

Building on these findings, it is vital that central policy initiatives, emanating from political decision-makers and school boards or their umbrella organizations, are not framed as top-down directives. After all, this would neither result in consensus, nor take the school-specific characteristics and circumstances into consideration, or provide certainty about a uniform approach to ideological accommodation. Instead, these central policy initiatives should first and foremost pro-actively facilitate a guided, well-structured dialogue allowing principals and teachers to interpret legal principles underlying ideological accommodation (e.g., neutrality, freedom of religion and equality). Therefore, the role of the central policy level is to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about this interpretation and identify teaching practices among principals and teachers from different schools, thereby encouraging the development of a professional learning community. In doing so, teachers and principals will work together with fellow professionals on the floor in similar situations (or situations that are similar in some sense) to develop solutions, resulting in an increased legitimacy of these solutions and an attempt to remedy their “sense of being on their own”. Therefore, I emphasize that central policy initiatives led by political decision-makers and school boards or their umbrella organizations need to facilitate bottom-up principal- and teacher-driven action to offer insights on opportunities for improving the likelihood of creating and executing a positive and broadly supported approach to ideological accommodation .


I emphasize that central policy initiatives led by political decision-makers and the school boards or their umbrella organizations need to facilitate bottom-up, principal- and teacher-driven, action to offer insights on opportunities for improving the likelihood of creating and executing a positive and broadly supported approach to ideological accommodation .

I put forward that a supporting approach provides a first step toward coming to consensus and legal certainty, since this promotes the enactment and compliance of soft law (see figure below).




This does not rule out the possibility of review by the competent authority in order to avoid the violation of fundamental rights.


In my view this supporting approach is needed, as a comprehensive legal framework might not contribute to an optimal solution. At best, such legal framework may offer salvation in a legal sense, but might not bring an optimal solution to challenging problems for which a clear consensus or exact compliance with the law is needed.


Conclusion


My recently concluded doctoral research examined how Flemish public schools ‘accommodate’ ideological diversity while taking directions like pluralism, active pluralism and active citizenship (which are based on the neutrality concept) into account. I argued that a working definition of ‘ideological accommodation’ cannot be separated from an active interpretation of the equality framework (this research suggested equal opportunities).


In this blogpost, I mainly examined how ideological accommodation is put into practice on a day-to-day basis in 7 full-time regular secondary public schools in the city of Ghent (Flanders), based on case study research. Since principals and teachers were sitting in the driver’s seat, many were putting in a lot of effort to create a learning environment conducive to ideological accommodation, while enjoying a lot of leeway in deciding how to achieve this. This resulted in an ad hoc approach, which had significant (positive and adverse) effects on ideological accommodation.


As VAN VUGT also pointed out that the actors on the ground (namely the principals and the teachers) end up interpreting legal principles underlying ideological accommodation, such as neutrality, freedom of religion and equality.


In order to interpret those legal principles and to identify teaching practices, central policy initiatives should facilitate bottom-up action, preferably by encouraging the development of a professional learning community. Actors on the ground leading these bottom-up initiatives are principals and teachers. These bottom-up agents respond to the lack of top-down policy and a clear legal framework. In this way, I argue that a supporting approach provides a first step towards a consensus and legal certainty, since this promotes the enactment and compliance of (politically binding) ‘soft law’.

Further, the blogpost contributes to a further debate and aims to broaden views on educational responses to ideological diversity.



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