Improve your Dutch or pay the price!

New rules from the Dutch Government that came in to force earlier this year mean that people with poor language skills will be forced improve themselves by attending language classes or suffer the consequences.  This rule is for people claiming benefits in Holland. Those who refuse to improve themselves risk having their benefits cut. 20% for the first 12 months before being cut all together if no improvement is made.

It sounds like a harsh new rule but one I thought would harness debate. 

The language capabilities of a person on benefits is to be assessed with an exam. Knowing that 1.9 million people in the Netherlands do not speak Dutch well enough to pass the lowest high school leaving exam this is no mean feat.  It has never been a secret that the language is bloody hard and at times even down right confusing. I have always been very vocal about my struggles with Dutch, even with English being a germanic language it didn’t make it any easier for me. For the Dutch Government to set the bar at age 12 peaked my interest.

How good was your mother tongue language age 12?

My English was probably pretty decent back then but there is always room for improvement. I learn new words all the time, the most recent new word added to my vocabulary is ‘resplendent‘. An adjective meaning “attractive and impressive through being richly colourful or sumptuous”. Great word right?! As a firm believer in – why say in 100 what you can in 10 – I don’t specifically see the need for such a complex vocabulary. In my job we use very different forms of English for any range of intended target audience. I’m not poorly educated and I have a professional, graduate job but my English isn’t at the level of some of my work colleagues. It doesn’t mean I’m not as good at my job if anything I means I can talk to anybody with any ability and be understood.


Now this rule isn’t being pedantic over the use of a few long words.  The idea behind it is to raise the educational level of a nation and shrink the Dutch Welfare State. I think that is a big thing for a country to strive for (if not a little ambitious!) . In the UK the aim is for every child leaving school to have a standard level of English and Maths. We have put an increased focus on this in recent years and we are seeing progress and success with that but I cant help but question how does one really enforce and execute a ruling like the proposal in the Netherlands?

With 39,000 claimants in Rotterdam officials have already said that it would take 2 years to fully assess everybody. How do you even begin to finance this?! Not to mention the cost of the courses.

Why the sudden change?

The incentive for working harder and studying more seriously is to avoid being financially penalised. Better grades when leaving school means the increased likelihood of getting a job and therefore breaking the cycle of claiming. A lovely idea I would happily welcome back in the UK. The benefit to the Social Security system keep on coming with research claiming that of people aged 25 with only primary school education, one-quarter are obese. Graduate in comparison are  6 percent.Den_Haag_Binnenhof.jpg

Maybe putting an age limit on it is the answer but I’m still on the fence as to the significance of age 12. Can you really get an adult locked in a generation of benefit dependency to take an exam and improve their language proficiency? What would be the cost of this assessment on such a national scale? I have a feeling that in the short time the expense will far outweigh the gains made from cutting and/or losing claimants from the system.

So far no municipalities have cut benefits.  Perhaps this new scheme is highlighting the fact that Dutch language proficiency is higher than perceived. Maybe there is some other underlying reason why benefit claimants are so high. Or perhaps there is just too much of a funding gap in increasing a persons language skills. Only time will tell if this decision will be an asset to the country’s purse or simply open up a black hole of public spending.

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