Bloemhof is a primary school in the disadvantaged district of Feijenoord in Rotterdam. It provides primary education for approximately 350 children aged between 4 and 12 years old. The school is aimed at, and majorly visited by, children in the Feijenoord district. Nine in ten children have a parent who was born abroad. Many children have language deficiencies, unhealthy eating habits and parents who are unemployed and/or who have low education levels.
The main objective of the Bloemhof School is to increase the social mobility of children in the disadvantaged area of Feijenoord (e.g. Boonstra et al., 2012). According to the interviewed director, it achieves this by means of the Wanita and the Physical Integrity approaches. These successful new teaching methods were introduced by the director in 2003 and 2008 respectively, after a critical report of the Dutch Inspectorate of Education about the quality of education at Bloemhof in 2000.
The Wanita approach allows children to explore and express their interests at school by using arts education. For two hours a week, under the guidance of an artist and a teacher, children undertake projects that are based on their perceptions in the subjects of biology, geography, history and physics. The artists stimulate the children to use their creativity. By involving artists, the children learn to express themselves both verbally and non-verbally (e.g. through plays, paintings and dance) (Boonstra et al., 2012). The method contributes to a positive perception of school among children as well. The Physical Integrity approach comprises four trajectories: judo classes to improve the health of children and to teach children to respect themselves and others; cookery classes and daily warm meals to provide and teach children about healthy foods and to expose them to cultural differences; philosophy classes to teach children about diverse perspectives on social phenomena and to communicate with respect for others; and ecology classes to teach children about nature. With this method, the school wants to compensate for the various disadvantages which the children experience when growing up in a poor household and neighbourhood. As many parents have insufficient means for these types of activities, the school has decided to provide for this. Physical Integrity is the legacy of a philosopher, called Henk Oosterling. After a positive evaluation by the Verweij-Jonker Institution in 2012, it became an integrated method of education at the Bloemhof School. Both the Wanita and Physical Integrity methods provide the children with better socio-economic perspectives.
The programmes are carried out by teachers, supporting staff (e.g. interns and students of local universities and colleges), several artists, two judo teachers, two philosophers, two ecologists, a professional cook and circa forty volunteers who are mothers of pupils. The latter receive € 20 a week for their support during four warm school meals. Children aged 4 to 9 years receive 31 hours of education, and children aged 10 to 12 receive 32 of these, in contrast with 23 and 26 hours respectively at regular Dutch schools. Besides the regular subsidies for education, the school is supported by the City with € 450,000 a year under the Children’s Zone programme, and by philanthropic association The Far Mountains [Stichting de Verre Bergen] under the Skill City programme with € 100,000 a year for a full-time cook and foods. Incidentally, the school receives money from diverse associations or municipal programmes for specific projects and facilities. Several local companies sponsor the cookery trajectory of the school with (unprocessed) foods.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
For the Bloemhof School, a diversity of socio-economic opportunities, ethnicities, interests, and skills of pupils, is a key feature of society that educational programmes need to address. The school does this as follows. First, the school programme fulfils two niches in educational policy in Rotterdam. The Physical Integrity approach offers pupils from disadvantaged households a learning programme that seeks to give them the same opportunities in their further educational careers as children from more advantaged households. In addition, the Wanita concept allows the school to adjust standardised educational programmes to the knowledge and skills of the children. Second, by taking the interests and skills of the children as a starting point the school teaches children to deal with and to be open to differences. Moreover, by acknowledging their questions and talents, the school encourages children’s self-esteem. Finally, by exposing children to diverse disciplines (e.g. sports, philosophy, gardening, etc.) and to diverse subjects within the disciplines (e.g. various cuisines within the cookery classes) the school teaches children to handle, be open to, and value differences as well.
Main factors influencing success and failure
The following factors contribute to the school programmes success. First, the Wanita concept allows the school to provide education that caters well to the educational and socio-economic disadvantages of the children. Second, by building on the knowledge and talents of the children and providing them equal opportunities, the school acknowledges their existence and their rights. Third, the pedagogic and methodological skills of the staff are key for the school’s educational successes. For example, an interviewed director explains that:
“School staff communicate openly [with one another and with pupils], this generates trust. […] Children notice this: ‘when I have a problem, I can approach anyone about it’”.
Fourth, the various partnerships that the director of the school has built with other public and educational institutions and programmes, volunteers, professionals and local businesses, enable the school to conduct its successful methods. According to Boonstra et al. (2012), involving mothers increases the effectiveness of school methods as they can improve their pedagogic and language skills and practice the methods at home (e.g. healthy food, expressing oneself respectfully). It also increases inter-ethnic contact as volunteers have diverse ethnic backgrounds. Finally, a long-term vision for society underlies the school’s methods. The school aims to turn the pupils into social, open-minded and skilled citizens with an eye for sustainability, the interviewed director explains, while most Dutch schools lack such a focus.
The Bloemhof faces several difficulties. First, the didactic qualities of the philosophers, ecologists, artists and volunteers are not always sufficient. Boonstra et al. (2012) find that they are not always able to maintain order, as they are not trained as teachers. Second, relatedly, the inabilities and occasional absenteeism of these professionals puts (too) much pressure on regular teachers, who then have to work overtime. Third, the unhealthy lifestyles of children at home do sometimes counteract health achievements at school. Fourth, the financial dependency of the alternative school programmes on the assistances of external parties makes the school vulnerable. The school sometimes has insufficient resources (e.g. for gardening and judo materials). The director seeks to solve these problems with new partnerships. Finally, the educational inspectorate monitors the school’s performance through short-term test results. Yet, the director argues that more time is needed for the programmes to achieve their goals.
Primary School Bloemhof offers innovative schooling for disadvantaged pupils in the district of Feijenoord. It gives them better socio-economic perspectives by teaching them extra-curricular subjects and providing an educational programme that is based on the individual interests and needs of the children. The school’s long-term vision that underlies the programme and the various partnerships, e.g. with artists, philosophers, ecologists, local companies, and parents of pupils who provide (financial) support, contribute particularly to its successes. To further improve its results, it is important that the school improves the quality of its (external) staff (e.g. professionals and volunteers) and its programmes.
Image: Carel van Hees for the Rijksmuseum project Document of the Netherlands
 Wanita is the name of a figurative schoolgirl after whom the educational method is named. The method was developed by the Arts Centre [Centrum voor de Kunsten] and the Irene Primary School in the town of Krimpen aan de Lek (Jacobse et al., 2006). Several Dutch schools have implemented the method.
 Children’s Zone is a City programme that aims to increase the social mobility of children in deprived neighbourhoods in Rotterdam South through education, extra-curricular activities and support for parents.
 Skill City is an urban revitalisation programme for Rotterdam South supported by the City in collaboration with various local private and non-profit organisations including primary school Bloemhof.