November 19, 2014 Nick Preston

ECHO Junior Academy (Children’s University)

The Junior Academy aims to include children in higher education and give them a realistic but guided approach to Higher Education. The theoretical setting is based on the concept of the pedagogy of excellence. The target group are 5th and 6th grade pupils who might encounter difficulties entering academia.

The Junior Academy aims to include children in higher education and give them a realistic but guided approach to Higher Education. The theoretical setting is based on the concept of the pedagogy of excellence. The target group are 5th and 6th grade pupils who might encounter difficulties entering academia.

Objectives of the Intervention

The ECHO Junior Academy has three main objectives:

  • Introduce children to higher education and the path to higher education
  • Develop academic skills of children
  • Empower children on a personal level

Stated targets:

  • Children know what the educational system looks like and have a better idea of their options in education
  • Children develop their academic skills: writing, presenting, debating and researching
  • Children are more confident with their cultural identity

The ECHO Junior Academy has worked with 30 children in Amsterdam South East over a period of 12 months.

Holistic approach:
One of ECHO’s main focuses has always been to increase the number of students with non-western backgrounds enrolling in higher education and making sure they also graduate within the expected period of time. In this context the ECHO Junior Academy aims to connect primary education and higher education by involving primary school students, their parents, students from higher education institutions and faculty/staff of higher education institutions. By introducing these potential future students to higher education in an early stage, we aim to build academic self confidence and a certain sense of belonging, so that when they eventually do enter higher education, they are able to navigate through the educational system more easily and with more confidence which will help them complete their education successfully.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The initiator is ECHO, a non profit organization for diversity and inclusion in higher education.

Key drivers:
The key driver has been the challenges higher education institutions face, especially in urban areas. With the urban cities becoming increasingly diverse, so have the higher education institutions in those areas. However, most of these institutions are not prepared for a diverse student population. Also, often students of colour are the first ones in their families to enter higher education, they are first generation students. They are not familiar with an academic environment and find it hard to navigate through the system. Even though universities have set up specific interventions to support these students, the gap seems too big to provide proper guidance. Research has shown that in order to support these students, they need guidance long before they enter higher education; it actually has to start in primary education. Therefore ECHO has taken the initiative to set up the ECHO Junior Academy, a children’s university for children in primary education, aged 11-12.

Theoretical framework:
The ECHO Junior Academy is based on two theoretical frameworks:

  • The pedagogy of excellence: maintaining high expectations of all students while providing high levels of support. Often times students of colour face low expectations from teachers in education (from primary education to higher education), which results in low results. Because the expected standard is low, they live up to those low standards. However, the pedagogy of excellence expects high results of all students, regardless of their background. It inspires and encourages students to challenge themselves and be the best that they can be. High expectations require high levels of support and being sensitive to the needs of the students. It offers a safe environment where students feel a sense of belonging and therefore are able to aspire to the high standards expected of them.
  • Inclusive excellence: providing a safe learning environment with high expectations in which the experiences and backgrounds of students are reflected in teachers, curriculum, physical space and communication. The learning environment needs to be sensitive to the worlds the students come from and consider their experience as an asset to the learning experience. Being intentional with selecting teachers who can serve as role models and pick topics that students can relate to when it comes to designing lessons/workshops.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

The target group for the ECHO Junior Academy South East are students in 5th and 6th grade of primary education in Amsterdam South East.

Many students from Surinamese backgrounds encounter difficulties entering higher education, because they are often times first generation students. These students would benefit most from an intervention like the Junior Academy. Knowing Amsterdam South East is a neighbourhood with a large Surinamese community, we decided to set up the ECHO Junior Academy in this area. We chose to work with students from 5th and 6th grade (aged 11-12), because it is at this age they are expected to choose their educational path. So this time in their life will affect their further educational path.

Size of target group:
Our aim is to work with 50-75 children per year. During the pilot year we worked with 30 children.

Social characteristics:
The children we work with often times come from families who migrated to Suriname in the seventies. The colonial history Suriname shares with The Netherlands plays a big role in the identity of the Dutch Surinamese community. Many children also come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and are sometimes responsible for younger siblings. Many of the children will be the first ones in their family to go to higher education. During our interaction with the children we have also become increasingly aware of their dealings with negative stereotypes of Amsterdam South East (as a predominantly black neighbourhood) and the way they are often times underestimated by teachers in regular primary education.

Geographical area:
The pilot year of the ECHO Junior Academy targets Amsterdam South East.

The ECHO Junior Academy is implemented in local communities and collaborates with students and higher education institutions.

Equality categories:
The ECHO Junior Academy mostly deals with the levels of race/ethnicity and socio-economic background.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Political support:
Currently the political context in The Netherlands is very difficult for the work that the ECHO Junior Academy does. The right wing has gained a lot of support, which makes it hard to promote interventions with regard to diversity in education. We work with local governments who do feel the necessity to invest in education within their neighbourhoods. It remains a constant balance of interests however in the political forcefield.

Local, regional and national policies:
Following what is mentioned above, the ECHO Junior Academy fits the local policies. Even though policies on a regional and national level do value investments in education, current budget cuts are the reality of the government.


  • Primary schools
  • Local government
  • Higher education institutions
  • Future teachers

Demographic changes:
The need for more people in certain sectors, for instance engineering or health care, does influence the topics we pick. We want to explore studies that are related to labour market needs, so that children are familiar with future job opportunities.

Institutional strategy and culture:
Our main mission is to contribute to a more inclusive society where (young) people have equal opportunities and are able to participate in society and education according to their potential and capacities.

Public support:
There is public support in the sense that people always encourage initiatives that support the development of children. However, we will always deal with questions in regard to the specific aim we have when it comes to focusing on children with non-western backgrounds.

Other factors:
The main factors for success have been:

  • Inclusive approach: providing a safe learning space is very important. We can tell it works because of the way the children have opened up and grown from the beginning of the program until now.
  • Involving the parents: making the parents part of the journey and celebrating the success of their children together with us solidifies the bond we want to build.
  • Involving role models: having volunteers and teachers who are young and look like the children, makes a huge difference. The children have mentioned several times that it matters if a teacher is familiar with the world they come from. It also shows them the possibilities of who they can be, because someone else has already done it.
  • Research unit: by constantly monitoring and evaluating the work that we do, we are able to adapt rather quickly to the needs of the children and the parents.
  • Training of volunteers: we train our volunteers on a regular basis. During these trainings they are introduced to pedagogical tools and strategies with an inclusive approach. The volunteers are also briefed and debriefed each day during the programs, so that we all communicate on the same level. This provides the children with clear rules and expectations.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Specific activities:
The ECHO Junior Academy is divided into a Summer program of 5 days and a Year program that consists of 5 semesters. Each semester takes place during a holiday break and consists of a three day program. Each semester also focuses on a different topic, which then leads to different workshops. The 5 topics are: STEM, Healthcare, Politics & Society, Media & Journalism, and Performing Arts. Recurring activities are:

  • Lectures by young professionals with multicultural backgrounds who share their personal life story and road to higher education and how they put their studies in practice.
  • Workshops exploring the specific topics and relating this to academic skills such as presenting and interviewing.
  • Site visits to higher education institutions such as the VU University Amsterdam and Amsterdam University of applied sciences.
  • Specific assignments for students to carry out, such as filming and editing their own news report.

Key roles:
Within the project there are different roles to fulfil:

  • Senior Scholars: volunteers who guide and support the children during the activities. These volunteers are often times students of colour who are in higher education and who serve as role models.
  • Researchers: among the volunteers there is a group of 2-3 students who carry out research. They interview the children, parents and other volunteers to monitor progress and satisfaction.
  • Coordinators: ECHO provides main coordinators who take care of the facilities and logistics. They also coordinate communication with students, children and parents through email and social media.
  • Facilitators: every workshop is coordinated by a main facilitator. This way the Senior Scholars don’t have to prepare every session, but are able to follow the instructions of the facilitator.

Methodological tools:
As mentioned before, we implement an inclusive strategy with a holistic approach. This means we make sure we provide an inclusive learning environment where the content of workshops, the volunteers and facilitators and our communication reflects the experiences and backgrounds of the children participating. We make sure all volunteers are briefed properly per day, so that everyone communicates and acts on the same level. The main concept for designing workshops is to have children learn by doing. We provide interactive sessions with clear learning goals.

Final outputs:
Direct output is delivered with the research reports. Every semester we collect data through interviews with children, volunteers and parents. This results in a research report for the Summer program and each semester for the Year program.

Indirect output is received during communication with parents, who share their observations in regard to the development of their children.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability


ECHO has written a project plan for national implementation of the ECHO Junior Academy that allows ECHO to serve as main coordinator while working with local coordinators and facilitators.


We are currently working on a replication of the Summer program in Zeeland. This is an area with a large Moluccan community.

Resources used in the initiative

Budget for the Summer program was roughly € 25.000,-
Budget for the Year program (5 semesters) was roughly € 80.000,-

The ECHO Junior Academy was funded by the local government of Amsterdam South East.

Financial contribution:
Our institution didn’t make a financial contribution.

Other resources:

  • Catering (lunch, drinks, snacks)
  • School supplies (pens, notebooks etc.)
  • Expertise of teachers for designing workshops

The ECHO Junior Academy relies largely on the support and commitment of volunteers. Their participation is crucial because they serve as role models and teachers during the program. For 30 children we work with around 12 volunteers. This way each child is able to get personal attention and support. The volunteers donate 1-3 days per semester of their time to the children. Before each semester they are also invited to participate in a training session for the volunteers. We recruit volunteers within our own ECHO Ambassadors network (students in higher education who are socially involved and come from multicultural backgrounds) and the New Urban Collective network (student association in Amsterdam specifically aimed at multicultural students).

Perception of costs:
The costs were perceived as reasonable.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

The evidence is provided through data collected during interviews with children, volunteers and parents. These data have been presented in research reports.

Unintended outcomes:
A lot of volunteers mentioned they have learned a lot about themselves as well. One of the volunteers actually decided to become a teacher after working with the children. This is a great unintended outcome, to see we have inspired young people to pursue a career or other possibilities in education.

Each semester a research unit interviews children, parents and volunteers.


  • Demographic setting: demographics of the participating children.
  • Satisfaction: feedback in regards to the program, the workshops, the support provided by the volunteers and the overall organization and coordination of the ECHO Junior Academy.
  • Content: to what extent have we achieved the intended learning goals?
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