Dutch Mix Education and Religion the Government Funds Both Public and Sectarian Schools, Requires Unifying National Exams

Article excerpt

IN the Dutch university town of Leiden, a cluster of three secondary schools occupy the same block.

Every morning students on bicycles fill the street as they make their way to the local public, Protestant, or Roman Catholic school. Once inside, these students receive virtually the same lessons in accordance with national education policy.

"You would not be able to differentiate between what we are doing here and what they do at the Roman Catholic school next door except that at some point they may have religious instruction {next door}," says Fred de Zoete, principal of the public Louise de Coligny School.

"There are very few differences between the curricula because all the students must take the same {final} exam," Mr. de Zoete says. At the end of their studies, all students in the Netherlands must pass a national examination to receive a diploma.

Centralized government regulation of both public and private schools here is intended to protect students from incompetent teaching. During the last several decades, government regulation has steadily increased. But Dutch educators and government officials now generally agree that government control has gone too far, and they are working to give schools more autonomy.

All schools in the Netherlands are fully funded by the government, and parents are free to apply at any school. Public schools must admit any student who applies and offer no religious instruction. Most private schools provide religious instruction and may select their students from among those who apply.

"The split between the state school and the private school is quite strong," says Nicolette Schulman, assistant headmaster of Augustinus College, a religious school in Amsterdam. "There are families that do not want their children to have religion."

Yet the tradition of a denominational education system is well-entrenched in this small country of 15 million people.

"The denominational school system costs a lot of money, but it is a very hard thing to change," says Dirk van Kooten of the Netherlands Association for Adult and Continuing Education. The Netherlands spends nearly 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education.

More than 60 percent of all schools in the Netherlands are religious schools run by independent school boards. The remainder are overseen by the municipalities.

"Private schools are founded on the basis of a constitutional guarantee for freedom of education," says Hans Stegeman, who oversees national-standards policy at the Ministry of Education and Science. "What we do not want to do is bring the private schools under the authority of the municipalities. …