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Get the atmosphere right

The control of standards in Dutch schools focuses more on the personal development of pupils than on academic results. The right atmosphere is the real basis for academic achievement, according to the Dutch inspectorate which monitors standards at the country's 9,000 primary and secondary schools as well as several hundred tertiary-level institutions.

"There is no national league tables for exam results at any level. Results are important but a school's attention to the individual needs of pupils weighs more heavily," says Marieke van Haaren, a spokeswoman for the inspection agency.

Schools were given greater freedom to conduct their own assessment and control quality several years ago, a move which has improved quality, according to the inspection agency. Nevertheless, the agency does check the work of external experts brought in by schools to assess standards and ensures that any recommendations are implemented.

The changes have forced the agency to develop new ways of monitoring standards while recognising a school's increased autonomy. "In the past we had a mass of laws and regulations which gave us a firm grip on schools. Now we need to create new means of control," says Van Haaren. Every school is monitored at least once a year by one of the agency's 300 inspectors. The agency has no powers to intervene in schools which fail to come up to scratch or break the law but can refer cases to the education minister.

There are no national exams to assess standards at primary schools although there is an independent assessment agency - the CITO - which 90 per cent of schools use to determine pupils' achievements. The CITO assessment, which includes written tests, is seen only as an indication of a child's capabilities. Parents and schools may ignore it and take other aspects into account when choosing a secondary school.

The most important assessment comes after two years of secondary school, and is used to determine a pupil's chances of going to university. The assessment is based on exams and coursework. "We are interested in what a child can do as well as his or her knowledge," an education ministry spokesman said.

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