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It could have been much worse...

NETHERLANDS. Jo Ritzen, the education minister, should have a very merry Christmas, having avoided major clashes and protests from teachers and students for the first time since his radical reorganisation of the education sector in 1994.

However, there were skirmishes and controversies enough to keep him on his toes. Teachers besieged his department to protest at plans to freeze their pay, wading into an artificial lake in front of the building as if it were a moat before a medieval castle.

The ministry got into a legal spat with a leading newspaper over providing information about schools' performances. The Trouw won the case and published the first league tables for secondary schools in the Netherlands. From 1999, all schools will have to publish exam results and drop-out rates.

Amsterdam shocked everyone by losing track of 3,000 pupils. The introduction of a new centralised computer registration system revealed that schools in the capital had no idea of the whereabouts of 3 per cent of the 100,000 children eligible for education.

There was also a tragic note: a first-year student died after drinking a bottle of gin during a initiation rite for a fraternity at Groningen university. Mr Ritzen is now drawing up a code of conduct for fraternities, which play a big role at Dutch universities.

But none of the upsets was on the scale of those in previous years, and the minister was for once not pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes.

In spite of general elections looming next May, Mr Ritzen continued to churn out plans and concepts, some completely unintelligible, in pursuit of his ideal of a flexible cost-efficient educational system better customised to individual needs and more geared to the labour market.

The ministry injected almost Pounds 100 million into a scheme to reduce primary-school class sizes. Mr Ritzen wants to cut the current average of 25 to 20. However a new government will have to decide next year whether to continue it.

The department also embarked on creating a new structure for special needs teaching and schools for the handicapped, which aims to keep as many children as possible at mainstream schools and give parents more choice.

Renowned Dutch innovation was on show with the launch of a computer test to combat bullying. The "pest test" was devised after a survey showed 20 per cent of Holland's 1.5 million pupils dreaded school because of violent behaviour and bullying.

Next year will see the start of the ministry's computer-aided education programme. The pledge to install one computer for every 10 pupils by 2002 will cost a further Pounds 300 million.

Mr Ritzen claims education standards are high and teacher salaries among the best in Europe. But this does not appear to have dawned on potential trainees, who are becoming scarce.

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