Quarter of pupils armed and dangerous

Mark Fuller

The Dutch education system, noted for its attention to pupils' social as well as cognitive skills, is in a state of shock after a recent report revealed that violence is rife at secondary schools.

A quarter of pupils interviewed in the first national survey owned a weapon or an object that could be used as a weapon, and 15 per cent of pupils had engaged in serious physical violence. Of the 2,000 pupils in the sample, 51 per cent said they engaged in "disruptive behaviour" at school, including bullying. Generally, the report concluded, violent incidents were becoming more frequent and more serious.

The gravity of the situation was underlined recently when three pupils at a school in Amsterdam were taken to hospital after a classroom knife fight.

The education ministry of education said the survey confirmed its worst fears, and had been commissioned to give the issue a public airing. "The subject has always been taboo," a spokesperson said. "Schools don't want to talk about it because it gives them a bad name. Teachers try not to see it because it's difficult to deal with."

The ministry is launching a schools safety campaign in November and has allocated an extra Pounds 15 million to help schools devise violence prevention plans and organise safety courses. It will also set up a helpline for schools, parents and pupils. The campaign will be integrated with programmes to stamp out bullying, sexual intimidation, and absenteeism.

Local councils are being urged to create a safer environment in school neighbourhoods and more youth covenants are being signed between urban schools, the police and local government. School organisations are also drawing up their own preventive measures.

A commission on combating violence at schools said: "Safety policy must not be seen as an extra-curricular activity but as an integral part of the education process. The attention to safety will not disappear after one or two years but will have to be built in to all the schools' activities from pupil guidance to expansion or renovation plans."

* Dutch university students are wasting a quarter of their study time, which costs the nation about Pounds 1 billion, education minister Jo Ritzen claimed in a speech to mark the opening of the new academic year.

The minister himself has wasted no time in pursuing his plans for a more efficient and cost-effective tertiary education system, unveiling new proposals this month to base university funding on the number of degree passes rather than absolute student numbers.

This would stimulate universities to tighten their selection procedures and save the ministry about Pounds 80 million, he said.

* A quarter of Dutch secondary pupils have problems sleeping as a result of conflicts with teachers or classmates, according to a survey of 453 teenagers at seven schools throughout the Netherlands. One in seven pupils said their sleeplessness lasted longer than a month, making them irritable, which only served to exacerbate their problems at school. Only four of the respondents used sleeping pills. Katholiek Pedagogisch Centrum, the education centre which carried out the survey, has published a folder with tips to help pupils get off to sleep. "Don't go to bed hungry, and play gentle background music rather than watching TV or reading a book," it advises.

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