Stories of pupil abuse overshadow concerns about overcrowding and university admissions, says Mark Fuller.
That the Dutch education minister Jo Ritzen was not, for once, pelted with rotten eggs during his speech to open the 199697 university year in September underscored the lull that has descended on the Dutch educational battleground. This year has been an oasis of calm compared with the teachers' strikes and student riots that marked 1995.
Nevertheless, 1996 saw the Dutch government continue its tough reorganisation of the tertiary education sector, while several scandals rocked the Netherlands' belief in the decency, fairness and high standards of its educational system.
Dutch religious communities, which still run a large number of schools in the Netherlands, are carefully examining their management practices after a sex abuse scandal undermined their claim of providing higher moral standards than their secular counterparts.
It emerged earlier this year that a reformed Protestant school in central Holland had concealed a teacher's sexual abuse of at least 18 children from parents and the authorities for several years.
The case sparked revelations at several other schools, and there was a public outcry that sexual abuse was on the increase.
The government said there were more cases now because people were more willing to talk about it. "At 99.9 per cent of our schools nothing is amiss," Tineke Netelenbos, the junior education minister, said. But things do seem to be increasingly amiss at Dutch schools, critics claim.
The country was stunned by a recent report showing that many primary schools were overcrowded with over 30 pupils per class and that this was having a detrimental effect on the children's education. The government is now preparing a scheme to reduce class numbers and set a maximum limit per class.
Meanwhile, the controversial lottery system for allocating places on oversubscribed university courses, a consequence of Dutch educational egalitarianism, sparked a serious row, after one brilliant student was excluded from a medical course because she happened to draw the wrong number.
At the same time, public concern mounted about a perceived move to a more elitist educational system. One Dutch university unveiled plans to set up a new college along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge, and there was concern about a growing gap between standards at "rich" and "poor" schools.
One group was so worried about these trends that it threatened to provide children with minute "finger" video cameras to record evidence of bad teaching. The scheme was scuppered by a legal action, however.
The government has not flinched from continuing its tough programme of reforms. A new performance-based student loan scheme aimed at forcing students to complete their university courses more quickly was introduced last September and soft-option studies at secondary schools were scrapped.
Although the government has pledged more money for improving the quality and efficiency of university education, experts complain that the state's financial problems, rather than any fundamental flaws, in the education system are driving the plans.
The education ministry has had its budget slashed the past few years and the latest international survey shows The Netherlands is spending less than the average on education for members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Dutch spending as a percentage of gross national product has fallen steadily since the 1970s from 7.4 per cent to 5.3 per cent last year.
The education ministry, however, is still showing itself to be one of the most innovative in Europe, launching plans for virtual teaching, a school identification number that pupils will receive at birth, and financial penalties for truants.
For 1997, the ministry has pledged to focus on strengthening information and communications technology in schools, as well as bolstering the position of teachers. It is considering paying more money to good teachers at difficult or underachieving schools to try to persuade them to stay on.