In an Amsterdam classroom there are comfortably plump Dutch children with fair skin, blue eyes, and very, very blond hair. And there are others who are leaner, with glistening black skin, black eyes, and black hair that curls tight. And still others - delicately built, with skin like cafe au lait, eyes like burnt almonds, and straight hair. Then there are children with olive skin, dark, luminous eyes, and masses of heavy curls.
To the Netherlands - a small country across which chill North Sea winds blow even on the sunniest days - in the past 25 years have come thousands of migrants from former colonies (now Surinam, Netherlands Antilles, and Molucca) as well as large numbers of ''temporary workers'' from Turkey, Italy, and other Mediterranean countries. Those who could not afford to bring their wives and children along sent for them later.
These people expect eventually to return to their homelands - but local political or economic crises or personal considerations have delayed their departures for as long as a decade or two decades, often to the acute consternation of their hosts.
The broadminded Dutch are not intolerant of the newcomers, some of whom they invited when they needed construction workers. But they did not expect so many to stay so long or the flow of arrivals to continue. And they are hard pressed to care for them as the jobs end, forcing many to seek public welfare for food and shelter.
As for the Amsterdam classroom: It was a microcosm of the Netherlands today. It dramatized for me the contemporary problem of fitting an education to the needs of children of such varied backgrounds and uncertain futures. What should they be expected to learn and how best can they be helped to learn it?
Actually, on the day I visited that school, 70 percent of the students were absent celebrating a Muslim holiday. Officially, the Dutch practice a policy of multiculturalism, or accommodation, rather than one of assimilation. This means that they're not trying to make a melting pot of Holland. They agree that the temporary immigrants' children must be able to ''get jobs back home'' whenever the family eventually leaves the Netherlands. So they don't want to separate such families from their native language, their own religion, their traditional holidays and customs.
The Dutch respect diversity. Religious, as well as public, schools are federally financed. About one-third of the students attend Protestant schools; one-third Roman Catholic Schools, and one-third nonconfessional (not linked to a particular religion) public schools. The national Ministry of Education and Science recently received an application from a group seeking government support for an Islamic school. The ministry sets minimum standards for teacher certification and exerts indirect ''quality control'' through standard examinations, which all must take. But otherwise the religious and local community school boards enjoy autonomy. A school's operating income depends only upon the number of students enrolled. Each school is reimbursed from taxes according to the size of its student body.
All children in Dutch schools are required to learn several languages. For generations Dutch schools have produced graduates fluent not only in Dutch but in French, German, and English, the languages of neighboring countries.
But now partly to accommodate children of non-Dutch parents and for whom fluency in four European languages seems an unreasonable demand, the Dutch have reduced their language requirements. Children in Dutch schools today are expected to master Dutch and two (not three) other European languages.
Foreign-language teaching begins in primary school and continues through university level. I discussed teacher preparation with Drs. J.W. Meyers (Drs. is an abbreviation for doctorandus, which means candidate for a doctoral degree) of D'Witte Leli (White Lady) Pedagogical Institute in Amsterdam. Most of his students strengthen their academic knowledge of English by spending some time in England, although the institute cannot require this because of the added cost of travel and room and board abroad. Drs. Meyers showed me a sample of an examination that prospective English teachers must pass before they are certified. I was forced to admit that I might not have passed it, so exacting were its requirements for discernment of the nuances of literary passages.
Everywhere in Holland one encounters proficient speakers of English. Perhaps this will change as some present Dutch students elect French and German and do not have to meet the rigorous requirements of yet another foreign language.
The Ministry of Education and Science is at this moment implementing several reforms in the Dutch educational system. Acceptance of these reforms is widespread partly because of the need to accommodate non-Dutch children, partly because open-classroom and experiential education in America are believed to have been very successful, partly because some parents remember their own school days as unnecessarily oppressive, and partly because of pressure to pare some of the costs of higher education.
The first reform is designed to make primary school a brighter, happier learning environment for young children. Games, singing, manipulation of objects - all of these kindergarten delights in former years disappeared when a child entered first grade, where the only mode of learning allowed was verbal instruction, reading, writing, repetition, memorization, drill, and testing.
To soften the severity of this transition, the new Nursery and Primary Education Act beginning in 1985 requires kindergartens and elementary schools to merge. Children in the combined school will be placed in ability groups rather than in grades based on their age. Much of the pace of instruction will be individualized through the use of workbooks. Both at the Amsterdam grade school and the D'Witte Leli Pedagogical Institute I saw workbooks created by teachers to meet the varying needs of pupils. Some children will be excused from routine assignments to practice skills which will maintain and further their proficiency in their native language. The Amsterdam school I visited, a prototype of kindergarten-grade schools under the new legislation, had one teacher who could share the teachings of the Koran in its original language with pupils of Islamic faith.
A second innovation concerns the selection of children for the vocational or college preparatory tract. All children at age 11 or 12 take a standard test to determine what kind of high school they should attend.
Those who do best on the test are assigned to ''gymnasiums,'' ''atheneums,'' or ''lyceums'' which will prepare them for university. A gymnasium must provide Latin and Greek courses; an atheneum may not provide Greek but may, with special permission, offer Latin. After the fourth or fifth year (of six required), students may choose to specialize in mathematics and science or classical languages (at a gymnasium) or economics and modern languages (at an atheneum or lyceum.). Dutch, physical education, and some creative and arts subjects are always compulsory. Frisian, the dialect spoken in parts of the Netherlands, is an optional subject. University preparatory schools may also offer Russian, Spanish, Esperanto, Hebrew, religious studies, Christian history, philosophy.
Those with lower scores enter vocational schools, where they can prepare for occupations in shipping, domestic science, agriculture, trades, clerical and bookkeeping jobs, teacher training, the ''caring'' professions, or arts, or general schools where the subjects taught are Dutch, two or three foreign languages, history, geography, social studies, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, physical education and one or more creative subjects. It is not possible to enter university from either vocational or general schools, but those who are most successful in vocational schools can go on to higher vocational education where they may earn the title of ingenieur (engineer), for example.
It now seems to many educators in Holland (and, interestingly enough, most of them at this level are men, not women) that age 11 or 12 is too young to make a decision, based upon a test score, that will determine the entire future career of the child. So these teachers and principals, with the support of officials in the Ministry of Education and Science, are urging a deferral of the final decision until age 14. They would like a sufficiently flexible middle school program to enable students to experiment in different kinds of subjects. Then they would like student strengths and parental preferences, as well as test scores, to count in the high school placement process.
A third innovation affects university students. Whatever portion of their schooling expenses their families cannot afford is borne by the government. Thus cost is not a factor in pursuing higher education. Entrance eligibility is determined by scores on final exams taken at the end of six years of secondary schooling (gymnasium, atheneum, or lyceum.) In recent years there have been more eligible students than places at universities, so a weighted lottery, which slightly favors those with the best exam scores, but includes all those with qualifying scores, is held to determine which of the eligible students can enroll. Only the (Protestant) University of Leiden does not hold such a lottery, relying upon more traditional selection processes.
Just 5 percent of Dutch students of university age attend university, compared with 48 percent in the United States. But those who are accepted ''have it made.'' Their financial security while students is assured by the government support system. Consequently, many students postpone taking their final examinations for years. The average length of time spent on the four-year university course is seven and a half years. Beginning in 1983 university students must complete the university course in six years - although apparently there are some deferments possible even under the new law.
At a fraternity house in Delft I met some Dutch university students who were planning an excursion to the United States. I was surprised to learn that they would be absent from their classes for six weeks right in the middle of the term , but they assured me that other students would take notes for them, or they would ask the professor to repeat the lecture, or they would take the course again next year, since they had no deadline for taking the exam in it.
''Oh yes,'' one professor confirmed, ''some of them stay around as students for 25 years. Their job prospects aren't very good right now, so they're in no hurry to graduate. In any case, the new law will change all that.''
Many Dutch students, like students in other parts of Europe, value the education their government provides but are worried about what they will do when their school days end. Growing up Dutch today means growing up in a multicultural, multiracial, polyglot milieu. To these youngsters, some of what the future portends seems frightening, whether that future is in a distant ''homeland'' they have never seen or in Europe where employment - sometimes even survival - seems controlled by forces beyond their grasp.