IN the Dutch university town of Leiden, a cluster of three secondary schools occupy the same block.
Every morning students on bicycles fill the street as they make their way to the local public, Protestant, or Roman Catholic school. Once inside, these students receive virtually the same lessons in accordance with national education policy.
"You would not be able to differentiate between what we are doing here and what they do at the Roman Catholic school next door except that at some point they may have religious instruction [next door]," says Fred de Zoete, principal of the public Louise de Coligny School.
"There are very few differences between the curricula because all the students must take the same [final] exam," Mr. de Zoete says. At the end of their studies, all students in the Netherlands must pass a national examination to receive a diploma.
Centralized government regulation of both public and private schools here is intended to protect students from incompetent teaching. During the last several decades, government regulation has steadily increased. But Dutch educators and government officials now generally agree that government control has gone too far, and they are working to give schools more autonomy.
All schools in the Netherlands are fully funded by the government, and parents are free to apply at any school. Public schools must admit any student who applies and offer no religious instruction. Most private schools provide religious instruction and may select their students from among those who apply.
"The split between the state school and the private school is quite strong," says Nicolette Schulman, assistant headmaster of Augustinus College, a religious school in Amsterdam. "There are families that do not want their children to have religion."
Yet the tradition of a denominational education system is well-entrenched in this small country of 15 million people.
"The denominational school system costs a lot of money, but it is a very hard thing to change," says Dirk van Kooten of the Netherlands Association for Adult and Continuing Education. The Netherlands spends nearly 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education.
More than 60 percent of all schools in the Netherlands are religious schools run by independent school boards. The remainder are overseen by the municipalities.
"Private schools are founded on the basis of a constitutional guarantee for freedom of education," says Hans Stegeman, who oversees national-standards policy at the Ministry of Education and Science. "What we do not want to do is bring the private schools under the authority of the municipalities."
Any group of parents can get together and apply for government permission to start a school in the Netherlands. "Parents are the basis of a private school," explains Ms. Schulman. "We have general standards all over Holland. You can't have a school without following them." Those standards cover what subjects are taught, how much time is spent on each lesson, and how much teachers are paid.
"Having religious choice of schools made it more [necessary] to have these regulations," says J.A. Verschoor, deputy director of financial policy at the Ministry of Education and Science.
Nevertheless, that is changing some today. In the past, "everything the school did was ruled in detail by the government," says Michael Hupkes, a policy coordinator at the Ministry of Education and Science. "We wanted to change that and so we introduced a system of less rules."
One change intended to give schools more freedom is the introduction of a core curriculum. Beginning next year, all secondary schools will be required to follow a nationwide curriculum covering 15 subjects.
"Up to now, schools have really had to deal with a lot of rules about what to teach and for how long," Mr. Stegeman says. "What a core curriculum says is that 80 percent of all school hours have to be core curriculum subjects. But the schools can determine the other 20 percent. There are no longer any rigid hour tables on how much time to spend on subjects. Schools have more possibility to compose their own weekly rhythm."
Yet many teachers aren't enthusiastic about the changes. "We weren't involved," says Gerard Koster, an English teacher at Augustinus College. "It's coming down from the government."
Mr. Koster complains that new policy directives are constantly mandated from above. "It all changes every five years," he says. Koster predicts that the core-curriculum requirement will impede the academic progress of some students. "The quicker kids will be held back by the slower kids," he says.
While the core curriculum is designed to give teachers more flexibility in the classroom, students will still be expected to pass national examinations. "The assessment targets instill some kind of safety guard," Stegeman says.
"The national exams really are the heart of the system here," argues de Zoete. "If there were no national exams, there would be huge differences between schools."
r Laurel Shaper Walters re-cently traveled to Europe on a fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The first article in this two-part series, on German apprenticeship programs, appeared Dec. 14.