Dutch life is good for your children

Dutch life is good for your children

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UNICEF has published a report revealing that the Netherlands tops the UN child well-being league for advanced economies. So what is it about the Dutch that made them come out so well, and how reliable are these stats?

Expatriate families living in the Netherlands can only be pleased with the results of a study produced by The United Nations Children's fund's Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy.

The report Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries shows that the Netherlands scores consistently high over 40 indicators from the years 2000-2003, which were combined into the six dimensions of well-being – material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviours and risks, and young people's own subjective sense of well-being.

"We used a number of international surveys to create the league table - the two most important ones - both based on interviews with children of 11, 13 and 15 - were the Innocenti OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the World Health Organisation's survey of Health Behaviour in School-age Children (HBSC)," explains Eva Jespersen, the head of the Economic and Social Policy Unit at the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Positive self-image and outlook


1. Netherlands 2. Sweden 3. Denmark 4. Finland 5. Spain 6. Switzerland 7. Norway 8. Italy 9. Republic of Ireland 10. Belgium 11. Germany 12. Canada 13. Greece 14. Poland 15. Czech Republic 16. France 17. Portugal 18. Austria 19. Hungary

The Netherlands ranks at the top of the 'subjective well-being' dimension, which looks at the percentage of young people who rank themselves highly on a life-satisfaction scale.  


"For instance, they rate their health as 'good' and like school a lot. Clearly, Dutch children have a positive image about themselves," says Jespersen.

The Netherlands also ranks highly in 'peer and family relationships' and 'behaviours and risks'. " We can interpret this as:  Dutch children have a very positive outlook on life," she says.

Although the overall well-being score was high in the Netherlands, the country didn't reach the top for all dimensions. For instance Holland ranked in middle third for 'material well-being'.

Netherlands sixth in education dimension

On 'educational well-being', which is a combination of the ranking in four indicators, the Netherlands doesn't rank top but still ranks in the top third. 

Jespersen explains that this ranking is slightly lower because, although the country is strong on educational achievement, and a fairly large proportion of children in the Netherlands are in school between the ages of 15 and 19, one third of children aged 15 aspire to low-skilled work

"This means simply that some children may not have such high ambitions. But as we have considered this as an indicator of well-being, and the Netherlands scores a bit below middle, this brought down their ranking," says Jespersen."

Egalitarian school system and liberal society

Still, the media has praised the Netherlands' egalitarian school system and liberal society, citing them as factors contributing to the Netherlands overall high score in child-well-being.

There is no public/ private school system in Holland and parents are free to choose the kind of school they send their children to. Types of schools include Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu and Montessori.

Primary schooling (basisschool) in the Netherlands is free – parents can choose to pay a token amount – between EUR 10 – 100 - for 'extras'. The secondary school system differs in that parents need to pay for school books and some 'extras', but from next year (2008) school books will also be free.

When you go on to higher education in Holland - HBO or University - you pay fees to the government, although everyone has to pay the same amount. Students, however, get compensation from the government in the form of a grant, which again is the same for everyone.

The main thing, according to Michel d'Arnault, the Director of St Henricus Catholic primary school, is that everyone gets a chance. 

D'Arnault explains that after primary school, the system becomes more complex, and the children need to choose the direction of their education – whether it is more oriented to finding a job right away or for higher education. "Some routes take longer, but the children can always change their mind later on to pursue a higher education," he says.

In d'Arnault's view, firm monitoring of school attendance contributes significantly to the success of the Dutch school system.

"In the Netherlands this aspect is well-controlled and has strong support from the judiciary system. The government is currently considering reducing the legal age for obligatory attendance to under five, which is another example of the constant 'reforming attitude' typical of the Dutch. We regularly review the education system to see how we can do it better. We want to make education as child-friendly as possible.

"Just a few years ago a bill was passed to obligate schools to cater for children with learning or behavioural difficulties. This means that more children with special needs can remain with their peers and learn in an environment which doesn't make them feel 'different'.

"And just to make sure things are working out for all parties concerned the schools are legally required to carry out regular parent and pupil surveys," says D'Arnault.

High taxes, good access to healthcare, education

UNICEF'S Eva Jespersen observes that the countries ranking in the top third of the well-being league, on average, are "Northern European countries, which are relatively small, homogenous egalitarian societies with relatively high taxes a lot of redistribution to public policies and fairly high public investment in health education and services for families." She notes that practically all the children surveyed have good access to healthcare and education.

So how accurate is this first study of childhood across world's industrialised nations?

"Of course there will be speculation. For instance should we have included other dimensions; other indicators?" says Jespersen.

The HBSC survey for the UK for instance, is based only on data from England. UNICEF also said some PISA indicators for the UK should be treated with caution because of low sample response rates. The scope is also limited by the availability of internationally comparable data,which means that key areas such as mental and emotional health and child neglect and abuse are omitted.

The PISA study caused a flurry of interest when it was released about one and a half years ago, especially amongst groups working for children and in countries ranking low in the league such as England, however, reports in the media accusing the UK of "failing its children" are rather extreme.  "Simply, they ranked lower on the indicators than the other countries concerned," Jespersen says. 

"We are trying to take the assessment to an international level, an EU level so that more information is collected about children to enable us to get a more nuanced picture of their lives," says Jespersen.

"By making international comparisons you can stimulate debate. The amount of media coverage over this first study of childhood across the world's industrialised nations shows that this kind of comparison draws attention and encourages each country to reflect on the outcome and perhaps see where they have room for improvement," she says.

Read the full UNICEF report.

15 February 2007

Natasha Gunn / Expatica

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