“Openbaar, Montessori, Dalton, Waldorf, Jenaplan … I’m confused!” is a statement I often hear from international parents. Usually this is followed by the question: “How do I know which type is the best one for my daughter? She’s barely three years old!”
Many Dutch schools are based on an educational philosophy. Although I think it is nice to have so much choice for education, I agree with you that the system is rather complicated. In this article, I’ll give you some background info on the Dutch education system and explain the differences between the educational philosophies and other teaching approaches. Hopefully it will give you enough pointers to understand which type would be the best match for your family.
Watch this article in Doodly video format
Openbaar vs. bijzonder
First of all, it is important to understand the distinction between openbare and bijzondere schools. An openbare school is funded and run by an independent foundation which was originally set up by the government. Openbare schools provide secular (non-religious) education, but they do teach about all world religions, in a neutral way. These schools may also offer teaching around specific philosophic or pedagogical principles – we’ll get back to that later.
Openbare schools have to accept all children, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or background. Some international parents think that openbare schools are obliged to accommodate all children, but this is not the case. If the class of your child’s age group is full, they are allowed to refuse him or her. Then you’ll unfortunately have to find another school, where you’ll hopefully have better luck.
A bijzondere school, which translates as special school, has its own school board, which usually consists of a group of parents or the foundation that set it up. These schools often follow particular religious or pedagogic principles. Special schools have had equal state funding to openbare schools since 1917. This means that around 98% of the religious and philosophy-based schools are funded by the government too. Private, fee-based schools are very rare in the Netherlands.
It is very common, though, for philosophy-based schools to ask for a higher parent contribution than the openbare schools. In many cases they justify this by the membership fees they need to pay to the national association they belong to, and the specific materials and equipment they need to carry out their education. Nevertheless, most schools keep this contribution below €100 per year; €600-700 is the maximum you would usually have to pay, but this would be the exception, not the rule. You should be aware that this contribution is officially voluntarily as some schools can become a bit pushy sometimes.
Types of bijzondere schools
Most special schools are religious (Catholic, Protestant, generic Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu) or follow specific philosophic or pedagogic principles (Montessori, Waldorf/Steiner, Dalton, Jenaplan, etc.).
Some schools call themselves ‘Algemeen Bijzonder’, which means that although they have their own school board, they are neutral in terms of religion or educational philosophy. Currently, in the Netherlands, up to two thirds of children attend a special school.
To a certain extent, special schools may make their own rules, although they are all obliged to adhere to the core objectives (kerndoelen in Dutch) set by the government. These basic principles prescribe what all pupils in all schools need to accomplish each year. The individual schools may fill in the specific details themselves. Regular schools may cherry pick from different educational philosophies, which suit their approach and values. This also explains why no two Dutch schools are the same. Contrary to many other countries, the Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner schools are also obliged to take part in the national tests.
Special needs schools
You shouldn’t confuse the special schools with “speciaal onderwijs“, which refers to special needs schools that cater to pupils with serious learning problems. The national ‘Appropriate Education’ (Passend Onderwijs) policy is designed to enable as many children with minor learning difficulties as possible to be educated in mainstream schools. Only if the support required turns out to be too specialized or intensive, might the child be referred to a dedicated special needs school. Read more about this topic in my article for XPat.nl.
Religion in schools
Most of the Catholic and Protestant schools were established many years ago, when religion still took a strong place in the Dutch society. Nowadays they are fairly moderate in terms of religion and are open to non-religious children, and those who have a different religion. In general, the Protestant schools are stricter than the Catholic ones – which is the opposite to a lot of other countries.
When you sign up for a religious school, your child is expected to take part in all the religious activities they organize. They often focus on norms and values and respect for each other. It could be that they sing some songs which have some kind of moral meaning, or they maybe discuss how a story from the Bible relates to current affairs. Usually they don’t go to church, pray, or say grace. However, as this varies per school, you should always check with the school of your interest to make sure their approach suits you. Also some of the Islamic, Jewish and other types of religious schools are more strict than others.
Different educational philosophies
There is a lot to consider when it comes to educational philosophies. In general, you should pick the philosophy that best matches with your values and beliefs.
For example, at Montessori schools, they encourage independent learning and taking responsibility, and they usually combine three age groups in one class. This especially appeals to parents who want their children to explore things at their own pace, and to experience different social roles in the classroom.
Waldorf education puts a strong focus on nature and mainly teaches through stories, poems, recitals, arts, music, and theater. This type of education often appeals to creative parents who like to follow natural daily and seasonal rhythms.
In Dalton schools, pupils learn to make their own realistic plans and schedules, and to work in groups on projectsaround a specific theme. They are particularly suitable for parents who want to help develop the independency skills and entrepreneurial spirit of their children.
Lastly, in Jenaplan schools, the community plays an important role, and they combine three age groups in one class to more realistically resemble a family setting or our society. Parents who want their children to learn a lot of things about different people, countries and cultures around the world, and to do many things together as a group, often choose this education type.
Special focus areas
Instead of – or sometimes alongside – an educational philosophy, some schools have a special focus on, for example, culture, sports, arts, science, or languages. All these subjects are normally covered in the core objectives, but the schools may decide to offer some more lessons on top.
What do YOU find important in a school?
I would recommend you learn a lot about the different philosophies and visit a couple of different types of schools to see which one would work for you. Regardless of the type of elementary school attended, your child can go to any type of high school. You don’t need to stick with the same philosophy if you don’t think it is suitable.
I’ll now talk a bit more in detail about the four most common philosophies in Dutch schools:
In my experience, most international parents have heard about Montessori education before. The Montessori system was named after its founder, the Italian doctor and educational specialist Maria Montessori, who lived from 1870 to 1952. Maria Montessori spent the last years of her life in the Netherlands and helped to start up the first Montessori schools here. When I lived in Italy, I expected to find many Montessori schools there, but actually this type of school is much more common in the Netherlands.
Key pillars of Montessori education
Montessori schools emphasize independence, freedom within limits, and respect. They foster the children’s love of learning and encourage independence by providing an environment of activities and materials which children use at their own pace. This builds self-confidence, inner discipline, and a sense of self-worth, and instills positive social behavior. The sense of community in the group is very strong. Children learn how to take care of themselves and others, and how to care of their environment. Their motto is “Help me to do it myself”.
Learning takes place in mixed age groups so that older children can act as models for the younger ones, and the younger children learn from observing the older children. The students are usually divided into three age groups: “onderbouw” (age 4-5 yrs.), “middenbouw” (age 6-9 yrs.), and “bovenbouw” (9-12 yrs.). Pupils typically have the same teacher for three years. Apart from the pupils working by themselves, they also get instructions from their teacher with the entire class together, or in smaller groups based on age and/or level of academic development.
Freedom within limits
Some people believe that at Montessori schools the children may do whatever they feel like and that they can, for example, choose to skip learning math if they want to. No worries, however: this is not the case. Pupils get more freedom to decide when they will do what, but at the end of the week, the teacher checks whether they have completed all the tasks in their schedule. Remember that the core objectives we talked about earlier apply to all schools, also Montessori.
There are currently around 160 Montessori elementary schools and 19 high schools in the Netherlands, many of which are located in Amsterdam. Some Montessori schools have their own school board and are therefore a ‘special’ school. Other Montessori schools are part of a bigger board for openbare schools, to which other school types may belong as well. A few Montessori schools are based on a religion.
On top of their regular teacher training, Montessori teachers need to obtain a Montessori teaching qualification. Almost all Montessori schools are recognized and certified by the Dutch Montessori Association (Nederlandse Montessori Vereniging – NMV). Every four years their inspectors audit each Montessori school with the help of a very long checklist to make sure that they are upholding the Montessori standards. If you find this important, look for the red sign with white letters at the entrance of a school. Additionally, the ‘normal’ school inspections take place the same way as at other schools; also every four years. These inspectors use a long checklist, containing questions related to the school’s test results, teacher turnover, leadership, condition of the building, additional classes on offer, the atmosphere in the school, among many other things.
The Dalton Plan is an educational concept created by the American teacher Helen Parkhurst, who lived from 1887 to 1973. Her educational views were adopted in various countries around the world. The Netherlands has always been the country with the highest density of Dalton schools.In her early years, Helen Parkhurst used to work together with Maria Montessori, and you’ll still find some similarities between both systems.
Five core values of Dalton education
The five core values of Dalton education are: Working together, Freedom of choice vs. responsibility, Efficiency,Independency, and Reflection.
Students learn to do their own planning, and they explore specific themes and do research at their own pace.
In Dalton schools, the emphasis is on tailor-made programs to match every student’s needs, interests and abilities. They promote both independence and dependability, by enhancing students’ social skills and sense of responsibility toward others. One of the biggest differences with Montessori is that in Dalton schools, working in groups plays a more structural role. In Dalton schools, there is also usually one age group per class, and they often change teachers every year.
Some of the Dalton schools are religious. The Dutch Dalton Association (Nederlandse Dalton Vereniging – NDV) has recognized and certified 368 elementary schools and 23 high schools, which is about 5% of all schools in the Netherlands. This means that they are the best-represented type of education. Every five years their inspectors audit each Dalton school with the help of a very long checklist to make sure that they are upholding the Dalton standards. If you find this important, look for the blue/green sign with white letters at the entrance of a school. Additionally, the ‘normal’ school inspections take place the same way as at other schools.
The Jenaplan school concept was developed by Prof. Peter Petersen of the University of Jena in Eastern Germany. He lived from 1884 to 1952. The Dutch Jenaplan concept was also influenced by the Nongraded elementary schoolsin the U.S., British infant schools, and Freinet education. Prof. Petersen centered his model around the concept of community life. Important values are autonomy and learning through self-discovery, role plays, and improvisations. All activities have specific pedagogic goals. Students work through self-instruction with the help of structured weekly work schedules.
A lot of teaching takes place through conversations and discussions while all students typically sit in a circle. The students learn to express their opinion, listen to each other and provide each other with constructive criticism. Celebrations also play an important role. They often celebrate the end of the school week together with the whole school, where the classes take turns in performing theater, music and dance for the other groups. Jenaplan uses multi-age groups, similar to Montessori: Kindergarten (4-6 yrs.), Intermediate stage (6-9 yrs.), and Upper stage (9-12 yrs.). The same teacher usually stays with one group for three years. It is common for children to follow most of the classes in their ‘base group’, and then get some additional instructions in smaller group settings, together with children from different groups, based on being at the same level at, for example, math, spelling or comprehensive reading.
There are about 178 Jenaplan elementary schools and 5 high schools which have a Jenaplan department in the Netherlands. These schools are connected through the Dutch Jenaplan Association (Nederlandse Jenaplan Vereniging – NJPV). The schools all work with the same basic principles, but since Jenaplan is a lot about improvisation and adjusting to current affairs and the interests of the students, their guidelines are a bit less strict compared to the other educational streams. About half of the Jenaplan schools have been established as religious schools.
Vrije school – Waldorf/Steiner philosophy
Vrije schools follow the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, who lived from 1861 to 1925 in Austria. These schools are commonly referred to in the English-speaking world as Waldorf schools. You may also know Rudolf Steiner as the founder of anthroposophy.
Waldorf pedagogy distinguishes three broad stages in child development, each lasting approximately seven years. In the early years, education focuses on providing practical, hands-on activities and environments that encourage creative play. In elementary school, the emphasis is on developing students’ artistic expression and social capacities, fostering both creative and analytical modes of understanding. Throughout the learning stages, the approach stresses the role of the imagination in learning, and places a high value on the integration of intellectual, practical and artistic themes. The main goal of Waldorf schools is to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence.
Important role for nature
Nature also plays an important role in Waldorf schools. They celebrate the change of seasons, often with the entire school community – including the parents – and regularly work with natural materials like wool, wood, and felt. The teachers use a limited number of textbooks, and instead teach through poems, recitals, arts, music, theater, fairytales, fables, and stories that are often based on mythology.
The teacher typically stays with the same class for multiple years, in order to establish a strong bond with each child and to feel united as a community. Although Waldorf schools are not religious by nature, anthroposophy is often considered a spiritual philosophy. They also celebrate most Christian holidays, commemorate various saints, and tell some stories based on the Old Testament of the Bible.
With currently 114 schools (88 elementary plus 26 high schools), Waldorf is the fastest-growing school type in the Netherlands. In the past 10 years, the total number of pupils in Waldorf schools has grown by 46%, to about 30,000. Most of these schools are connected via the Association of Waldorf Schools (Vereniging van vrijescholen).
The best school type?
Now you understand better what all these schools do, you might be wondering which is THE best school type. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you here. It really depends on your situation. Children of very authoritarian and structured parents, for example, probably won’t fare well in a Montessori environment, and you probably shouldn’t send your strong, free-spirited child to a ‘School with the Bible’.
There is also no direct link between the type of school and the school’s results. Test results are usually more related to the type of parents who send their children to that particular school, and where the school is located. For example, schools that ask for a parent contribution of €700 might scare off parents with a lower income, and schools that are based on a specific philosophy or religion often attract families who are prepared to travel further than a parent at a regular school would. And some entrepreneurial parents choose a Dalton school, or artistic parents a Waldorf school, because this corresponds with their own line of work, while I have also seen very technical parents choosing an ‘art profile’ school because they are afraid they cannot pass on these skills to their children themselves. Remember that each school has to adhere to the same core objectives. Although the way leading to it can vary a lot, the academic output will be roughly the same. However, the students coming from different school types will have learned different ‘extra’ things.
Also remember that, regardless of the type of elementary school attended, your child can go to any type of high school. They are not stuck in one system for the whole of their school career.
Do your homework
I have given you a lot of information, and I can imagine you now feel a bit overwhelmed. I would recommend visiting as many schools as you can, and talking with parents who send their children to those schools. Do they like the school, and above all, would they recommend it to your family? Allow yourself some time to digest everything. I’m sure you’ll find the right fit in the end!
If you have any further questions, you are very welcome to book a video call with me. On this website you can also find a lot of other resources about education in the Netherlands.
I hope your children enjoy their lives and school careers here!
Annebet van Mameren, New2NL