dutch education system
english in dutch schools
types of schools
Dutch school attendance law
Dutch elementary schools
Dutch education system
Applying for elementary school
Our daughter turns two next month. Do we already have to apply for elementary school?
The application deadline depends on where you live. For example, in Amsterdam places at school are allocated through a central school lottery, for which the application deadline is around 3 years and 2 months; in Amstelveen and Leiden you can apply for schools as soon as your child turns two. In The Hague the deadline used to be at the age of one, but has been moved to age 3 now. Many other places don’t have a central application system, which means that the individual schools decide for themselves from when you can apply.
On the website of your municipality (gemeente) you can find more specific information:
Our son turns four next month; does he have to go to school then?
Most children start school the day after their fourth birthday, whenever that is throughout the year. From the first school day of the month after their 5th birthday, a child is obliged to go to school (leerplicht). This means that for the first year (i.e. when your child is four) you are a bit more flexible in terms of school attendance. You can discuss together with your child’s teacher what works best for your child.
Can I apply for any elementary school I want?
Also this varies per municipality. In Amsterdam, for example, you have priority for eight schools in your neighborhood. A lottery eventually decides which school your child will be placed into.
In some other cities the schools have a catchment area based on zip code (postcode). In general, before you apply, check first with the school of your interest what their priority criteria are.
On the website of your municipality (gemeente) you can find more specific information:
Before enrolling my daughter in a school I would like to visit it. But when I called, the school said it doesn't allow private visits. What can I do to see the school before applying?
You can visit the schools you are interested in during an ‘information morning’ (informatie-ochtend) or afternoon. On the websites of the schools you can see when these info sessions take place – on average about once every two months, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Usually you have to sign up in advance if you want to attend the session.
Visit multiple schools, so you can get a feel for each school – it is a very personal decision.
Tip: when you make an appointment for the information morning/afternoon, ask them whether you can ask a few additional questions in English after the tour, so they can reserve some extra time for you.
Ask lots of questions – see the New2nl ‘Checklist Primary school’
It is also a good idea to ask some parents who have children at this school what they think, and whether they would recommend it to your family.
We always thought that we would move back to our home country before our daughter started school here. Now she turns four next month and we are still here, but we haven't applied for any school for her. What should we do now?
I thought that an openbare school is obliged to take every child who applies. But now the school across the street says they are full. How do I convince them to take my child?
English in Dutch schools
At what age do children start learning English in Dutch schools?
I have heard people talking about bilingual schools, but what are they exactly?
A bilingual school is a school where for 30–50 per cent of the time lessons are taught in another language – usually English. Apart from English lessons, the pupils also follow other subjects like gym, history, music, or math in English. This makes them different from VVTO schools (see above), which only teach English as a subject from an early age, while other subjects are still taught in Dutch.
In 2014, seventeen schools throughout the country were chosen as national bilingual pilot schools. The national government has acknowledged that in this global world you give children a head start by teaching them partly in English. Their worry about a possible decrease in Dutch proficiency, especially by non-native Dutch speakers, had held them back for a long time. This worry is also why these pilot schools are being closely monitored, supported and evaluated.
Some other schools have come up with their own form of teaching more lessons in English. As they are not official pilot schools, they are more restricted. They are only allowed to teach in English for 20–30 per cent of the time, which might be less bilingual than you had expected.
The pilot runs till 2023, and if there are positive results more bilingual schools will probably be opened in the future.
You can find more information on the national pilot for bilingual schools here.
My daughter is eight years old. I want her to learn Dutch, but also keep her English at a high level. Would it be a good idea to send her to a bilingual school?
It is important to note that the bilingual schools are Dutch schools, where English is offered on top of the Dutch curriculum. This means that — like the fully Dutch schools—they usually can’t accommodate children who are six or older and don’t speak Dutch. These children are often required to follow a Dutch immersion program first, so this will most likely be the case for your daughter too. See also ‘Dutch immersion class’.
Often a bilingual school is seen as a bigger advantage for Dutch children who want to improve their English, rather than for English-speaking children who need to learn Dutch. They’ll have to learn the same Dutch spelling, vocabulary, and expressions as at a Dutch school, while being taught in Dutch only 50% of the time. Of course, each individual child varies in how well they pick up the language.
Types of schools
What is an ‘openbare’ school?
In the Netherlands we distinguish between openbare and bijzondere schools. The openbare schools are run by an independent foundation that was first set up by the government. These schools are always non-religious, but they do teach about all world religions, and celebrate Christmas and Easter in a non-religious way (they, for example, decorate the school, organize a Christmas dinner and Easter breakfast with the class, and often briefly tell the story of Jesus without claiming this is what you have to believe).
The bijzondere (special) schools have their own board, which often consists of a group of parents, or the foundation that set them up. Often (but not always) these schools are religious or based on a specific educational philosophy.
Across the street from our house is a Catholic school. How religious are the schools here? We are not religious ourselves, so maybe we shouldn't send our sons there.
Usually the religious schools are fairly moderate in terms of religion and are open to non-religious children, and those who have a different religion. Most of the time, pupils don’t pray, say grace or go to church (except perhaps for Christmas). The school may read stories from the Bible, or sing religious songs. However, as this varies per school, you should always check with the school of your interest to make sure what they do works for you.
Contrary to many other countries, in the Netherlands the Protestant schools are usually stricter than the Catholic ones.
I feel lost: what is the difference between Montessori, Dalton, Jenaplan, and Waldorf/Steiner schools, and how do I know which type of school fits our twins best? They are barely two years old!
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, children are taught to become independent, and they often work at their own pace. This doesn’t work for parents who decide most of the things for their children, and who expect the whole class to work on the same chapter.
Waldorf has a strong focus on nature and mainly teaches through stories, poems, recitals, and plays. In Dalton schools they learn to make their own realistic plans and schedules, and work in groups on projects. In Jenaplan schools, the community plays an important role. What do you find important in a school?
I would recommend you read a lot about the different philosophies and visit some schools to see if that would work for you.
Keep in mind, though, that all schools have to adhere to the same core objectives established by the government and the pupils take the same test at the end of elementary school. For example, some people believe that at Montessori schools the children may do whatever they feel like and they can choose to skip learning math if they want, but this is absolutely not the case!
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 this is suitable.
I have a work contract in the Netherlands for 2 years. We are debating whether to send our son to a Dutch or international school. What would you advise?
This is of course a very personal decision. I would say the decision mainly depends on his age (at 6 or older he would have to go to a newcomer/Dutch immersion class first), your budget, the language of the country you will be moving to next, and how much you would like to become part of the Dutch society.
I have made a Doodly video about the difficult choice between Dutch and international education. I hope it will be of help to your family.
If you prefer to read the text, there is a written version here.
What are the fees for the international schools?
The Netherlands is one of a few countries in the world to subsidize international education. The fees of these schools are around 4,500 to 5,500 euros per year, per child.
Then there are also some international schools which are subsidized by the government of the country they are related to, for example the French and Japanese schools.
For the private international schools the parents need to pay for everything. For this reason, their fees are much higher, usually starting at 15,000 euros per year.
Do the international schools have a waiting list?
Yes, unfortunately most international schools do have a waiting list. However, as the government has recently spent extra money on international education, and some schools have just opened or expanded, these lists are getting a bit shorter.
Since the subsidized international schools are much cheaper than the private ones, they usually have a much longer waiting list. I recommend that you find out about availability first, and then decide where you want to live.
Why are some international schools so much cheaper than others? Are they ‘real’ schools? They can also be good, right??
Dutch school attendance law
My mother, who lives in our home country, is very sick. Can we take our children (ages 4 & 7) out of school for a week to see their grandmother one last time?
The Dutch school attendance law (leerplichtwet) is very strict. Children are only allowed to miss school because of very specific reasons, for example an important family celebration or emergency, or if you can prove that your job doesn’t allow you to take time off during the school vacations. I can fully understand that you would like your children to say goodbye to their grandma. If you explain your situation to the principal of your school, and fill out the appropriate forms, the chances are very high that your 7 year old will be allowed a couple of days off. Since your youngest child isn’t obliged to go to school yet, this is not an issue. You should still fill out the form, though. Before you ask for permission, make sure you understand the rules very well. You can read more about this subject here.
In our home country children start school at age 7. Does my daughter really need to go to school at the age of 5 here?
Yes, it is the law that in the Netherlands, children go to school from age 5. Most children start the day after their 4th birthday. Groups 1 & 2 are comparable to kindergarten. Formal reading and writing start in group 3, at age 6.
We will move to Amsterdam toward the end of May. Our children will have finished the school year at their current school by then. Do they still have to go to school in the Netherlands from June till the end of the Dutch school year?
I heard that you may take 10 days per year off from school, but when I asked the principal of our school for this leave, she turned down my request. Why?
Your child may only miss school for very specific reasons, like a family wedding or emergency. You’ll have to submit proof of this event, together with your request form.
Also, parents who can prove they cannot leave during the school vacations may take their children out of school during term time.
The principal may decide on up to 10 days; above this, the request will be sent to the truancy officers. If you don’t have a valid reason, your request will be denied. This is probably what has happened in your case. Before you ask for permission, make sure you understand the rules very well. You can read more about this subject here.
Why is the Dutch summer vacation so short? We are used to three months of summer vacation!
Six weeks of summer vacation is indeed very short compared to many other countries. During the school year, there is at least one week of vacation after each period of about six weeks, so both pupils and teachers can recharge their batteries. In total children are off for 12 weeks per school year. In a lot of other countries the summer vacation is very long, but then the rest of the school year is one long stretch.
Another advantage of a shorter summer vacation is that at the beginning of the school year the children haven’t forgotten most of the things they learned in the last school year. They just move on from where they left off, without too much repetition.
How can I find after-school care for our children?
Elementary schools are required to offer after-school care (BSO) to their pupils. Usually they contract an external organization. The BSO is not managed by the school.
The BSO teachers will come and pick up the children from school, and then parents/ guardians can pick them up at the BSO location before closing time.
Some schools have a BSO in the same building. These are usually called IKC, Kindercampus, or ‘brede schools’.
At the BSO, the children play and socialize; there is no emphasis on learning. Some BSOs are more sports-oriented, while others spend more time in nature, or doing art.
Ask your school which BSOs they have contracted, and register your child with one of them for the days of your choice. Many BSOs have a waiting list, so don’t wait too long applying.
During school vacations and other days that the school is closed, the BSO is open all day.
Please note that you have to arrange the BSO separately. You will have to pay a fee to the BSO, for which you may get a tax rebate based on your household income (Kinderopvangtoeslag).
Do schools also organize after-school activities?
In general, Dutch schools don’t offer a wide after-school program. Most children play sports, and do music and other activities in clubs outside of school. In this way they also get to know children from different schools and different backgrounds. Many of these activities take place on Wednesday afternoons, during which most schools are off, or on the weekends.
Also note that an average Dutch school has between 200 and 400 pupils, which makes them too small to be able to arrange a lot of activities. Some schools in the same neighborhood join forces to offer some activities together.
Schools that are part of an IKC, Kindercampus, or ‘brede school’ (see above), tend to organize more after-school activities than regular schools.
Dutch elementary schools
My 4-year-old daughter has just started school. She only comes home with stories that she has played in the dollhouse and with Lego. When will she finally learn to read?
In the ‘kleuterklas’ (groups 1 & 2) they focus on learning through play, social skills, sharing, waiting their turn, Dutch language acquisition, gross and fine motor skills, independence, structure, and gradual preparation for reading, writing, and math. They work with themes, go on excursions, and there is a lot of repetition. If they don’t understand something the first time, they probably will the second or third time. Each child develops at their own pace. Maybe it is less obvious, but they do actually learn a lot.
Formal reading and writing starts in group 3 (age 6), and then it goes very fast.
A lot of research has shown that it is better not to introduce reading and writing until the child is completely ready for it. See for example.
I had understood that the parent contribution was voluntary, but now we've gotten a reminder from school that we haven’t paid yet. Can they force us to pay?
Although Dutch schools are free, they do ask for a small ‘parent contribution’ (ouderbijdrage) with which they pay for extra things like celebrations (Sinterklaas, Christmas), a dedicated music teacher, library books, or a pupil-run vegetable garden. Some schools base the rate of the ouderbijdrage on the parents’ household income.
Although this contribution is called ‘voluntary’, if you decide not to pay it, your child might be excluded from the above-mentioned events and activities, or the school might decide it is no longer able to run these activities.
The school can subsidize those parents who are not financially capable of paying the parent contribution. If you haven’t told the school this is the case, they expect you to pay.
If your child makes use of the lunch supervision facilities (TSO/overblijven), you are required to pay for those too. Alternatively, your child could have lunch at home. You also have to pay for the school trips separately.
How much are the fees for a Dutch school?
I would like to send our children to a school which is only 10 minutes by car from our house, but our neighbors say that it’s too far. The school is also located in the direction of my work. We are used to commuting 25 minutes each way, so we don’t see the problem. What would you do?
Most Dutch schools are neighborhood schools. The school is in the center of the community. Many children go to school on foot or by bike. When they are a bit older (6 or 7 or so), they would often like to cycle on their own bikes (next to their parents). This would be much more difficult if you live further away.
Many children arrange playdates after school, and they regularly play at each other’s houses. It could be an obstacle for the parents of your child’s friends to pick up their children from your home when you live far away – also considering that many people in the cities don’t own a car. Most schools don’t have a lot of parking facilities either.
It indeed sounds convenient that the school is located in the direction of your work, but how will your children get to school when you are traveling, sick, or working from home or at another location? Is there someone else who could drive them to school?
You also have to bear in mind that you’ll have to go to the school for parent-teacher meetings, school-wide celebrations, and other events, which easily adds up. And what will you do when your child realizes upon arrival at school that they have forgotten their gym bag, or the book for their book report?
But if you think this further school will be the best option for your child; by all means, go for it!
What are the school hours?
Schools may decide on their own school hours. Each school is obliged to teach at least 7,520 hours spread out over eight years. Most schools start the day between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., and finish between 2:45 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.. On Wednesday afternoons many schools are closed. This is the time that many children have playdates and birthday parties, or go to sports clubs, music school, or other activities.
The school year lasts 40 weeks. See also the questions above about school vacations.
My daughter was born in December, and is now in group 2. Her teacher says she should repeat group 2 next year. I strongly disagree. What can I do against this decision? Most of her friends are going into group 3.
I can imagine this matter confuses you, as the answer to this question is a bit complicated. Contrary to most other countries, in the Netherlands there is no hard cut-off date. Most children start school the day after their 4th birthday, whenever that is throughout the year. Most schools combine groups 1 & 2 in the same class (kleuterklas). Some children stay a bit longer than two years in the kleuterklas, and other children a bit shorter. For many schools the (soft) cut-off is January 1st. Children born in the period October – December often find themselves in a bit of a gray area. Apart from the date of birth, the teacher also looks at how mature a child is, how socially strong they are, whether they already show interest in reading and writing, and whether they are ready for the more formal learning in group 3. If a child doesn’t speak fluent Dutch yet, this may also play a role in this decision. So they look at every child individually and also talk with the parents about how they view their child’s development. In any case, staying longer in the kleuterklas is not seen as repeating a year, and there is no stigma on children who do have to repeat. Sometimes this is needed for a child to mature or to understand the subject matters more thoroughly.
As the mother of a child born at the beginning of January, we also had these discussions when our son was in the kleuterklas. Although he had already taught himself how to read and write, he was very shy, a bit short for his age and scared of the big boys. Together with us as parents, the teacher decided it was better to keep him another year in group 2. We agreed that the teacher would give him more responsibilities, some extra assignments, and help explain to the newly arrived pupils how everything worked. This extra year was very good for his self-confidence. He flourished and made some very strong friendships. He is now 9.5 and in his current group 6 class he is one of the oldest, which he is very proud of. Since some of his classmates have repeated a year, and others have skipped a class, the oldest child has already been 10 for a while, whereas the youngest celebrated his 8th birthday last weekend.
Knowing all this, I would recommend that you sit down with your daughter’s teacher, and discuss what would be the best next steps. If you really think that she should go to group 3 next year, then you should clearly explain to the teacher why, and see if you can come to an agreement. Ultimately, though, the final decision rests with the teacher.
We are no longer happy with our son’s current school. How do we switch schools?
How often do school children play outside?
All schools are obliged to offer regular breaks. Groups 1 & 2 usually play outside three times per day. During the morning, this is usually 15 minutes before or after their fruit snack, then about 30 minutes during the lunch break, and again 15 minutes in the afternoon. From group 3, school is a bit more formal, but they still go outside twice a day for at least 45 minutes in total.
Usually the pupils also play outside when it is raining or snowing, so make sure your child is properly dressed, and ensure they have a set of spare clothes at school. When the weather is really bad, they stay indoors to play.
Where can I find information about the rankings of the schools?
In the Netherlands, schools are not ranked the way you may be used to. There are a couple for websites where you can find the schools’ test results here and here. Please be aware that these scores usually tell you more about the educational background of the parents rather than the quality of the school. These scores indicate the performances of the pupils who were in group 8 (age 12) last school year, and don’t reflect all the things that might change between now and the time your child will be in group 8. At some schools they take these tests more seriously than others, and have the reputation of ‘teaching to the test’. Always ask the principal what they have to say about their test scores, how important the outcome is for the school and whether they expect any changes in the coming years.
If I sent my daughter to a Dutch school, I could not help her with her homework since I don’t speak Dutch. Is an international school a better option for us?
The homework policy varies per school. Some elementary schools don’t give any homework, while some others take it more seriously. Usually homework starts around group 5 (age 8). Often it isn’t more than 30-60 minutes per week, and announced at least one week in advance. Sometimes pupils get the time to do their homework at school. Also keep in mind that this is homework for your child. You as their parent are not expected to help. Your job is to facilitate a quiet place where your daughter can do her homework, and check whether she has understood and finished everything. You should explain the concepts in your own language and she will make the translation into Dutch herself. If you don’t speak Dutch well, you are better off not speaking Dutch with your children. Some international parents choose to hire a Dutch tutor or high school student for a couple of hours per week to teach their child.
Next to homework, most schools ask their pupils to prepare one book report and one presentation about a self-chosen topic per year.
Be aware that in high school, the students get a lot of homework.
Our twins will start school soon. We have heard they’ll need to bring their own lunch?!?
Contrary to many other countries, for many Dutch people, lunch is a light meal – in between a proper breakfast and a relatively early dinner. At Dutch schools, children should indeed bring their own lunch, which they eat in their classroom. Check the school guide to understand their specific rules. Usually children bring some slices of bread with some type of spread or cheese on it, some fruit or raw vegetables and something to drink. Also things like a boiled egg, humus, or soup in a thermos usually work well. Most schools don’t allow sweet things, or soda. (And no, not all children only eat white bread with chocolate sprinkles – this is a myth).
Some schools also allow other types of food than bread, but you must take into consideration that there is usually no facility to heat up the food, and usually they get about 15-20 minutes to eat, after which they play outside. Don’t give your child too much food, as then they might not be able to play outside and/or the rest of the class will have to wait for them to finish eating.
At many schools, on Wednesdays the school day ends between 12 noon and 1 p.m., and the pupils don’t have lunch at school then.
I have heard a lot of things about this Cito test. What is it?
In group 8, the last year of elementary school, the pupils take the Cito (‘Centrale Eindtoets Basisonderwijs’, or ‘Central End Test for Primary Education’). This is an aptitude test that measures what the pupils have learned in the past eight years. Next to Cito, there are a few other recognized test providers (for example, Route 8 and IEP).
Based on the outcome of this end test and the recommendation of the teacher, the pupils get a school advice or recommendation (=schooladvies) for the appropriate level of secondary education. The assessment of the teacher is the decisive factor.
They base their advice on various elements, including the pupil’s test scores from their whole school career, intelligence, their attitude toward learning, eagerness to learn, interests, and motivation.
From group 2, children also take a Cito test twice per year to measure their progress. With these tests, the teacher can spot any learning difficulties like dyslexia at an early stage. Please note that the pupils can’t pass or fail these tests and that there are no direct consequences based on the outcome of the tests alone.
The children don’t need to prepare for the tests, and especially the younger ones are not told that they are taking a test. Often the teachers only inform the parents of the results, and not the pupils.
This means that there is no competition between the children based on the test outcomes, and there is no need to get nervous.
My son is getting bullied at school. What can I expect his teacher to do to stop it happening?
I’m sorry this is happening to your son. It is tough. Have you talked about it with his teacher yet? What is her/his view on what is happening?
Already from daycare, children learn to indicate their limits when another child does something they don’t like (by saying ‘Stop! ‘Hou op!’ in Dutch).
Sometimes this is enough, and it indeed stops here. If not, the child should go to the teacher and tell them what the other child(ren) have done.
Every school should have an anti-bullying protocol, which describes what to do in this situation. Usually they show what is considered wanted and unwanted behavior through role plays and group conversations, and they practice how the children should react in certain situations. If this doesn’t help, the teacher will talk with the child who is bullying, and if necessary, with their parents. Usually it is not recommended that the parents talk about this issue with each other.
If still nothing has changed, you could talk with the principal, or, as a last resort, file a complaint. In the school guide you can read how the complaint (klacht) procedure works. Most schools have a ‘trusted person’ (vertrouwenspersoon) who could help in this situation as well.
Sometimes it could help for a child to take part in, for example, a social skills training to boost their confidence, and to learn how to reply to make the bullies stop.
Hopefully it will go better soon. Good luck!
I went to visit a school yesterday and saw so many children. How many children can there be with one teacher in the class?
There is no legal maximum of pupils per teacher. The law dictates a minimum amount of 3.5 square meters of floor space per pupil. This includes the toilet, stairs and hallways.
The national average is 23-24 pupils per class. In the bigger cities, the class sizes are usually a bit bigger. Most schools have established their own maximum of 28-30 children per class. There is one main teacher and schools often hire a teaching assistant who works a couple of hours per week for different classes. It is very common to have two teachers per class. In this case they both work part-time, on fixed days of the week.
Since most children start school the day after their 4th birthday, in the beginning of the school year, group 1 & 2 is still pretty small. The class grows over the course of the year, when new 4 year olds join. Toward the end of the school year, the class is at its maximum size. The oldest children go to group 3 after the summer vacation, and the class is small again. From group 3 onwards, the class sizes are more stable.
We suspect that our 3-year-old son has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Will the school support him?
This is something to discuss at an early stage with the school of your interest. The experience and expertise schools have with children with special needs varies greatly. Under the ‘Inclusive Education’ (Passend Onderwijs) Act, the school where you apply is responsible for providing a suitable learning place for your child. If needed, they could buy in the support of external, specialized SEN teachers. These are usually only available for a few hours per week, though.
If the support required turns out to be too intensive or specialized, your son might be referred to a dedicated special needs school. There are different types of special needs education based on the type of special needs; in his case he would probably go to a so-called cluster-4 school. At these schools the class sizes are smaller than at regular schools, and the children receive more tailored and specialized support, as well as therapies focused on their specific needs. The teachers teach at different levels in the class, and most children follow the regular curriculum. Sometimes the pupils of the special needs school stay there for the whole elementary school period, followed by a special needs high school, while other pupils transfer to a regular school after a few years of intensive support.
You can read more about special needs education in this article.
Our daughter has a serious speech delay and has just moved to a ‘cluster 2’ (special needs) school. Does she need to stay at this school for the rest of her school career?
That is difficult to say. It depends, among other things, on her progress, and on how her language skills develop over time. Some pupils transfer to a regular school after a few years of intensive support. However, at a regular school they will usually be unable to offer the attention and specialized support that she gets at her current school. Would that be enough?
If you think that a regular school would be a better option for her, then you could start talking with the schools in your neighborhood and ask what they can offer your daughter. It can be tough to arrange. A specialized and independent educational consultant (onderwijsconsulent) can assist your family in this process – for free.
You can read more about special needs education in this article.
Our daughter is 18 months old; can I send her to preschool?
I heard that preschool is free for two mornings per week. Now I got an invoice from the preschool our son is attending. Do I have to pay?
The policies regarding preschool vary per city. In January 2018, the laws changed, and since then the preschools are run by daycare organizations. There are now daycares with and without a preschool program. In most instances you have to pay for preschool. The fee depends on your household income.
If both parents work (or a single parent works in a single parent family), they should be entitled to a tax rebate through the Belastingdienst. If only one or neither of the parents works, they’ll get a subsidy from the municipality (gemeente).
So, unfortunately for you, you’ll have to pay the invoice.