International Education or ‘Go Dutch’?

Before enrolling your child at a school, you’ll have to decide whether to send them to an international school or ‘go Dutch’. Both have their own advantages, and in this article we’ll explore the differences. After reading, you should have a better idea of which school type would suit your family best.


By Annebet van Mameren, New2nl

Length of Stay in the Netherlands

If you are planning to stay in the Netherlands for a short period of time (max. 2-3 years), an international school may provide your child with a greater sense of continuity.

If you are planning on staying for a longer period of time, and would like your child to mix with the local culture and learn the Dutch language, you may prefer to choose a Dutch school.

Your Child’s Age

Young children at school

Another factor to consider is your child’s age. In the first two years of Dutch school (ages 4–6), the focus is on learning through play, Dutch language acquisition, social and motor skills, and gradual preparation for reading and writing. 4- and 5-year-olds who don’t speak Dutch can usually start at a regular Dutch school straight away. They normally pick up the language quickly and are (almost) fluent before formal reading and writing starts at age 6.

Foreign children aged 6 and older are usually required to follow a Dutch immersion program before starting regular school. This takes about one year, after which they can continue their education with children of the same age at a Dutch school.

Difference in Cost

The third factor is the huge difference in cost. Apart from a few private, fee-paying schools, all Dutch schools (primary, secondary and tertiary institutions) are government-funded. Parents pay a small contribution with which the schools pay for a few extra things.

Some international schools are partly subsidized by the Dutch government, while others are completely private. For a subsidized school, the annual fees are about €5,500 per child, while for private international schools they are at least €12,000 a year.


A unique feature of the Dutch school system is the choice in type of education. Among the state-funded schools there are some religious schools (Catholic, Protestant, Christian, Islamic, Jewish) or those that follow specific philosophic or pedagogic principles (e.g., Montessori, Dalton, Waldorf). All schools are obliged to adhere to the government’s ‘core objectives’, which specify what all pupils in all schools need to accomplish each year. The individual schools may fill in the specific details.

You’ll also find some schools with a bilingual curriculum (usually Dutch and English). These schools vary in the amount of time they teach in English, and usually require a child aged 6 or older to have a decent level of Dutch before they can join classes with Dutch-speaking peers (see above).

Normally, international schools either follow the curriculum of the country they are related to, or in the case of elementary schools the innovative, theme-based International Primary Curriculum (IPC). A few international elementary schools use the inquiry-based International Baccalaureate (IBPYP) program. As this program is more expensive, many international schools follow the IPC program in primary years, and then the Middle Years Program (MYP) and Diploma Program (DP) in secondary years.


The Dutch school attendance law is very strict. From age 5, your child is only allowed to miss school for very specific reasons, e.g., a family emergency or important celebration. International schools are often a bit more flexible in allowing their pupils to take time off during term time, although absences due to extended vacations or early departures at vacation times are usually strongly discouraged.

The summer vacation in Dutch schools lasts six weeks. During the school year, there is at least one week of vacation after each period of about six weeks, so that both pupils and teachers can recharge their batteries.

International schools either follow the vacation periods of the country they are related to, or set their own schedule. Pupils at international schools usually enjoy longer summer breaks than their Dutch peers, but often don’t have the frequent breaks throughout the year, and their school days are normally longer.

Social network and logistics

Cycling in the Rain

You’ll probably find it easier to interact with the teachers and other parents at international schools. You are all in the same boat and most people there understand your position as a parent in a foreign country. At Dutch schools it often takes more time and effort to understand what is going on and to make friends. You don’t have to speak Dutch to make this happen, but it certainly helps.

One disadvantage of international schools is that most families leave within 2 or 3 years, which means that the children staying on constantly have to make new friends. Another is that while most Dutch schools are neighborhood schools, which most children walk or cycle to together with their neighbors, the majority of pupils at international schools have to be brought by car or school bus, meaning an extra investment for parents in both time and money.

With about one hour of Dutch per week, many international school pupils don’t speak the language enough to take part in Dutch-speaking after-school activities. This means they do not fully experience the Netherlands and stay in the ‘expat bubble’. On the other hand, most international schools offer a wider range of after-school activities on campus than Dutch schools, as they are much bigger in size and typically have more money to spend.

Foreign Families in Dutch Schools

Contrary to international schools, most Dutch elementary schools don’t give homework till the higher classes. This means that, as a non-Dutch speaking parent, you won’t need to worry much about not being able to help your child with homework.

As the schools’ approach and experience with non-Dutch families differs greatly, it is always good to find out about this before you choose a school.

Secondary Education

At Dutch schools, the pupils take the ‘Central End Test for Primary Education’ in the last year of elementary school (ages 11 or 12). This is a standardized aptitude test with questions testing their Dutch language and comprehension skills, mathematics, study skills, and (optionally) world orientation.

Before this test takes place, the teacher assesses what level of high school education (see below) would fit each pupil best. They base their recommendation on various factors, including the pupil’s test scores from lower classes, intelligence, attitude towards learning, eagerness to learn and interests. The assessment of the teacher is the deciding factor.

Insufficient Dutch language skills can negatively impact a child’s high school recommendation. If a child is motivated to improve their Dutch, and wants to attend a higher school level than their recommendation, there is the option of attending a one-year Kopklas, focused on the Dutch language. At the end of Kopklas, the child will hopefully get a recommendation for a higher school level than they had the previous year.

Dutch high school education

Diagram based on Wikipedia:

Secondary education generally continues till the ages of 16–18, depending on the level. After obtaining a diploma from one level (for example HAVO), you may proceed to the final years of the next level (VWO). Likewise, after completing HBO you may continue to university.

For some university courses in the Netherlands, you can only enroll if you have followed a particular program during the last years of high school, for example Culture & Society, Economics & Society, Nature & Health, or Nature & Technology.

Most universities worldwide accept students with a VWO diploma. Sometimes they have additional requirements, for example proficiency in the local language and/or having passed the VWO exam with high grades. Higher education is offered at a high standard in the Netherlands; all 13 state-funded Dutch universities score well in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

International Secondary Education

The four programmes of the International Baccalaureate® (IB)



The four programmes of the International Baccalaureate® (IB)


International schools at secondary level often offer the IBMYP (ages 11–16) and IBDP (ages 16–19) curriculums. The IBDP is a globally recognized high-standard diploma, valued at the same level as a Dutch VWO diploma, and gives access to research-oriented universities around the world.

It is possible that a Dutch university requires proof of Dutch language proficiency, and/or a pass in a certain subject examined at secondary level. However, there are plenty of courses at Dutch universities that are completely in English.

Difficulties might arise when an international student is not capable of performing at this high level. International schools usually don’t offer their subjects at a lower level and international students often don’t speak Dutch well enough to continue their education at a Dutch school.

Also, although the IBMYP program could be compared with HAVO, most Universities for Applied Sciences (HBO) don’t value the former as highly, since often a diploma is not awarded at the end of the MYP.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider. Whatever school(s) you choose for your children in the end, I hope they have a happy and successful time in the Netherlands!

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