Will your child start secondary school in the Netherlands soon?
Here you can find some practical information to help you navigate this new world.
Every secondary school arranges things in their own way, so always double check the information on the school’s website and in the school guide (schoolgids) to make sure.
The first year is called ‘brugklas’, so scan all information for this keyword extra carefully. I have added the Dutch words below in italics, so you’ll hopefully recognize what the school is talking about.
For more generic info on the Dutch secondary school system and the options for higher education, you should watch this Doodly video.
First day of secondary school (Eerste schooldag):
Your child will receive an invitation for their first school day. You should check the date and time on this invitation carefully, as it isn’t necessarily on the first Monday after the end of the summer vacation. It is common for secondary schools to start later in the week. On this day, they will meet their mentor, classmates, get familiar with the building (schoolgebouw), and take part in some introduction activities. They will also receive their timetable (rooster), student number (leerlingnummer), email address, and other practical info. Often students also get a school pass (schoolpas) with their student number and a headshot photo on it. With this pass they can borrow books from the school library (bibliotheek), print or copy documents, and access other facilities.
School books (schoolboeken):
School books are free in the Netherlands. You do have to order them yourself, though. In most cases, schools have a partnership with Van Dijk, www.vandijk.nl. If you haven’t ordered your child’s books by now, contact the school asap. There will probably be some workbooks, in which you may write, and textbooks, in which you absolutely may not write. Usually, the book provider expects you to return the textbooks after the end of the school year. If they aren’t in good condition then, they will charge you or keep part of your deposit. Make sure your child understands which books need to be returned. It is a good idea to wrap these books in ‘kaftpapier’ to keep them protected.
Most secondary schools also ask their students to bring their own laptop or tablet. They usually have specific requirements in terms of type of device and software. Check with the school about exactly what you need to make the required software run smoothly. If you rent or buy this device through the school, the IT department will support your child in case of problems. It might be a good idea to arrange for insurance (verzekering) for this device. All students need to ensure that their devices are fully charged and bring their own chargers to school, as borrowing one from school is usually not an option.
School supplies (schoolspullen or benodigdheden):
School supplies are not provided, so you need to buy them for your child yourself. Typical stores to buy these supplies are Hema, Bruna or Action, or online at Bol.com. Every school makes their own list of requirements, but common supplies are: backpack (rugzak), agenda (schoolagenda), calculator (rekenmachine), pencil case (etui) with some pens (pennen), pencils (potloden), a pencil sharpener (puntenslijper), eraser (gum), markers (markeerstiften), protractor triangle (geodriehoek), a pair of compasses (passer), some notebooks (schriften) with lines, and some with squares, Dutch/English/French/German dictionaries (woordenboeken). And also sports clothes (gymkleren) and sports shoes (gymschoenen) for gym class. The gym shoes should not have black soles, so they don’t leave black stripes on the floor. It is also common for schools to make use of outside sports fields while the weather is still nice, and the students need to bring proper shoes for that as well.
Often schools offer the option to rent a locker, where students can store their books and other stuff they don’t need for the coming hours.
Parental contribution (ouderbijdrage):
Almost all schools in the Netherlands are funded by the government. Education at these schools is free, but you will be asked for a voluntary parental contribution, which is on average lower than €200 per year. With this money, the school pays for extra things like library books, cultural activities, excursions, and various school trips. Parents who cannot afford this contribution can get subsidies from the municipality. Often the school has some reserves as well for such cases.
Which subjects your child will study depends on their stream (richting) (VMBO, HAVO or VWO) and the year. In the first year, they will most likely get Dutch (Nederlands) and English (Engels) language and literature, math (wiskunde), French (Frans), German (Duits) or another foreign language. Then they will add history (geschiedenis), geography (aardrijkskunde), economy (economie), biology (biologie), physics (natuurkunde), chemistry (scheikunde), computer science (informatiekunde), technology/engineering (techniek), physical education/gym class (lichamelijke opvoeding), visual arts (beeldende vorming), music (muziek), drama (toneel), and dance (dans). The religious schools will often teach some type of religious education, which hugely varies per school. The schools also get some freedom to combine various subjects if they wish (for example, physics and chemistry, also called NaSk). For some other subjects they may decide whether they start in the 1st or 2nd year.
This is very important! On the timetable your child can see when they have which class, and in which classroom. Usually, the subject teacher stays in their own classroom and the students change to a different classroom for the next class. Most schools work with ‘school hours’ (lesuren) that are shorter than a clock hour. It is common to have a different subject every school hour. Some schools also have ‘block hours’ (blokuren), where they combine two or more school hours in one class. Every school decides their own school hours. It is usual to have classes from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Often the schedule changes after each period of three months.
It is common that the students get a break after every two school hours. The first and last breaks of the school day usually last about 20 minutes, while the middle break is a bit longer: 30-45 minutes. Many schools have a canteen (kantine), where students can buy some food and snacks. It is also common for students to bring food from home, or buy something at the local supermarket.
Cancelled classes (lesuitval):
When a teacher is sick (or absent for other reasons), their classes often get cancelled. It depends on the school how they handle this situation. Sometimes they have assistants who supervise in the classroom while the students do their homework. Or they ask the students to find a place in school to study by themselves. Especially the younger students often have to stay at school during these ‘in-between hours’ (tussenuren) and may not leave the premises, unless the canceled class falls at the very beginning or end of the day.
The Dutch education law is very strict, and when the school is in session, your child is expected to be present. If they are sick, you (the parent) should call or email the school in the morning. If they have missed a test on their sick day, the student has to arrange with the teacher how and when they can re-take it. Check the school’s info for their specific rules. If your child is late, they usually have to report to the admin office. There is commonly a punishment after being late a couple of times in a row, for example, showing up 30 minutes early or staying longer at the end of the day.
School leave (verlof):
The school vacations (schoolvakanties) for the secondary schools are roughly the same as for the primary schools – six weeks of summer vacation, and six more weeks off spread out over the school year. Check the school’s website for details. Your child may only miss school for very specific reasons. Think of an important family celebration or emergency. You’ll have to ask permission and fill out a form in advance. You should take this very seriously, as you will be fined if you don’t comply.
The mentor is the main contact person for both students and their parents. Usually, the mentor also teaches classes about planning homework, study skills, how to write a summary, (un)wanted behavior, etc. These particular classes are called ‘mentoruur’ (=mentor hour). Normally the mentor is also the teacher of one of the other subjects.
For most of the classes, the teachers will give homework. Your child should make a habit of writing down carefully in their agenda on which day which assignment is due. At home, the students are asked to learn new things (leerwerk), like vocabulary, definitions or math formulas. They’ll also have to complete some written exercises (maakwerk). Sometimes they will have to write an essay or a report, or prepare a presentation. Around 1.5 to 2 hours of homework per day seems to be the norm, but this varies per school and per student. Often, schools have a rule in terms of ‘no homework the day after a school vacation or school party’, but not always. Many schools offer homework support (huiswerkbegeleiding), often for a fee and provided by an external organization.
Usually, there are three types of tests: Mondelinge Overhoring/MO (short verbal test), Schriftelijke Overhoring/SO (short written test), and Proefwerk (longer written test). While the proefwerken are usually announced a couple of days in advance, the overhoringen (MOs and SOs) often happen by surprise. These short tests are meant to check whether the student is on track, and whether they have understood the classes and homework assignments. The proefwerken usually cover a couple of textbook chapters at the same time, or ask questions about a certain theme. Often, schools have rules in terms of ‘no more than one proefwerk per day’, but also this is not standard.
The Dutch way of grading schoolwork may hugely confuse you. The teachers grade the tests and exams with a mark (cijfer) from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), to one decimal point. A 5.5 is the minimum pass grade, which is called a voldoende. The teachers decide how to grade each test individually, depending on the level of difficulty of the assignment, and the importance of the topics at hand. It is also common that a proefwerk gets more ‘weight’ than an overhoring; for example, the obtained grade for a proefwerk counts 3 times, and the overhoring only once. A 10 is only awarded when a student has answered every single question perfectly, which rarely happens with open-ended questions. An 8 is considered a good score, but you’ll find many students being equally happy with a 5.5.
Student administration (leerlingadministratie):
Most schools use an online platform on which they keep track of the students’ grades, timetables, homework and absence rates. Most schools seem to use the Magister or SomToday platforms. At the beginning of the school year, the students get their login details. Parents usually get a separate account, so they can keep track of their child’s progress as well. Be aware that the students are given a lot of responsibility. You shouldn’t expect the teacher to call the parents if their child got an insufficient grade.
Normally, a student gets three school reports per year – before the Christmas break, before the May vacation, and before the summer vacation. They will get one grade per subject, which is the average of all the tests and assignments combined in the past period. After every report, the parents will be invited for a short (10-15 minute) meeting (rapportgesprek) with the mentor and/or the subject teachers, during which you talk about your child’s progress and possible changes that have to be made from either side.
Passing the year (overgangsnormen):
Students will pass the year (overgaan) if they get an average of 6 for all their subjects combined. This means that sometimes they are allowed to get a few insufficient grades. In this case, the grades for the other subjects need to be high enough to compensate. There are at least three core subjects (kernvakken): Dutch, English and math. The grades for these core subjects need to be sufficient, or sometimes may be just a little short (tekortpunten). If a student’s grades for those subjects are too low, they will have to repeat the year (zittenblijven) no matter what. Even if their other grades are very high. There is sometimes some leniency here, in case of special circumstances. Then the student’s passing of the year becomes a ‘subject of discussion’ (bespreekgeval) between the teachers of various subjects and the mentor. It is also possible that the student may move up to the next year, but at a lower level, for example from 2VWO to 3HAVO. Some schools have additional kernvakken, so always check this carefully at the beginning of the school year. In general, there is no stigma around repeating the year, and the age gap in one class can easily be 2–3 years, especially toward the higher classes.
Hopefully this overview will positively contribute to your child’s school success, and take some nerves away from your side.
If you have any further questions, I invite you to book a call through https://new2nl.com/families/. On https://new2nl.com/resources, you can find many other articles, videos, and podcasts about education in the Netherlands.
I wish your child a flying start to secondary school!
Best wishes, Annebet van Mameren, New2NL