There is a lot to tell about the Dutch education system, which is very different from most other countries. On top of that, some of the policies vary per city.
In the article below we’ll explain the basics. To learn more about some specific topics, click on the respective links to one of our articles, videos or podcasts.
Elementary school (basisschool):
As confusing as it may sound, most children start elementary school (called ‘basisschool’ in Dutch) the day after their 4th 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.
Elementary school has eight grades, group 1 through group 8 (age 12). Most schools combine groups 1 and 2 in the same class, the so-called kleuterklas.
Group 1-2 is comparable to kindergarten, where they focus on learning through play, social skills, gross and fine motor skills, structure, independence, and gradual preparation for reading and writing. Formal reading and writing start in group 3, at age 6.
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.
Be aware that in high school, the students get a lot of homework.
The government monitors all schools, and funds about 99% of them. Some schools are based on religion (like Catholic, Protestant or Islamic schools) or an educational philosophy like Montessori, Waldorf or Dalton.
At Montessori schools, for example, children are taught to become independent, and they often work at their own pace, next to group lessons. 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.
The national average number of students in a government-funded school class is 23-24. In many bigger cities you’ll find more children per class. Most schools use 28-30 as their maximum.
In the handful of private, fee-paying schools, class sizes are smaller.
Central End Test for Primary Education
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 including Route 8 and IEP. All schools are obliged to take the end test of group 8 (also the ones based on, for example, the Montessori or Waldorf philosophy).
Based on the outcome of this end test and the recommendation of the teacher, the pupils get a school advice/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 group 6, intelligence, their attitude toward learning, eagerness to learn, interests, and motivation.
Children who have lived less than four years in the Netherlands are not obliged to take the end-of-elementary-school test. In this case, their teachers will determine which stream of high school will be most suitable for them.
School attendance law
The Dutch school attendance law is very strict, and the same for all. Children may only take time off from school if they have a specific reason, like for example a family wedding, or a funeral, or when their parents can prove they cannot go on vacation during the summer because of their job.
You’ll have to fill out a special form and submit it together with proof of the event (e.g., a wedding invitation) a few weeks in advance to the principal of your school.
The Dutch summer vacation lasts six weeks, and after every 6 or 7 weeks of school, the pupils have 1 or 2 weeks off to relax and recharge their batteries. The school year starts late August/beginning of September (this changes every year) and lasts 40 weeks in total.
Starting Dutch school from age 6
(click on the link for an explanatory video)
Is your child 6 or older and you want to send him/her to a Dutch school, but s/he doesn’t speak Dutch yet? Then s/he will most likely be referred to a newcomer class first. Here, children learn the language in small classes from specialized teachers. The newcomer class takes on average one year. Usually the pupils are promoted to the next grade after that. There are a few schools that have an internal newcomer class, and a couple of separate schools for newcomers.
In some cities, the newcomer classes start at age 4.
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 can 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, children might be referred to a dedicated special needs school. There are different types of special needs education based on the type of special needs.
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 national 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.
Schools may decide on their own school hours; most choose from 8:30-9:00 a.m. to 2:45-3:15 p.m. Many schools are closed on Wednesday afternoons.
If parents work, their children can go to after-school care (BSO), which is run by an external daycare organization. In some cases, the after-school care takes place at the same school, but more commonly the BSO picks up the children from the school, and takes them to nearby facilities. You’ll have to arrange and pay for BSO separately. Be aware that many BSOs have a waiting list.
Other options are a gastouder (childminder), or arranging fixed days of playdates with other parents.
If both parents work (or the single parent of a single parent family works), they should be entitled to a tax rebate for the BSO fee through the Belastingdienst. You can also apply for this tax rebate for officially registered gastouders.
High school – Dutch Secondary Education (middelbare school/voortgezet onderwijs)
(click on the link for a podcast)
Like elementary schools, some high schools are religious, or based on an educational philosophy. Whatever type of elementary school your child has attended, they can go to any type of high school—you don’t need to stick with the same philosophy if you don’t want to.
There are basically three levels of high school education, which go by the acronyms of VMBO, HAVO, and VWO.
VMBO is vocational education, and takes 4 years. HAVO is more generic and takes 5 years. VWO, which takes 6 years, is pre-university education.
Many schools combine multiple levels in the first year (called brugklas), and the streaming takes place in the 2ndyear.
Currently they are discussing about making the system more flexible, so, for example, you can take your subjects at different levels (e.g. math at VWO level and languages at HAVO level).
At VMBO schools, students can choose between more theoretical or more practical subjects. And then they also choose a sector in which to specialize: Technical (e.g. construction, graphics, automotive, electrical), Agriculture (e.g. agriculture, environment, and food technology), Economics (e.g. administration, commercial services, fashion) or Care and Welfare (e.g. care, sports, services, safety).
After the theoretical level of VMBO, students may either go to the 4thyear of HAVO, or to the MBO, where they can obtain a trade diploma. With a theoretical MBO diploma, you may move onto HBO, which is a university of applied sciences (see below).
About halfway through their HAVO or VWO course, students have to choose a ‘profile’ in which they will eventually graduate. The options are: Culture and society, Economics and society, Nature and health, and Nature and technology.
With your HAVO diploma, you may go to 5VWO, or to HBO, which is a university of applied sciences. A lot of people working in business and trade are HBO graduates. Some HBO institutes also offer a master’s program, for which you often need to have some relevant work experience. You can also do your bachelor’s at HBO, followed by a master’s at university. Also with your certificate of your first year of HBO (propedeuse), you may continue your education at university.
VWO is in general more analytical and research-oriented than HAVO, and is comprised of two ‘branches’: Atheneum and Gymnasium. Gymnasium offers Latin, Ancient Greek, and Classical studies, while Atheneum does not. But both give equal access to (research-oriented) university (WO).
International education is well established in and around the big cities in the Netherlands. There are both private and subsidized international schools.
The subsidized schools are intended for children who live temporarily (2-3 years) in the Netherlands because of their parents’ jobs, although they won’t kick them out if you end up staying longer. The fees of these schools are around 4,500 to 5,500 euros per year, per child. You can find more information about Dutch state-supported international schools here.
For the private international schools, the parents need to pay for everything, so their fees are much higher, generally starting at 15,000 euros per year. These schools usually have shorter waiting lists and offer more facilities, and after-school activities.
Then there are also some international schools which are subsidized by the government of the country they are related to, for example, the French, German and Japanese schools. The European schools are funded by the European Union, and free for the children of parents who work for a European agency or institute. Other children pay between 5,000 and 7,000 euros per year, but in case of limited availability, they have to give priority to the children from the ‘target group’.
You can find a full list of international schools, including the private ones, here.
Are you hesitating between a Dutch and international school? Watch this Doodly video, or if you prefer to read the text, there is a written version here: https://new2nl.com/international-school-go-dutch.
Do you need professional support to find the right school for your children? Book a call with Annebet van Mameren now.
We also offer bespoke consultancy sessions to the employees of our corporate clients, in-company presentations, seminars, and accompanied school visits.