Education in the Netherlands
Our guide on education in the Netherlands takes you through schooling in the Netherlands up until higher education and university level.
The Netherlands is committed to choice in education, and you'll find a range of schools to choose from when considering your child(ren)'s education in the Netherlands.
Compulsory education under Dutch law applies to children of all nationalities from 5 to 18 years who are residing in the Netherlands. Children are leerplichtig (under a learning obligation or leerplicht) at five years old for 12 years full-time education, and one or two years part-time (until the attainment of a diploma). In the Pisa/OECD (2012) international rankings for 15-year-olds in 65 economies, the Netherlands was ‘above average’ for mathematics (10th), and ranked 15th for reading and science.
The school system is, however, quite unusual.
Choosing a school
The Netherlands is among the world’s top countries for equity in education opportunities, and there’s a commitment to educational choice in the Netherlands. Schools following particular religious or pedagogic principles have had equal state funding as public schools since 1917 and the number of privately run schools more than doubles public ones, with one in five primary schools comprising less than 100 pupils. International education is available at both Dutch and private schools throughout the country, and up to 20 schools are expected to implement bilingual education by the end of 2015.
Local or international school
Your finances, location, nationality, the age of your children, and how long you are likely to stay in the Netherlands are the main factors you should consider when selecting a school.
Many companies reimburse international school fees as part of a relocation package, and the reimbursements could be exempt from income tax (though not for all schools).
While teenagers might appreciate the educational and social continuity provided by an international school, younger children might get a greater sense of belonging by attending a local school if you plan to stay for a while. By learning good Dutch they will connect to their new world more easily. You certainly won’t be the only non-Dutch parent in the playground.
Applying for a school
Register your child as soon as possible at the school of your choice. Public schools technically are not allowed to refuse admission, unless full.
Popular schools have waiting lists and the municipality can assign catchment areas based on postcodes – you should register as young as the school allows. All schools have brochures and websites where they announce ‘open days’ when you can visit the school.
Almost 90 percent of children attend early education at the age of three, and most children are enrolled by the age of four (when children are invited for orientation). Schools can arrange early childhood education programmes for children aged two to six whose first language is not Dutch.
School inspection reports can be viewed online (this applies to state schools and Dutch international schools only) at www.owinsp.nl: under Zoek Scholen, enter the name of the school and/or town. The visual representation of green (good) and red (weak) will give some idea of performance.
Types of schools in the Netherlands
Source schools at www.scholenlijst.nl or via your city’s website (onderwijs = education).
Public (openbare) schools
State-run schools (non-denominational) provide secular education, but they can also offer teaching around specific philosophic or pedagogic principles (Montessori, Steiner etc.). Public schools are governed by the municipal council or a public leg legal entity or foundation set up by the council.
Most private schools are denominational (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu) or follow specific philosophic principles, as above. Private schools are governed by a board or the foundation that set them up. Financially, they have the same status as public schools and are basically free, although all schools ask for a contribution for things such as school trips.
These provide education for global nomad students of any nationality. Dutch International Primary Schools (DIPS) and Dutch International Secondary Schools (DISS) provide international education at reasonable fees because of subsidies from the Dutch government. They are designed for non-Dutch families living in the Netherlands for a limited time, and Dutch families returning from, or preparing for, an overseas assignment. These schools offer the International Primary Curriculum (4 to 11 years), the IGCSE (11 to 16 years), or the International Baccalaureate programmes at primary (4 to 11 years) and middle years’ level (11 to 16 years). All DISS teach the IB-Diploma programme (16 to 19 years). A new curriculum, IBCC, offers an alternative to the IB-DP in the final years (www.ibo.org/ibcc).
Private international schools
These schools teach either an international curriculum (as above) or a specific country’s national curriculum (eg. American, British, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Polish), sometimes in the native language. Facilities (swimming pools, football pitches) are often spectacular compared to the Dutch schools. View our listing of international schools in the Netherlands.
In 2014, all schools were required to cater to any child’s needs under the ‘All inclusive Act’, although participation in mainstream schools has been encouraged through other policies for several years. Additionally, there are schools for children with special needs, plus special needs teachers at Dutch schools.
Lighthouse Special Education caters to the international community with special needs children providing extensive assistance in English. Entry is by referral.
Since 2014, some 22 so-called ‘Steve Jobs schools’ have opened in the Netherlands, pioneered by Dutch entrepreneur Maurice de Hond. These government-funded schools provide children with iPads and educational apps, which replace everything from books to blackboards. Teachers act as ‘coaches’ to help students direct their own learning.
Primary and secondary state education is free, with parents being asked to contribute a ‘voluntary’ nominal amount, which varies from school to school. Additional payments include lengthier school trips, lunchtime supervision (tussenschoolse opvang) and after-school care (naschoolse opvang), which the school is supposed to provide or sub-contract.
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sets quality standards, attainment targets and social objectives but individual schools ‘fill in the details’ of the curriculum and budget allocation. Education policy includes increasing bilingual opportunities, connecting education with the job market, and raising the quality of schools that do no meet the Education Inspectorate’s standard.
As of 1 August 2015, the government will allow primary schools to teach 15 percent of courses in English, German or French. Not only will pupils learn a second language, such as English, they can also learn other subjects, such as biology or history, through one of these languages.
Dutch Primary education (primair onderwijs or basisonderwijs)
There are eight years of primary schooling. Children are placed in group one upon entry, and move up a group every year; different age groups may therefore be in the same class depending on when each child started. In their last year, ‘Group 8’ children in 85 percent of primary schools (basisscholen) sit the CITO test (www.cito.nl) in February, which advises their next level of education. As of spring 2015, all children in Group 8 will be required to sit a test to assess numeracy and language skills. The government sets attainment targets in six curriculum areas: Dutch, English, arithmetic and mathematics, social and environmental studies, creative expression and sports and movement.
Dutch secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs)
From 12 years, pupils choose from vocational or pre-university diplomas based on their ability. In the first years all pupils study the same subjects (to different academic levels), known as the basisvorming, followed by a second stage (tweede fase) in which specialist profiles are selected.
VMBO (a further four years of school): Prep school for vocational secondary education; those who achieve the highest level (theoretische leerweg) can enter HAVO studies. VMBO graduates must continue studying until age 18 or until they obtain a basic qualification (minimum MBO level 2).
MBO: Secondary vocational education. MBO programmes vary from one to four years depending on the level (1–4). If a student has successfully completed the Dutch VMBO or the international middle school programmes IGCSE or IB-MYP, but is not admitted to the IB-Diploma Programme, the MBO can prepare pupils for work or, if level 4 is achieved, professional studies (HBO). A number of English-language programmes are offered.
HAVO (five years): Senior general secondary education. Provides entrance to higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs HBO) at ‘vocational universities’.
VWO (six years): Pre-university education. Prepares students for academic studies at a research university (Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs WO). VWO schools can be athenaeum, gymnasium or lyceum (a combination of the first two), a difference being that Greek and Latin are core subjects in gymnasium programmes.
Just under a third of the 659 secondary schools are run by the public authority. English is a compulsory subject. VMBO pupils study one modern language and HAVO/VWO pupils at least two. Other core areas include mathematics, history, humanities, arts and sciences.
School holidays in the Netherlands
Major holidays for state schools are set nationally with staggered start/finish times between three regions. Private international school holidays can be different. For school holidays per region, look up ondrwerpen/schoolvakanties on www.rijksoverheid.nl.
Bilingual education (tweetalig onderwijs TTO)
There are 117 schools with a VWO bilingual stream, plus 45 HAVO and 24 VMBO schools have bilingual departments. Only students that master the Dutch language at an appropriate level will be admitted (www.europeesplatform.nl/tto).
Higher education in the Netherlands
If you're looking to study in the Netherlands, read our guide to the higher education system in the Netherlands.
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Updated from 2012, 2014.
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