Dutch schools

What's new 2016: Dutch education with a bilingual tongue

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The Dutch government continues to pride itself on 'choice' in education: from considering Trampoline schools to, more importantly, boosting bilingual and international education in the Netherlands.

The population in many Dutch cities is ageing and schools are either closing or merging, but in Amsterdam there is a need for new schools. In the coming 10 years the Dutch capital expects a 9 percent growth in the
number of primary school students and an 11 percent growth in high school students.

The municipality asked locals to come up with ideas, asking them what their ideal school would look like. The public and a professional jury voted for the schools they preferred, and 15 plans have made it through to the next round. The plans range from a Trampoline school to a Latin school, from advancing underprivileged children to creating schools that accommodate children from zero to 18-years-old. Currently, a project group is expanding on all these ideas and eventually three or four of the plans will be realised. The local government has committed itself to providing the support required to build those schools.

The Dutch promise: Freedom in education

Starting your own school with a subsidy from the government is nothing new, though. After a tough national school battle that lasted for over 100 years, all parties signed the Freedom of Education Act in 1917. Since then, Openbare (public) and Bijzondere (special) schools have had the same status. Currently about two-thirds of children in the Netherlands attend a special school. These are run by their own board (usually consisting of a group of parents or a foundation), and are often based on a religion or an educational philosophy like Montessori, Dalton or Waldorf.

Some of these special schools are providing extra special features, which provide a well-rounded Dutch education system that caters to almost any education need.

International education in the Netherlands

Bilingual schools: 'Giving kids a head-start'

Bilingual high schools, where half of the curriculum is typically taught in Dutch and the other half in English, have been around for a while.

A more recent development are bilingual primary schools. Eighteen schools throughout the country have been appointed as national bilingual pilot schools, where 30–30 percent of the lessons are taught in another language – usually English. 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 has held them back for a long time. These pilot schools are therefore being closely monitored, supported and evaluated.

Some other schools have come up with their own form of teaching more lessons in English in their curriculum. As they are not official pilot schools, they are more restricted. Usually teaching in English only takes place for 20–30 percent of the time.

In or near Amsterdam, the following Dutch schools have some kind of bilingual program:

  • De Visserschool –national pilot school.
  • DENISE – started in August 2014, International Primary Curriculum (IPC), they also accommodate non-Dutch speakers.
  • Kindercampus Zuidasopenbaar, started in August 2014.
  • School of Understanding – started in August 2015, IPC, no fixed classes, in Amstelveen.
  • Little Universe – private, bilingual Montessori school with IPC program.*
  • Florencius – private school in Amstelveen which has recently started offering some lessons in
  • English.*
  • LIFE! – started in September 2015, private, democratic school based on non-violent communication (NVC).*

Private or subsidised school?

Priviate schools are fee-paying schools that are not subsidised by the Dutch government, whereas the openbare and special schools only ask for a voluntary parent contribution. 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 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.

Early foreign language education (VVTO)

By law Dutch schools have to start teaching English by grade 7 (about age 10) at the latest. Increasingly more schools have decided to start earlier; sometimes from grade 1. These schools are called VVTO schools, which refers to Early Foreign Language Education.

The difference between a VVTO school and a bilingual school is that a bilingual school also teaches other subjects like history and gym in English (or another foreign language), while a VVTO school teaches a foreign language class from an early stage, but the rest of the curriculum is in Dutch.

Probably the most unique school in this respect is the Europaschool, where children can choose between English, French and Spanish from grade 1. Foreign children are not allowed to pick their native language, though. On top of that they have also recently started with the IPC program.

International Primary Curriculum (IPC)

Another interesting development is that certain Dutch schools have introduced the IPC program. This is a theme-based International Primary Curriculum that you could previously only encounter at international schools. Most subjects are offered in an integrated way and the students learn a lot by doing their own (group) research.

Flexible school hours

One of the first things that international parents of school-going children notice in the Netherlands is that the Dutch school attendance law is very strict. In the eight years of primary school, children are obliged to go to school for at least 7,520 hours. School management may divide these hours over the years at their own discretion, with more hours in the higher grades. Also the school vacations are pre-established at a national level and you are not allowed to take any other days off during the school year.

Some schools have come up with a more flexible structure where parents have some freedom to take their holidays throughout the year. Most of these schools are fee-paying private schools, of which the democratic schools are probably most flexible, since their students are free to decide what they want to learn, and when (within the national requirements, that is).

International education in the Netherlands

Gifted children

Given that a common Dutch expression is ‘everyone should act normal, as you are already crazy enough’, it is perhaps not surprising that until recently people frowned upon children who were more advanced than their peers.

Having them skip a few grades has often proved not to be the right solution and luckily more and more schools have come to realise this. Many schools have introduced a ‘plus class’ where advanced children get to work on more challenging projects for a few hours per week.

The majority of Amsterdam schools send their highest performing students for one day per week to the Day a Week school, where their cognitive and thinking skills are given a harder workout.

The Netherlands has already been introduced to schools such as Montessori, where children learn to work  independently at their own pace in mixed age groups. But now some new schools have taken this to a new level and have all children work in different groups based on their maturity in each subject, rather than age.

It's interesting to see the Netherlands' hard-earned freedom of education is expanding and adjusting to a rapidly changing world.

References and more information (some pages in Dutch only)


Annebet van Mameren / New2nl / Expatica

Published 2015.


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