For those of you out there who didn’t grow up in the Netherlands but find yourself raising a young family here, sending your children to a Dutch school can present some interesting challenges. Not only will your tots be babbling away to school friends long before you can even remember 7 Dutch words, they will adopt a (school) culture that differs in many ways from the one you grew up in.

Apart from learning the language and the culture however, it is crucial, if you are going to stay here, that you understand the Dutch school system. Here’s a guide, from one parent to another, to help you navigate the Dutch education system and shed some light on the baffling jargon and cryptic abbreviations you will be faced with.


Early or late pupil?

Although the compulsory age for school attendance in the Netherlands is 5, almost everyone starts their child at basisschool (elementary school) as soon as possible after her 4th birthday. In the first two years, kleuters (4 and 5 year-olds) are guided through a gradual transition from learning-by-playing to learning to read and write.

In practice this means that some children (those born in the summer or autumn) have a full two years at school before they go into group 3 (the ‘late’ pupils). Those born in the winter or spring months, on the other hand, are promoted to group 3 well before they turn 6 (and consequently called the ‘early’ pupils). Naturally early or late has nothing to do with your child’s level of intelligence, nor what time she gets to school in the morning, though parents have been known to subconsciously puff up with pride when they announce their child is an ‘early pupil’.

Dutch school system
Dutch kids are known to be really really happy childeren

Actual learning begins in the 3rd year. Depending on the school, subjects like natural science, geography, history and even English are taught, often in the form of across-the-board projects that relate to the children’s everyday lives. The main focus, however, is on reading, writing and maths (math is ‘wiskunde’ but at first it’s just called ‘rekenen’).

Dutch school system: It’s elementary, my dear Watson

Elementary schools in the Netherlands take an overall pressure-free approach to learning. Homework is rare, so children have plenty of time for play and sports activities after school. In the 7th and 8th groups children are given a plot in the schooltuin (school garden) where they learn how to grow their own veggies, they are taught fietsvaardigheidslessen (how to cycle safety in traffic) and they get to perform a musical at the end of their 8th year.

Dutch schools don’t provide school lunches, instead every child brings his own fruithapje (fruit snack) and broodtrommel (sandwich box). The school year is divided into handle-able chunks of about 6 weeks, separated by a week off, and 6 weeks off in the summer. Your child will have a spring break, a May break, a summer break, an autumn break and a Christmas break (two weeks). In order to avoid overcrowding of holiday destinations and traffic jams, school holidays in the North, South and middle of the country are staggered.

The Dutch school system has North, Middle and South ‘vakantiespreiding’


Nit mothers and reading fathers

If the school is not within walking distance from home, children in the Netherlands cycle to school. Younger children are transported in a bakfiets (bike with box in front) until they are about 6 or 7 and old enough to cycle themselves.

Many elementary schools enlist parents’ help: don’t be surprised if you encounter a luizenmoeder (nit mother) combing through your child’s hair in the morning looking for nits, or a leesvader (reading father) giving some extra attention to your slow reader.

Doesn’t get more Dutch than the ‘bakfiets’

Dutch school system: Cito-stress

After 8 years of relatively carefree elementary schooling, things drastically change in the final year, when children take a mandatory state exam, the cito-toets. Based on the results of this exam, teachers recommend the level of secondary education that will be most suitable for your child. Needless to say this process is often surrounded by anxiety and controversy (complaints from parents about biased or incorrect assessments are common), as this next step in the child’s school career is crucial to his future.

Clever clogs that get a cito-score high enough to go to VWO (pre-university education) or HAVO-school (higher general secondary education) will almost inevitably go on to enjoy higher education, whereas the more practical minded get to go to a VMBO for vocational training and are more likely to start out on a lower rung of the social ladder. (VMBO took the place of what used to be the MAVO and VBO levels, and yes all these abbreviations are terribly confusing).


Choosing a school in the Netherlands

Once parents and teachers have agreed what level is best, the search for the right school begins. The options range from broad spectrum schools for all levels, to schools that offer only practical or vocational education and schools for only HAVO and VWO-level education. For children who scored above average in the cito-test there is another option, the gymnasium. Here pupils are given Latin and Ancient Greek as well as the full VWO-curriculum.

Of course not all these options may be available in your area. In the big cities the scarcity of places at the most popular schools means that your child might get uitgeloot (voted/balloted out) from the school she wants to go to and have to settle for her second or even third choice. This is a real problem, especially in Amsterdam.

Ins and outs

Schools are well-funded and monitored through a quality assurance system. If they are not doing well there is a government body that will come in and assist them.

All the same, issues like bad attendance and lack of motivation and discipline give some VMBO-schools a bad reputation. They are generally seen as less inspiring environments than a HAVO/VWO-school and attending a VMBO has a stigmatizing effect on children that can last throughout life. Gymnasia, on the other hand, are notorious for attracting children from elitist families, who tend to put greater pressure on their children to score well and go to university.

In the cities there is another worrying phenomenon: despite efforts by the Ministry of Education to encourage racial mixing, so-called zwarte scholen (black schools) that draw a majority of Moroccan, Turkish or Surinam children find that they are being avoided by ‘white’ children, even though no-one will admit it!

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Bridging the gap

Once your child has survived all this cito-stress and enrolled at a school that is within reasonable cycling range – he or she becomes a brugpieper. This is what the Dutch call a pupil in the first (and sometimes second) year of secondary school, or brugklas.

If he is going to a gymnasium or ‘doing’ VWO, he will be at school for 6 years and take his eindexamen (final exam) when he is about 18. He can then go on to a WO, or research university. The HAVO-curriculum takes 5 years and paves the way for higher professional education at a HBO, or university of applied sciences.

For VMBO-pupils there are 4 different directions, varying from the very practical (learning a trade) to a more theoretical training. After 4 years the pupil can continue his education at an MBO-school (secondary vocational education).

All the above of course assuming your child doesn’t ‘blijft zitten’! (flunk the year).


Here’s a nice little movie doing a lot of explaining on the Dutch school system as well:

Dutch School system: Equal chances

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, children can rise or drop from one level to another in the course of their school career, according to their results. So a VMBO-pupil with straight ‘A’s can continue at HAVO-level, and a struggling ‘gymnasiast’ can drop Latin and Greek and continue at VWO-level.

This wonderfully egalitarian system allows late-bloomers to grow and under-achievers to readjust their ambitions. The only drawback is that changing levels often means changing schools entirely.

You will see this in late spring and summer

And then the day comes when your child hangs his or her schoolbag from a flagpole outside the house…’geslaagd!’ (graduated!). She has been lucky enough to enjoy what is arguably one of the fairest education systems in the world that offers equal chances to all to rise above one’s social and cultural background.

In fact the World Economic Forum ranks education in the Netherlands as the 5th best in the world. No wonder Dutch children are reported to be amongst the happiest children in the world.

Still need to know more about the Dutch school system?

Yep, all those abbreviations are hard and confusing. And we’ve just had the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Dutch jargon on the educational system. If you need some more explanation and want to learn more Dutch in an easygoing way we suggest you have a look at our education category! Cheers!



  1. Dutch education system is truly awful. It lets the kids down. And most resent it later in life for either too much or too little stress depending on whether they are gymasium or vmbo kid. Primary education is a very low by world standards.


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