The Dutch school system for dummies: a guide from one parent to another

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’.

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.

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.

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 some 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!

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.

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!

What do you think of the Dutch school system? Need a class on going to class? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Pixabay/Pexels

Nellie Werner
Nellie is a bilingual English/Dutch-speaker with a B.A. in Translation, living and working in Amsterdam.


  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.

    • I fear that you are correct. The main difference between Dutch education and the rest of the world is time and the knowledge and skill acquired within that time, ie efficiency . Dutch education is inefficient. It takes its time. Kids are approximately two years behind foreign education systems. Most kids can read, write and do basic mathematics when they reach group 3 age (6/7) but in NL this is the age they start. Developmentally, this is a recipe for disaster. It means kids with learning difficulties will be identified or receive help two or even three years later than their foreign counterparts. Scientific research shows evidence that the earlier slow learners are identified the better the outcome later in life. Its common sense. For example, if a child finds maths, reading or writing particularly difficult then they have a whole two or three years of extra time to get the extra help they need. A child of 3 or 4 has a brain with more plasticity than a 6 or 7 year old . ‘Catching up’ is possible within a few years with the correct help. However, studies show if the difficulties are identified at 6+ years of age ‘catching up’ will take twice as long and require far more effort by the child who may never catch up. The Dutch education system takes care of this by allocating these poor kids to vmbo schools: kids destined for a life as a dustman or cleaner when they are merely 12. This might sound bad but at the moment in NL they will receive a minimum wage and cheap social l accommodation that is of a higher standard than in other countries. That said since the great recession, the social safety net and affordable accommodation has changed drastically. Dutch education is perhaps 20 years behind the rest of the world. That said it does produce confident kids, but their confidence might be decimated when they apply for jobs or enter the work force. They MIGHT discover that they don’t possess the same amount of knowledge as their peers and competitors. As such confidence turns to bitterness and resentfulness. It also produces older kids, as it were. Dutch adults are far less mature than their foreign peers. Dutch adults leave university when they are 25+. That’s 4 years later than their foreign peers. Their peers have say 4 years more career experience than the Dutch. This is easily seen in the Dutch workplace. I believe the worst outcome for Dutch kids is when they themselves have to become expats in a country whose primary education is two years in advance. Through no fault of their own they will have to drop a year or two and that will hit their confidence. A group 4, 7/8 year old would not appreciate dropping a year, especially when they themselves are are physically far more developed (Dutch kids are generally taller and will have played done alot of sport) than their 6 year old classmates . Private tuition is booming in NL.

    • I wasn’t, I was an early pupil. I went to group 3 at age 5, turned 6 in October. I think they decide based on intelligence and development.

  2. Good explanation but let’s not forget that this system is also caste-based! Many educators in the Dutch system are racially biased and put children of non-white backgrounds in lower levels based on their race, not their academics. It also does not account for the facts that people change every 10 years. It’s unfair to put a child in a box so young. I know many brilliant minds that did horribly in school because it bored them and once they decided what they wanted to do they became millionaires. The education system is flawed and biased. I also know many Dutch professionals who are depressed because they were hindered by the system not to follow their real dreams and feel stuck in a career box. Cito testing is not the most accurate assessment of your child’s education. There is a rise in international schools in Amsterdam because even Dutch parents are aware of how bad the Dutch system is on the self-esteem of their children. The Dutch system fails in SEL(social-emotional learning) as well. The amount of bullying and lack of teacher intervention is staggering. No system in the world is perfect, well maybe the Finnish, but this system needs a lot more humanity.



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