If you haven’t grown 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 seven Dutch words, but they’ll also adopt a (school) culture that differs in many ways from the one you grew up in.
So, 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’ll no doubt be faced with.
Early or late pupil?
Although the compulsory age for school attendance in the Netherlands is five, almost everyone starts their child at basisschool (elementary school) as soon as possible after their fourth birthday. In the first two years, kleuters (four and five-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 three (the “late” pupils).
Those born in the winter or spring months, on the other hand, are promoted to group three well before they turn six (and are consequently called the “early” pupils).
Naturally early or late has nothing to do with your child’s level of intelligence, nor what time they get 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 third 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 in Dutch 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 seventh and eighth 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 safely in traffic), and they get to perform a musical at the end of their eighth year.
Dutch schools don’t provide school lunches, instead, younger children bring their own fruithapje (fruit snack) and broodtrommel (sandwich box). The school year is divided into handle-able chunks of about six weeks, separated by a week off, and then six weeks of summer holiday. 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 isn’t within walking distance from home, children in the Netherlands cycle to school. Younger children are transported in a bakfiets (a bike with a box in front) until they are about six or seven 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.
Cito-stress: going from elementary to secondary schooling in the Netherlands
After eight 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 their 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).
Dutch school-system: choosing a secondary school in the Netherlands
Once parents and teachers have agreed on which level is best, the search for the right school begins.
The options range from a broad spectrum of 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 they want to go to and have to settle for her second or even third choice. This is a real problem, especially in Amsterdam.
Under the surface
Generally, Dutch schools are well-funded and monitored through a quality assurance system. If they aren’t 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 stigmatising 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 is enrolled in a school that’s within reasonable cycling range, they become a brugpieper: This is what the Dutch call a pupil in the first (and sometimes second) year of secondary school, also called brugklas.
If they are going to a gymnasium or doing VWO, they’ll be at school for six years and take their eindexamen (final exam) when they’re about 18. Afterwards, they can then go on to a WO, or research university.
The HAVO-curriculum takes five years and paves the way for higher professional education at a HBO, or university of applied sciences.
For VMBO-pupils there are four different directions, varying from the very practical (learning a trade) to more theoretical training. After four years the pupil can continue their education at an MBO-school (secondary vocational education).
All the above of course assuming your child doesn’t blijft zitten (flunk the year)!
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.
Finally, the day comes when your child hangs their schoolbag from a flagpole outside the house…geslaagd! (graduated!). They’ve been lucky enough to enjoy what is arguably one of the fairest education systems in the world. One that offers equal chances for all to rise above one’s social and cultural background.
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
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2017, and was fully updated in September 2021 for your reading pleasure.