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

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).

young-children-in-elementary-dutch-school
Arts and crafts is always a favourite. Image: DmitryPoch/Depositphotos

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).

children-in-dutch-school-taking-a-test
Test time! Image: Kzenon/Depositphotos

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)!

More of a visual learner? Here’s a video that explains the system quite 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.

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.

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

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18 COMMENTS

  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’d strongly disagree. As a Dutch person I have a obvious bias. But having lived and worked in a number of countries I can’t say I have ever struggled in any way due to a lack of education, if anything it has been the opposite. Your comments seem based on speculation rather then considering some of the misconceptions this present, the Dutch educational system is generally ranked highly.

        Education happens before 6 it just happens in a different format focussed on mental development and growth as much as imparting skills and assessing who needs extra help is part of that well before age 6. I’ll also point out that in general there is no such thing as “catching up” as the goal post keeps moving.

        VMBO is also not a route for just bin men but for any professional education that does not meant BA standard.
        Dutch highshool, and professional education is also includes the option to graduate upwards. Meaning that you move on up and continue highschool at a higher level or move on to BA or later MA program using your previous education as qualification or even dispensation. This provides much more opportunities then the “one side fits all” programs of some countries. No needs spend 4-6 years getting frustrated with either their lack or results or progress. This reduces the need for apprentices to some extents and provides students with a professional education that is valid across the board rather then a skill set that does not transfer if you ever leave your employer

        On the flip side BA and MA programs can be more restrictive in their selection of Majors and Minors in order to qualify for a diploma than international counter parts. This means students do spend more time if they change their mind, but provides a clearer definition of some ones qualifications when they.

    • 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.

  3. ESTIMADA TRADUCTORA,ENSEÑO EN COSTA RICA A NIÑOS DE 2 A 4 AÑOS ME URGE MATERIAL VISUAL POR EL AISLAMIENTO DE COVID 19, TE SOLICITO URGENTE. MEP DE ESTE PAÍS SOLO TIENE MUY POCO DE MEXICO .GRACIAS MIL POR ATENDERME.

  4. What if my child is already 15, and starting middle school? We’re going to move to the Netherlands, and we want to know our options. I’ll appreciate some advice.

    • Karen, I’m in the same position, and it’s absolutely dismal here. Coming in from the US with great public schools, advanced placement programs and university bound programs I must say that the school system here is quite grim. Aside from the segregated public schools, and lack of them, Dutch public schools will hold your high schooler back a few years just so they can spend all their time learning Dutch. Officials at most public schools told me quite clearly that my son would not be able to enter a university-bound high school because learning Dutch is more important at this point in his life than getting an overall education. It’s a shame, especially when one considers that foreign non-English speaking students are integrated quite easily into the American system. Aussie system as well. There’s no such understanding of that here: kids are not allowed to integrate into a regular high school experience and are held back solely to push Dutch as the center of their existence. It’s beyond child abuse, if you ask me. International schools are the way out, but so far the three I’ve dealt with aggrandize their status online, but have shown to be extremely mediocre. On top of that there is almost no room left at the international schools, and most of them have a year’s waiting list. We have to commute to one outside of our city just to get our son to school as there is no room open at a single international school in our community. We are spending three hours a day on the road just to go to a pretty average, mediocre international school that teaches in English. It’s extremely demoralizing as it’s expensive and utterly time-consuming for a teenage kid to spend so much of his day commuting. I have also found most staff at every school I’ve dealt with to be extremely smug and contemptible: they have very little respect for parental input, and have a nasty habit of telling parents what’s best for their kids. It’s pretty awful and dystopian. We thought we could resolve this awful educational ambiance by home-schooling and taking matters into our own hands, but it’s illegal here. I would never have moved to this country had I known how awful it would be to find my son a good school (and I still haven’t really found one). I wish you a lot of luck.

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