When you first learn you’re moving overseas, so many thoughts run through your mind.
Where will we live? What are the weather and geography like? Will I need to learn a new language? How different will the culture be?
Yet for the parents among us, schooling options for our children ranks right at the top of the list.
The good news is that if your destination is the Netherlands, you’re got plenty of options.
What will help you sift through the choices is your specific situation:
• the area where you’ll be living
• the number and ages of your children
• your anticipated length of stay
• preferences for a specific type of education
• their personalities and learning styles
• any special needsThe Randstad and Beyond
Approximately 40% of the Dutch population of 17 million lives in the Randstad, the diamond-shaped corridor on the west coast of the country stretching from Amsterdam in the north, The Hague in the west, Rotterdam in the south and Utrecht just to the east.
Amsterdam may be the largest city, but The Hague is the seat of government with the Queen and her government Ministries, the Dutch Congress, foreign embassies, and international and many non-governmental organizations located there. International businesses exist throughout the country, but the majority are in Randstad.
Why does location matter?
The majority of expats live within the Randstad, as do the greatest concentration of English-speaking Dutch, including the preponderance of English-speaking schools. The further you travel away from the Randstad, the less likely you are to find such schools, or the fewer your choices will be. In smaller villages, your options may be extremely limited or non-existent.
Dutch schools warmly welcome you and your children, but classes are conducted in Dutch, with opportunities for foreign language instruction (primarily English, French and German) in their equivalent of middle and high schools. If emigrating to the Netherlands or thinking of staying many years, some parents may choose to integrate more deeply into Dutch society by having their children attend local schools while maintaining their mother tongue at home.
All students attend basisschool, essentially a combined kindergarten and elementary school. However, keep in mind that by middle school the Dutch system channels students into three different school tracks according to abilities, needs and backgrounds. These include: voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs (preparatory middle-level vocational education) leading to middelbaar beroepsonderwijs (middle-level vocational or applied education); hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs (higher general continued education) leading to hoger beroepsonderwijs (higher professional education, essentially universities of applied sciences); or voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijsleading (preparatory scientific education leading to wetenschappelijk onderwijs (scientific education taught at research universities).
International (i.e., non-Dutch) Schools generally provide elementary, middle and high school level education. Some may offer pre-school as well. For most expats, the preference is instruction in their native language. While International Schools exist in places like Amsterdam, Groningen, Eindhoven and Rotterdam, The Hague is home to the greatest number, with the national French, German and Indonesian schools. If you are seeking an English-speaking teaching environment there, you may choose among the International, British and American schools, and the soon-to-be opened European School.
So what’s the difference?
International Baccalaureate Schools
The International School of The Hague and British School of the Netherlands (as well as the European School when it opens, and other International Schools in the Netherlands) offer an international baccalaureate diploma program. For their final two years of high school, students take a minimum of six two-year classes (English, a natural science, math, a foreign language, history or a social science plus one other which may include art, music, theatre or another of their choosing). Exams testing the full two year experience take place at the end of the second year.
Three of the courses are taken at the university High Level while the remaining three are taken at the Standard Level. Additionally, IB students take an intensive one-year Theory of Knowledge course, write a 4,000 essay, and complete 150 hours of Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) hours of benefit to others.
Entrance to higher-level education throughout Europe, Canada and elsewhere is based on admission to a particular program within each university, a completed IB diploma and meeting specific university requisite grades for the two-year examinations on the six core courses.
American Schools Offer Choice
In addition to a full IB curriculum, American international schools offer university-level Advanced Placement (AP) and other courses that are usually taken in the United States when headed toward higher education. In general terms, the AP diploma may be slightly broader in subject matter since students take a wider number of one year courses, and often includes a community service requirement; the IB diploma tends to go deeper with emphasis on testing the full two years of the core courses plus the Theory of Knowledge course, extended essay and larger CAS service hours requirement.
Despite their name, American international schools are not limited to expats from the United States. My daughter’s school, American School of The Hague, happens to be only 1/3 American; 2/3 of its students come from all over the world, including the Netherlands.
Approximately three quarters of students there earn a full IB diploma while many of the remaining students complete a hybrid AP-partial IB diploma, as my son did. Having gone through the university search process two years ago with my son and now going through it with my daughter, I can tell you that the IB diploma is well regarded in the United States, and nowadays virtually all America universities accept the various diploma options: full AP, full IB or AP/IB hybrid.
Students may earn university credit for both their IB Higher-level and Advanced Placement courses, based on the final grades received in those classes.
Competition for Spaces
The number of expats seeking spaces for their children in the wide range of international schools available in the Netherlands is growing. Additionally, certain schools may receive funding from their home governments in exchange for giving priority to the children of members of their diplomatic corps. Open spots are often limited and competition can be fierce; once filled, the schools may not be a position to accommodate your children (at least not until the next semester or school year).
If you wish to have your children attend an international school, it is important that you contact the admissions offices as soon as possible. If space is available or the wait list is short, do not procrastinate!
Most schools accept applications online but will not put you in the queue for processing until you have submitted all required information which usually includes family background and contact information, educational history, official transcripts from current schools, an up-to-date medical examination and required inoculations, copies of birth certificates and current passports, and counsellor and teacher recommendations.
Since they’ve done this before and know how limited slots can be, long-time expat parents know to quickly reach out to potential new schools, contact their current schools, check on the status of medical exams and vaccinations, and gather and submit this information immediately.
The bottom line is this: make researching and applying for educational options your top priority and get things done as soon as possible.
Younger Children and Those with Special Needs
If you’re parents of young children, you’ve got time to do research on future schools. However, if preschool is in your plans, be aware that they exist but aren’t as plentiful in the Netherlands as they are in many other countries. Check with international schools as well as private sector preschools.
If your child has special instructional needs, options are more limited but do exist. The British School of The Hague offers special education centralized on behalf of the consortium of international high schools in
The Hague and surrounding suburbs. For even more intensive needs, you may want to look into the Lighthouse School in The Hague.
Whatever your family’s particular needs, with research and timely attention to detail, you should be able to find an educational situation that fits.
A writer and American expat living in the Netherlands with her husband and two teens, Linda pens articles on expat life and blogs at Adventures in Expat Land sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd with a twist. She is also a co-author of the recent bestseller Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories from Women Entrepreneurs.
You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.