With around 7000 primary schools to choose from, newcomers to the Netherlands need clear information to identify the best fit for their child. We answer the key questions on primary education options to help you begin your search.What do I need to know about primary education in the Netherlands?
Most children will start school on, or shortly after, their fourth birthday, although school is not compulsory until the age of five.
Once your child turns five, the Leerplicht law applies, meaning that unauthorised absence from school can result in the parents being fined or prosecuted. Exceptions can usually be made for important events, but must be applied for in writing.
Most children will have a phased start to school, beginning with half days, so that they can get used to it. This is called wennen. You can discuss with the teacher how long this induction period should be, depending on the needs of your child and how quickly they settle into the new routine.
Education in the Netherlands is free and the vast majority of Dutch children will attend a state-funded school. Parents are usually asked to make a voluntary contribution (ouderbijdrage) which helps pay for school trips and other extra-curricular activities. The amount you are asked to pay varies between schools and between year groups.
International schools are fee-paying but some are subsidised by the state.
Primary schools take the children up to age 12. The children begin in the kleuterklas, which is normally groep 1 and groep 2 combined, and includes children aged 4-6. The last year of primary school is groep 8, after which they progress to secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs).
Children attend school from Monday to Friday. The school day typically runs from around 8:45 to 15:00. Children may return home for lunch, although most stay on site and must pay a small fee for their supervision. Wednesday is a shorter day, with school finishing around midday.
When do I need to start thinking about applying?
The application deadline is normally shortly after your child turns three, so it is a good idea to begin doing your research at least six months before that. This gives you time to draw up your shortlist and attend the open days for your preferred schools.
What types of school are there?
About a third of all primary schools in the Netherlands are public schools. The remainder are mostly religious schools. These fall under the category of ‘private’ but are still funded by the state.
In the Netherlands, schools offer a range of different pedagogies, such as Dalton, Montessori and Steiner. Some encourage more independent learning, led by the child’s curiosity, others are more teacher-led. You will need to look at the schools in your neighbourhood, identify the curriculum they follow, and consider which approach is most beneficial to your child.
Which schools are suitable for a child who does not speak Dutch?
Dutch Primary Schools
If your child is under six, they are likely to pick up the new language quickly and you may like to enrol them in a regular Dutch primary school (basisschool). If they are over six, then they can still go to the basisschool but may be required to attend a newcomer’s class (nieuwkomersklas or schakelklas) for the first year, to improve their Dutch and ease their transition.
If you are already based in the Netherlands, consider enrolling your child in a Dutch preschool (voorschool or peuterspeelzaal) or sending them to Dutch Day Care (kinderdagverbijf). This will give them a good foundation in the language before they start compulsory education.
Another option to help your child integrate into Dutch life is to enrol them in a bilingual school (Tweetaligonderwijs or TTO). This is a relatively new concept in the Netherlands that is becoming popular. Some lessons are taught in English and some in Dutch, with the aim of getting your child proficient in Dutch as quickly as possible.
This is a good option if you are only planning to stay in the Netherlands for a short period.
These schools usually teach the International Primary Curriculum or the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. Some schools, like the British School of Amsterdam or the Lycée Français in the Hague, follow a curriculum based on a specific country and teach the students in their native tongue. When students repatriate, they have followed the same syllabus as their peers and can slot back into the education system with ease.
Fees for international schools vary considerably. Some schools are subsidised by the state and have an annual fee of around €5000; others are closer to €15,000.
If you are moving to the Netherlands to accept a position at a large company, they may offer to pay the fees as part of your relocation agreement. Many of these schools, particularly in Amsterdam, are oversubscribed and have waiting lists. The sector is expanding to try to cope with this growing demand.
You can find a list of International schools in the Netherlands here.
What provisions are there for children with special needs?
Most children with special needs will attend mainstream schools and receive additional support within that setting. However, if these schools cannot meet their needs, then they will be educated at a special school (speciaalschool), which has expertise in teaching children with their specific requirements.
Within this category, there are SBO schools (Speciaal Basisonderwijs) and SO schools (Speciaal Onderwijs). The SBO mirrors the pedagogy of the regular primary schools but has smaller classes and offers greater support. The SO schools offer four types of specialised education depending on the nature of the child’s impairment, such as sight, speech, behaviour or mobility.
The majority of special education is delivered in Dutch, with a few exceptions, such as international schools like Lighthouse Special Education in The Hague.
To be admitted to a special school, a child must have an indication of special needs from the GGD.
Do schools offer any child care outside of school hours?
Most schools provide child care before school (Voorschoolse Opvang or VSO), after school (Naschoolse Opvang or NSO), and during the holidays. This service must be paid for and prearranged.
Which criteria should I use to select a school?
Check the school websites for details of their open days (voorlichtingsdagen). Prepare a list of questions to bring with you. Take a tour around the school, speak to the teachers, and get a feel for its atmosphere and culture.
Consider how far you are willing to travel. If you choose a local school, the school run is shorter and your child’s school friends are likely to live nearby which makes play dates, parties and lift-sharing much more convenient. However, some parents are willing to travel a bit further to a school with a particular philosophy or religious affiliation, or to attend an international school.
Decide which pedagogy you would prefer for your child. If you prefer Montessori, for example, you can prioritise the schools in your area which offer this.
Consult the inspection reports for your local schools and compare their performance.
How do I apply?
If you are abroad and your child has already begun their primary education, it is probably best to make a shortlist of your preferred schools and get in touch with them directly. Contact the municipality (gemeente) for the area that you are moving to and request a list of their primary schools. If you are already residing in the Netherlands, you will receive a letter from your municipality before your child’s third birthday, which will explain the procedure.
Application procedures vary between municipalities and schools. Some regions have a central application system; in others, you apply directly to the school. You are normally required to rank your choices.
Be aware that some schools in your area may not feature in the central application system. These are known as eenpitter schools and are run independently, with their own board and their own application procedures. You can apply through both systems in tandem.
Once you have applied, a lottery system applies. This can be a nail-biting procedure but the state is duty-bound to educate your child and you will be placed eventually.
Once you have been offered a school that you are happy with, make sure you formally accept the offer to secure your place.
If you are disappointed with your child’s new school, you can contact other schools and asked to be placed on their waiting lists.
Choosing a school where you have priority
You get priority for the schools in your local area. You are allowed to select schools further away but are less likely to be selected.
If your child has been attending the preschool connected to your first-choice primary school for some time, they may get priority for that school. This normally only applies if the child has an indication (indicatie) from your children’s health clinic (consultatiebureau). Indications used to be given to newcomers who were non-native speakers of Dutch, but are now primarily concerned with low linguistic ability as a result of learning difficulties or deprivation.
Some primary schools also have an integrated day care centre that is part of their infrastructure. These preschoolers may also get priority at the school.
Once your eldest child is in school, any siblings are guaranteed a place at the same school. You will still need to make a formal application.
Where can I get help with finding a school?
Finding the right school for your child can be a daunting process but there are many ways to get help.
If you have specific questions about a school, consider joining a local Facebook group which will enable you to connect with other parents of school-aged children.
Look online for your municipality’s website and find the education section or consult the government website for the answers to common questions (in Dutch).
If you are making plans from overseas or feel you need extra help, consider employing an advisor such as New2NL or Young Expat School. They can guide you through the procedure in person or over skype, and make suggestions about the best school for you.
Have you lived in the Netherlands with children? Share your experiences in the comments!