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The Netherlands (Holland) - Education and Schools

The Dutch education system is firmly focused on offering an element of choice to both parents and pupils alike, and the country is renowned for having a strong, well-balanced education system that offers a high quality education.

Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 18 years old. However, almost 90% of children start their education from the age of three, and most are enrolled by the age of four. For children whose first language is not Dutch, special early education programmes can be arranged from the age of two.

Approximately one third of all school leavers in the Netherlands enter higher education of some kind.

The system in the Netherlands consists of eight years of primary education, four/five/six years of secondary education, and between two and six years of higher education.

Primary education covers ages four to twelve and is delivered by primary schools (basisonderwijs) or schools for special education (special onderwijs). Dutch law states that children must start school no later than the first day of the month after their 5th birthday.

Approximately two thirds of primary pupils in the Netherlands attend a school with an approach based on a particular religion or denomination, such as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim schools. In addition to this, there are also government-funded and privately-funded schools based on specific education approaches, such as the Montessori Method, the Dalton Plan, and the Jena Plan.

At the end of their final year of primary education (primair onderwijs), pupils select the type of secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs) they would like to pursue: general secondary education (algemeen voortgezet onderwijs, HAVO or VWO) or preparatory secondary vocational education (beroepsgericht voortgezet onderwijs, VMBO). This decision is usually based on the recommendation of their school, their own preferences, and a national test - the Citotoets.

Whichever secondary education route a child chooses, it is compulsory up until the age of 16. General secondary education (HAVO or VWO) consists of two types of education: pre-university education (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs, VWO), senior secondary education (hoger algemeen vootgezet onderwijs, HAVO), and vocational education (VMBO). All three types of education follow a similar curriculum for the first two or three years, after which it becomes more specialised.

VWO lasts for six years and can be taken at a gymnasium, athenaeum, or lyceum, whilst HAVO lasts for five years. Both HAVO and VWO conclude in a national examination in 6 subjects (HAVO) or 7 subjects (VWO). Upon passing the exam, students are awarded a VWO or HAVO diploma. Vocational education (Voorbereidend Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs – VMBO) is taken by approximately 60% of secondary students.

The Netherlands has recently embraced the study house (studiehuis) principle within its secondary education programmes. Under this principle, students from the fourth year of secondary study upwards are encouraged to study independently, with teachers playing more of a facilitator role rather than instructing.

In the country’s main cities, there are a number of international schools offering primary and secondary education based on either the British National Curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. English language streams are also becoming increasingly common in many Dutch state schools and, although tuition fees may be payable, they are much lower than those charged at international schools.

State education is free at both a primary and secondary level, although parents are asked to make a voluntary, nominal contribution. Additional payments are required for overnight school trips, lunchtime supervision (tussenschoolse opvang) and after school care (naschoolse opvang). The fees for international schools vary significantly from school to school.

Whilst Dutch is the official language of education, under the influence of the Bologna process, an increasing number of study programmes are now being offered in English.

The Dutch education system is regulated by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The Ministry sets out a national framework covering educational objectives, admission requirements and funding procedures, although in recent years, schools have been given an increased level of flexibility within this framework.

School inspection reports for all state schools and Dutch international schools can be viewed online. Simply go to and enter the name of the relevant school or town under Zoek Scholen. Expats with a limited grasp of Dutch can follow the colour coded system, where green is good and red is weak.

Once you have found the school that you would like to send your child to, you need to register your child there as soon as possible. Although public schools in the Netherlands are technically not allowed to refuse admission unless they are full, the majority of popular schools have waiting lists and the municipality can set catchment areas. For this reason, it is best to register your child as early as the school permits it.

The Dutch academic year runs from 1st September until 31st August. For state schools, the major school holidays are set nationally, with their start and finish dates staggered across three regions. Private international schools can set their own holidays.

Pupils are not permitted to take time out of school during term time unless they have been given special permission by their local authority.

Dutch schools do not typically offer extra-curricular activities; instead these are run by cities and municipalities.

The Dutch higher education system is known for its high quality. Offering over 2,100 international study programmes and courses, the Netherlands provides the largest selection of English-taught programmes in continental Europe.

The higher education system is binary, meaning that there are two different types of education on offer: research-oriented education, offered by research universities, and higher professional education, offered by universities of applied sciences. Institutes for International Education also offer programmes that have been designed specifically for international students.

Higher education operates on a three-cycle system. During the first cycle, students obtain a bachelor’s degree; in the second, they study towards a master’s degree, and in the third, they can then start a PhD or PDeng.

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