Dutch school system: background

The Dutch educational system is known as a fair system with equal opportunities for all and it continues to rank well internationally. The Dutch curriculum is shaped by the government, schools and teachers. In primary education as well as lower grades of secondary education, the curriculum consists of core objectives and reference levels, whilst achievement targets rule the curriculum in upper secondary education. The last curriculum was formed in 2006, while since 2018 ‘development teams’ have been deliberating potential reforms in the areas of digital literacy, English, Dutch, mathematics, citizenship, exercise and sport, arts and culture, people and nature, and people and society. According to Dutch education law, attending school is obligatory in the Netherlands for all children aged 5 to 16 – or longer, until a basic qualification (startkwalificatie) is gained. However, most children start primary school at age 4.

Education in the Netherlands is divided into primary (basisschool), secondary (voortgezet onderwijs) and tertiary (hoger onderwijs). Tertiary education is the remit of universities and universities of applied sciences (HBO or hogeschool). Children in the Netherlands follow eight years of primary education, while secondary school is completed at the age of 16, 17 or 18, depending on the type of diploma. Classes are taught in Dutch, but more and more schools and universities conduct part of the lessons in English. Primary and secondary state education is available to everyone for free, but there are also private schools, which offer a different curriculum. Each city or town in the Netherlands has its own application procedures and educational quality can vary between schools – although the quality is generally fairly high, even for schools that perform relatively badly. Schools usually ask for a voluntary yearly contribution fee for extras (outings, special projects), which differs between schools and is dependent on the parents’ income. In their last year of primary education (groep 8), children receive an official recommendation from the school about the type of secondary education they should pursue. This recommendation is based on the leerlingvolgsysteem, a monitoring system used to register the achievements of pupils throughout their time at primary school, as well as an aptitude test taken in groep 8, usually referred to as the CITO-toets.

More information about the school system is available at:



Until the age of 4, young children in the Netherlands can attend a variety of non-compulsory daycare options, such as kindergarten, playgroups or childminders (kinderopvang, kinderdagverblijf, peuterspeelzaal or gastouder).

Primary education
A Dutch elementary or primary school has eight grades, known as ‘groups’, ranging from ‘Groep 1’ (4-year-olds) to ‘Groep 8’ (11-year-olds). In Groep 1 and 2, there is a focus on the gradual transition from learning-by-play to learning to read and write. The actual learning begins in the third year, groep 3. Children will start to study English fairly soon, often in groep 3 or 4. Depending on the school, subjects such as natural science, geography, history and English are taught, often in the form of across-the-board projects that relate to children’s everyday lives. The compulsory courses at primary schools are Dutch, English, mathematics, ‘world orientation’ (including geography, history, biology, traffic and politics), artistic subjects (such as music, drawing and crafts), and physical education.

In the final year of primary school (groep 8), the mandatory state exam Centrale Eindtoets, formally called CITO-toets, will help determine the next level of education. This test is often surrounded by anxiety and controversy among parents, as well as complaints about biased or incorrect assessments. However, their teacher’s advice is also important to determine their next steps. Pupils with a high score in their CITO-toets and a positive advice from their teacher will be able to attend the highest level (track) of secondary school, which in turn will provide access to university.

Once the next level of education has been determined, the search for the right secondary school begins. To help make a choice, many schools offer open days. The choice depends on personal preference about the school and its curriculum, as well as the (cycling) distance from home. However, in some of the larger cities – especially Amsterdam – the most popular schools have only limited spaces, which are distributed through a lottery system.

Secondary education
When children in the Netherlands start secondary school, usually at age 12, they enter one of three different tracks of secondary education, based on a student’s academic level as determined in the CITO-toets, their teacher’s advice, as well as their interests.

  1. VMBO (preparatory secondary vocational education) is a four-year vocationally-orientated course focussed on practical knowledge. After finishing the VMBO around age 16, the youngster can take a 3- or 4-year secondary vocational training (MBO) course, in which he/she learns a practical trade, such as hairdresser, carpenter or mechanic. Depending on how well a pupil performs at VMBO, he/she might also have the option of going on to attend the HAVO.
  2. The second track of secondary education is the HAVO, which is a five-year ‘middle stream’, completed around the age of 17. After the HAVO, a pupil may continue to study for a vocational degree at a university of applied sciences (hogeschool or HBO). The HBO trains students for jobs such as primary school teacher, nurse, IT technician or administrative assistant. Depending on how well a pupil performs at HAVO, he/she might also have the option of going on to attend the VWO.
  3. The third track of secondary education is the VWO, a six-year educational stream with a focus on theoretical knowledge. After finishing the VWO around age 18, students can attend a research university (WO) to take a bachelor’s degree. Students can also study VWO at schools known as athenaeum and gymnasium. At a gymnasium, students are taught Latin and Ancient Greek, whereas the athenaeum is simply another name for VWO without Latin and Greek.

Many schools offer all levels (VBMO, HAVO and VWO) in one building, making it easy to go up or down a level. Most secondary schools offer a mixed transition class, in which children of all academic abilities follow the first year of secondary school together.

Special education
A distinction is made in the Netherlands between public (openbare) and special (bijzondere) schools, which are founded on a particular religion, philosophy or educational vision. The government funds both types of education and all schools must meet general standards such as a minimum number of pupils and hours of education. The Dutch Inspectorate of Education (Onderwijsinspectie) oversees the quality of education in public and special schools.

Special schools are created when there is sufficient demand from local parents. Some are based on a specific religion, such as Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, Protestant Christian, Reformatory or Roman Catholic, but usually children of all faiths are accepted. Others are based on a specific educational philosophy, such as Dalton, Jenaplan, Steiner or Montessori. These methods of education usually encourage children to have more control over their own learning. Some of these schools have long waiting lists – in some cases you have to sign up when you’re still pregnant! However, some public primary schools also apply Montessori, Dalton or Jenaplan methods, so all may not be lost. There are also schools specifically aimed at academically gifted children, as well as (secondary) schools that cater to pupils performing sports at a high level.

Bilingual education
Bilingual education (tweetalig onderwijs or TTO) at the moment exists only for secondary schools. In TTO, at least half of the subjects is taught in English. The pupils use English in subjects such as history, geography and physical education, but it is also the language in which everyone at the school communicates. TTO students obtain a conventional diploma in VWO, HAVO or VMBO, which means that TTO schools must meet the regular government requirements, but they can also obtain an additional English language certificate.

All bilingual schools in the Netherlands, currently around 130, are part of a Nuffic-coordinated network; Nuffic is the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education. TTO teachers have been specially trained and standards, such as the English proficiency of pupils and teachers, as well as international orientation across the curriculum, are monitored by Nuffic. The school must also offer its own international activities. There are activities around the country with an international dimension, where pupils can use their English in practical situations and compete with TTO peers. Examples are the Mathematics Challenge and the Junior Speaking Contest, in which students from the second and third grade of HAVO and VWO write an English speech and present it, as well as the Drama contest. It should be noted that TTO schools still follow the Dutch curriculum and students speak Dutch about 50% of the day. They also take their final exams in Dutch.

More information about TTO is available at:


Bilingual primary education (Tweetalig Primair Onderwijs or TPO) is currently being researched in a pilot by 17 primary schools around the country. At these TPO schools, pupils are taught in English 30 to 50% of the time. The pilot, which runs from 2014 to 2023, measures the effect of this on the language development of children. A list of the participating schools (in Dutch) can be found at: www.nuffic.nl/onderwerpen/tweetalige-basisscholen/

International education
Pupils with non-Dutch nationality, or of families that are not planning to stay long in the country, can choose from various (private, non-government funded) international schools in the Netherlands, which follow an international curriculum, taught in English either wholly or in part. The qualifications for admission to these schools are set by the Dutch Ministry of Education. Internationally-recognised school certifications, such as the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program are offered, preparing students to transition to schools and universities all over the world. International secondary schools offer the IB Middle Years Program or the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). The Netherlands benefits from its reputation of having a strong business climate and economy, and the demand for places at international schools has increased considerably, resulting in waiting lists. The International Parent’s Student Support Group in the Netherlands is a useful information platform for parents of children who are attending or hope to attend Dutch International Secondary schools.

More information is available at:




Internationally-Oriented Primary Education (IGBO)
The Netherlands has a small number of schools with Internationaal Georiënteerd Basisonderwijs (IGBO), useful for children of expat parents who intend to live or work in the Netherlands for a long time. Children of Dutch parents who have lived abroad can also attend these schools. IGBO schools are departments of Dutch primary schools with English as the language of instruction. The Inspectorate of Education supervises education at these schools.

Special needs education
Children who are physically disabled, or have learning difficulties or mild behavioural problems, will normally begin their schooling in a mainstream primary school. This is in line with Dutch education law, according to which children with special needs must be given a place at a mainstream school, with some adaptations that suit their abilities and potential (called passend onderwijs). Nevertheless, not all schools are able to cater for children with special needs, so it’s wise to start looking for a suitable place when they are 2-3 years old, in order to see if the school can cater to the child’s needs.

Children with more severe learning disabilities or behavioural problems, a serious physical disability or a chronic illness may not benefit from attending a normal primary school. For these children there are schools which fall under special needs primary education (sbo) or special needs secondary education (so). At these schools, groups are smaller, teachers are specifically trained and children receive more time and care. There are almost 300 schools for special needs primary education and over 300 schools for special needs secondary education. A Dutch huisarts (GP) will be able to provide an assessment and give advice on to find the appropriate support. If the child is very disabled, it may be possible to get dispensation from mandatory attendance at school (leerplicht).

For more information, see:

Did you know?
The first year of secondary education is called the ‘brugklas’ (‘transition class’), and the pupil is called a ‘brugpieper’.

Most children in the Netherlands walk or cycle to school. Younger children are transported on their parents’ bike or in a bakfiets (bike with a box) until they are about 6 or 7, at which age they are old enough to cycle by themselves. In primary schools, traffic education is a legally required part of the curriculum and pupils are taught fietsvaardigheid (bicycle skills). A practical exam is part of the traffic education at primary school.

As a memorable goodbye, students at primary schools usually create and perform a farewell musical at the end of groep 8, which is performed for an audience of parents and relatives. Children get to display their skills in song, dance and stage building.

Dutch schools don’t provide school lunches; instead every child brings his own fruit and broodtrommel (sandwich box).

At Dutch schools, parents are expected to play a part in their children’s education and social life at school. Primary schools enlist parents’ help for many tasks, such as luizenmoeders (mothers who check all children for nits) or leesvaders (fathers who read books with a group of children). Most schools also have a participation council (medezeggenschapsraad) consisting of parents and teachers, which advises the school board on a variety of matters. Some schools have a separate parents’ council (ouderraad) as well.

Having interests outside of school is an important part of Dutch society. Children participate in all kinds of after-school activities, such as arts, music, reading, sports, playgroups, scouting and activities in community centres. These activities are usually not organised by the schools themselves, but by independent associations, sports clubs et cetera. However, international schools usually have their own after-school programs. Typically, the major cities have clubs and societies in English as well as Dutch.

Very important in a watery country like the Netherlands are swimming lessons, which take place at a local swimming pool. You can sign up your child at age 4, although many start later. On average, it takes 1.5 years to get a swimming diploma, so be prepared to spend many hours at the poolside.

To relieve pressures on tourist destinations during school holidays, the country has been divided into three regions: north, middle and south. This means that the summer holidays will start and end at a different date for each of the three groups. Other holidays are usually (but not always) take place at the same time. The usual holidays are: Autumn (October), Christmas (two weeks in December/January), Spring (a week in February or March), May (one or two weeks in April or May) and Summer (six weeks in July and August). According to the Compulsory Education Act, parents and pupils must adhere to the dates that the school establishes; taking your child out of school at other times may lead to a fine.

To check which region you are in: www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/schoolvakanties/regios-schoolvakantie

To check holiday dates: www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/schoolvakanties/overzicht-schoolvakanties-per-schooljaar

Schools are obliged to inform pupils and their parents about the dates of public holidays, when schools are closed, before the school year starts. Most schools do this in their school guide. In the Netherlands the compulsory holidays are: New Year’s Day (1 January); Easter Monday; King’s Day (27 April); Liberation Day (5 May); Ascension Day; Whit Monday, Christmas and Boxing Day.

Written by Femke van Iperen