Dutch school system

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, biology and sustainability.

According to Dutch 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. Homeschooling is possible, but the process to arrange this is complex and it’s very rare in the Netherlands.

Education in the Netherlands is divided into primary (basisonderwijs), 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 their lessons in English. Primary and secondary state education is available to everyone for free, but there are also private schools, which offer a specialized curriculum.

More information about the school system is available at:




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

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.

The quality of most primary schools is generally fairly high, even for schools that perform relatively badly compared to others in the area. Schools usually ask for a voluntary yearly contribution for extras (outings, special projects), which is dependent on the parents’ income, but usually less than €100.

Special types of 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, although usually children of all faiths are accepted. Others are based on a specific educational philosophy, such as Dalton, Jenaplan, Waldorf, Freinet 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! If your children 2 or 3 years old when you move to the Netherlands, it may not be possible to get a place in popular schools. In any case, some public primary schools also apply Montessori, Dalton or Jenaplan methods, so all may not be lost. In some municipalities, children are assigned to schools depending on their postcode – this saves you the stress of getting into a particular school, but takes away your freedom of choice. 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.

Secondary education
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. Furthermore, in groep 8 pupils take the mandatory state exam Centrale Eindtoets, formally called CITO-toets, which will also contribute to the official recommendation for the next level of education. This test is often surrounded by stress and controversy among parents, but it is designed simply as a test of your child’s current level of academic knowledge and skills. The teacher’s personal advice is also important to determine the child’s next steps.

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. Your 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.

There are 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 vocation-orientated course focussed on practical knowledge, as well as basic education in core subjects such as Dutch, English, mathematics et cetera. After finishing VMBO around age 16, youngsters can take a 3- or 4-year secondary vocational training (MBO) course, in which they learn a practical trade, such as hairdresser, carpenter or mechanic. Depending on how well a pupil performs at VMBO, they might also have the option of continuing at HAVO level.
  2. The second track of secondary education is HAVO, a five-year track completed around the age of 17. After HAVO, a pupil may continue to study for a vocational degree at a university of applied sciences (hogeschool or HBO). HBO trains students for more theoretical but still practical jobs such as primary school teacher, nurse, store manager or IT technician. Depending on how well a pupil performs at HAVO, he/she might also have the option of continuing at VWO.
  3. The third track of secondary education is the VWO, a six-year educational stream with a focus on theoretical knowledge. After finishing 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 if this is needed based on a pupil’s results. Most secondary schools offer a mixed transition class (brugklas), in which children of all academic abilities follow the first year of secondary school together.

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 students can also obtain an additional English language certificate.

All bilingual schools in the Netherlands, currently around 130, are part of a network coordinated by Nuffic, 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 participating schools can be found at: nuffic.nl/onderwerpen/tweetalige-basisscholen

International education
Pupils with non-Dutch nationality, or from 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.

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 longer period of 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 mild learning or 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 a mainstream 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 support. 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 how 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:

School holidays
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 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 (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 sets; taking your child out of school at other times may result in a fine.

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.

To check which region you’re in: rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/schoolvakanties/regios-schoolvakantie
To check holiday dates: rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/schoolvakanties/overzicht-schoolvakanties-per-schooljaar

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 (cargo bike) 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 their own sandwiches and fruit in a broodtrommel (sandwich box). Eating a hot meal at school is not common; most schools don’t offer kitchen facilities to their pupils. There are no cafeterias in schools either.

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 helping with staging plays, baking for special occasions, or being a luizenmoeder (mothers who check all children for lice) or leesvader (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.