The Dutch education system: Primary & Secondary education

The Dutch education system: Primary & Secondary education

Although perhaps you will be sending your child(ren) to an international school or so-called nationality-based school, we start of this article with a short description of the Dutch school system. One reason for this is that it is not strictly necessary to send your child to a non-Dutch school if you want the language of instruction to be English.

Several Dutch high schools offer a bilingual and / or English-language curriculum, and an IB-diploma, which qualifies graduates for entry into almost any university. For an overview of your options should you decide to send your children to a non-Dutch school, see International Schools (right column) and Preparing for University.

Primary education in the Netherlands

Children from age four through twelve go to primary school in the Netherlands. Primary education lasts eight years (including kindergarten), in the last year of which pupils are advised as to the type of secondary education they should pursue.

This advice is based largely on the so-called CITO-toets, a sort of aptitude test that is applied by approximately 85% of the elementary schools, and the leerling-volgsystem (pupil monitoring system) which is used to register the achievements of the pupils during their entire elementary school time.

 Types of primary education in the Netherlands

- Approximately one third of Dutch children goes to openbare school, or public school. These schools are run under the authority of the municipality and are not based on any particular religion or conviction, though they do teach religion-related subjects upon request.

- Approximately two thirds of the Dutch children go to schools with a particular denomination, such as Roman Catholic or Protestant / Christian. However, there are also Jewish, Islamic, Hindustani, Humanistic and so-called Waldorf schools (or "Free" schools, as they are called here). Combinations of denominational schools and a particular educational philosophy can also be found.

- A much smaller group of children goes to schools that are based on certain educational philosophies, such as Montessori, Jenaplan, Dalton, Freinet, and Iederwijs. For more information on these schools, you can contact the Association for Public Education (Vereniging voor Openbaar Onderwijs). 

 Children requiring special care

For children who need special care and attention, there are "special" schools, both public and denominational, such as for physically, hearing or sight impaired / challenged children, children who are sick for a long period of time and children with learning or behavioural problems.

Secondary education in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, after a child has completed primary school, the parents and child together choose what type of secondary school the child will go to. This decision is based, in part, on the recommendation given by the primary school during the last year.

There are three types of secondary school they can choose from and they go by the following acronyms: VMBO, HAVO and VWO. All three start with a sort of "basic package" - adapted to the level of education, see further on - that usually lasts two years and consists of subjects that all students should, in principle, follow.

At the end of the first of these two years (called the brugklas, or "bridge class"), a final decision is usually made as to which level of education the pupil is to follow during the rest of its secondary education.

Many secondary schools offer mixed classes (VMBO / HAVO or HAVO / VWO), giving the pupils one year in which to make up their minds and show at what level they are capable of performing.

In some secondary schools, this decision is made after two years. In the third year of secondary education, the three types of schools become quite different, see the following paragraphs.

For those children for whom these three types of secondary education prove too much of a challenge there is a so-called "practical" learning path, in which in an individual learning programme is put together that will help the pupil acquire many skills necessary for functioning as an adult, including job skills.


The two programmes of secondary education that grant admission to higher education are HAVO, which lasts five years, and VWO, which lasts six years. Pupils are enrolled according to their ability, and VWO is considered more rigorous. The VWO curriculum prepares pupils for university (also known as WO), while the HAVO diploma prepares students for going to a university of professional education, also known as HBO.

- (V)MBO

VMBO offers a choice of four "learning routes": theoretical, mixed, vocational and basic profession-oriented - each of which offers a choice out of four further sectors.

Once the four years of VMBO have been completed with success, the student has the option of either going on to HAVO (if he or she has completed the theoretical or the mixed "route") or senior secondary vocational education and training (MBO, middelbaar beroepsonderwijs). The latter is offered in the areas of economics, technology, services, social welfare and agriculture. MBO programmes vary in length from one to four years as well as in level (1 to 4). Completion of MBO programmes at level 4 qualifies pupils for access to HBO.

 Types of schools

As is the case for primary schools, also secondary schools can be divided into public schools and schools based on a particular denomination or educational philosophy. Of course, there are also schools for students requiring special care.

 Compulsory education

Until the child has reached the age of 18, or has obtained the so-called startkwalificatie, he or she is obligated to go to school. This is referred to as the child’s leerplicht, or learning obligation. The startkwalificatie is basically a VWO, HAVO or MBO level 2 high school diploma.

Until the age of 16, children are fully leerplichtig, after that, the obligation focuses not so much on attending school full-time as on obtaining a high school diploma, and they are considered kwalificatieplichtig. They are then allowed to combine school and work.

 International schools in the Netherlands

You have a choice between sending your children to a Dutch school or to an international school in the Netherlands. There are various ways for your children to get an international (or at least, bilingual) education in the Netherlands.

You can send your children to a(n):
- Nationality-based international school: in the Netherlands, you can choose between at least German, French, English, American, Iranian, Japanese, Polish, Indonesian and Korean.

- International school: there are several international schools that have a great variety of nationalities among the children. These schools offer the option of obtaining an IB-diploma.

- School with an "international stream": these schools have both a Dutch and a parallel international programme: this way, your child goes to the local Dutch school in your neighbourhood, where he or she follows an international programme. This could be an interesting option as it allows the children to become part of both the international and the local community of peers, while many of these schools award an IB-diploma upon graduation.

- A dual-language school: an increasing number of Dutch secondary schools also offer TTO; tweetalig onderwijs, or dual-language education in which some of the courses are offered in Dutch and others in English. This is, of course, only an option if your child already speaks Dutch. Also many of these schools award an IB-diploma upon graduation.

This is the first part of the "From K to PH.D" article written by Stephanie Dijkstra, editor-in-chief of The XPat Journal. Have a look at the current edition or subscribe here.

Next in the series

 The Dutch education system: Preparing for & Going to university

Stephanie Dijkstra


Stephanie Dijkstra

Stephanie Dijkstra is a Third Culture Kid in every possible way. Raised in four countries by Dutch/American parents, both of whom also grew up in several countries, the world is...

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