An Overview of the Dutch School System: Part 1

An Overview of the Dutch School System: Part 1

When I first started working in education in the Netherlands, I was given this figure (see below) to explain the Dutch education system.

At first it may seem that the rectangular shapes are randomly connected by a maze of arrows, but there is a system behind it.

For everyone, the education system in our country of origin seems self-explanatory. Maybe to some of you the below figure does not resemble a treasure map and you are easily able to decipher the meaning of the multitude of abbreviations and arrows.

For those of you, unfamiliar with the Dutch education system, let me try to explain.

Starting school in the Netherlands

When children turn three in the Netherlands, their parents receive a letter from their local municipality describing the steps they need to take to enrol their child in primary school.

Children are allowed to begin their schooling at the age of four, but according to the Dutch law, it is optional until their fifth birthday. Often children start going to school after the age of four for a few hours at a time, in order to get used to being at school.

Primary school in the Netherlands

Primary education (basisonderwijs) is for free and lasts eight years. Compulsory subjects are: Dutch; English; mathematics and science; a subject that combines geography, history and biology; art; and physical education.

Pupils are divided into groups or grades according to their age. In group 8 (11 to 13 years), pupils take part in the national exam (CITO toets). The results are used to give advice on the type of secondary education that is most suitable for the pupil. There are also separate schools for students with special needs at both primary and secondary levels (see the orange rectangle on the left-hand side of the figure).

At the primary level it is common for pupils to eat their lunch at home; however, schools must at least provide a supervised indoors area for those who cannot go home. This is where Dutch educations stops being free of charge, as schools may charge parents a fee for the lunch service. Schools are also allowed to ask parents to pay for school trips and other extras.

What may come as a surprise to foreigners is that in the Dutch education system, 12 year-olds decide what and where they want to study for their secondary education. Naturally, students can change their minds, but this means extra years of study or at least additional courses (and this is what some of the arrows in the figure mean).

Education system in the Netherlands

Secondary school in the Netherlands

Secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs) is for free for students under the age of 18, including school books and teaching material. In a similar fashion to primary education, support materials such as calculators and school trips are paid by the parents.

Until this point, the Dutch education system does not allow students to specialise; that's why the figure is straightforward until this point. However, the abbreviations and arrows used to describe secondary education require explanation. It is natural for Dutch people to use them, even when talking in English. Hence, let’s practise!

Types of Dutch secondary education

Secondary education can be privately or publicly organised and comes in four types:
 pre-vocational education or voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs (VMBO)
 senior general secondary education or hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs (HAVO)
 pre-university education or voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs (VWO)
 practical training or praktijk onderwijs (PRO)

This is the point where we - the foreigners - start getting lost. The reader can see in the figure that at first, all students get a general education for at least two years before they specialise (except PRO. It follows a curriculum that focuses on training for a profession in six years).

Although the blue rectangle represents general education given to every student, before "entering" it students have already chosen a direction, and therefore will receive their general education in these specific institutions.

"An overview of the Dutch school system: Part 2" will explain the differences in these secondary educational pathways.

Marja-Ilona Koski


Marja-Ilona Koski

I am a theoretical Computer Scientist turned into a Computer Science teacher. I have taught in primary and secondary schools in Finland, I have been working in the field of...

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