An Overview of the Dutch School System: Part 2

An Overview of the Dutch School System: Part 2

"The Dutch School System: Part 1" explained the basics of the Dutch primary and secondary education system, based on the figure below.

Types of Dutch secondary education

As a quick recap of some of the acronyms, the four types of secondary education in the Netherlands are:
 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)

Vocational secondary education in the Netherlands

Vocational education in the Netherlands usually takes a student through two different learning institutions.


Pre-vocational education or VMBO (i.e. the four left-most yellow blocks) lasts four years. After the first two years of general education, students can choose a vocational education sector and pathway.

The education sectors for VMBO are:
 care & welfare
 engineering & technology

The learning pathways for VMBO are:
 a theoretical programme (a way to enter HAVO, see the arrow from VMBO TL to HAVO)
 a combined programme (theoretical and practical subjects)
 a middle-management vocational programme (tailored for further vocational training)
 a basic vocational programme (general education combined with on-the-job experience)

In their final year students take exams, with the number of subjects (from four to six) determined by the learning pathway they are on.

Compulsory secondary education

In the Netherlands, compulsory education (volledige leerplicht) ends when a student is 16 years old. However, a VMBO diploma is not a basic qualification. The Ministry of Education has solved this by stating that students who are not yet 18 years old by the time they finish VMBO are required by law to continue their education until they reach the age of 18 or obtain sufficient qualification.

This sufficient qualification is a Level 2 MBO diploma (see below). Thus, although compulsory education ends at the age of 16, compulsory schooling (in this case gedeeltelijk leerplichtig) can last much longer, indeed until the student turns 18 and chooses to stop.

In practice, therefore, students need to continue on to secondary vocational education or middelbaar beroepsonderwijs (MBO).


Secondary vocational MBO studies can take up to four years. After completing their studies, students can start working or continue on to another form of education.

MBO courses are divided into four different levels, each aimed at a specific employment qualification:
 Level 4: middle-management training
 Level 3: professional training
 Level 2: basic vocational training
 Level 1: assistant training

Levels 3 and 4 are for students who have completed theoretical, combined or middle-management vocational programmes in VMBO (the three right-most yellow blocks of VMBO).


Dutch education system diagram

Level 4 MBO diploma grants access to higher professional education or hoger beroepsonderwijs (HBO). But what can also be seen in the figure is that by obtaining the Level 3 education, students can also access HBO; they only need to do an extra two years of study. This is the same for Level 2, but from here the path is even longer.

Both VMBO and MBO diplomas are recognised abroad.

Academic secondary education in the Netherlands

The two programmes (the last two yellow blocks) that grant admission to higher education are the HAVO (five years) and the VWO (six years).

The HAVO diploma is the minimum requirement to access HBO. The VWO education prepares students for university or wetenschappelijk onderwijs (WO) and only the VWO diploma grants access to a research university (see the arrow from VWO to WO).

There are three types of VWOs:
 gymnasiums (where Latin and Greek are part of the curriculum)
 athenaeums (where Latin and Greek are optional)
 schools (that offer both options)

In the figure you can see that the blue rectangle underlying HAVO and VWO lasts one year longer. Thus, the first three years of both HAVO and VWO programmes consist of general education. The subjects include Dutch language, foreign languages, mathematics, history and science.

During the remaining years, students study specialised subject combinations (clusters). The four clusters are (these are not presented in the figure):
 science and technology
 science and health
 economics and society
 culture and society

Each of the clusters is designed to prepare students for tertiary level studies. In their final year students take national exams: HAVO students in eight subjects, VWO students in nine.

Insider information

There is no arrow between the HBO and WO blocks in the figure, but let me share some "insider information" with you: it is possible to take extra courses and transfer from HBO to university.

So essentially, if a student started with the VMBO basic vocational programme, then went on to Level 2 basic vocational training and subsequently to Level 3 professional training, he or she could enter university via HBO.

Tertiary education in the Netherlands

After successfully negotiating the secondary education system, going on to the tertiary level of Dutch education should feel like a walk in a park. Tertiary education in the Netherlands is similar to many other countries and all courses follow the Bachelor-Master-Phd system.


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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