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Primary and secondary education in the Netherlands

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Primary and secondary education (onderwijs) in the Netherlands is characterised by a belief in free education. This means that most forms of education are government funded, and different pedagogical philosophies are encouraged.

The system is also defined by division, with the aim of tailoring the education to the needs of the student, whether it’s the type of the school they attend or the specific stream the student enters in high school.

The Dutch education system explained

In the Netherlands, education is compulsory for children from the age of five to 16. However, most children begin their education at age four.

  • Dutch elementary or primary school has eight grades, known as groepen. These range from Groep 1 (4-year olds) to Groep 8 (12-year olds).
  • The structure of Dutch secondary education can seem confusing because of different streams and graduation ages in high school.
  • Dutch high schools are divided into three streams: one to prepare students for vocational training (VMBO), another to prepare students for university (VWO), and a middle stream to prepare students to study at universities of applied sciences (HAVO).

For more information about the sequence of education in the Netherlands, take a look at the structure of Dutch school education section.

School types in the Netherlands

Dutch primary schools and high schools are divided into two categories:

Public schools (Openbaar)

Public, or regular, schools have no religious or philosophical affiliation and are run by the government.

Special schools (Bijzondere)

Special schools are independently operated and based on a specific religion or educational philosophy. The most common types include religious, Montessori, Steiner (vrije school), Dalton, Jenaplan and international schools.

Want to learn more? Check out our Dutch primary and secondary school types section and the most well-known international schools for expats in the Netherlands.

Dutch school holidays

The Netherlands is divided into three school vacation regions, where dates are staggered to avoid a holiday rush. Some holiday periods are compulsory and set by the government, while others are more flexible, with schools being able to set their own dates. 

Tuition fees & educational costs in the Netherlands

Education in the Netherlands is government funded and therefore mostly free. However, some schools may ask for a voluntary contribution to cover extracurricular activities, while private schools charge fees. More can be found on the tuition fees & studying costs page.

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