The structure of the Dutch school system

The structure of the Dutch school system

Education is compulsory (leerplicht) in the Netherlands from the ages of five to 16, however, most children start to attend primary school at age four. While the structure of primary education in the Netherlands is straightforward, the structure of the Dutch secondary education system often seems confusing because of the multiple paths and graduation ages in high school.

In reality, Dutch secondary schools are similar to those in most other countries, with one stream to prepare students for vocational training (VMBO), and another to prepare students for university (VWO). The main difference in the Netherlands is that there is a third, middle, stream in high schools that prepares students to study at universities of applied sciences (HAVO).

The school system in the Netherlands is as follows:

Dutch day care, crèche, kindergarten (kinderopvang, kinderdagverblijf, peuterspeelzaal)

Until the age of five, infants and young children in the Netherlands can attend a variety of non-compulsory daycare educational options such as crèche, kindergarten or childminding. Parents or relatives can also look after them.

Primary school in the Netherlands (basisonderwijs)

Elementary or primary school (lagere school) has eight grades, known as groepen, ranging from Groep 1 (4-year olds) to Groep 8 (12-year olds). It is not compulsory to attend primary school until Groep 2, at age five, but most children begin in Groep 1 already at the age of four. Students attend primary school for eight years, until they are 12, where they gain basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic. They will also start studying English by the time they reach Group 7, if not before then.

Secondary school in the Netherlands (voortgezet onderwijs)

When they start secondary school (middelbare school) at age 12, children enter one of three different streams for their secondary education. The different streams represent different educational paths, based on a student’s academic level and interests:

VMBO (preparatory secondary vocational education)

The VMBO is a four-year vocationally-orientated stream focussed on practical knowledge, which leads to vocational training (MBO). It has two qualification levels and students complete the track at the age of 16.

HAVO (senior general secondary education)

The HAVO is a five-year middle stream that prepares students to study higher professional education at universities of applied sciences (hogescholen), where they can follow a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences (HBO). Students complete the HAVO around the age of 17.

VWO (university preparatory education)

The VWO is a six-year education stream with a focus on theoretical knowledge, that prepares students to follow a bachelor’s degree (WO) at a research university. Students study the VWO at schools known as atheneum and gymnasium and complete the stream around the age of 18.


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