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Life in a Dutch primary school

Hey there, busy expats parents!

Did you just celebrate your toddler’s third birthday? Had a good time? Great, we bet you know what’s next, don’t you? That’s right, school!

Children in the Netherlands are required, by law, to attend school from the age of 5 at the latest. It is, however, customary for Dutch kids to start school when they are 4 years old, which means that when your baby turns three, the fun kicks in. And it’s better to be ready: may the unforgettable school preparation months begin!

First things first, you probably will want to do some reading, in order to understand how the Dutch system works and be sure to choose the right school for your child. In that respect, please refer to our article about Dutch primary and secondary education.

Then, you will need to know what to expect from a Dutch primary school, so that you, and more importantly, your child, can come fully prepared from day one. In the following article, we will cover:

1. The school application / registration process.

2. School opening times.

3. School holiday dates in the Haarlemmermeer area.

4. The school lunch.

5. What uniform and other school supplies your child needs.

6. What subjects are taught when, and the organisation of a classroom.

7. Homework, tests and grades.

8. Extra-curricular activities & after-school clubs.


1. Registering your child to school

In very busy areas like Amsterdam, you need to get on the school wagon incredibly early, sometimes before your child can even talk or walk. The waiting lists are ridiculously long, and it is unfortunately quite unlikely that your first choice for a school ends up being your child’s actual school.

Thankfully, the Haarlemmermeer area doesn’t have these issues – at least, not yet. There is a very satisfying number of schools around, and plenty of space for everyone. Consequently, you can take your sweet time with school hunting, no stress, and you still should be able to get your child into your school of choice. We recommend that you start looking for a school about a year prior to your child reaching school age.

On the Discover Haarlemmermeer website, you will find a non-exhaustive list of the basisscholen (primary schools) in the Haarlemmermeer – there are too many to cite them all, but the main ones are there – with links to each school’s website. Once you’ve done your research and have decided which schools you are interested in, it is up to you to contact them to schedule a kennismakingsgesprek (introduction meeting) and a rondleiding (tour).

Every school operates differently when it comes to the rondleiding: some schools choose to organise punctual open days for new parents, while others prefer to book individual appointments. The application / registration process (inschrijven) also differs from school to school, so for specific information on what forms to fill in, registration deadlines etc., you must reach out to each school directly.

2. School hours

School opening times are like pretty much everything else in Dutch education: the government sets up some basic guidelines, but the details can vary a lot from school to school. Primary schools are required by law to provide at least 940 hours of school time per school year to their students, but when those hours take place is up to each individual school.

That said, most schools follow more or less the same routine, with classes from Monday to Friday, of which three full days and two half days (often Wednesday and Friday) per week. Classes on full days are usually held between 8:30 and 15:00 (some schools may choose to open from 8:00 to 14:30, or from 8:45 to 15:15), and classes on half days are held between 8:30 and 12:30. Some primary schools, however, extend the half days to three-quarter days as the child grows up and reaches the higher year groups.

3. School holidays in the Haarlemmermeer

Regarding school holidays, the provinces of the Netherlands are divided into three regions with different vacation schedules. Hoofddorp and the Haarlemmermeer are in the province of Noord-Holland, which is part of the Northern region (regio Noord). The holiday dates for the Northern region in 2020 and 2021 are:

Life in primary school

You can always find information about the official school holiday dates on the Dutch government’s website, but remember to also always double-check with your school to avoid surprises. Indeed, although some holidays like summer and Christmas are fixed and cannot be moved, others like the spring break or autumn vacation are flexible, and can be changed by individual schools to correspond with local events (Carnival, etc.), for instance. The May holiday can be extended by one week. Furthermore, there are holiday days for which some schools will choose to close, and others won’t, such as (in 2020):

  • Good Friday (Goede Vrijdag): April 10
  • Easter Monday (2e paasdag): April 13
  • King’s Day (Koningsdag): April 27
  • Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag): May 5
  • Ascension Day (Hemelvaart): May 21
  • Whit Monday (2e pinksterdag): June 1

Please note: it is illegal in the Netherlands to take your children on vacation outside of school holidays, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Should this be the case, a leave outside holiday periods might be allowed – one time per school year only – but must be requested eight weeks in advance and be for a maximum of 10 days.

4. Lunch

Life in primary school

The lunch break in Dutch schools typically lasts 45 minutes to one hour, between 12:00 and 13:00. The common practice is for kids to come home for lunch, as there are no canteens and the teachers are also having a break.

For working parents however, or parents who just need to get things done around the house at some point, there is still the possibility to leave the kids at school for lunch: it’s called overblijven, literally “stay over”. The kids are then supervised by a TSO (Tussenschoolse opvang, literally “between school childcare”), a third party organisation that comes to schools to handle the lunch hour. The cost of that supervision is paid by parents and averages €2 per child per lunch, depending on the TSO. The lunch itself isn’t provided, neither by the school nor by the TSO, so the child needs to bring a packed lunch and a drink from home.

Some schools – a minority – have an uninterrupted day schedule (continurooster) with a shorter lunch break of 15 to 20 minutes that the pupils enjoy in the classroom, with their teacher. The school day in such schools ends earlier than normal, and there are no extra costs for lunch time supervision.

By the way, the kids spend most of their lunch hour playing, and unlike in other countries, nobody is looking twice as to what is in their lunch box. So don’t worry if your little one is a fussy eater and only eats cheese slices and salami: in the Netherlands, a lunch box with no fruit in it, isn’t considered child abuse (although please, do try to feed your children fruit, it’s good for them!).

5. Uniform & other supplies

Life in primary school

As you know, the Dutch mentality on a general basis is very closely wrapped around the concept of freedom, including the freedom to be yourself. There is no such thing as not fitting in here, because everyone is different. Everyone is doing their own thing. There is even a famous Dutch saying that beautifully illustrates this very idea: “doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg”, which means “just be yourself and that’s already crazy enough”.

Kids, too, are encouraged to embrace their uniqueness at an early age. Therefore, school uniform isn’t a thing in the Netherlands.

Your kids can wear at school whatever they are always wearing outside of school, as long as it is weather appropriate, obviously.

So, no school uniform budget. But don’t start counting your riches just yet, for you’ll still need to do some spending on other school essentials: school bag, lunch box, drink bottle, gym clothes, bicycle (yes, it’s a must-have, and not only to cycle to and from school like many kids do; we’ll get to why in a moment), and books.

Since primary education in the Netherlands is funded by the government, you don’t pay for classes, teachers, or a lot of the materials used in class (pencils, paper, paint, etc.). Nonetheless some schools might sometimes require you to purchase, out of your own pocket, specific books that your child needs for class.

6. Curriculum & classroom

The teaching curriculum year by year is yet another item in Dutch education that varies from school to school. The Dutch government sets up a list of compulsory subjects that must be taught to all children in all primary schools across the country, as well as attainment targets for each subject. These targets are in accordance with European goals for primary education, and give a good indication on what children should know, and by what age. Dutch schools are then free to decide how they teach the subjects or what teaching materials they use, as long as they reach the targets established by law.

During the first two years of primary school, that is to say in groep 1 (age 4) and groep 2 (age 5), the curriculum is almost exclusively play-based. The teachers focus on the social and emotional development of the children, observing how each child interacts with the others or how they react to a given situation: it’s all about

learning through play. These are important years for language development, for the kids to learn how to communicate clearly, how to put words on their feelings and express their thoughts, etc. Pupils also start learning the alphabet.

At groep 3 (age 6) begins the more intense, “raw” learning. Compulsory subjects, namely Dutch (reading and writing), arithmetic and mathematics (counting, adding, subtracting), physical education (sport and movement) and creative expression (handicrafts, music), are introduced. Groep 3 is also the year when all Dutch kids start their compulsory cycling lessons. These aren’t so much meant to teach them cycling – Dutch kids are all born on a bike – but to familiarize them with road rules and road safety. This is why, if you don’t have already, you need to buy your child a bicycle, as it won’t be provided by the school, but is indeed required.

Between groep 4 (age 7) and groep 8 (age 11), the subjects from groep 3 are explored further. The rest of the compulsory subjects are also added to the curriculum – in what year and at what intensity, that depends on the school – including: English (reading, understanding, speaking), social studies and humanities (geography and topography, history, citizenship and politics), science and technology (biology, computing, engineering), and sexual education (i.e. learning to respect sexual differences, and avoiding becoming a victim of sexual violence). Some schools integrate optional subjects into their curriculum such as other languages (i.e. German, French), and religious education.

Now, let’s look at the classroom organisation. What we love about Dutch education is that the child’s comfort, happiness and self-esteem really are paramount, and this transpires notably with how a classroom functions. Instead of being a “passive” learning environment, with kids sitting on their own individual tables in front of a blackboard and passively listening to the teacher (the old-fashioned way), the Dutch classroom is an “active” space. It is divided into several work stations for different activities (reading corner, crafts wall, etc.), and is organised in a way that allows the kids to sit – and learn! – together on bigger, collective tables.

Another particularity of Dutch education, and in our view a positive one: repeating a year at school isn’t that big of a deal. There is a concept in the Netherlands called blijven zitten, literally “stay sitting”, which is suggested for kids who are struggling with the learning pace of their year group. Should a child find the school work too challenging, they won’t be moved down to another group, because that could frustrate them or hurt their confidence; instead, they’ll just stay sitting right where they are a bit longer, until they are ready to move on to higher groups. Blijven zitten is quite common, is never frowned upon, and is actually considered a relief by parents, teachers and pupils: it means the children can take their time and learn at their own pace, without pressure or judgement. It also means that each group in a primary school consists of children with the same ability level, rather than the same age.

7. Homework, tests & grades

Life in primary school

This is the best news of the whole article: in Dutch primary school, there is no homework! Or at least, very, very little. You might have to get crafty one Sunday and put together a cardboard time machine for the school play, but overall, the Dutch understand that kids are only going to be kids for a short while, and that they should enjoy it. Home is a haven for children to rest and play, not a place to do homework.

From groep 3, the pupils will be subjected to a test twice a year, to measure their progress and detect any learning difficulties they might have, such as dyslexia. This test is called the “pupil monitor system” (LVS or Leerlingvolg-systeem). There is no competition between the children and there are no direct consequences based on the results of the test alone. In fact, the kids often don’t even know that they are passing a test – especially in the early years of primary school.

Most schools communicate the results of the test to the parents via a detailed school report, twice a year. The school report includes the teacher’s observations of the child throughout the year, the test results and grades on other variables (for instance emotional maturity, attitude towards learning or leadership skills) ranging from “very good” to “insufficient”. The teacher then invites the parents to discuss the report in a face-to-face meeting and gives recommendations for the child’s future – blijven zitten or not.

In their last year of primary school (groep 8), children take a final aptitude and knowledge exam called the “Central End Test for Primary Education” (Centrale Eindtoets Basisonderwijs) which tests their Dutch, mathematical and world orientation (history, geography) skills. The outcome of that exam, combined with the child’s personal ambitions and interests, and the child’s school reports since groep 6, will be the basis for the teacher to assess what level of secondary education would best fit the child. With that assessment the teacher can then give their official schooladvies (school recommendation), which determines what type of school the child can move forward to for their secondary education.

8. Extra-curricular activities & after-school clubs

Life in primary school

A big part of your child’s week will be occupied by extra-curricular activities outside of school hours. Such activities are considered very important in Dutch society, because they contribute to enrich your child’s experiences, complement traditional school learning, protect your child’s mental and physical well-being, and boost his or her social development. That is why virtually every child in the Netherlands is doing some sort of artistic or physical activity during the off-school afternoons. Schools and municipalities are hence working hard to ensure families have as wide a choice as possible and can easily access whichever activity their little ones want to undertake.

Since primary schools don’t charge tuition, they have little to no budget to dedicate to extra-curricular activities. That said, they usually still organise a few fun things, for which they ask a financial contribution from parents (ouderbijdrage), that can range from €250 to €2000 per year, depending on the school, the parents’ income, and the amount of activities planned. Activities arranged by schools include excursions to museums, field trips, school plays, swimming lessons, and sports days (often inter-schools events). Swimming, as you can imagine, is a big thing in this country. In many schools, the kids can get recurrent lessons and pass their zwemdiploma (swimming diploma, 3 levels: A, B and C).

Primary schools are also required by law to provide parents with after-school care options. After-school care is typically outsourced to a local BSO (Buitenschoolse opvang, literally “outside school childcare”), a private organisation that picks up the children directly from school, and supervises / entertains them until parents come to pick them up. During school holidays, the BSO is open all day. Parents have to arrange and pay for the BSO separately, but they can declare it and get a tax discount (kinderopvangtoeslag). Some after-school clubs offer a “Dutch club” to support expats kids who do not speak Dutch as a first language, and to help them integrate better into their Dutch-speaking school. Do not hesitate to ask your school or gemeente to direct you to the best after-school clubs in your vicinity.

For more information on all the other activities you can enroll your child in (football, hockey, music, theater, etc.), as well as summer camps and boy or girl scouts – very popular in the Netherlands – we recommend you give the gemeente Haarlemmermeer a call, check out the individual sports clubs in your area, or visit the bibliotheek (library) and the cultuurgebouw (culture centre) in Hoofddorp city centre.

We hope this article helped you see more clearly what life in a Dutch primary school is like and prepared you better for what to expect from your child’s education.