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The Dutch primary and secondary school system: How does it work?

As a parent, putting your kids through school is in itself quite the obstacle course. If you also have to figure out, in a foreign language, the ins and outs of an unknown school system, we can imagine how it quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Worry not! We are here to help. In the following article, we have compiled for you all the key information you need to ensure your little ones get the good education that they deserve.

You will read about:

1. The Dutch educational approach, its strengths and weaknesses.

2. The different types of schools that exist and how to choose the right one for your child.

3. The structure of the Dutch primary and secondary school system and the different paths your child can take.

1. Understanding the Dutch unique approach to education and the challenges it is facing.

Education in the Netherlands reflects the nation it serves: while freedom is of the utmost importance, so is the well-being of everyone.

Primary and secondary schools are therefore mostly free, as they are in their great majority directly funded by the government. They are also, of course, open to every single child legally residing in the country. In fact, it is compulsory as per Dutch law for children to attend school from the age of 5 to 16. In practice, most children begin their school education immediately after their fourth birthday.

Freedom, at the heart of it all

Thanks to the Freedom of Education Act, in place for already over a century, a wide array of pedagogical approaches are flourishing, more than that, encouraged, across the Netherlands. Teachers and educators have the possibility to set their own curriculums or even start their own schools to fit their particular beliefs or educational philosophy, provided they still follow the main objectives laid out by the government.

This liberal and innovative approach to educating children emphasizes on performance, interactive and social learning, initiative, and a student-centric education environment, where the student’s talents and natural abilities are nurtured from a very young age.

The other side of the coin

It isn’t all pink and roses though. All this freedom comes with a price.

First, a rise of educational inequality between “high-income” neighborhoods and/or cities, that have a higher concentration of highly educated parents, and “low-income” neighborhoods, where parents are less educated overall. That lack of variety in the mix of children in each school creates huge problems and unfair differences when the dominant educational model is social learning – aka, pupils learning from each other. Educational inequality also exist between the different types of schools. Some extremist religious private schools have drifted so far away from mainstream education that they stopped teaching fundamental subjects, like science, altogether.

Second, schools are struggling to attract sufficiently qualified teachers. The amount of skills required to tailor to each student, the pressure and the responsibility on the teachers’ shoulders are not compensated enough through pay, which causes many educators to leave the profession.

The school segregation and the worrying shortage of teachers have worsened over the last few years and led to a decline of the education quality in the Netherlands. Although it is still far ahead compared to many other developed countries, the incredibly avant-garde Dutch education model is still to prove its efficiency with the generations to come. These issues and what is being done about them are highlighted in the 2019 report on the state of education, published by the Inspectorate of Education, which by the way is a great bedtime story on a school night! Find the English version here.

Fewer pupils are performing well in the core subjects Dutch and numeracy, poor literacy is becoming more widespread and we can see big differences in performance outcome between schools.

The State of Education in the Netherlands 2019 report by The Inspectorate of Education (Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science).

2. Choosing the right school for your child

Much like in many other countries in the world, the Dutch schools are divided into two categories: the public schools which are run by the government and are not associated with any church or faith, and the private schools which have independent governance.

However, the Dutch system differs from most other educational systems in that its private schools don’t always have a religious orientation. Indeed, although most independently run schools do have a religious or ideological character, some are still secular and have only chosen to separate from the government to specialize in a specific educational ethos. Both religious schools and private schools focusing on a particular educational philosophy are referred to as “special schools”. It is interesting to note that around two-thirds of children in the Netherlands attend special schools.

So! The first choice you need to make is relatively easy: public school or special school? You should know that as stated in the Dutch constitution, all schools, whether public or special, are eligible for government funding, as long as they meet the legal requirements on a few major criteria, such as pupil numbers and classroom hours, for example. That said, private schools set their own tuition fees and will hence always be more expensive than public schools.

The different types of schools that exist in the Netherlands are:

Public schools (openbaar)

Government institutions and local authorities (municipalities) are responsible for the budget, supervision, recruitment and quality of education in public schools. Besides, they must see to it that their municipality has at least one publicly run school. If that is not possible for whatever reason they are obliged by law to arrange free transport to the closest public school in the next municipality. That way, children can always access a public school, should they choose to.

The advantages of a public school are pretty straightforward and include lower average schooling costs, higher social diversity and complete religious neutrality. On the down side, the education methods employed in public schools, although strongly inspired by the Dalton Plan (read more below), are still quite generic – a “one-size-fits-all” type of education – which means that teachers cannot give the same personalised attention to each student as they would in a special school. A public school might therefore not be the best choice for children with special needs or for fast-developing kids with exceptional aptitudes.

Special schools (bijzondere)

Like we mentioned before, anyone can start a school in the Netherlands (all hail Lady Freedom!). This means that there are a lot of different types of private / special schools around. Here are the most common ones:

  • Religious schools: based on a specific faith (including but not limited to Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim or Jewish). Many of these schools are moderate in their views and also accept atheist or agnostic children, or children of other faiths, even though religious teachings are always present in the curriculum.


  • Montessori schools: based on the Montessori educational method which revolves around a child’s natural curiosity and sense of initiative. This model aims at creating a supportive learning environment that encourages the child to seek knowledge in an autonomous way, to initiate learning and to develop at his or her own pace. Some essential elements of the model include mixed-age classrooms (learning through communication), letting students choose their activity (learning through exploration), concepts discovery from working with materials rather than direct instructions (learning through manipulation), and uninterrupted blocks of work time (learning through repetition and order). These are for children that have displayed from a young age an eagerness for “doing things themselves”.


  • Dalton schools: based on the Dalton Plan, an educational concept influenced by the Montessori philosophy. Like the Montessori method, the Dalton Plan views the child as an independent, curious mind that is able to expand itself, given the proper tools to do so. The program focuses on developing the child’s cognitive and creative abilities in a self-directed way. But unlike Montessori, Dalton also integrates a holistic approach that seeks the perfect balance between an individual’s talents and interests, and the needs of the group. The Dalton model teaches accountability (consequences of one’s actions) and responsibility, towards oneself and towards others. It has, at its core, the will to enhance students’ social skills and empathy, and to show them everything they can teach and learn from one another. This translates for example into many group assessments, or asking the child to step in the role of the teacher and “lead the way” during a presentation or an exercise. This education style won’t be a shy kid’s cup of tea, although it could help them truly open up.


  • Steiner schools or Free schools: based on the Steiner (or Waldorf) education model, these schools are usually called vrijescholen (free schools) in the Netherlands. They got their Dutch name not because they are financially free (they are not), but rather, because they thrive to create free-thinking human beings. Free spirits. Steiner education is all about the student’s personal development on an intellectual, artistic, practical and spiritual level. Cultivating a child’s imagination, reasoning capabilities and self-awareness is a central goal of the model. Pupils in free schools study some additional subjects that are not considered important in other education models, such as music, gardening, mythology or practical arts (drawing, sculpting, wood carving, knitting, etc.).


  • Bilingual schools: all schools in the Netherlands begin teaching English as a subject when children are about 10 – 11 years old at the latest, as is required by Dutch law. However, in the recent years, seventeen Dutch schools have started a program called Early Foreign Language Education (VVTO – Vroeg vreemdetalenonderwijs), where English is added to the curriculum already in group 1 (children aged 4 – 5 years old). Teachers may teach up to 50% of the classroom time in English. There also exist bilingual schools for German and French-speaking children. Tests are still in Dutch and it is necessary for at least one of the child’s parents to be fluent in Dutch, but these schools are perfect for kids being raised by bilingual parents. After 2023 and the end of the trial period for this new program, we are likely to see more and more bilingual schools popping up, following the success already demonstrated by the original seventeen bilingual schools.


  • Other schools: diverse other school types based on a specific educational philosophy or trend include the Jenaplan schools, Freinet schools or iPads schools.

International schools

As an expat, you and your family might only be planning to stick around this lovely little flat land for a couple of years, tops. In that case, giving your children a Dutch education might seem unnecessarily tedious, and you might want to opt out of it altogether. That’s where international schools come in: there is actually a nice quantity of them around the Netherlands!

Meant for foreign children whose parents have jobs that require them to move a lot, most of these schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) Curriculum, taught in English and preparing children for qualifications that are easily transferable to other schools in any country. Some international schools also integrate parts of the curricula of other countries (French, Japanese, British…). That way, children can get a consistent education in English and in their native language, wherever they are in the world.

The European union helps funding European schools. The government of the country an international school is related to also often subsidizes the school. Furthermore, the Dutch government is one of the very few in the world to dedicate some of its education budget to international education. Consequently, tuition costs at subsidized international schools range “only” between 4 000 – 8 000 euros per year per child, depending on the institution. Private, non-subsidized international schools, offering extra facilities and activities, generally start at 15 000 euros per year per child and can cost up to 26 000 euros per year.

Ouch, right? But then again, what wouldn’t we do for our beloved offspring!

Bonus tip!

Check out expats Haarlemmermeer’s favourite International school at

3. The structure of the Dutch primary and secondary school system

The Dutch primary and secondary school system

You are not alone.

The first time we heard about “Havo” or “Vmbo”, we, tired parents that we are, were also scratching our heads, confused. The Dutch school system, with all its different abbreviations and names, sounded somehow too complicated for us mere mortals to comprehend.

But really, it’s not. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, sit back and read on: you’ll see, it is actually as easy as one plus one equals two.

Primary education

When your little one reaches 4 years old, they go to school. Primary schoolbasisschool, to be exact. They will stay there for eight years, from grade 1 (known in the Netherlands as Groep 1) to grade 8 (Groep 8). It is only compulsory by law for children to attend school from Groep 2 (age 5), but most parents, who can definitely use the peace and quiet, will enroll their children in Groep 1 (age 4) anyway. In primary school children study the basic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic. In the later years of their primary education (Groepen 6 – 8), they also study history, geography, biology, and English.

So far, so good. For further information, we have written another article where you can find out all about Life in a Dutch primary school, from the application process to the day-to-day school routine your children will follow.

Secondary education

At 12 years old, your child will then go on to secondary school (middelbare school), where they can choose between three different educational paths, based on their academic level and personal ambitions or preferences. Much like in most other developed countries, there are the two traditional paths: the “general” one preparing children for university with theoretical knowledge, and the “vocational” one giving children practical knowledge by training them for a particular craft or trade.

Where the Dutch system differs from others is that secondary education also offers the possibility to follow a third, “in-between” educational stream that provides professional knowledge (a mix of practical and theoretical knowledge) and allows students to access professional education in Universities of Applied Sciences (hogescholen in Dutch, they would be called “college” in the UK).

The Dutch primary & secondary education
created by Lucile Courtin®

Keep in mind that the Dutch system is very flexible (it is all about freedom, remember?) and whatever path your child chooses, it will always still be possible to switch to other paths later on – it might require a “catching-up” year in some cases but the point is, no choice is getting your child stuck in a path forever.

The three educational paths available to students in secondary schools are:

  • VMBO (Voortgezet Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs – or Preparatory Secondary Vocational Education) takes four years to complete and is a vocational study where students specialize in a sector: Economics – for example commerce, administration, fashion; Agriculture – for example farming, environment and forests, food technology; Technical – for example automotive, construction, graphics, electrical, plumbing; or Care and Welfare – for example sports, social care services, childcare, nursing, etc. VMBO prepares students for higher vocational training (MBO).


  • HAVO (Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs – or Higher General Secondary Education) takes five years to complete and is a professional study where students graduate, around the age of 17, in one of the following “profiles”: Nature and health (Natuur en Gezondheid), Nature and technology (Natuur en Techniek), Culture and society (Cultuur en Maatschappij), or Economics and society (Economie en Maatschappij). HAVO prepares students for a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences (HBO).


  • VWO (Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs – or Preparatory Scientific Education) takes six years to complete and is the highest variant of the Dutch secondary education system, where students choose between the same “profiles” as in HAVO but where the curriculum is generally more analytical and research-oriented. VWO can be studied in two different types of schools, Atheneum and Gymnasium. Gymnasium includes Latin, Ancient Greek and Classical studies in the list of subjects taught, while Atheneum does not. VWO prepares students to continue on to a research university where they can get a bachelor’s degree (WO).

Questions? Contact the gemeente Haarlemmermeer to get some more support or advice, and begin your child’s school year with total peace of mind!