Martina Meelissen
Annemiek Punter
Faculty of Behavioral, Management & Social Sciences, University of Twente

Overview of Education System

Dutch schools traditionally have significant autonomy. The Dutch education system is based on the principle of freedom of education, guaranteed by Article 23 of the Constitution.1 Each resident of the Netherlands has the right to establish a school, determine the principles on which the school is based, and organize instruction in that school. Public and private schools (or school boards) may autonomously decide how and to a large extent, when to teach the core objectives of the Dutch curriculum based on their religious, philosophical, or pedagogical views and principles.

The Minister of Education, Culture, and Science is primarily responsible for the structure of the education system, school funding, school inspection, the quality of national examinations, and student support.2 The administration and management of schools is decentralized and is carried out by individual school boards. Specifically, these boards are responsible for the implementation of the curriculum, personnel policy, student admission, and financial policy. A board can be responsible for one school or for a number of schools. The board for public schools consists of representatives of the municipality. The board for private schools often is formed by an association or foundation.

Two-thirds of schools at the primary level are privately run. The majority of private schools are Roman Catholic or Protestant, but there also are other religious schools and schools based on philosophical principles. The pedagogical approach of a small number of public and private schools is based on the ideas of educational reformers such as Maria Montessori, Helen Parkhurst, Peter Petersen, Célestin Freinet, and Rudolf Steiner. Almost all public and private school types are funded by the central government and, to some extent, by the municipalities. A small number of schools (offering primary and/or secondary education) is fully financed by parents.

The Dutch Inspectorate of Education makes visits at least once every four years to ascertain whether schools, both public and private, provide the expected quality of education.3 Schools not meeting quality standards are visited more frequently. The inspectorate can apply sanctions to very low performing schools; however, the final decision about whether a school should be closed is made by the Minister of Education, Culture, and Science. The findings from school inspection visits are reported to the individual schools, the government, and the public.

For children under age 4, there is almost no educational provision.4 There are day nurseries or crèches for children between 6 weeks and 4 years old. These nurseries are for working parents and do not have an academic function. In addition, there are “play groups,” which are open for a few hours per week for children ages 2 to 4. Some of these play groups offer educational stimulation programs (preschool) for children with a disadvantaged background, particularly in language development.

Compulsory education begins on the first day of the month following a child’s fifth birthday and either concludes at the end of the school year of the student’s 16th birthday, when he or she will obtain an upper secondary education (ISCED level 3) diploma, or at the end of the school year of the student’s 18th birthday.

In the Netherlands, preprimary (kindergarten) and primary education are offered together at one school. Most children begin preprimary education at age 4. On average, preprimary education lasts two years (depending on the child’s birthday and his or her cognitive and social development) and has both a social and an academic function, although the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics usually are not taught until the first year of primary education. Together, preprimary and primary education consists of eight grades, so the majority of children are 12 years old when they begin secondary education.

Most secondary schools in the Netherlands offer different educational tracks.5 For the first two or three years, secondary schools offer basic education in which students of similar abilities are grouped together in the same track, or they may offer “mixed basic education,” in which students of different abilities are grouped together. The main reason for grouping students of mixed abilities together is to postpone the decision about which educational track best fits the abilities of each student. After two (or three) years of basic education in secondary school, students enroll in one of the following three tracks:

  • Prevocational secondary education (VMBO)—This track lasts two additional years after eighth grade, and offers four programs: basic vocational, middle management vocational, combined vocational and theoretical, and theoretical. After completing prevocational secondary education, students may continue with vocational secondary education (MBO), or if they finished the combined or theoretical program, senior general secondary education (HAVO).
  • Senior general secondary education (HAVO)—This track lasts three years after eighth grade, and offers general secondary education in four programs: science and technology, science and health, culture and society, and economics and society. Upon completion of a program, students can continue with preuniversity secondary education (VWO) or (higher) vocational education.
  • Preuniversity secondary education (VWO)—This track lasts four years after eighth grade, and offers the same four programs as senior general secondary education. Upon completion, students may continue to higher vocational education or a three year bachelor’s degree program at a university.

Students who are not expected to complete their secondary education with a diploma but are able to attain a higher level of proficiency than students in special needs education often enroll in a program for practical training (PRO). In these programs students are directly prepared for the labor market. Students can participate in practical training until they are 18 years old.

Tertiary, or higher education, programs are divided into two types: higher vocational education programs and bachelor’s degree programs. Higher vocational education programs lead to a four year bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs lead to a three year degree, after which a master’s degree can be earned in an additional one to three years.

Languages of Instruction

Dutch is the first official language in the Netherlands. Frisian, the second official language, is spoken by more than 350,000 people in the northern province of Friesland. Dutch is the first language of instruction in schools, although Frisian or a regional dialect may be taught alongside Dutch. A minority of secondary schools offer Frisian as an optional final examination subject.6

Around 120 secondary schools offer bilingual education.7 This means that a maximum of 50 percent of the instruction at school is provided in another language, in most cases English. In 2014, a five year pilot program started offering bilingual education in 18 primary schools, whereby 30 percent to 50 percent of the total instruction is in English.