Praise for the overall standard of education in the Netherlands, regardless of whether it is a state, private or international school. However, the options can seem rather overwhelming and confusing to relocating families, although luckily for British expats, it does have many similarities with the UK system.
Compulsory education law (leerplichtwet but often just called leerplicht): Dutch law states that all children, aged five to 16 living in The Netherlands must attend school (although in reality, most start at four). This rule applies to any child who is currently resident in the Netherlands, including children of foreign nationals, which means that you are legally obliged to send your offspring to school here unless they attend in another country.
Homeschooling is uncommon in the Netherlands and the leerplicht law makes it quite difficult to carry out. It is generally only possible if your child has not been previously registered at a school here. If you choose this route, you should take care to understand the laws around this before you arrive in the country. (More details on the laws around homeschooling can be found here at https://www.thuisonderwijs.nl/wettelijk/
There are several different types of schools in the Netherlands, and within these categories there are many different educational philosophies to choose from.
State subsidised schools are either public schools (openbaar) or special* schools (algemeen bijzonder) which charge minimal or no fees although the special schools ask for a parent contribution. Regardless of the classification, every state school must meet core standards so that all children meet specific criteria at the end of primary school.
*‘Special’ in this instance just means that the school subscribes to a either a specific educational philosophy (ie Montessori, Dalton, Steiner/Waldorf, Jenaplan) or religion, which includes Protestant, ecumenical, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic. Not usually a problem as most of these schools are only moderately religious and accept children from other faiths or even with no faith.
These are either government subsidised (Dutch International Schools) or private (no subsidies) but both have a variety of curricula on offer.
Some are tied to a particular country’s curriculum, the largest being the British School of the Netherlands with its three junior campuses (Diamanthorst, Leidschenveen and Vlaskamp) and two senior (Leidschenveen and Voorschoten). Other national curriculum schools include (British School of Amsterdam), American (American School of the Hague), French (Lycée Français Vincent van Gogh, campuses in Amsterdam and The Hague) or the Japanese school.
Examples of other schools, across The Netherlands, teaching the IB programme include (Nord Anglia International School Rotterdam, International School of Hilversum, International School of The Hague, International School Utrecht, United World College Maastricht (UWCM). IPS Hilversum offers the IBPYP up to the age of 12 whilst the Rotterdam International Secondary School offers the IBMYP and IB Diploma, and takes pupils from age 12.
Several primaries also use the IPC (International Primary Curriculum) including Harbour International, Lighthouse Special Education School, Winford Bilingual Primary School and Haagsche Schoolvereeniging. Two schools teach the European curriculum ( European School, Bergen, European School of the Hague) and there are also Waldorf schools including International Waldorf School The Hague.
There are also schools with a blend of curricula, such as the Rivers International School in Arnhem, teaching the National Curriculum for England at Primary level and then moving on to the IBMYP and IB Diploma in the Senior school.
The quid pro quo for the significantly lower fees (€5,000 - €8,000 p.a.) at the subsidised schools compared to private (can be in excess of €20,000), is that they tend to have much longer waitlists. Also, remember that subsidised schools are intended for children who will only be here temporarily, or for those who have already completed a significant proportion of their education overseas. If you are planning to relocate permanently you may find you are ineligible for a place. However, there is often some wiggle room in this policy so it’s definitely worth contacting the school itself to see how they apply this.
It is worth being aware than many international schools in areas like Amsterdam (eg Amity International, Amsterdam International Community School (AICS), International School of Amsterdam (ISA) and The Hague (British School in the Netherlands, The American School of the Hague, European School of the Hague) are oversubscribed and can have waitlists. You may find that you cannot get a place in your first choice of school so it’s definitely worth trying to have a back-up plan.
For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI articles 'Best schools in Amsterdam considered by expats' and 'Best schools in The Hague considered by expats'.
Why choose an international school?
Only in the Netherlands for a year or two
If you don’t plan to remain in the Netherlands for the long term, an international school might be the best option for your child. It makes it much easier for children to change schools again when you leave for other countries or return home.
Your child has already been at an international school in another country
If your child has already been at an international school, chances are that he/she will be able to slot into an international school here at the same point in the curriculum, particularly if you opt for a school teaching the same international one as that they have been learning. This also makes transitioning easier for your child. If you are only going to be in the Netherlands short term, or if you move around often, this is probably the least disruptive option for your child.
The age of your children
Children aged four to five: Children, at this age, usually manage fine starting in a local Dutch school even if they speak little or no Dutch, as the first two years are focused more on social and emotional development than academics. Formal reading and writing do not begin until age 6 (Groep 3).
Children aged six+: If you have children over the age of six, then they will need to speak Dutch before joining most Dutch schools. For primary school children (4-11) this usually means spending a year in a special taalklas (language class)/taalschool (language school). Some local schools have these classes as part of the mainstream school but many don’t, and children will have to attend the taalschool in order to learn the language and then move to a local school in their area when they have completed the year.
For children of secondary school age (12+) the language programme is called ISK - internationale schakelklas (literally ‘international switching class’).
The structure of all these programmes varies depending on the school (and between municipalities) but it’s worth assuming that it will take your child a year to become fluent enough in Dutch to be able to manage successfully in a Dutch school. This may mean that your child ends up “repeating” a year. In the Netherlands this does not carry the stigma that it can in countries like the US or UK, but it is a personal choice for families to make.
Some state subsidised Dutch schools are classed as bilingual schools. In primary school this is referred to as TPO – Tweetaalig Primair Onderwijs (bilingual primary education) and in secondary schools as TTO – Tweetaalig Onderwijs (bilingual education). A certain percentage of the lessons are taught in English but examinations are still carried out in Dutch. These schools are part of a programme set up by the Dutch government to improve the level of English education available to Dutch children and are not suitable for children who do not already speak Dutch.
There are a few rare bilingual schools (often with long waitlists) where children are taught a full curriculum in both Dutch and English simultaneously and which do not have a requirement that the child already speaks Dutch upon enrolment, including the primary, Winford Bilingual Primary School and DENISE (part of Esprit schools), teaching the International Primary and Middle Years programmes and offering the IB Diploma.
Dutch private schools
Compared to countries like the UK or US, there are very few Dutch private schools. Many Dutch people will tell you that “all Dutch local schools are good” so why would they pay for a private school. There can also be a sort of inverse snobbery where private schools are not the status symbol they are in other countries. In the Netherlands even the royal family send their children to the local state school.
That said, in recent years a few more private schools have emerged but they are still few and far between. Most of them promote their smaller class sizes, or focus on rapid acceleration to shift between the levels in secondary schools. The language of instruction is Dutch and they largely follow the Dutch national curriculum, although some will also offer the IB programme. Children will need to already speak Dutch, but if you are really interested in a particular school it can be worth contacting them to see if they have an enrolment process for international students.
It is very rare to find a school in the Netherlands that provides lunch. In most schools, children take their lunch from home - usually a sandwich and some fruit. Some children will take hot food in a thermos or lunchbox but very few schools will have any resources for heating food up. This can be a bit of a shock to some international families who are used to their kids having a hot school meal as the norm but it just doesn’t really happen here. If it’s very important to you, you will need to do some research but you will probably find that the schools that provide lunch are some of the private international ones.
The School Run
Most Dutch children go to a school close to where they live, usually no more than a 10-minute bike ride, especially in primary school. Secondary school students, who are more independent, might have a longer commute – sometimes up to a 30-minute bike ride.
Children at international or private schools (not in every area and therefore often a longer commute) are more likely to be taken to school by car, but plenty will still cycle. Some international schools have a bus service for students.
If your idea of a good school is somewhere with boys and girls in hats and blazers who stand up whenever their teacher enters or leaves the classroom, then you will have difficulty finding that in the Netherlands. You will almost certainly have to look to the international private sector and even then, not all of these schools will be so formal. Dutch culture generally is quite relaxed and comparatively egalitarian and most schools reflect this to some extent.
Something that many expats find unusual is that Dutch schools do not typically offer extra-curricular activities. There is plenty of after-school sport but it is almost always done at a local sports club. This means more travelling for children who can’t yet cycle alone but you will see many children of ten or over making their own way between school, sports, and home, usually with a hockey stick or other equipment on their backs. Similarly, other lessons are arranged privately, music, art, drama etc.
Many international schools do provide extra-curricular activities in a form you might be more used to with a wide range of activities available, depending on the school. If this is something that is important to you or your child, you should definitely check with the schools before you sign up; don’t just assume that they will offer what you are used to.
Special Needs Education
The current approach to special needs education in the Netherlands was set out in the 2014 ‘Passend Onderwijs’ Act (literally, ‘Appropriate Education’). The main thrust of the law is that wherever possible children should all be educated together in the same schools, with all schools responsible for providing a suitable learning place for all children. In theory, this means that all children, with or without special educational needs should be educated together. Where a child’s needs cannot be met by the regular school, there are a range of special schools and education types available.
However, it will probably come as a surprise to no one that the reality is not as simple as this makes it sound. There are two types or special education school:
speciaal basisonderwijs (SBO) – this is ‘special primary education’. These schools follow the same curriculum and meet the same core objectives as other Dutch primary schools but they have much smaller class sizes and children attend until age 14 (instead of age 12). This gives children more specialised attention in class and more time to complete the core objectives. After completing primary school in an SBO, school children will usually move on to either an SO secondary school, or into vocational training (known as VMBO).
speciaal onderwijs (SO) – this is ‘special education’ and these schools can be at either primary or secondary level. These schools are divided into ‘clusters’. There are four different clusters depending on the specific needs of the children.
- Cluster 1: blind or partially sighted children;
- Cluster 2: deaf or hearing-impaired children and children with a developmental language/speech disorder;
- Cluster 3: physically or mentally disabled and long-term ill children;
- Cluster 4: children with complex behavioural problems and/or learning differences (including ADHD, autism, PDD-NOS, ODD, CD, etc.)
There are specific procedures to followed in order to enrol a child in either an SO or SBO school, and this will depend on whether you are already resident or if you are relocating from another country. Children who have been in the country before they turn four will be registered with the local consultatiebureau (baby and toddler clinic) who will help you with any additional support your child may need, as well as helping you with the application process.
If you arrive after your child has turned four and you already know that they require some level of support, it is important that you mention this when you first register your family with the local gemeente (municipality). The gemeente will then be able to help you with any necessary support or applications.
It is also a good idea to contact to register with an onderwijs consulent (‘education consultant’). These independent consultants work for the government providing support for families with an SEN child. They have an expertise in supporting children with SEN and their service is provided free of charge. Full details of the agency can be found here https://www.onderwijsconsulenten.nl/. The site is in Dutch but the services they provide are for all families resident in the Netherlands.
Most mainstream international schools provide some level of SEN support but the level will vary from school to school and almost certainly incur additional charges for specialist staff and/or materials. The space in these programmes may be limited and you will need to contact the schools directly to find out exactly what support they can provide.
The only school specialised in education for children with SEN is the Lighthouse Special Education school, a primary for children, aged five to 13, in The Hague. This school provides education for children with complex challenges who are unable to cope in mainstream international education. If you are likely to be resident in the Netherlands after your child turns 13 they will help you transition to an appropriate international or Dutch secondary school.
Please note that at this time there is no specialised international secondary school for children with SEN. The Lighthouse School will help transition to an appropriate secondary programme where this is possible for the child but they state that "there are very limited international school options in The Netherlands for students who have reached secondary school age and who have complex learnting needs. Families would be advised to consider mobing back to their home country before the child has turned thirteen years old".
Gifted & Talented Education
A note about education options for gifted and talented children. If your child is in the Dutch school system there are a number of options, including Leonardo schools. These schools are usually mainstream schools that have a class for gifted children. There are also programmes where children are taken out of a mainstream school for a few hours or a day per week to participate in special projects. Many international schools will have an option for gifted and talented children but it varies from school to school. You will need to contact schools to discuss the possibilities.
This article could go on and on but hopefully this has given you an idea of the basic shape of what to expect from education in the Netherlands. Now that you have this general knowledge under your belt you are ready to start thinking about finding a school for your children. Everyone is different and what suits one family will not suit another.