Dutch children are the happiest in Europe - it's official! So, undoubtedly, the education system has a role to play in the happiness stakes.
Dutch schooling looks like pretty clear sailing, certainly in comparison to many international postings. But there are a few swells and troughs the unsuspecting new arrival might not discover until too late. One of the first challenges for expats moving to the Netherlands with children is trying to understand the system and how their children will fit into it.
Almost all Dutch children go to state-funded schools (Note: some of these are actually controlled by the state directly, but approximately half are controlled by independent bodies - primarily the Catholic and protestant churches of the Netherlands). Private (non-state funded) schools in the Netherlands are almost entirely the domain of Dutch children with some sort of special needs, and the expats.
In the Netherlands, children are obliged to go to school between the ages of 5 and 16. Primary school education continues until 11 after which children are streamed academically via a test (the CITO toets). This exam is similar to the old 11+ in the UK and it is perhaps the most important exam that Dutch schoolchildren take, as it more or less determines their educational future.
It determines whether they go to a secondary school preparing them for university entrance (those with the very highest results, for example, go on to a gymnasium with a curricula that includes Latin and Greek) or whether they end up in a school that prepares them for a vocational training. There is some student movement between secondary schools by pupils that are either struggling or over achieving in their respective schools, but this is fairly limited.
Needless to say that those parents who are ambitious for their children (and actually it should be noted that Dutch parents in general do not have such high levels of paranoia about school choices as their English neighbours) want their children to go to a primary school that has good results in the CITO. It is possible to check the CITO results of all primary schools with, of course, the usual provisos that this does not necessarily indicate value added.
For those primary schools that are perceived as being top-class you should ensure that your child is on the waiting list from birth and in fact should even plan to have your baby in the first half of the academic year, as a mother of a July baby reported wistfully to me. Once you have identified your preferred primary school, it is worth checking whether there are other qualifying entrance criteria that you can work to your advantage e.g. most primary schools will have a sibling policy and some give preference to children living close to the school.
A variety of teaching methods are used in primary schools; for example, Montessori and, to a lesser extent, Rudolf Steiner schools are popular in the Netherlands. Many schools are also of a particular religious denomination (although that doesn’t necessarily preclude a child of another religion attending).
When it comes to secondary education, there may be a choice of schools local to you at the academic level advised for your child. Some of the academic schools offer a bi-lingual stream, meaning that lessons that do not have a connection to the Dutch language (maths, the sciences and art to name but a few) are taught in another language, typically English.
The national syllabus and exam structure at these schools prepares students for entry into Dutch universities. Hence, the bilingual stream is an option for expats who are permanently based in the Netherlands and/or whose children intend to go onto university in the Netherlands.
State-Subsidised International Schools
The state also provides another option for expats: state subsidised international schools (primary and secondary). These schools are typically linked to a Dutch school but follow the IB curricula and have two streams: a bilingual stream for Dutch students and an international stream for expats (taught entirely in English).
The advantage of the IB curricula being that it is recognised internationally and so makes university applications outside the Netherlands easier for students. Another advantage for expats is the state subsidy, as whilst fees are payable by parents for these schools, they are considerably less expensive than the next option.
Private International Schools
The final and perhaps more familiar option for expats is the private international school. These schools follow either the IB curriculum or the national curriculum of another country e.g. the English or American curriculum. Given the large number of expats in the Netherlands, parents, particularly those living in or near the major cities of the Netherlands, have a fairly healthy choice of private international schools.
School Lunches (not as straight forward as you'd think)
Confused already? Well here are some other personal observations. A factor which expat parents might not think to consider but which will have a considerable impact on their daily life is the school’s lunch policy. Most Dutch primary schools (unlike the international schools) expect children to have lunch at home, not that convenient for working parents or if the primary school is too far to bike or walk to from home.
Another factor for expats to consider is that typically no extra curricular activities are through Dutch schools. Dutch children learn their preferred sports at local sports clubs which typically means a lot of ferrying around in the car. Similarly, music lessons have to be arranged privately.
This also means that with no extra curricular activities on the agenda, the school day in Dutch schools is a good hour or two less than, for example, in English schools. And whilst there are some after-school clubs, these are by no means widespread (although the Dutch government has stated its intention to extend the provision of after school care).
Discipline, uniforms etc
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, some expats consider as a negative point for Dutch schools that children are not disciplined sufficiently. We have even heard of Dutch parents sending their children to the English school in the Netherlands to acquire, for want of a better expression, “manners and graces”.
This is of course something that is very subjective, but 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 and will almost certainly have to look to the international private sector. The perhaps more relaxed demeanour of Dutch schoolchildren brings us back to the results of the survey - and the happiest children in Europe!
The school commute
On the subject of chauffeuring your children, whilst an international school may be further from your house, it may have the advantage of a private bus service to the school which Dutch schools do not.
So how far apart are the places expats typically live and send their children to school? This editor lives in Blaricum, which is a small village (near Hilversum) about 15 miles to the south east of Amsterdam. If compared to London, it would be similar to a village in a leafy commuter belt area such as Surrey, although the distances are much shorter as Holland is a small country.
There are loads of expats in this area -- some working in Amsterdam (the business centre of the Netherlands), some working in Hilversum (the media/show biz centre of the Netherlands) where (home base for a number of big international companies, eg the massive European headquarters of Nike is in Hilversum).
For schooling, this entire area is within the catchment of both the international school in Hilversum and the numerous international schools in Amsterdam - given that pupils of international schools are likely to travel further to school than their Dutch counterparts (most Dutch children would not travel more than a 10 minute bike ride to school).
Using Blaricum as the centre of the world (for purposes of this geographical description), The Hague is around 30 miles from here (repeat: Holland is not a big country!). A lot of expats live in the Hague as it is an important international political centre as the location of various international organisations e.g. the European Court of Human Rights etc, as well as multinational corporations, probably the biggest being Shell. The British school has a junior department in Amsterdam but the main British school is near The Hague.