Dutch children are the happiest in Europe according to a report issues by UNICEF (2013). The survey also ranked The Netherlands as the clear leader when well being is evaluated by children themselves. The education system undoubtedly has a role to play in the happiness stakes. So what is the Dutch education system? The words choice, unique and equality in education indeed have positive connotations for most. They can, however, spell confusion and complication when it comes to understanding the nuts and bolts of the system.
One of the first challenges for expats moving to the Netherlands with children is trying to understand how their children will fit into the Dutch system and the international school options available. As with any international postings, a number of factors will come in to play including children’s ages, length of stay in The Netherlands, location, nationality and finances not to mention general instinct and feelings towards a school.
Primary Schools (Primair Onderwijs or Basisonderwijs)
The different types of primary schools
All children residing in The Netherlands are subject to compulsory education under Dutch law from 5 to 18 years. Children are leerplichtig (under a learning obligation or leerplicht) at 5 years old for 12 years of full-time education, and 1 or 2 years part-time (until the attainment of a diploma). Many children however start at a basisschool from age of 3 or 4.
Almost all Dutch children go to state-funded schools which can be categorized as the both regular (openbare) and special (bijzondere) schools. The regular schools are usually run by the government and are non denominational, whereas special schools have their own board, usually consisting of parents or a foundation. The special schools offer a variety of education approaches providing lessons based on a particular pedagogical vision or religious preference. All Dutch schools are however obliged to adhere to core objectives set by the government but may opt for example to follow the Montessori, Steiner or Dalton educational systems or be based on Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Islamic principles.
Alongside special education there are also special needs schools, directed towards handicapped children or those with behavioral or developmental needs. Lighthouse Special Education based in Den Haag caters for the international community providing assistance in English www.lighthousese.nl.
Ipad, yes Ipad, schools are also a now phenomena across the country. Just when many parents are battling and limiting its use and trying to reintroduce the pen and ink, these government funded schools are progressing the flat screen and promoting swiping and tapping. Citing creativity, originality and flexibility the schools (22 in total now in the Netherlands) promise to allow children to follow their own learning path being stimulated at their own pace where teachers are coaches rather than sticking formal lesson plans. www.stevejobsschool.nl
Finally, to take the parent choice and creativity aspect of primary education up yet another notch, in 2015 the Amsterdam region developed a ‘Onze Nieuwe School’ , (Our New School) initiative. Up to 4 new schools will be set up to meet the growing population of Amsterdam with the the local community being given the challenge to provide ideas describing what their new school should look like. On the cards is a trampolining school… watch this space.
The Netherlands is already puts many countries to shame with its population confidently speaking English from an early age with all its native idioms and colloquialisms. The Dutch Government are however keen to progress this a step further with the expansion of bi-lingual schools introducing English at an early age and more intensively. A national pilot of 18 schools across the Netherlands was set up in 2014 whereby schools will teach 30-50% of lessons in a language other than Dutch – primarily English.
In the Amsterdam area the De Visserschool is involved in the pilot and in Hilversum there are four schools: International School Hilversum, Violenschool, Wilge and Goose Dalton School.
In the Amsterdam there are also private fee paying bi-lingual schools. Many expats favour Two Voices and Little Universe which provide a good grounding in Dutch before moving on to the international schools in many cases. They are also conveniently located in the Old South area near the Vondelpark where many expats live.
Primary education focuses on the following subjects: Dutch, English, arithmetic and mathematics, social and environmental studies (including geography, history, biology, citizenship, road safety and political studies), creative expression (including music, drawing and handicrafts) and sport and movement. The law sets primary education attainment targets for each compulsory subject. They indicate what children should know and what they should be able to achieve by the end of primary school. Individual schools can then decide how the subjects are taught, and choose their own teaching materials. Schools may choose to teach extra subjects in addition to the compulsory core curriculum, such as religious education, French or German.
Every child residing in the Netherlands has the right to free education until the age 16. Some schools however do request a contribution for a child, called a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). These funds are used for school activities, such as school trips and swimming. Such contributions are voluntary and can vary per school.
For the non-Dutch
For international families with young children, Dutch school can be a viable option and it is highly unlikely that you will be the only non-Dutch parent hovering at the gates in any city. For children ages 4-6, the emphasis is very much on learning through play and discovering the basis of the language as a foundation for reading and writing. At this age and in an immersion situation the child becomes fluent very quickly and with a playful ease. Younger children may also get a greater sense of belonging by being part of a local school entrenched to their new surroundings. Since Dutch schools are not heavy on homework until the higher classes there will also be minimal use for evenings of Google translate (for parents also) to get through the work load.
Applying to primary schools
Ideally, for those primary schools that are perceived as being ‘top-class’ you should ensure that your child is on the waiting list as soon as the school allows. 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.
If you are new to the city parents are required to follow the applications procedure. In Amsterdam, for example, this is set out at www.schoolwijzer.amsterdam.nl. Parents list five schools in order of preference from a list of eight schools as determined by postcode. There is an option to put down a school outside of a given area although chances of being allocated a place are less likely. The allocation system will first look at preference one and if a place is not available will look to the second preference and so on. However, as an added complication, a number of schools, primarily in Amsterdam Zuid (an expat enclave) have opted out of the applications process and are independent in regard to the process.
The CITO test (think 11+)
The Dutch educational system divides children in educational levels around the age of 12 which is the last year of primary school. Although the ensuing recommendation is not binding, it does have great influence on the decision making process. This is often considered early and at a sensitive time in a child’s educational and developmental journey to be making such decisions.
This test is also one of the most criticised aspects of the Dutch education system and often prompts Dutch families to seek an international alternative especially if a child requires more support and/or nurturing and believe their child is a late educational bloomer. This exam is therefore the most important exam that Dutch schoolchildren take, as it more or less determines their educational future i.e. 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 more vocational future.
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.
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 bi-lingual streams (TTO Tweetalig onderwijs), meaning that at least half of the curriculum subjects 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, who have a good command of Dutch by secondary level and whose children intend to go onto university in the Netherlands.
The VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs) or preparatory middle-level applied education, lasts four years, from the age of 12 to 16. It combines vocational training with theoretical education in languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. It trains pupils for secondary vocational education (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, MBO) or, in some cases, to move on to senior general secondary education, HAVO. Students can choose between four different levels of VMBO that differ in the ratio of practical vocational training and theoretical education.
The two programmes of general education that lead to higher education and are considered selective are HAVO (five years) and VWO (six years). The HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) diploma is the minimum requirement for admission to HBO (universities of applied sciences).
The VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs ) curriculum prepares pupils for university, and only the VWO diploma grants access to WO (Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs or research universities). A VWO education has two separate branches: atheneum and gymnasium. In the latter, pupils study Latin, ancient Greek and/or classical culture.
It is possible for pupils who have attained the VMBO diploma to progress and attend the final two years of HAVO level education and sit the HAVO exam, and for pupils with a HAVO diploma to attend the final two years of VWO level education and sit the VWO exam. The underlying rationale is that this grants pupils access to a more advanced level of higher education and in theory acts as a safety net to diminish the negative effects of a child's immaturity or lack of self-knowledge.
Another factor for expats to consider is that typically very limited extra curricular activities are provided through Dutch schools. This also has the knock on effect for the International Schools as there are limited school teams to play against – difficult for some parents to come to terms with when schools, particularly in the UK , have a strong inter-school match culture. That does not mean to say the Dutch are not sporty.
On the contrary Dutch children learn their preferred sports (hockey and football in particular) at local sports clubs which often have very high standards and often demand training 3 times a week. This can typically mean a lot of ferrying around in the car unless your child can competently ride Dutch style with school and hockey equipment balanced perfectly.
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. Dutch School also tend to finish at 12pm or 12.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon which provides a good window to fit in the non academic pursuits.
The School Commute
The long lines of 4X4’s associated with the school commute in some cities are replaced in Dutch cities with lines of Bakfiets – the wooden boxes attached to the front of the bicycles containing multiple children (plants, luggage, animals). No surprise as riding a bike is well entrenched in Dutch genes. Families in Amsterdam therefore use the bike as their every day means of transport especially as Dutch children typically go to school within walking or a short cycle from home. Foreigners find the school-run by bike both liberating and invigorating (on sunny days) and frustrating and hard work (on rainy days).
However, this all weather, just- get-on-with-it approach to navigating the city no doubt also contributes to the strength of the Dutch character. To really fit it with the Dutch school run and push that multi tasking parent image to the extreme, cycle along on the telephone whilst balancing a Starbucks coffee and the obligatory umbrella not to mention the new born baby strapped to your front. Maybe something to work up to anyway.
For those (mainly expats) who prefer something other than 2 wheels, public transport in the cities is generally excellent – reliable, widespread, fast and efficient. Purchase your OV chip card, keep it topped up and off you go. Some children, again mainly for the international schools, do come to school by car. However, parking is at a premium in Amsterdam particularly around the British School sites and if you do not have a permit for the school area there is fierce competition for spaces - particularly on rainy days. Parents arrive early and get savvy about spots.
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. The British School for example has a service which is door to door (at a fee of approximately 15 euros per journey) and also a bus which links each site which is free.
As in most countries school attendance is compulsory for children aged 5-16. In the Netherlands note that there is a very low tolerance for taking children out of school during term time. There are frequently news articles of families being prosecuted for taking children on holidays during term time (often grassed up through sunny or snowy pictures on Facebook) or stopped at the airport. If a child is often absent from school, the school will notify the municipality. That does not mean to say that a request will always be a ‘no’ but notify the school if the needs arise to miss school time for any reason.
International Schools (with a focus on Amsterdam and Hilversum)
There are two types of ‘International’ Schools. (Note: further information on these schools is included in the article Schools Considered by Expats)
International ‘Community’ Schools which are partly funded by the Dutch Government
State subsidised community schools which have an active international character but look to maintain Dutch cultural links and integration with Dutch society. These schools particularly help foreign students who will reside in the Netherlands for a defined period or Dutch nationals who have had an education overseas or who are planning to be educated abroad in the future.
These schools have English as the language of teaching and offer the IB curricula which 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 private international schools.
AICS Amsterdam Inter Community School (Primary and Secondary) www.aics.espritscholen.nl. Situated in the Oud Zuid (Old South) area of Amsterdam near to the sites of the British School and Zuid station.
The other two recognised international community schools are in Hilversum, a small town about 20miles south east if Amsterdam. Hilversum is on the expat map due to the location of Nike and here. Although there are 2 good schools many expat families still choose to base themselves in Amsterdam and commute to Hilversum for work.
International School Hilversum (Primary and Secondary) www.atscholen.nl/scholen/voortgezet_onderwijs/ish
The Violenschool International Primary School Hilversum (Primary) www.ipshilversum.nl
Private International Schools
These schools follow a more standardized international programme either the IB curriculum or the national curriculum of another country e.g. the British or French curriculum. These schools are non funded by the Dutch Government and therefore fees are considerably higher. Generally facilities and after school opportunities are of a higher standard and more diverse in nature than offered at Dutch schools. The downside however are the long waiting lists particularly at primary level.
In the Amsterdam area, there are also private fee paying bi-lingual schools. Many expats favour Two Voices and Little Universe which provide a good grounding in Dutch and English before moving on to the international schools in many cases. They are also conveniently located in the Old South area near the Vondelpark where many expats live.
These include the English speaking : British School of Amsterdam (BSA) www.britams.nl. which follows the GSCE and A level programme and the International School Amsterdam (ISA) which follows the IB programme. The British School is located in the Oud Zuid area and ISA www.isa.nl is located south of Amsterdam in Amstelveen.
Non English Speaking schools in Amsterdam are the French School (Lycee Vincent Van Gogh) www.lyceevangogh.nl and the Japanese School of Amsterdam www.jsa.nl
Discipline, Uniforms etc
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, some expats consider as a negative point for Dutch schools that children are not disciplined sufficiently and the playground can be seen as more ‘physical’. We have even heard of Dutch parents sending their children to the British School 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 boaters 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 demeanor of Dutch schoolchildren who can fight their own battles, be open minded and independent brings us back to the results of the survey - and the happiest children in Europe?