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Schools in the NetherlandsIt may be as flat, but Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The thought of moving to the Netherlands may seem as simple as clicking your heels together. It is Europe after all; how hard can it be? The low-down on the lowland of clogs, tulips, windmills and cheese becomes a quest for the perfect question… asked and answered by experienced expat Helen Hagemann.

One of Holland’s eastern provinces, Gelderland lies snugged up against the German border and Arnhem, nestled in the stunning heath and moorland of the Veluwezoom, is its provincial capital. Flat though the rest of Holland is, the countryside around Arnhem is some of the most elevated: in some places reaching the giddy heights of 110m above sea level. Little risk of a nose-bleed, but certainly appealing to the eye after the monotony of the polders. 

The city itself did not originally lie on the Rhine: the river was diverted in the Middle Ages to run past the town in keeping with the Dutch tradition of
taming the waters for commercial purposes. In the early 19th century, Arnhem (and neighbouring Nijmegen) attracted well-to-do Dutchmen returning from the colonies with money to burn. These ‘sugar barons’ turned Arnhem into a green city of wide boulevards and stately homes. Many of the grand outlying estates were eventually converted into parks, making the countryside here some of the most beautiful in the Netherlands. 

Arnhem’s proximity to Germany has had its historical downside. The Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 left the town shattered. On September 17th, 10,000 British paratroopers landed in the countryside around Arnhem in conjunction with US Airborne troops (of Band of Brothers fame), dropped further south as part of an ill-fated attempt to capture the bridges over the Rhine known as Operation Market Garden. German resistance proved stiffer than expected and by the 25th of September, the British were forced to retreat: Arnhem was indeed ‘a bridge too far’.

The locals were forced to evacuate the city and environs, enduring another seven months of misery. When they returned in April 1945 after the liberation of Holland, the inhabitants found the town plundered and in ruins. In spite of the hardships precipitated by the defeat, the people of Arnhem still honour the British sacrifice. There are – unsurprisingly - many war museums in the area, and an annual commemoration ceremony in the nearby village of Oosterbeek, last redoubt of the British command. Similarly the American and Canadian war efforts are annually commemorated across the Waal River just beyond Nijmegen. 

For all the goodwill accorded to British and North American visitors, there is still a certain antipathy towards day trippers from the east: don’t expect a cheery wave if you find yourself crossing the aforementioned bridge (now the John Frost Bridge) with German plates on your car.

Landing on your feet

You may not find yourself running in quite the same cosmopolitan circles as you might in the expat-padded world of The Hague or Amsterdam, but Arnhem is nevertheless a very agreeable place to live. The international school is generally the first port in the storm if you are reeling slightly from culture shock. If you are a veteran expat, your toes may curl at the thought of one more coffee morning (alternate Tuesdays – list posted at the primary school), but there’s no better way to get the skinny on how to survive your first few months in the land of the low sky. New parents in the primary school receive a hospitality guide with area-specific details like what to do on a rainy day, but you can check out www.expatica.com for more general info on living in the Netherlands, or the incredibly intuitive, jam-packed and well-designed www.dutchnews.nl.com. There is also an international women’s group based in Nijmegen (www.fexchange.net). 

Talking the talk

It must be said that one of the huge advantages to moving to Holland is the fact that the Dutch speak magnificent English (and usually a few other languages as well), which defers the immediate need to learn more than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  However, there are plenty of opportunities to learn the basics either privately or at local language institutes. (As an accompanying spouse, it is almost impossible to work here unless you have a high level of Dutch proficiency.) Learning at least the fundamentals of the language (and this is universally true) will make life a bit easier, but Dutch can sound a bit like a cat with a hairball to the uninitiated and is a difficult language to learn. Fortunately, it is very rare to find folks who don’t speak any English. 

The Dutch are also blessed with a sense of humour (a necessity, I would think, when listening to foreigners butcher their language) and are happy to help, provided you ask the right questions. And herein lies the paradox. Although the Dutch are a generally agreeable folk (albeit extremely forthright) they are surprisingly tight-lipped when it comes to questions regarding the business of day-to-day living. The only thing for it is to ask lots of questions no matter how daft, and eventually you will receive answers that will keep you on the right side of the law, properly fed, able to access the internet or phone home. I repeat: no-one will volunteer information. 

Working the system

Dutch bureaucracy is a self-sustaining life form. Like a virus, it is constantly mutating to ward off predators, the most feared of which is logic. Even the Dutch find their bureaucracy maddening. Do not be lulled into a false sense of belonging because you have an EU passport.  For starters you will need a residence permit, a SOFI (tax) number, possibly a work permit and you must register with your local municipality (gemeente). 

To achieve this, you will need a dizzying array of documentation including passports, birth certificates, contracts, marriage certificates, and possibly also a lock of your first-born’s hair and a piece of your grandmother’s wedding china. You can opt to tackle this on your own, but it will take years of therapy to recover. Better to enlist the services of a marvellous relocation agency in Arnhem run by patient and kindly English émigrés, who can guide you gently through the sea of red tape with calming cups of tea and sound advice on issues ranging from immigration to finding a doctor to getting connected to the internet (www.hollandrelocation.nl).

There’s no place like home

Finding rental property in and around Arnhem can be a mission. There is simply not very much available and it is expensive. The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe and living space is at a premium. There are several national agencies you can try (www.funda.nl, www.directwonen.nl), but the best in the area is EHR (www.ehr.nl).  

There are some very nice newer properties near the school in Arnhem South, but some areas are less agreeable: ask around. Many expats choose Arnhem North near the city centre, which provides good access to school by bus. Others live in the nearby villages of Oosterbeek, Velp, Huissen, Elten, Elst and Bemmel, and some further south in Nijmegen (although the traffic over the Nijmegen bridge can be horrific during peak times). 

Most properties are unfurnished, but equipped with white goods, curtains, carpets, light fittings, etc. Many kitchens do not have ovens. Be prepared to downsize: most houses are cozy. One bathroom is usually the norm. Be sure to ask if the house is for sale as well as for rent. The property market moves at a glacial pace and many owners try to have their cake and eat it too by renting whilst the house is on the market. This means you may have to show prospective buyers around or move out rather suddenly. 

Heating, phone, lights: action

Connection to gas, electricity and water is fairly straightforward, and you can generally carry on with whatever provider the landlord already uses. You pay an estimated amount per month with a final reckoning at the end of the year (and when you move out), which will probably have you re-calculating your children’s college fund whilst donning a parka and a miner’s torch. Phone/internet connection is a bit more complicated and can take a few weeks. KPN is the national provider, but many opt for UPC which provides cable TV with a telephone and internet package. Disconnecting when you leave can be trickier than getting connected in the first place, so plan ahead. Mobile phones are ubiquitous; Orange, T-mobile and Vodafone are some of the more recognizable providers. It’s best to shop around for a plan to suit, but all will be explained in perfect English. Pre-paid cards are sold just about everywhere. 

Two wheels or four

Of all the discomforts of the war, perhaps the biggest outrage for the Dutch was the requisitioning of their bicycles by the German army. The Dutch do love their bicycles and Arnhem is no exception in adapting its infrastructure to accommodate the fietsers (cyclists). In so many places on our ever-shrinking, fossil fuel obsessed planet, being a cyclist is akin to being a squirrel: sooner or later you will be roadkill. So what a pleasure it is to cycle along specially designated paths with your own adorable little stoplights, bike shops on every corner and an inalienable right of way. 

However, this latter point can be a tad nerve-wracking if you are still determined to remain behind the wheel of your car. You will find yourself using your mirrors in a way you haven’t since passing your test, swivelling your head around like something out of The Exorcist to avoid the cyclist who sails blithely in front of you or even right over your bonnet.  And she will not be alone but carrying two unhelmeted children front and back, a crate of beer, sacks of shopping, towing a buggy with two sleeping infants behind and all of this one-handed because it is raining and she is holding an umbrella. This is why you have to be alert: no matter what daft move a cyclist makes, if you hit ‘em, it’s your fault. 

It pays, therefore, to be well-insured for all those little accidents waiting to happen. There are plenty of insurance companies listed in the yellow pages, and even ABN AMRO bank offers policies. The agents almost always speak English or will find someone who does. You will need household insurance, auto insurance, third-party insurance, health insurance, window insurance, legal insurance: the list goes on and on. If you buy a bike, it is wise to insure that as well, as stealing bikes is a bit of a national past-time and it cannot be included in your contents insurance. If you take your bike anywhere, make sure you have a very good chain and lock, lash it to the nearest tree or lamppost, or use the free bike garages in town (fietsenstalling). 

If you choose to leave your car in the driveway – and parking is not cheap in Arnhem - you can hop aboard the only trolley buses in Holland. Many older children use the buses to get to school. Bus tickets (strippenkaarten) are available from newsagents, the tobacconist or the post office for the odd trip, but it is far from straightforward so best to go with a veteran traveller at first.

Trains are clean and efficient, but you must buy a ticket from one of the machines (you can choose the English language option) at unmanned stations and stamp it in the yellow machine on the platform: buying a ticket on the train is not an option and if you don’t have one (or you don’t stamp it), the fine is as hefty as the conductor is unsympathetic. If you buy your ticket from the ticket office, you pay an extra fee. You can print out timetables from the internet (www.ns.nl). Dusseldorf (Germany) and Amsterdam airports are within an hour’s drive: Ryanair flies from Eindhoven and Weeze (Germany), both also about an hour away.

Mind the gap 

You can import a car into Holland, but there is a mind-boggling amount of paperwork involved in registering the car and changing the plates. The police will often stop cars with foreign plates (particularly, it must be said, German plates). If you are in the market to buy, many expats at the school are selling cars by June/July. You can also try the various car dealers or on-line trade magazines such as www.autotrader.nl (in Dutch).

If you have an EU license, you may drive for up to ten years in Holland before exchanging it for a Dutch license, otherwise your license is only valid for six months after registration as a resident. You can apply to exchange an EU license for a Dutch one at your local municipality office, but the waiting time is a bit vague (could take one week or six weeks, we were told). The real catch is that you are not allowed to drive without a license, so what to do while you are waiting? We were advised to go on holiday. There are allegedly ways around this, so keep asking those questions!

Chances are that you will not live close enough to school and/or after school activities to bike it as the Dutch do, and you will therefore probably spend a lot of time in the car. Speed limits are fairly strictly enforced. On the busy motorways around Arnhem, traffic can be heavy during rush hour (particularly in the winter months).  A gap is a go and drivers cut in and out in a way that would have folks in less tolerant nations reaching for the handgun in the glove compartment. One Dutchman actually likened his indicator to a magic wand. A signal means, ‘I am moving now whether or not it is entirely sensible or safe’. Perhaps in such a flat landscape it just livens up the journey. 

Stoplights are also a dab unusual, positioned as they are in such a way that you can’t see them if you are first to the light unless you lie down across the front seat. The person behind you will always beep obligingly to set you on your way. Yellow lights are often seen as an invitation to speed up. Don’t fret, however: the ANWB (Dutch auto association) provides an excellent and comprehensive service throughout the Netherlands and Europe.

Take two aspirin and call me in the morning

Health care provision in the Netherlands runs along UK National Health lines, although you will need proof of health insurance. Find a GP near you – ask a neighbour or consult the municipality guide – and arrange an introduction. Ditto for the dentist. The GP is your first port of call if you are sick, but if you are looking for tea and sympathy or even a prescription for antibiotics, book a flight out: this is a nation of stoics. However, if you need emergency care, the area is well-serviced and expats report excellent care and facilities once you’ve convinced your GP that soon you will need a hearse rather than an ambulance. 

To pin or chip 

All the major Dutch banks are represented in Arnhem: Fortis, ABN AMRO, RaboBank and the Postbank. The Postbank services are only in Dutch. ATMs are everywhere and internet banking is available in English from ABN AMRO, which also offers an expatriate service. You can easily pay bills and make international transfers via internet banking: cheque books are non-existent. The bank will issue a PIN card with a chip. You can also apply for a credit card, which will be issued grudgingly.

Bank officials take a dim view of spendthrift, credit-card wielding Brits and Americans, if our experience is anything to go by. Credit cards are not commonly used for everyday spending anyway, and many shops (including the supermarkets) will not take them. PIN payments (debits) or cash are the general rule. The chip (CHIPKNIP) is a prepaid amount loaded onto your card at your bank’s oplaadpunt. You can chip for small amounts at McDonald’s, coffee shops and pay for parking. Note that in some towns – neighbouring Nijmegen, for one – you can only pay by chip for street parking.

Spending your euros  

Arnhem prides itself on being the fifth largest shopping town in the Netherlands and has plenty of shops in the centre ranging from the big department stores (V&D, Bijenkorf, C&A, H&M and HEMA) to funky boutiques. Shops are closed on Sunday, with the exception of the first Sunday of the month (Koopzondag) and many shops are closed until 1:00 pm on Monday. Do not be surprised if the cashier rounds up your purchase to the nearest five cents. One and two euro cent coins are not generally used in the Netherlands.

There are plenty of restaurants and cafes, too, if you need a break from a hard day of shopping or to recover from sticker shock. These range from traditional Dutch cafes to trendy bistros; from superb Asian restaurants to fast food emporia. Tipping is not necessary, but you can round up the total if you are feeling generous. For the record, a ‘café’ in the Netherlands serves koffie (coffee), but a ‘coffee shop’ serves an entirely different stimulant (namely: dope. Usually pretty easy to smell it when you walk past and/or by the tell-tale cardboard cut-out of a giant Rastafarian holding a marijuana leaf.) 

Eating out of the wall 

Quick, easy and cheap (saving money is the other national past-time) tends to beat out flavoursome in Dutch cuisine, although historical connections with Indonesia add some spice. ‘Eating out of the wall’ refers to the many self-service snack shops where you plonk your money into the slot and open up a small glass door to extract a kroket or a frikandel (both translate roughly as ‘mystery meat’, although frikandel is rumoured to be equine in origin) or the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich.

Let me just say that this is not a country of gourmands. Chips with mayonnaise, raw herring with onions, sausage with potato and cabbage, beans, pea soup. Perfect if you were a fan of school dinners and mystery meat, but the fare is at best uninspired (the French, bless them, really struggle here). A visit to a pancake (Pannenkoekenhuis) house is de rigeur: you won’t be gastronomically blown away, but the choice is impressive. Who knew you could do so much with the humble pancake? Great for kids as there is almost always a play area.

Bringing home the bacon 

There are a number of supermarket chains represented in Arnhem: Coop, Super de Boer, Aldi, C1000 and Albert Heijn (affectionately known amongst expats as Uncle Albert). Don’t expect variety and excitement: Skippy Peanut Butter is in the small ‘exotic’ food aisle. The Asian and Turkish supermarkets are well worth investigating, as they carry a more recognizably exotic range. Check out your local butcher, baker and greengrocer. There is an open-air market by the Eusebiuskerk in Arnhem every Friday for fresh fruit and veg, fish, meat and, of course, cheese. 

Every village has its own weekly market. Shopping is a daily exercise for many Dutch families given the limited storage space in most houses, and packaging reflects this: very few jumbo packs available. Apply for a loyalty card to take advantage of the special offers. The cashier will always ask, ‘Spaart uw koopzegels?’ before you pay. Just say ‘nee’. Nobody really knows what these stamps are, but you don’t want them. Take your own bags and learn to pack them quickly if you want to avoid being reduced to hysterics as your foodstuffs are hurled down the band and the person behind you starts muttering something about Marie Antoinette. 

Taking the air

You don’t come to the Netherlands for the weather. If you wait too long for a nice day, you may never leave the house. Pull on your wellies and mac and pack a very sturdy umbrella; the cheap ones will just get turned inside out by the wind. Winters are long, dark and wet, but not terribly cold: summers are short and wet, but not terribly warm. It is not unusual to have a range of climate phenomena all in one day. You will know summer holidays have truly started by the vast numbers of caravans taking to the roads. However, there really is nowhere more lovely on a sunny day, and in the spring the carefully tended gardens are stunning.

There are plenty of beautiful places to cycle and walk in and around Arnhem once you’ve donned your all-weather gear: Sonsbeek Park, Zypendaal castle and Rosendael castle to name a few. The latter lies in the Nationaal Park Veluwezoom, which encompasses 11, 362 acres of forest and heathland full of cycle paths and woodland trails, perfect for the mountain bike enthusiast. Even if you don’t have a bike of your own, you can make your way to the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe (www.hogeveluwe.nl) where white bikes are available free of charge for you to meander through the moorlands and dunes. 

If you are an art buff, the park boasts a marvellous art museum. The collection was assembled by the industrialist Kröller-Müller in 1938, and the family’s St-Hubertus hunting lodge was designed by the architect Berlage. Arnhem is also the home of the Gelders Orkest (orchestra), the Introdans ballet company, the Museum of Modern Art and the Musis Sacrum, one of the country’s oldest concert halls. Neighbouring Nijmegen is a university town, which likewise offers a host of cultural events.

Sport is encouraged across the board. You can sign up at a gym, join a team (soccer and hockey are the sports of choice, but rugby is also offered), take up mountain-biking, even learn to glide. Almost every child in Holland plays some sort of team sport, usually for a local team: it is a great way for kids to learn the language and make friends locally. Football is a national obsession. The local team, Vitesse, plays at the Gelredome, a massive stadium with a retractable roof which also doubles as a venue for concerts.

Because of its constant battles with the sea and the generally watery nature of the landscape, swimming is taught universally from a very early age. The standards are extremely high, and the programmes are a rigorous mix of swimming and survival techniques. Parents of small children are advised to sign up (either locally or at the Grote Koppel near the school: private lessons also available, but expensive) on arrival as waiting lists are long. 

The nippers

Parents of teenagers fretting over the Netherlands’ rather relaxed attitude towards soft drugs and prostitution (and a drinking age of 16) will breathe a sigh of relief. Children do have much more freedom here than in many other countries, but they can at least explore the boundaries in a reasonably safe environment. They do not - as a rule - throw all of their toys out of the cot and end up in rehab. Most expat parents agree that this freedom ultimately does wonders for a child’s self-esteem and confidence, adding further credence to Holland’s child-friendly reputation. 

Besides sports, there are a zillion child-friendly things to do in Holland. Every museum has children’s activities to save parents having to drag their offspring zombified around the exhibits. Every restaurant has an area reserved for them to play in. Amusement parks, indoor play areas and playgrounds abound. Arnhem has a fantastic zoo (you can buy an annual pass) and the wonderful Openluchtmuseum (Open Air Museum) and a hands-on water museum, both of which accept Museum Cards, a worthwhile investment for unlimited access to many museums around the country. 

Happy holidays

The usual Western European holidays are celebrated in the Netherlands: New Year’s, Easter (Paas), Christmas (Kerst). Queen’s Day (Koninginnedag) is celebrated on the 30th April, which is not the current Queen Beatrix’s real birthday but rather that of her mother, Juliana. The nation celebrates by wearing anything orange (the colour of the House of Orange) and holding a massive, nationwide street party cum flea market. Children traditionally sell their old clothes and toys in makeshift street stalls. 

Birthdays in general are a bigger deal in Holland than the more traditional holidays. Children take in sweets or cakes to school and are generally made to feel extra special on the day. And the older you get, the more of a fuss people make over you. Turning 50 is cause for a blow-out celebration instead of the more traditional mid-life crisis and lamenting of lost youth. Families will often hang out an effigy of Abraham or Sarah, a reference to the wisdom of those biblical characters. A birth often prompts the family wag to position an enormous stork replica mock-crashing through the front window. A flag pole with the Dutch flag and a rucksack means the student within has passed an exam and saves you the discomfort of having to ask. 

Christmas is a less commercial affair in Holland (alas, this is changing): a more sober and family-oriented day than elsewhere. Sinterklaas (St Nicholas Day) on the 5th December is the bigger event. It’s worth having a heads up about Sinterklaas before you arrive in Holland as, frankly, the uninitiated tend to find the whole thing a bit bewildering. 

Sinterklaas is not, as the name would suggest, Santa Claus; rather a corruption of St Nicholas, the third century patron saint of children.  Although he is a saint, this is not a religious holiday, and has nothing to do with Christmas.

Every night during the two weeks leading up to the 5th, children set out their shoes (traditionally their clogs) for the nightly visitations of Swarte Piets, who are – and I am not kidding – Santa’s little black helpers. The Swarte Piets leave sweets and sometimes a little present in the shoe, and help the saint keep track of who’s been naughty or nice. By day, Swarte Piets – white folks wearing black shoe polish on their faces (still not kidding) and very silly satin suits- lark about the high streets and shopping centres acting daft.  This is obviously the bit that some people might object to as we lurch through the first quarter of the 21st century.

Like the bell-ringing Santas in front of Woolworth’s, Sinterklaas and his helpers seem to be everywhere at once. Officially, he arrives on the 5th of December from the south of Spain where he wisely spends most of the year (unlike that dope holed up at the North Pole).  In school and on TV, children chart Sinterklaas’ progress by steamboat via France, Belgium and Germany (you do have to suspend belief for this).  Other activities are not unlike those that you would find in British or American schools in the run-up to Christmas.

On the 5th of December when the children are practically in orbit from the excitement and sugar, Sinterklaas and the Swarte Piets arrive at school to distribute a final round of E-numbers*.  Weirdly, there is no holiday: children go to school on both the 5th and 6th of December.  And then, abruptly, it’s all over.

There are many explanations as to why these helpers are black (some claim that Swarte Piets are not racial stereotypes, merely incarnations of the Spanish Moors who assisted the real St Nicholas in the 3rd century), but there is no getting away from the slight insensitivity of the Sinterklaas marketing machine: at least one American company here has banned in-house Sinterklaas celebrations. I can only suggest that you view it as a celebration of children and the season, and one of the many ways that the Dutch celebrate the strength of family ties and the importance of children in society. For an amusing take by a bemused American, read David Sedaris’ essay on the subject in his book, ‘Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim’.

The agenda (or I’ll show you mine if you show me yours)

Because this is a small country, things really do have to run to plan and the Dutch have little truck with those free spirits who can’t show up anywhere on time. This means carrying your ‘agenda’, or diary, with you at all times. Nothing happens here spontaneously. Even a coffee will require a look in the old agenda and a pencilling in of arrival and departure times. Rather unsurprising that poor old Vincent van Gogh lost the plot. 

The neighbours will already know that you are foreign because you draw your curtains at night. On the pretext of having nothing to hide, curtains are rarely drawn. This takes some getting used to, but is fantastic is you are incorrigibly nosy. You do not simply drop in on your neighbours even though you’ve memorized their furniture layout and what they watch on telly at night, but will be expected to introduce yourself when you move into the neighbourhood. Neighbours can be a goldmine of obscure information like the paper recycling schedule, the best dentist in the neighbourhood and which bins go out on what day. 

In a recent speech on the theme of national identity, Argentinian-born Princess Maxima - the Dutch equivalent of Princess Di but with more street cred - ventured that she had not yet discovered a definitive Dutch identity in her seven years in Holland. She found there were far too many contradictions to easily define the national character.

The traditional image of a free-wheeling, tolerant Dutch society, for example, has come under some strain recently as the country struggles with immigration issues along with the rest of Europe. Open yet closed, thrifty yet generous, patriotic yet pragmatic: there is more to this little country than dikes, canals, ice skates and houseboats. ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg,’ advise the Dutch pragmatically. Act normal - that’s crazy enough. Good advice indeed!

 

*E-numbers: All those artificial flavours and colours present in well-known candies that make kids go ballistic. (E621 is MSG, for example). That's why savvy parents never serve those at a party, and only the most diabolical put them in the party bags, so kids eat them at home or - even better - in the car on the way home! Huge amount of schadenfreude on the Surrey birthday-party circuit!

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