High School in The Netherlands

The year you turn twelve is an important year in the Netherlands. In fact, if I were to be melodramatic, I would say it can determine the entire course of your life. Because they have a sort of Divergent thing going on here, where kids get “tracked” at the age of twelve into a certain educational level which determines where they go to school, which types of higher education will be available to them in the future, and accordingly, for which sorts of jobs they will be qualified. That’s pretty heavy for a twelve-year-old. And my little eleven-year-old will be twelve in just a few short months.

Which is one reason why when we moved here less than two years ago we opted for DENISE, a new Dutch bilingual school where there’s some flexibility when it comes to educational choices, especially for kids who move here close to the all-important age of twelve. At DENISE, they delay tracking the children for years, encouraging them to continue to develop at their own pace, and allowing kids who move here with no Dutch some time to catch up without a temporary language deficiency affecting the assessment of their potential.

Almost two years on, we are still more than thrilled with the education our children are receiving at DENISE. They’re thriving and happy, they have friends from all over the world, they’re doing well academically, and they’re learning Dutch faster than I even thought. I expected that putting them in a more international environment where the social language the kids use among themselves is English would delay their acquisition of Dutch. I think that to some extent that has been the case; they are certainly less comfortable speaking it than I imagine they would be if they were chattering away in Dutch with their friends all day. At the same time, though, going to school in Dutch for three days each week means that their academic Dutch has improved dramatically. So much so, in fact, that last week at our end-of-year meeting, Axa’s teacher told me that her Dutch is above average, and strong enough for her to go to a Dutch high school. And not only that, but her academic performance and motivation is such that she’s a good candidate for the highest educational track in the Dutch system, VWO. (See more about these tracks in a previous post, Dutch Education Explained)

I am, of course, thrilled. And very proud of my brilliant, hard-working daughter. But my goodness! now we have a wealth of options, which can be grouped into the following categories:

  1. Stay at DENISE, which follows the Middle Years Program in preparation for the International Baccalaureate Diploma program (IB) during the last two years of high school. Pros: She’s guaranteed admission. We already know the school. It would be more comfortable for her to continue to have some classes in English (and lots of international peers), and some of her friends will be staying. Cons: While we are thrilled with the primary education at DENISE, we have heard uneven reports about secondary education there. The only extra language they offer (after Dutch and English) is French, and that doesn’t begin until the second year of high school. In addition, they are not yet accredited for the IB diploma program. There’s a possibility to transfer to an international school for those last two years, but it’s not a sure deal.
  2. Switch to an international school now (or as soon as a spot opens up; there’s a waiting list). The school in question would be Amsterdam International Community School (AICS). This school has ties to her current school, and is the one where she would transfer for IB if DENISE doesn’t get accredited in time. Pros: I like the idea of the IB program, and the IB diploma is well-regarded by university admissions committees around the world. We’ve loved the international atmosphere at DENISE, and AICS would be more of the same. Cons: The language of instruction is English (although Axa would probably rate this as a pro), and it’s unlikely she would become fully fluent and confident in Dutch. It would not help her integrate into Dutch culture; in fact, as far as integration goes, it would be a step down from her current bilingual Dutch school. Finally, cost! While it’s the cheapest international school in Amsterdam, tuition would still be a financial stretch for us.
  3. Dutch Lyceum – the normal path for a Dutch student with a VWO recommendation. A rigorous course of study including foreign languages. Guarantees admission to Dutch universities, as well as being well-regarded abroad. There is a bilingual lyceum that one of her friends wants to attend, so it could also be an option to have some classes in English. Pros: French and German are mandatory. I would love this anyway, but if she plans to live and work in Europe, a couple more useful European languages will be very helpful to her. Multilingualism is pretty much the norm here, and really opens up the job market, besides all the other good reasons for learning more languages. She would make Dutch friends and feel much more integrated here in the Netherlands, which is important, as we don’t intend to leave, and I want her to feel as at home as possible. Cons: there’s a lottery system involved, so you’re not guaranteed your top choice of school; however we live within striking distance of several schools where I wouldn’t mind her going, so chances are good she’d get something that worked well. Tony’s and my Dutch still isn’t very good, so school communications (and helping with homework) would be a challenge.
  4. Dutch Gymnasium – a step up from Lyceum, most notably in the fact that Latin, Ancient Greek, and classical studies are included in the curriculum (with opportunities for corresponding school trips to Italy and Greece). Obviously, as a grammar geek who studied Latin at university and Greek on my own for fun, I am over the moon about this option. Pros: same as Lyceum, but even more awesomeness. Cons: If she goes to a dedicated Gymnasium, she has to be pretty sure she wants to do it, because she’d have to transfer schools and leave all her new friends if she ended up not liking the program. However, it’s also possible to follow a gymnasium program at a lyceum. In fact, at many schools you don’t have to make the choice between the two programs until after a year.

So there you have it! We’ll have an exciting next few months. During January and February, all the schools will have open houses so prospective students can visit, and then at the end of February the kids make an ordered list of their top schools. The lottery is in April, after which they’ll find out at which school they have a place. And I am at least as excited for the process as my little scholar.

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