Graduating from Dutch Primary School

Graduating from Dutch Primary School

Dutch education is neatly divided into primary school (ages 4-12) and secondary school (ages 12-18). So there’s no in-between. The kids basically go to high school at age 12.

Now, I’m not usually one of those moms lamenting that they can’t just stay little.


But I admit that this whole school thing sort of threw me for a loop, hitting as it did (not uncoincidentally) squarely simultaneously with puberty. Yesterday she was a little girl. And today she’s a grown up young woman going off to high school in a couple of months.

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Avondvierdaagse: the Redemption

Avondvierdaagse: the Redemption

On Wednesday it was Tony’s turn to walk the Avondvierdaagse with the kids while I went to a writers’ meet up in the city. And of course the weather was perfect for him: sunny until after nine o’clock, as it is here when it isn’t pouring rain. 

Last night I had a second chance myself. I thought about holing up in a café while the kids walked, but in the end I decided to give  it another try. And I’m glad I did. This time the weather was much better; it was even a little too warm at first, which I didn’t mind at all. I rolled up the sleeves of my cotton shirt and set off at a run after the kids, since I’d been left behind because of a last minute bathroom break. 

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The March of Death (aka Avondvierdaagse)

The March of Death (aka Avondvierdaagse)

There are quite a few Dutch customs that would seem, frankly, crazy in the U.S. Some of them involve the impressively wide range of stuff Dutch kids are permitted, nay, encouraged to do (cycle several kilometres to school by themselves, take public transport all over the city, etc.) Others involve acts of defiance against the weather (the impossibly long ice skating race, Elfstedentocht, which happens only when the ice is thick enough on waterways between eleven northern cities, or the wildly popular leap into the frigid North Sea on New Year’s Day). 

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A Party Boat, Opera, and the Plastic Soup

A Party Boat, Opera, and the Plastic Soup

Last fall Axa participated in an academic competition with kids from schools around Amsterdam to design an invention. Another team ended up winning according to the judges, but the audience prize went to Axa and her classmates from Denise.

Their winning idea was a “Party Boat”. The boat would be made of recycled plastic. On the boat would be a dance floor that collected kinetic energy from the dancers and converted it to power the boat. It would also somehow collect the energy generated when they sang into the microphone. Besides being fun, the boat was meant to raise awareness of the “plastic soup” clogging the world’s oceans and threatening the lives of marine creatures and the health of the planet.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam: The Lottery!

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam: The Lottery!

Surprisingly enough, I have not been obsessing about the lottery every spare moment since we turned in Axa’s form almost a month ago. There were even some times when I forgot about it completely. However, as the time drew near for the blessed event, I did start to think about it more–several times a day by the final week. I had at least one nightmare where she got placed in a school that wasn’t even on her list. I was at pains not to mention the lottery to Axa (well, at least to not bring it up more than once every couple of days), since I didn’t want her to stress about it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it myself. I don’t do especially well when significant life events are up in the air (who does?), and finding out where Axa would spend the next six years of her life is a significant event. It reminded me a little of when I was Mormon, and we turned in our mission papers, and then waited for that big white envelope that would tell us where in the world we would be going.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam: The Rankings!

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam: The Rankings!

Axa refused to visit the final school on our list, so I got an unexpected reprieve. And we are done! I must say that it has been an extremely educative process for me. I’ve learned more about the Dutch education system and the individual schools, but also come to understand better the importance they place here on school choice, both for parents and for children. The advantages of offering so many choices are obvious, I guess. Ideally, each student will find the program and school that is the perfect match as far as academic level, educational method, subject emphasis, individual accommodations, distance from home, and that indefinable “click” between the student and the school.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 5

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 5

One of the best things about the way they do this whole high school thing here is that it’s so kid-focused. Whenever we walk into a school on an open day, it’s Axa who is greeted and handed a flyer, folder, bag of brochures, pen, water bottle, or whatever they’re handing out at this particular school (she promptly hands it all over to me to carry for her, but still). The students and teachers focus on talking to the visiting kids, although they are also polite and willing to answer the parents’ questions. Because let’s be real, the kids are 11-12, and sometimes they are more interested in the bowl of snacks on the table than in asking insightful questions about their future education. Yesterday I shared a rueful smile that transcended culture and language with a Dutch mother whose son had just grabbed a giant handful of potato chips out of a consumer research survey on whether Lays or generic chips tasted better.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 4

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 4

There is one especially aggravating thing about this whole process: We spend by far the most time and effort on schools in which we have little interest, and to which it is very unlikely Axa will go. After all, 95% of kids get placed in one of their top three choices. It wasn’t very difficult to to choose those top three; we had a fairly good idea of which ones they would be based on their websites, programs offered, test scores, and proximity to our house. The visits were more to see how the school “felt” to Axa and rank them either one, two, or three.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 3

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 3

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

While I was chatting with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas after she interviewed me last week about this whole process, she said something that I can’t stop thinking about. She had asked me during the interview what I thought about the Dutch education system, and in particular about the streaming system that separates kids out by ability at the age of eleven. I’d responded fairly positively (as I have on this blog), partially because I’ve always had an inherent hesitation about publicly saying something overtly negative about the culture in which I live at the time, and partially because I really do see some clear benefits to the system. But the thing that Donna said was that the parents who tend to have positive things to say about the system are those whose kids have ended up with a VWO advies.

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Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 2

Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 2

See also Part 1 and Part 3

We visited a couple more schools with Axa this week. By now we pretty much have the drill down (and she knows to keep her eyes out for where they have the cookies). I am starting to feel more confident about the process, and a bit less shell-shocked. After all, at the end of the day she just writes down all her choices and then we wait for the lottery. And none of my agonising or nit-picking about this or that advantage of this or that school will make much of a difference, if at all. I’ve also spent some more time researching exactly how the lottery works, which has been somewhat reassuring. For the truly nerdy (or desperately anxious) among us, here’s the link to a pdf of the analysis (in Dutch, sorry) of how the lottery went last year.

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