Dutch Education Explained

When we decided to make a long-term move to the Netherlands, one of the things we had to think about was what to do for the kids’ education. Our family default has historically been homeschooling, and we’ve had a rocking good time all over the world doing that. I can’t take credit for the thoughtful, well-read, interesting, articulate people my children are; they have largely accomplished that on their own. But I like to think I’ve put the fewest possible barriers in their way. I’ve tried not to dampen any of their natural passion for learning, and they’ve spent many hours at the library, and many more outside, catching frogs, swimming at the beach, climbing trees, and playing in the dirt.

nature study

In fact, at the risk of outing myself as a selfish parent, I must admit that our decision to put them in school had not much to do with them. Tony and I have each taken a stint as stay-at-home-parent, and neither of us is keen to do it again. So school it is. However, I don’t think I could have brought myself to do it (passionate homeschooler that I was) without the allure of bilingualism. I know firsthand how difficult it is to help your kids learn another language, even if it is the majority language in the country where you live. As homeschoolers, we just spent too much time together speaking English for my kids to get enough exposure to other languages in the countries where we’ve lived. So basically, bilingualism is how I assuage my guilt for putting them in school.

However, once we decided to put the kids in school, we still had to figure out which school. As a compulsive researcher, I started out by learning as much as I could about the Dutch education system, which has some significant differences from the American one. Truth be told, I’m not especially familiar with the American school system in the first place, since I’ve never gone or sent my kids there, so I think I may now know more about the Dutch system than I know about any other.

Dutch kids almost universally start school at age 4, in Group 1. So if you’re thinking in American grades, the Dutch “Group” will be two higher than the corresponding grade. However, the first couple of years of school are a lot about playing and developing social skills. I don’t think they start serious academic work until Group 3. Especially my British friends tell me that heavy academics get started rather later here than at home. I didn’t do too much research on the lower grades, since my kids started at the tail end of Group 4 and Group 6 respectively when we arrived in April, both already fluent readers.

Primary school lasts from Group 1 until Group 8, so ages 4-12. At the age of twelve, all Dutch kids take a test called the CITO, which is sort of like the equivalent of the SAT (only, I repeat, at age 12!) and determines the entire rest of the course of their lives. I am only slightly exaggerating. Based on the results of the CITO (as well as the recommendation of their teachers), the children are then “tracked” into one of three secondary education levels. The alphabet soup of possible avenues of Dutch education took a while to make sense to me, but now I have it memorised:

  • VWO is the highest, and corresponds most closely to what you might call “college prep”. Students with a VWO recommendation can go to either a Lyceum or a Gymnasium. As far as I can divine, the main difference between the two is that at Gymnasium you study Greek, Latin, and Classical history, as well as a couple of modern languages, whereas at Lyceum it’s only the modern languages. In both cases, there’s also a full university-prep curriculum, during which you can choose one of four subject “profiles”:
    • Culture and society
    • Economics and society
    • Nature and health
    • Nature and technology

    Either Lyceum or Gymnasium prepares you to go to a research university, in the Netherlands or elsewhere.

  • HAVO is the middle level, and is usually explained as general education. The thing I hear about HAVO most often from Dutch people is that “it’s also a very high level”. This is a perfect illustration of the fact that in Dutch society in general, there’s a lot bigger emphasis on fitting in than on excelling, which can be a bit of an adjustment for us rugged individualists from across the pond. HAVO students also choose one of the above subject profiles, and can go on to a university of applied sciences, or HBO. This type of education is considered “higher vocational training”, and basically leads to white collar jobs in various industries. These universities used to grant “professional” degrees, but as of last year, they grant normal bachelor degrees, and have also recently been given permission from the government to perform research. So I guess to some extent there’s been an effort to bring the two streams of higher education more together. I believe that HAVO students can also be admitted to (at least some) universities abroad.
  • VMBO is the lowest level, and prepares students to go on to vocational training.

It’s generally frowned upon for parents to have an idea of which stream they’d like their kids to end up in. And there’s all sorts of controversy about parents paying for special courses to prep their eleven-year-olds for the CITO, and how much socioeconomic class has to do with any particular child’s likelihood of ending up in a certain stream. As might be expected, children whose parents are university-educated also tend to do VWO. It is possible to move between levels during high school, and in fact, not uncommon to move up or down one level, although moving up sometimes necessitates completing an extra year. Students with a degree from an HBO institution can also do postgraduate degrees at research universities, provided they complete a preparatory year between their bachelor’s degree and their master’s degree.

There are, of course, both advantages and disadvantages to the Dutch system. In a perfect world, it provides kids with a somewhat customised education that fits their ability and motivation. However, twelve is awfully young to be “tracked” onto a certain academic path. And such a rigidly tiered system can certainly perpetuate the tiering of society. I haven’t been here long enough (or made enough Dutch friends) to really understand the full implications of how the school system affects people’s lives here. But when it came to our kids, we had one huge concern: our daughter was ten, and would be taking the CITO test in less than two years. It seemed like a pretty difficult proposition for her Dutch skills to be up to the near-native levels they would need to be for her to perform to her potential on the all-important CITO in that length of time, on top of adjusting to a new country and the fact of even going to school at all. There was a fairly good chance she could do it; she’s a smart kid, and in general quite adaptable, but I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on her. And I knew it would be something I’d really worry about for the next couple of years.

So in my next post I’ll tell you about the options we looked at for schools in Amsterdam, and how we ultimately decided on our current school.

4 thoughts on “Dutch Education Explained

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  • October 9, 2015 at 11:53 am


    ” This is a perfect illustration of the fact that in Dutch society in general, there’s a lot bigger emphasis on fitting in than on excelling, which can be a bit of an adjustment for us rugged individualists from across the pond. ” — I remember a book I read last year about an American lady in Norway. She mentioned if, say, a six year old could ride a bike, and wanted to ride it to school, she couldn’t. Why? because other six year olds may not be able to do the same. But, of course, by age 7 or 8, it was fine since by that age most every child could do the same. That really stuck out to me.

    I tend to agree with you that age 12 seems awfully young to be labeled. Nothing wrong with blue-collar jobs, in my opinion. My husband loves his! Being in an office all day would drive him nuts. (He tried it during an internship in college, and hated it.)

    • October 9, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      Good point Susanne. There’s nothing wrong with blue collar jobs. And that’s actually a strength of the Dutch education system. It gives students a clear path toward whichever job they are suited for/want to do (and hopefully the two intersect). For kids who dislike academics, the VMBO track is two years shorter than the VWO track, and they can go straight into well-defined vocational training afterward, in contrast to the U.S., where there’s kind of a stigma if you don’t finish high school.

      But there’s also a concern that the system keeps society too stratified, since kids whose parents have less education tend to also end up in the VMBO track. And once that happens at age 12, it takes a significant amount of individual initiative to move up. And how do they have the life experience or future outlook at that age to really make informed choices about their future?


What do you think?