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.

Disadvantages do exist as well. For example, the small chance for each child of losing out in the lottery and getting a choice far down the list is an obvious built-in disadvantage. But there’s another one that can hit you blindside: the sheer time it takes. I would recommend that any parent going into this adventure plan to put the entire rest of his or her life on hold for a month. I am only half joking. At least do yourself a favour and take some time off work. The amount of time I have spent on this, between planning, researching, and traveling to and from schools, let alone the actual school visits themselves, is probably the equivalent of a second part-time job.

I’ve had to do a lot of figuring things out on my own (with the help of the other wonderful parents in the Dutch Education Facebook group). From what I’ve heard, many primary schools give parents of Group 8 children more help and direction. Our school is small, new, and has a pretty heavy focus on the kids remaining at Denise for the secondary years. In fact, I was informed by the school that only three children from Axa’s class will be moving on to different schools. Most children in Amsterdam have already received the lottery form, but Denise told me we would not receive ours until the 27th or 28th of February. C’est la vie.

Once we receive the form and fill it in, we need to make an appointment at Axa’s #1 school to turn it in sometime before March 10. She’ll also have an interview with a school administrator there. Then we will wait until April 4, when the results of the lottery are announced.

Fortunately, my daughter doesn’t seem particularly stressed about any part of the process. However, for a parent the sheer responsibility of adequately researching the dozen or so schools they recommend putting on the lottery form is daunting This must be true even for Dutch parents, who face no language barrier, and probably know some of the potential schools, at least by reputation. For an expat for whom the language as well as the whole system are unfamiliar, it can be both bewildering and overwhelming. But, veni, vidi vici, as I’m sort of obligated to say after all this thinking about Latin lately. I believe I’ve come out victorious.

And now, one more school to describe, and then I’ll let you know the final rankings (in case you haven’t already skipped to the end to read them).

Cygnus Gymnasium: I think Apartment Therapy would probably describe this school’s aesthetic as industrial chic. Such that, when I was editing photos for this post I was tempted to put the Metro filter on all of them. This is Axa sitting in a cool loft area over the canteen. Cygnus is all about cool loft areas.

Here’s what the hallways look like. Hip and modern, in an urban sort of way. I wouldn’t call it cosy, but it’s inviting nonetheless. No, Axa’s not holding that boy’s hand in the photo. It was purely a photographic accident.

Like the other categorical gymnasia, Cygnus is well-ranked academically. And it was recently ranked by Elsevier as best VWO school in North Holland. As a gymnasium, it still has a big focus on the classics, but as a new school it seems less wedded to tradition than the other gymnasia that form Axa’s top choices. More industrial chic in the staircase.

As part of the whole modern approach, at Cygnus they teach Latin via a more natural, organic system closer to that employed in teaching modern languages, and less via the grammatical approach that has been the standard for centuries. According to Cygnus, this is a big plus. As for me, I’m a pretty big fan of the traditional method (especially if the kids are also learning multiple living languages via other methods), because I think it gives them a more analytical grasp on language structure. But it’s not a big deal, and I’m sure Axa will be fine with either one. The place is pretty photogenic. I couldn’t resist another photo in a different staircase, this one right after Axa tried to scare her mother by pretending she was going to jump off.

Cygnus has a strong focus on the sciences, and we visited well-equipped labs for chemistry, physics, and biology, all staffed by current Cygnus students in white lab coats, who were eager to explain and demonstrate various scientific concepts. Here is Axa, examining the undulations of a live mealworm while I try not to feel sick. I got up and close with mealworms enough for several lifetimes during my stint as a sugar glider mommy.

I had been quite excited to visit Cygnus, since it seemed a bit unique among the gymnasia. And it did not disappoint. I thought Axa would put it near the end of the list because of the distance (20 minutes by bicycle, 30 by public transport), but instead it landed in spot number 4, beating out Vossius. While flipping through a student’s art sketchbook, she came across this dragon, which I believe she took as a good omen for the school.

And without further ado, here is Axa’s list (complete with a few descriptive words to jog your memory, in case, like me, you can’t keep thirteen schools straight in your head):

  1. Het Amsterdams Lyceum (Posh, Chilton-esque, and very close to home)
  2. Barlaeus Gymnasium (Hip school that’s academic, fun, and in the city centre)
  3. Ignatius Gymnasium (Small, with an orchestra that encompasses classical to rock & roll)
  4. Cygnus Gymnasium (Industrial chic with a modern twist on the classics)
  5. Vossius Gymnasium (Muggles and the non-nerdy need not apply)
  6. Hervormd Lyceum (Universalis program at a not-too-religious school)
  7. Spinoza Lyceum (iPads, Dalton Plan, and comic strip mythology)
  8. 4e Gymnasium (Fell down the list because it’s just a bit too far away)
  9. Cartesius Lyceum (If even #9 is this good, I guess we’re doing pretty well)
  10. Berlage Lyceum (Didn’t visit, but its claim to fame is that it’s bilingual Dutch/English)
  11. Fons Vitae (Winner, Best Stained Glass, but not so much an academic fit)
  12. Montessori Lyceum (I think we’re not quite on the Montessori wavelength)
  13. Cartesius II (Too small and new for Axa to like it much)

Whew. The hardest work is done. And I think I deserve a prize. How about a long weekend in London without any kids? I’ll take it! Stay tuned next week for my adventures across the Channel.

4 thoughts on “Choosing a High School in Amsterdam: The Rankings!

  • January 13, 2021 at 1:56 pm

    HI Sarah, first of all, nice to e-meet you and I have to say it was a relief to find your posts about this crazy selection process for the high school! We are a Brazilian family who arrived in Amsterdam 1 year ago. Our 2 daughters (12 and 9 year old) went to a NewComersClass, immersed in Dutch for the last year (including online adaptations) and now my oldest has been advised VWO… They are fluent in English and Portuguese, we are also learning Dutch, my husband and I, but we are far from the point where we can understand most of online sessions – you know that no real visits are possible this year… we are grateful that Google Translator works so well nowadays. At least I can research the school’s websites. 🙂 So, by the websites we are getting more or less to a similar list. But so many questions about the afterwards…. what is it really the VWO, how hard is that, specially for recently Dutch learner? Is it too stressful, too much homework, etc? I would love to have the chance the chat over a coffee! thanks again, Patricia

  • February 18, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    So… Good luck, Axa! And thank you, Sarah, your research definitely will help me a lot next year!

  • February 17, 2017 at 9:45 am

    I have enjoyed reading about this process, every step of it! Thanks for sharing.

    • February 17, 2017 at 11:20 am

      You’re welcome! I have to say it was pretty cathartic to write about it. And I would have loved to read something similar BEFORE doing it myself, so if it can be of help to some other overwhelmed parent in this situation, all the better.


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