Dutch Education Controversies

I have in general an excellent opinion of the Dutch education system. In fact, I would cite the education my children are receiving here as one of my top reasons for living in the Netherlands. The variety and quality of the almost exclusively publicly-funded schools is astounding, and the autonomy, respect, and responsibility kids enjoy here render it unsurprising to me that Dutch teenagers consistently score among the happiest in the world.

That said, I’m also fascinated by the various controversies that surround the way secondary education in the Netherlands is organised. During the past four years that we have lived here, and whilst shepherding two children through their transition from primary to secondary school, I have had ample–perhaps excessive–opportunity to discover and discuss these controversies with both Dutch people and foreign parents with children in the Dutch education system. I have elsewhere explained the nuts and bolts of how it all works, so I’ll refrain from repeating that (rather necessary) background here and just dive straight into the Great Debates.

Most complaints about Dutch secondary education centre around the streaming system, in which at the end of primary school kids are separated into one of three middle/high school academic streams (pre-university, -professional, and -vocational). For each child, the assigned stream determines the type of secondary school they can attend, and therefore what sort of higher education they will be prepared for. There are all sorts of controversies over the effectiveness, fairness, and practicality of the methods used for determining which kids end up where. For example:

Determining Destiny at Age 11?

If you ask a lot of people, 11/12 is too young for kids to be sorted into academic levels that could potentially determine the entire course of their lives. Kids mature at different rates, both academically and psychologically, and while some might demonstrate high achievement early on, others are simply late bloomers, and miss out on opportunities they might have had if they had been streamed even a couple of years later.

Social Stratification–yes, it exists.

This is a big topic, and serves as a sort of subtext for a lot of discussions on issues to do with Dutch education, even when it isn’t the explicit subject. Children of parents who are less educated, poorer, of colour, and/or from a “migration background” (the Dutch government’s official label for kids of non-Western origin, even if they are fourth-generation Dutch citizens) are statistically more likely to end up in a lower stream. While educational outcomes in many places are affected by these factors, there is a convincing case to be made that by overtly placing children in academic tracks, the Dutch system perpetuates this type of social stratification, making social mobility more difficult.

The Age-Old Test Debate.

Historically, streaming was dependent upon the all-important CITO test, which marked the end of primary school. Thus ensued all the usual discussions about standardised testing, with which parents around the world are probably familiar. To wit: it penalises non-traditional thinkers, kids with test anxiety, dyslexia, etc.; it evaluates kids based on test-taking skills more than knowledge or academic ability; it doesn’t take into account other factors like work ethic, motivation, etc. For reasons like these, it was eventually determined that the kids’ teacher during their final year at primary school should be the one to determine the appropriate stream for each child, based on a number of factors including learning trajectory, maturity, academic skills, and yearly test results. Which of course led straight to the next issue:

Teachers Can Be Biased Too.

In theory, a child’s teacher is uniquely equipped to provide an individual, holistic assessment of his/her abilities. Indeed there are many teachers performing this important task extraordinarily well. However, even the best teachers are human, and there will always be a few bad apples who play favourites, use inappropriate evaluation criteria, or are just plain bigoted. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of children being streamed to the wrong level based on either explicit or implicit racist bias. Teachers might not even be aware of their own biases or preconceptions about children. Sometimes it can simply come down to the fact that there just isn’t a “click” between teacher and child, so a child’s abilities end up getting underestimated.

Replacing the (arguably) objective test with the more “fuzzy” teacher method of streaming kids also left the door wide open for another controversy:


Although Dutch culture does not generally lend itself to helicopter parenting, there is definitely a subset of parents who lean more in this direction than the Dutch norm. Even in the days when the CITO-test reigned supreme, some parents would pay for special CITO-training classes, as well as other types of tutoring for their kids. Once the streaming decision was left up to teachers, they immediately became vulnerable to persuasion (and pressure) from parents. This mostly goes back to point #2. Parents who are more educated or from a higher socioeconomic class have more resources to invest in both getting their kids assistance of various sorts and convincing their teachers to stream them into a higher level.

Besides the question of whether each individual child can be evaluated and streamed fairly and accurately, there are other controversies about the streaming system as a whole:

The Weird Way Denying the Existence of Social Stratification Kind of Perpetuates It.

Dutch society prides itself on equality. The Prime Minister bicycles himself to work, and the King sends his children to public school. There is a deep assumption here that nobody is better than anybody else, and that all professions, from plumbing to law, help society run, and should be viewed as equally deserving of respect. In fact, there is a certain expectation here that one should “doe normaal”; i.e. shoot for the average and not stand out by being (or appearing) smarter, richer, or better than anyone else.

That said, although socioeconomic inequality is overwhelmingly less drastic here than, say, the United States, social stratification does exist in the Netherlands. And if Dutch newspaper articles appear every year exhorting parents to be content and happy with their child being streamed into a low academic level, it is obviously because at least some people have higher aspirations for their children. Weirdly, the streaming system serves in some ways to codify social stratification. A kid streamed at age 11/12 into the highest level can expect to get a university education and become a doctor, lawyer, university professor, etc. Kids in the middle level go on to professional training as teachers, nurses, social workers, etc. The lowest level trains kids vocationally to be plumbers, mechanics, aestheticians, etc. Varied as these different professions are, access to them is built entirely on academic performance markers, not interests or aptitude. So it’s a constant battle to help kids/parents/society not view a “lower” streaming indication as worse, when with the way the system is set up, what a lower stream literally means is that one child is worse at academics than another (regardless of whatever other talents or aptitudes he/she might have), even where academic performance has relatively little to do with the eventual job he/she is being prepared to do.

So a child who performs well at school is encouraged towards university even if she’d rather be a chef; and a kid who really wants to be a doctor but doesn’t have great grades at age 11 is pushed in a different direction. It is as easy to meet a Dutch person who went to university and now can’t find a white-collar job while her vocationally-trained friends are making a good living as it is to find a kid who because of a learning difference, socioeconomic or other disadvantage languished in a lower academic stream than he was capable of attaining, and failed to achieve his professional potential. I freely admit that finding a different way of evaluating and educating kids for the jobs they will enjoy and excel at would be no easy task; but still, this rigid ranking of educational streams and their corresponding professions seems a bit at odds with the idea of an equal society.

Streaming Up and Down.

At this point in the conversation, mention will probably be made of the fact that at every point in the system there is the possibility to “upstream” or alternatively “downstream”. To be fair, this is not an especially uncommon occurrence. Although it generally costs them an extra year to level up (or two years to level up twice), kids can and do go from one level to another. Similarly, if they have a rough time doing a higher level they can drop down to a less demanding one. Unfortunately, the same factors that often result in lower streaming recommendations for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds make it more difficult for them to stream up once they’ve already been labeled as lower-stream material. Besides the fact that once they enter the new stream they will have been less prepared than their new peers by their lower-stream education up till that point. So what to apologists of the system is a functional fail-safe that solves the problem, to me feels like a bit of a band-aid that I suspect works better for kids who are already in a less vulnerable position as far as parental support and socioeconomic situation. This issue is compounded by the following one:

To Gymnasium or Not to Gymnasium.

While the norm in Dutch secondary schools is to offer multiple levels at the same school, in Amsterdam and some other areas, there are many schools offering only a single level, or perhaps two levels. My daughter goes to such a school. Her school is a gymnasium, which means it only offers the highest stream, and for interesting historical reasons, on top of all the regular classes adds Latin and ancient Greek as mandatory subjects. There are also schools that offer only the lowest level of education in the Dutch system. The continuing existence of these “categorical” schools that offer only one level is widely considered a contributing factor to educational inequality and social stratification. In a school with more than one level, it is comparatively simple for kids to stream up. If they have to completely change schools to change streams (which involves finding a school with space and convincing that school to admit them, as well as the teenage social implications of leaving behind all their friends), the process is considerably less straightforward.

In effect, by making it harder to switch streams categorical schools result in less social mobility. The phenomenon is visible to the naked eye; even a cursory glance around at an assembly at my daughter’s school makes it obvious that it is significantly less diverse than Amsterdam as a whole. Categorical schools also tend to be smaller, so there is more duplication of facilities and programmes, and thus more inefficiency with the finite resource of public funding. This has become an especially big problem as the Netherlands faces a serious teacher shortage (which could be the subject of an entirely different post).

Amsterdam just announced a plan to begin consolidation of some of these categorical schools, but so far this is more geared towards combining the lowest-stream schools with schools that offer other streams. Thus far, the elite gymnasia remain separate, and almost impossible to enter for kids that don’t start out with the highest streaming indication. This has far-reaching implications for the social stratification of society if one considers not only the excellent educational outcomes of these schools but also the informal networking and connections that inevitably continue to happen, and the fact that when the Dutch corporate elite go recruiting, they do want to know where you went to high school.

Asymmetric Learners Caught in the Middle.

A final somewhat peripheral but interesting controversy with the streaming system is how it deals with children who are asymmetric learners.The streaming system as presently constituted is an all-or-nothing deal. To be streamed into the highest level you have to be good at everything. So no taking advanced language classes if your math isn’t up to scratch. Children are generally streamed into the level of their weakest subject. If they are especially asymmetric (e.g. a genius at math, but weak in grammar and writing), their teacher might decide to split the difference, and they’ll end up with the double whammy of having to study everything at a middling level–so continuing to struggle in some subjects while studying below their level in others. What makes this particular point even stranger to me is that courses of study at tertiary institutions in the Netherlands are generally more specialised than universities in the U.S. Where at an American university you would spend at least a year’s worth of your bachelor’s degree on general education, here they pretty much stick to classes within your major. So it seems like a real missed opportunity to me to force kids to be such balanced generalists in middle/high school.

But in the End, Controversy Can Be Good.

If I sound overly negative (do I?), it’s not because I hate the system and think it should be torn down. In fact, I’ve been told by multiple Dutch people that complaining about everything from weather to noise to government policy is a national trait, so I’m going to go ahead and congratulate myself for being so integrated. My point here is more to consolidate what I’ve learned from listening to Dutch people who went to school or have their children in school here, my interest in current research in this area, and my own experiences and those of other internationals bumbling through this labyrinth on behalf of our children.

I should reiterate that the Dutch education system has functioned extraordinarily well for my own (relatively privileged) children, as well as for a large percentage of other children in this country. Streaming addresses some of the problems that exist in other countries, such as pushing every kid to go to university even as it saddles them with increasing amounts of debt and fails to guarantee a job that will even allow them to pay back that debt, let alone pay their other bills (I’m looking at you, United States). It is a system that offers the opportunity to attend excellent schools to kids who wouldn’t be able to afford a school of the same calibre in a society where private schools are more ubiquitous.

Even if it falls short of some of its ideals, the Dutch education system is at least set up on a foundation of equality, which is no small thing. And I view all of these controversies and the lively discussion around them as a major positive. The fact that they are being talked about means that people are not settling for the status quo, and that they want to change things and make them even better. It is easy to get stuck in the weeds and forget for a moment how good we have it. Good educational systems, like most social programmes, are difficult to engineer and prone to multifarious pitfalls. I have every hope that the system will continue to incrementally improve, and that the rich Dutch tradition of public dialogue and consensus will be a major factor in keeping it moving along in the right direction. And I guess we can consider this my own personal anglophone contribution to that discussion. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You might just be as nerdy as I am, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Dutch Education Controversies

  • March 3, 2019 at 4:08 am

    Excellent overview Sarah! I struggled a lot with the young age, over confidence in testing (oh the incongruent test results we’ve had), social stratification issues, and above all, being limited by your weakest subjects. Though there is something to be said about the overall level of quality of education there as well as the emphasis on choice and “best fit” schools for children.
    Ultimately, I saw more negatives than positives with such a pronounced streaming system, even with the general quality of education. It was a big factor in our decision to move back to the US as I knew at least one of my kids wouldn’t be served well in the Dutch system.
    On the other hand, clearly there are plenty of education controversies in the US (and the commenter above made a good point about salaries and social safety net–in the US the lower educated tend to be much worse off.) And we are seeing first-hand the insanity of college pressure here.
    I still find it endlessly fascinating to think about the pros and cons of the Dutch system.

    • March 3, 2019 at 7:26 am

      I was thinking a lot about you when I was writing this post. When you were interviewing me about this subject for the Amsterdam Mamas podcast you made some insightful comments that really made me think. For me, the scariest part about putting my kids in a Dutch school was that the “escape valve” of homeschooling that exists in the U.S. if the school is failing your kids isn’t generally available here.

      When it comes to educational equality, the Netherlands is far above the U.S., where access to educational opportunities is drastically (and shamefully) linked to a child’s ZIP code. The fact that schools are largely funded by property taxes in their area creates a vicious circle where well-performing schools get ever more resources while access to them is increasingly limited for lower-income children. The gap between “good” and “bad” schools in the U.S. is horrifically wide, even if you don’t add in the many private schools.

      However, the fact that the Dutch educational system is comparatively equal is no comfort at all when it is your child that nevertheless ends up getting the short end of the stick. You are far from the only international family I know that has either moved out of the country or switched to an international school for exactly that reason.

  • March 2, 2019 at 2:22 am

    This is really, really interesting. I have zero feedback… I still feel like I’m trying to navigate the various systems available to us, and I think the Dutch system is, comparatively, a really good one. I’m curious about eventual salary discrepancies – if a child is streamed toward the lower tier, are they still able to pay bills and function properly in society? So much of the drama in the US is about how the lowest tier of the economy (hourly workers in the service industry, for example) are not paid enough to make ends meet in any way whatsoever. But that’s also because the US has a terribly thin social safety net, so are even the lower-paid jobs still paying enough to live a decent, dignified life in the Netherlands?

    • March 2, 2019 at 2:35 am

      See? I’ve gone way too native. It’s like when people criticise the Dutch healthcare system. Which sure, has flaws, but if you think about the fact that in the U.S. there are people dying because they are diabetic and literally can’t afford their insulin, it puts things in perspective.

      In general, the Dutch education system is great. But now that I can actually read enough Dutch to access editorials in the newspaper, I’m so fascinated by what actual Dutch people say about it. I was just at the ballet last night and I overheard two women talking about how a child they know was just streamed into the lowest stream, and how even though his parents were disappointed, they think it’s just fine. And this conversation repeats itself everywhere. It’s like they’re all trying to convince themselves.

      The interesting thing is that a lot of vocational-type jobs are really well-paid. Even minimum wage here is also an actual living wage, so even if they are lower-paid, it is easier to get by here. And things like buying a house are much easier than in the U.S. In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a post about our quality of life here vs. in the U.S.


What do you think?