This post is mostly focussed on DENISE secondary school (ages 12-18). For more information on DENISE in general and the primary school (ages 4-11), you can also check out my review of DENISE primary school.
Full disclosure: although my kids spent a combined total of six years at DENISE primary school and we had a positive experience there, we chose not to send them to DENISE secondary school. So this is not strictly a review, but more a compilation of the factors we used to make the decision NOT to continue with DENISE secondary.
My main reason for writing this post is because parents with kids ages 10+ often contact me wanting information on the secondary school. Usually the people who contact me are English-speaking expats with highly academic kids, which matches my own experience, so that’s the direction in which I’ve geared my comments, although they may be useful for families in other situations as well.
I draw on my personal experience with the school in general, as well as the experiences of several friends whose children have attended DENISE secondary. So take that for what it’s worth, and do try to also find at least one parent whose child is currently attending DENISE secondary for a more complete picture.
Can My Non-Dutch-Speaking Teen Attend DENISE?
Not until s/he learns Dutch. As opposed to a typical international school, where the language of instruction is English, much of the instruction at DENISE secondary school is in Dutch. Just like if you were putting your teen into a Dutch secondary school, s/he will need to attend an ISK (Internationale SchakelKlas) for intensive Dutch lessons before switching over to DENISE. The ISK where DENISE typically sends new students is called Mundus, so if you are considering DENISE you will probably want to check out reviews of Mundus as well, since your teen will likely spend between 12-18 months there before transferring to DENISE.
How Does DENISE Secondary Work?
At a traditional Dutch school, children are streamed at age 12 into VWO (pre-university), HAVO (pre-professional), and VMBO (pre-vocational) programmes. (For more explanation, here’s my post on the Dutch streaming system.) DENISE chooses not to stream for the first three years of secondary school. So at DENISE teens in Years 9-11 (American grades 7-9, or approximately ages 12-15) remain in classes by age, not yet divided by academic ability. They use the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC) for curriculum. IMYC should not be confused with the International Baccalaureate®’s (IB) Middle Years Programme (MYP), which is a totally different (and much more well-known) curriculum used at some international schools. The teaching medium in DENISE secondary school is mostly Dutch.
Then, at the end of Year 11 (so three years later than a traditional Dutch school), the kids are finally streamed into one of the three streams mentioned above, or can continue with a transition year meant to prepare them for the IB Diploma Programme. Teens streamed into HAVO and VMBO (MAVO) continue their education in Dutch, and receive the corresponding Dutch diploma from DENISE. For teens streamed into a VWO level, DENISE does not offer a traditional Dutch VWO programme, but instead a Year 12, meant to prepare them for the IB Diploma Programme. Here is the infographic they gave us when they unveiled this system:
In theory, it is a sort of best-of-all-worlds solution, especially for late-bloomers who may not be ready at have their educational future determined for them at age 12. I know quite a few people with younger children (both Dutch and international) who have chosen DENISE primary for this reason, looking forward to their kids continuing on at DENISE secondary.
For non-Dutch-speaking teens coming in at 13 or 14 (or older), I am less sure that it is an ideal scenario. In that case, your teen would spend a year or more learning Dutch and then study in Dutch for a couple of years, only to switch back to English during the last two years of secondary school for the IB Diploma Programme. Speaking of which:
Does DENISE Offer the IB Diploma Programme?
Nobody is really sure. The answer to this question has changed multiple times during the past few years, and DENISE has not always been particularly upfront about these changes.
The International Baccalaureate® (IB) encompasses several different programmes, including a primary and middle years curriculum, neither of which (as mentioned above) is in use at DENISE. But IB is best known for its Diploma Programme (DP), which has been taught at international schools worldwide for several decades, and is known for high academic standards. The DP covers the last two years of secondary school, and is intended for highly motivated and academic teens.
From the beginning, DENISE has planned to eventually become certified to offer the DP. Before becoming certified, DENISE recommended that students switch to the Amsterdam International Community School (AICS) for the last two years of secondary school to follow the DP programme. During some times, DENISE has at least claimed that it had a special agreement with AICS. AICS would automatically accept DENISE students into its DP if they had good enough school scores after Year 12. There was even talk of somehow procuring scholarships so that the cost difference would not be so great. I cannot directly confirm whether these were actual written agreements, or how many students have attended the AICS DP directly after completing Year 12 at DENISE. Nor can I confirm whether any such scholarships were ever issued. Even less can I confirm whether any arrangement like this is currently in place.
DENISE has conflicting information about the DP on its website, and as parents with kids attending the school, we have also received various different promises regarding the DP over the past few years. Theoretically, one of the reasons for the move to the new building in May 2019 was to have the necessary facilities for the school to become certified to offer the IB DP. However, a full year before that move (in April 2018), DENISE announced that it had been certified. Nevertheless, in the FAQ on the website they still have an older response to the question, to wit:
As Denise is new, and the IB diploma is a priority, what are you doing to make sure you get your certification on the proposed timeline?(see DENISE website FAQ)
We already enrolled to the certifying-procedre [sic]. This will take two years. For us it’s very important to get certified, so we will just make it happen. Besides that we have a very close coöperation with the AICS, who are already certified.
The latest I have heard on the subject (and not from DENISE directly) is that schools are not allowed to offer the IB DP programme directly after IMYC (rather than IB’s own–much more expensive–MYP curriculum). Therefore, as far as I know DENISE is currently still sending teens to AICS to do the IB DP. But I have no idea how many have made that transition, if acceptance is automatic, or whether they are paying full AICS tuition or some reduced amount.
How are Academic Standards at DENISE Secondary?
DENISE has been offering at least the first few years of IMYC for awhile, and as one might expect with a new school, there have been some bumps along the road. In fact, the thing I have heard from nearly every friend whose child has attended the first few years of secondary school at DENISE is that the school really struggles to maintain educational standards. I am not sure whether this is because they are trying to serve so many different levels in the same class; difficulties recruiting, training and retaining teachers who are specialised in the IMYC teaching method but also qualified to teach in Dutch; or some other reason.
I know several people who have moved their kids to another school after a year or two at DENISE secondary. Unfortunately, whether they have transferred to an international school or a Dutch secondary school from DENISE, these teens have found themselves behind in multiple subjects, sometimes even needing tutoring to catch up to their peers at the new school.
It is very possible that these issues will improve with time, but as things stand currently, we did not feel comfortable with our children being the guinea pigs for DENISE’s secondary school programme. Let alone for a new and unproven IB DP. Especially if the IB DP is an important draw for you, I highly recommend that you confirm (with DENISE, but perhaps also with AICS) exactly what the status is currently. Good questions might be:
- What DP classes/subjects DENISE is currently offering
- What the current costs are (including for exams)
- If they have a current DP1 and/or DP2 class at DENISE
- How many students are currently doing the DP programme at DENISE
- If they plan to offer the first set of exams in 2020 as originally planned
- Results of the DENISE DP exams (many schools publish these)
- Whether students stay at DENISE or move to AICS for the DP
- If AICS, what the costs would be for transferring students
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Be sure to ask specific questions, and be wary of overly general answers. And as always, if you have new or better information than I do, I would greatly appreciate if you let me know. I don’t monetise my blog in any way; the information I’ve provided here is purely a public service. I know what it’s like to be desperately trying to find my kids a school from across the ocean, and I am paying forward all the generous help other people have given me.
As a final note, there are many Dutch and international parents with kids in DENISE primary school who have a lot of faith in the school’s ability to eventually pull off an IB programme. If your children are younger, it may be well worth the gamble to put them in DENISE and see what happens. One thing the school has on its side is a director and school team who are committed, passionate, and have a great vision for what they want to achieve. As of yet, though, when it comes to the secondary school that vision is just that: a vision, not a concrete reality.
Is DENISE Secondary a Good Fit for My Teen?
Only you can answer that, of course. For a teen who is perhaps less academic, wants a school with an international outlook and student body, and already speaks (or is excited about learning) both Dutch and English, it could potentially be a great fit. The heart of the new school is a large, beautifully designed theatre, and the plan is to offer drama in secondary school beginning in fall 2019. DENISE, along with AICS and several Dutch schools, is part of the Esprit Schools group, so teens also potentially have the opportunity to take less common languages like Arabic, Turkish or Chinese in conjunction with those other schools.
DENISE, like AICS and a few Dutch secondary schools, is an iPad school, so books, homework and other assignments are mostly given via iPad. Depending on your teen’s learning style and ability to focus, that can be either a pro or a con. It’s definitely great to skip the heavy backpack, and some teens love being able to do everything on the iPad. For others it can be difficult to focus or retain information delivered entirely digitally. Also consider whether your teen is prone to eyestrain or migraines, both of which can be exacerbated by the many hours of screen time demanded by an iPad school.
What are Some Alternatives to DENISE?
For an academically focussed teen, I would not recommend DENISE for the various reasons enumerated above. Good alternatives would depend on age, how long your family intends to stay in the Netherlands, whether your teen envisions attending a Dutch university, one in your home country or elsewhere, budget, interest in learning languages, etc.
Especially for a younger teen, taking a year or so to learn Dutch and then heading straight to a Dutch secondary school could be a completely viable solution. Amsterdam has many excellent public secondary schools, and the benefit of high fluency in another language can be well worth potentially “losing” a year for language study. For a family planning to stay in the Netherlands long-term (like ours), the prospect of fully integrating and making local friends can be a significant reason for favouring a fully local school. And of course, Dutch schools offer a high quality education almost for free, so if the low fees at DENISE are a significant draw, a Dutch school is even less expensive.
My daughter has been at Barlaeus Gymnasium for two years now, and I am incredibly impressed by the quality of education, school activities, organisation, and pretty much everything else about the school. My son, who graduated from DENISE primary school just this year, is also headed to Barlaeus in the fall. If you are considering going the Dutch public school route with your teen, I also wrote a series of posts about Choosing a High School in Amsterdam.
For an older teen, taking time out to learn Dutch–especially to the high level necessary for secondary school study–might not make sense, so an international school may be the best choice. A teen who is less language-oriented, has learning differences, or dreads the idea of being immersed in an unfamiliar language might also do better in an international school. Similarly, a highly mobile family planning to stay only a few years in the Netherlands would probably want an international school for continuity of education and language.
Every family has unique needs, and there are of course many permutations of the different situations I’ve sketched out above. Whatever yours is, my biggest piece of advice is to not be afraid to at least consider a regular Dutch public secondary school as an option if you have an adventurous, ambitious teen willing to take on the challenge of a new language.
No matter what you end up deciding, best of luck to you and your teen. Amsterdam offers a lot of fun things for teenagers to do, and the fact that you can bike or take public transport almost anywhere gives them loads of freedom. It’s a great place to spend your teenage years!
Special thanks to Annebet van Mameren from New2nl, who provided several useful additions and corrections. She is the educational consultant we engaged before we moved to the Netherlands, and absolutely worth her weight in gold (although she doesn’t charge that much) if you are struggling with finding a school in the Netherlands for either primary or secondary aged kids.