Education and Schools in the Netherlands

Finding the right school is a big decision for expat families, but there are various public and private options, and expats don’t need to be concerned when it comes to the standard of education in the Netherlands.

It's important to keep in mind that older children usually find it easier to adjust when they study with peers who speak their native language and expat parents can take solace in the fact there are numerous international schools throughout the Netherlands.

Public schools in the Netherlands

All children who live in the Netherlands are entitled to attend public school. Teaching standards are generally high and schools are efficiently run, albeit with a more laid-back feel than some expats may be used to.

Public schools are government-funded and free to all pupils between the ages of four and 16.

Primary school

Attendance of primary school (basisschool) is discretionary for the first year and becomes compulsory on a child’s fifth birthday.

Outside of larger cities, school selection is a matter of parental choice and schools can only refuse admittance if they don't have space.

Schools in Amsterdam allocate places by catchment area, so good local schools often dictate where parents choose to live.

Most students live within cycling distance to school and generally go home for lunch. Supervised lunchtime programmes (overblijven) are available for children with working parents, but a small fee is charged and pupils provide their own lunches.

Another feature of Dutch primary schools is plenty of free time. All students are free on Wednesday afternoons, and children up to and including Group 4 (around eight years old) finish school for the week at lunchtime on Fridays.

The benefit of public schools is that expat children learn Dutch quickly, which makes it easier to adapt to their new surroundings and make friends with local children.

The downsides involve having to collect children at lunchtime or foot the bill for childcare, and the language barrier for older children.

Secondary school

After completing primary school, students have three options for public secondary schools in the Netherlands.

Primary schools usually make recommendations to ensure students are matched with the avenue that best suits them.

The three options are known as VMBO (Voorbereidend Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs), HAVO (Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs) and VWO (Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs).

They all begin with a generic curriculum for the first two years before going on to specialise in different areas. VMBO offers a practical and vocational programme, and the HAVO and VWO streams are more academically focused, often preparing students for university.

Some secondary schools follow a dual language programme (TTO) where subjects are taught in English and Dutch.

International and private schools in the Netherlands

There are numerous private and international schools in the Netherlands, and these institutions are often the best option for older children or those who won’t be staying long.

Fees are expensive if they aren’t subsidised by an employer. Expats lured abroad by a lucrative package should try to negotiate an education allowance in their contract.

Places at international schools can also be scarce, especially for younger children aged four and five. It’s important to apply early, and if they’re placed on a waiting list, some parents send their children to a local public or private school at first.

International school curricula vary depending on the institution and their educational philosophy. Private schools based on nationality usually follow their home country’s curriculum, which could be advantageous for children who will return to their home country when they leave the Netherlands.

Some international and local private schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is a worthy alternative to any national curriculum.

There are also international community schools that are partially government funded and teach Dutch alongside an IB curriculum.

Enrolment requirements vary between schools and can be seen on their individual websites.