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The standard education in the Netherlands is high. While choosing a school is a big decision for expat families, there are plenty of good education options in the Netherlands, so expats are sure to find something that suits them. Most schools in the Netherlands are government-run, though there are a few independent international schools.
Keep in mind that older children usually find it easier to adjust when they study with peers who speak their home language. Almost all public schools teach in Dutch. However, bilingual public school programmes are starting up in select schools across the Netherlands, most of which are in or around Amsterdam. In addition, there are a handful of public schools that offer non-Dutch curricula such as the International Baccalaureate and the International Primary Curriculum. Both these options are good middle-ground choices.
Should these schools be inaccessible or not fit families' needs, the numerous independently-run international schools throughout the Netherlands are well worth considering.
Public schools in the Netherlands
Public schools are government-funded, and all children, including expats, can attend them free of charge. Most schools do ask for what is known as a 'parental contribution' (ouderbijdrage). This covers activities such as excursions and extra-curricular activities. From the age of 16, school fees apply but as these are subsidised by the government, the cost of public schools remains far lower than that of international schools.
Some public schools offer specialised programmes to help non-Dutch-speaking students learn the language and culture of the Netherlands. Between the ages of six and 12, these are known as newcomers' classes (nieuwkomersklas) or reception classes (opvangklas). Students aged 12 to 18 can join an international bridging class (Internationale Schakel Klas, or ISK). Students remain in this programme for a year or two before integrating with mainstream classes.
Teaching standards in Dutch public schools are generally high and schools are efficiently run, albeit with a more laid-back feel than some expats may be used to.
Attendance of primary school (basisschool or lagere school) is discretionary for the first year and becomes compulsory on a child’s fifth birthday.
While there aren't strict catchment areas in the Netherlands, children in a particular neighbourhood are usually given priority spaces at the closest schools. Applying outside of a priority area is possible, but there is a lower chance of being accepted. Many parents therefore choose to find accommodation in an area close to their preferred school.
Most students live within cycling distance to school and tend to go home for lunch. Supervised lunchtime programmes (overblijven) are available for children with working parents, but a small fee is charged.
The benefit of local 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.
After completing primary school at age 12, students have three options for public secondary schools in the Netherlands. Primary schools often make recommendations to ensure students are matched with the avenue that best suits them. The three options are:
- VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs), a four-year stream
- HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs), a five-year stream
- VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs), a six-year stream
They all begin with a generic curriculum for the first few 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, preparing students for university.
International schools in the Netherlands
International schools in the Netherlands are often the best option for older children or students only staying in the country short term.
International school curricula vary depending on the institution and their educational philosophy. Some schools teach a particular country's curriculum and main language. This could be advantageous for children who will return to their home country when they leave the Netherlands. There are also international and local private schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is a worthy alternative to any national curriculum and makes for an easy transfer to other IB schools around the world.
Fees are high, however. Expats working in the Netherlands who are lured by a lucrative employment package should try to negotiate an education allowance in their contract, if possible.
Places at international schools can also be scarce so it’s important to apply early. If placed on a waiting list, some parents send their children to a local public or private school at first while waiting for space to open up. Enrolment requirements vary between schools and can be seen on their individual websites.
Nurseries in the Netherlands
Early childhood education under the age of five is not compulsory in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, a wide range of options is available. This includes childcare facilities, from daycare centres and preschools to childminders and after-school care, and childcare services such as playgroups, babysitters and au pairs.
Toddlers from three months of age can attend daycare in the Netherlands, and these centres are open for most of the day.
Preschools are typically for infants aged two to four. In some areas, such as Amsterdam, infants are eligible to attend preschool for 16 hours a week for a fee based on parental income.
Special-needs education in the Netherlands
There have been great moves towards inclusive education in the Netherlands and many schools offer specialised services for students with disabilities and disorders. Support groups can be found online or through schools or local organisations.
Expats moving to the Netherlands must enquire at their local municipality upon registering to find the right school for their child. Children may be evaluated and tested, and parents interviewed, to see which educational option is most suitable.
Apart from mainstream schooling, there are two types of schools specifically dedicated to special needs: speciaal basisonderwijs (SBO) and speciaal onderwijs schools. While SBO schools have parallels with mainstream curricula, smaller class sizes allow greater attention, and primary school is extended from the general 12 to 14 years. Additionally, speciaal onderwijs schools are split into distinct clusters, based on the type of care and need: visual impairments, hearing or speech impediments, physical or cognitive disabilities, and behavioural or social problems.
Homeschooling in the Netherlands
By law, children from ages five to 16 must attend school, which means that homeschooling is not legal in the Netherlands, and parents who continue to pursue this without going through relevant channels and processes could face punishment. There are exceptions to this under very specific circumstances where parents must prove they are unhappy with the formal education options available.
Expat parents who wish to homeschool their children in the Netherlands are advised to address any concerns to the local municipality.
Tutors in the Netherlands
Expats can easily find a tutor in the Netherlands. Children needing extra support outside of the classroom can benefit from individualised one-on-one classes with a tutor, especially during exam time. Adults, too, can hire a tutor specialised in a particular subject area that interests them – private tutors prove useful for expats who want to learn Dutch and overcome the culture shock of language barriers.
Private tutoring companies can be found and online resources and portals such as Apprentus and TeacherOn are also a great starting point.
"The local school system in the Netherlands is more complicated than in some other countries as it is based on streaming pupils at an early age. There are also comprehensive international schooling choices across the country." Read more in our interview with Amanda.
"My son is in high school, but they call it college here. He is learning in a 100-percent Dutch environment. It's quite funny when he comes home and he is just talking another language and then doesn't realise he is." Read what expat Monique has to say about schools in the Netherlands.
Are you an expat living in The Netherlands?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to The Netherlands. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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