Dutch education explained by Genoveva Geppaart


Every country has its own education system. The Netherlands is no exception to that.


Primary school


In the Netherlands, primary school starts with kindergarten at age four. From age five it is compulsory to attend school fulltime. There are hardly any private schools in the Netherlands.  Schools can have a certain religious orientation such as Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, Hindu, any other religion or no religion at all.  In addition, schools can follow a certain educational philosophy such as Montessori, Jenaplan, Dalton or Vrije School (internationally also known as Waldorf).  Children with special educational needs will find offerings more frequently in primary than in secondary schools.


All primary schools teach English, at least in groups seven and eight (ages 11-12). There is an experiment with bilingual primary education, in which teachers speak English during 30-50% of the time.  The first results show that children in bilingual education have a higher English proficiency and their level of Dutch is similar to that of children who only had lessons in Dutch. The experiment will continue until the summer 2023.  


At the age of 12 (in group eight of primary school) children get advice which kind or secondary education is a best fit. This advice is based on the results of an independent national test and information the school has gathered during the child’s eight years of primary school. Schools have a system in which they register each child’s progress in all subjects. A child may be good at arithmetic in general but not good in multiplying or it takes a lot of time to understand it; another child may have problems with spelling and grammar.


It is often said in the Netherlands that children have to choose a secondary education level at a very young age. This may be true, but the level chosen does not necessarily have to be the final level. When you have finished secondary school at a certain level and your grades are good enough, you can continue at a higher level.


Secondary school


There are four options for secondary school:

  • Practical education (praktijkonderwijs): This takes five years. It is for children for whom VMBO (see below) is too difficult. Every child follows an individual package of subjects. Most children may start working when they have finished this school, while some go on to medium level vocational education (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, MBO)
  • Preparatory secondary vocational education (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, VMBO): Within VMBO there are four levels. They all take four years. Depending on the level, children focus on practical training, theoretical training or a combination of both. VMBO prepares children for medium level vocational education (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, MBO)
  • Senior general secondary education (hoger algemeen vormend onderwijs, HAVO): This takes five years and prepares students for universities of applied science (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO) During the third year, the student chooses one out of four streams (so-called profielen). In the last two years, the student follows subjects for the stream he/she has chosen; some subjects are compulsory for everyone and at least one subject is of the student’s choice (depending on what the school offers). Streams available are: culture and society, economy and society, nature and technique, nature and health.  The student takes exams in seven subjects.
  • Pre-university education (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs, VWO): This takes six years and prepares students for research universities. During the third year, the student chooses one out of four streams (so called profielen) . Streams available are: culture and society, economy and society, nature and technique, nature and health. In the last three years the student follows subjects for the stream he/she has chosen; some subjects are compulsory for everyone and at least one subject is of the student’s choice (depending on what the school offers). The students take exams in eight subjects. Some VWO schools also offer Latin and ancient Greek from the first year on. Such a VWO school is called   In these schools it is compulsory to take the exam in either Latin or ancient Greek.


There are secondary schools for HAVO/VWO that offer a so-called Technasium.  This kind of secondary education emphasises research and development and it is compulsory to take the exam in this subject.

Some secondary schools (VMBO, HAVO and VWO) offer bilingual education. In the first few years, some lessons are in English. As the national, central exams are in Dutch, the lessons in the higher classes are mainly in Dutch. The subjects that are not part of the national, central exam are usually taught in English.

Many bilingual schools offer the possibility to take the IB (International Baccalaureate) English B Higher Level Exam (if the student is following HAVO) or the IB English A Language and Literature Higher Level Exam (if the student is following VWO).  This means that the student’s English is at the level of a near-native speaker. It offers good preparation for tertiary study that is partly or completely taught in English. – Bilingual education is aimed for children who have Dutch as a native language and want to improve their English.


For more detailed information about Dutch secondary education, please look at the website of the Ministry of Education: https://www.government.nl/topics/secondary-education.



Tertiary education


After secondary school there are several options:


  • Medium level professional education (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, MBO) for those who have finished VMBO. Like VMBO this has four levels.
  • University of Applied Science (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO) for those who have finished HAVO (or MBO at the highest level)
  • Research University (universiteit) for those who have finished VWO ( or first year -called propedeuse – at HBO)


When a student finishes at a University of Applied Science, a bachelor’s degree is conferred. If a student wants to obtain a master’s degree he/she can attend a Research University. For some studies at Universities of Applied Science there is also the possibility to obtain a master’s degree. If the student wants to pursue a career as a researcher, a PhD can be an option. Usually a student does a research master’s to prepare for this.


For students who have finished MBO and don’t want to commit to a full HBO study, there is an opportunity to do a two-year study and obtain an associate’s degree. The level is in between the highest level of MBO and the HBO bachelor’s.  After obtaining an associate’s degree the student can either start working or continue studying for a bachelor’s degree.


Special education


In the Netherlands children go to a regular school and get extra support there if necessary. However, sometimes a child needs more support than a regular school can offer.

In such situations a child can be referred to special education. Find some more details about this here.


There are two kinds of special education:

  • Special primary education (or Special Basisonderwijs (SBO)) The difference with a regular primary school is that the classes are smaller and there are more people who can offer support. The children take the same national test at the end of primary school. 

This type of education especially caters for children who have more serious learning difficulties, a low IQ, or behavioral problems. (Xpat)

  • Special education for primary school or secondary school (VSO). This is special needs education. These schools are aimed for:
    • Cluster 1: children who are blind or are visually impaired
    • Cluster 2: children who have serious communication problems (are deaf, have severe hearing problems, speech disorders etc.)
    • Cluster 3: children who have cognitive or physical disabilities or a chronic illness that makes going to school difficult
    • Cluster 4: children with psychiatric or serious behavioral issues (autism, ADHD, PDD-NOS, ODD, CD, etc.). (please find more details about this on the Xpat site)

All schools for special education have to make a development plan for every child. Such a plan is made together with the parents. It contains the goal to be achieved and the way it will be achieved. Goals can be: obtaining a diploma, finding a job or finding a place in an organisation that offers meaningful activities during the day.


In the Netherlands there is one international school that focusses only on special education: Lighthouse Special Education in The Hague. There is also an international preschool for children aged three to four years with special facilities for those who have special needs: https://threelittleships.nl. It was founded in 2006 by Lighthouse Special Education. However, there are several international schools who either have a special education department or include children with special needs in their regular classes. – There are several support groups for expat parents who have children with special needs. You can find these groups on http://eseng.nl/.


Learning Dutch for newly-arrived children


If you want your child to attend a Dutch school, you may wonder how he/she can cope with the rest of the class as he/she doesn’t know any Dutch. – For this purpose there are special classes:

  • For primary school there are several options: schools with special courses to learn Dutch for children aged six to eleven. These can be a school which only teaches newly-arrived children often called opvangschool (reception school), regular basisscholen (primary schools) with one or more special classes for newcomers, often called opvangklas (reception class) or schools that integrate newcomers in regular classes.  In all schools there is a lot of attention for learning Dutch, but they also teach other subjects such as arithmetic, history, geography, science, biology, crafts and arts. Your child may still need extra support for Dutch once the initial Dutch lessons are finished.
  • For children from 12-18 years there is an Internationale Schakelklas – ISK (bridging class). Here they are taught Dutch as well as other subjects offered at secondary school. When the level of Dutch is good enough, a child goes to a regular Dutch secondary school.  He/she may need extra support for Dutch for some time to get a similar level as the other pupils.
  • Tertiary education in the Netherlands is partly offered in Dutch and partly in English. If you want to do a study in Dutch but don’t have (much) knowledge of the Dutch language you can attend a special course: Dutch as a second language (Nederlands als tweede taal, NT2).

There are two programmes: programme one is suitable if you want to do practical work or study at MBO-level; programme two is suitable if you want to work or study at the level of higher education. You can directly choose the programme that fits your needs. If you want to work or study at the level of higher education, you don’t need to do programme one first; you can start immediately with programme two.



If you feel overwhelmed by all the options of Dutch education, the figure below may help.




If you have any further questions, please look at www.access-nl.org  or contact ACCESS at helpdesk@access-nl.org.



About the Author

Genoveva Geppaart is native Dutch. She was born in a village near Zwolle. At the age of four, she moved to a village near Breda, where she spent the rest of her childhood. She studied library and information science in Tilburg and The Hague.

For many years she worked at KPN, a major Dutch telecommunications provider and former monopolist, as information researcher. She also wrote many reports based on desk research. Since summer 2005 she works with ACCESS, an independent not-for-profit organization serving internationals to successfully settle in the Netherlands. Her activities here are also focused on information research and writing.

Genoveva is interested in many subjects, but languages, history and other cultures are her favorites.


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