The Dutch secondary education system explained: a guide for expats.
Are you an expat in the Netherlands keen to understand the Dutch secondary education system for your children? Let’s break it down in simple terms. Firstly, I will explain the different types of schools, then the different levels, how to select the right school, significant people of interest at school, how to enroll your child in secondary schools and possible fees or contributions.
Types of schools in the Dutch secondary education
In the Netherlands, secondary education offers public and schools based on religion or philosophy of life. Here’s an overview of the different types of schools to help you navigate this educational landscape.
Public schools are open to all children and are not affiliated with any specific religion or belief.
Schools based on religion or philosophy of life
These schools follow a particular religious or philosophical belief, such as Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Protestant Christian, or Humanistic principles.
Schools with a particular educational concept
Some secondary schools adopt unique educational approaches like Montessori, Dalton, Jenaplan, or Waldorf education.
Montessori in short
Montessori is an educational concept for preschool, primary and secondary education. Children learn to work independently and are in a class with several year groups. Nowadays, Montessori schools often combine Montessori materials with regular language and math methods.
Montessori distinguishes three stages of a child’s development, between the ages of zero and eighteen. After grade 8, students can transfer to a montessori school for secondary education.
At a Montessori school, the same core objectives apply as for other secondary schools. Students also finish vmbo, havo or vwo with school exams and the central exam.
Dalton in short
Dalton is not a method or system, but a practical educational plan for primary and secondary education. At Dalton schools, the focus is on five core values: (1) cooperation, (2) freedom and responsibility, (3) effectiveness, (4) independence and (5) reflection.
Within the Dalton education system, work is done on a broad formation of the child. In addition to the compulsory curriculum, there is room for elective work.
Jenaplan in short
Jenaplan education focuses on the education of children in the broad sense. Thus, a Jenaplan school not only pays attention to school knowledge and skills, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. But the school also pays attention to conversation, play and celebration.
Waldorf in short
This the international name for Waldorf education. Waldorf school is an educational concept based on the formation of personality. The word “free” means that a student should be able to develop freely in every area of his personality. Therefore, in addition to the regular learning subjects, there are many creative and activity subjects as standard.
Bilingual education schools
Certain secondary schools offer bilingual education, where subjects are taught in both English and Dutch. Schools near Germany also provide German-Dutch education.
In bilingual education, students attend part of their secondary education in another language. This is usually English. In junior high school, at least 50% of the lessons are in the other language. In junior vmbo this is 30%. This means 50% or 70% is in Dutch. This needs some language preparation first for your child to be proficient enough in Dutch.
Some characteristics of bilingual education (tto)
- teachers have had special tto training that includes attention to language skills and teaching tto.
- teaching in the foreign language should not be at the expense of Dutch language development.
- the school must offer students international activities. For example, language trips, exchanges or workshops.
- Students in tto schools take their final exams in Dutch. They receive an ordinary vwo, havo or vmbo diploma. They also receive a certificate attesting to their extra proficiency. The type of certificate depends on the part of the course that students have taken in a foreign language.
Technical education-oriented schools (Technasium)
Technasium schools focus on technical education and science subjects like math and physics. Students engage in practical assignments that require teamwork to find technical solutions.
Top sports talent schools
These schools cater to children who excel in sports, allowing them to combine their education with high-level sports training. The Dutch sports organization, NOC*NSF, determines talent status.
Schools for top talents in dance or music
Specialized schools that accommodate students with a passion for dance or music adapting the program to blend education with college preparatory training in these arts.
Education for special needs and learning support education (lwoo)
These schools provide specialized or additional guidance to children with various needs, including visual or hearing impairments, educational difficulties, or behavioral problems. In the following future article of Dutch for Children we will elaborate on this important topic, the ways and levels and the type of schools. If you would like to be send a reminder if this article is published, please subscribe here to our newsletter and receive a free e-book on the Dutch articles als extra gift.
The different levels of secondary education in the Netherlands
The Dutch secondary education system offers four distinct levels: practical education (pro), preparatory secondary vocational education (vmbo), upper general secondary education (havo), and preparatory university education (vwo).
1. Preparatory secondary education (vmbo)
Vmbo, or “preparatory secondary education,” spans four years and encompasses both practical (basic and framework) and more theoretical (mixed and theoretical) courses.
During the first and second years, referred to as the substructure, students receive a broad education. As they approach the end of the second year, they choose a specialized course of study (profile). Vmbo primarily prepares students for mbo (higher vocational education), though some students transition to havo (higher general secondary education) post-graduation.
Vmbo offers four learning pathways:
- Theoretical learning pathway (vmbo-t)
- Mixed learning pathway (vmbo-g)
- Framework vocational learning pathway (vmbo-k)
- Basic vocational course (vmbo-b)
Students needing additional support may access a learning pathway support (lwoo) program within the school, providing tutoring and homework assistance.
2. Higher general secondary education (havo)
Havo, or “higher general secondary education,” spans five years and prepares students for higher vocational education (hbo) or, in some cases, mbo. Compared to vmbo, havo maintains a higher pace and academic level, demanding more independent work and increased homework.
During the phase (first, second, and third grades), students engage in general subjects.
As they progress, they choose from specialized profiles:
- Nature and technology (n&t)
- Nature and health (n&g)
- Economy and society (e&m)
- Culture and society (c&m)
3. Preparatory scientific education (vwo)
Vwo, or “preparatory scientific education,” extends over six years and is the most theoretical track, preparing students for university education. vwo comprises two variants: atheneum and gymnasium, with gymnasium including instruction in Greek and Latin. Most students pursue a university education post-graduation, but a practical college education is also an option for some.
Students engage in general subjects within the substructure for the first three grades. They subsequently choose one or more profiles:
- Nature & technology
- Nature & health
- Economy & society
- Culture & society
4. Practical Education
Practical education caters to students for whom obtaining a vmbo diploma immediately isn’t feasible. This track prepares them for work or further mbo education. On average, practical education spans five years, concluding when a pupil turns eighteen, with the possibility of extension. Roughly half of the pupils proceed to mbo following practical education.
Understanding the diverse levels in the Dutch secondary education system is crucial in making informed choices for your child’s educational journey. Each level caters to unique learning needs and aspirations.
How can I select the right secondary school for my child?
Choosing the best high school for your child involves evaluating various nearby schools. Here are steps to guide you through this important decision.
Explore Schools Online
Begin by researching and comparing high schools online, using platforms like Scholenopdekaart.nl.
Discover the different school types available, whether public or faith-based, each with its unique educational approach, such as Montessori. Explore the offered levels like vmbo, havo, or vwo. Also, dive into student satisfaction and academic performance.
Access school guides or plans
Download or request school guides or plans from the schools you’re interested in. These documents provide valuable insights into the teaching methods, class schedules, class sizes, and associated costs of attending the school.
Attend school open days
Most secondary schools host open days, typically in January or February. Attend these events with your child to familiarize yourselves with the school environment. Take advantage of this opportunity to ask questions about the educational approach, teaching staff, and the overall school experience.
4. Ask critical and different questions
Ask school critical questions that will really help you learn more about the school. Here are some examples. Of course, you don’t have to ask these exact questions, but they are examples. This way, you can get different information than the standard information from websites and open days.
Be creative and prepare the conversation as well as conducting an interview. Don’t settle for short answers if that doesn’t satisfy your curiosity. Ask further questions where necessary.
- if you choose renewal education, in what ways do you implement your teaching method, and how do you like it?
- If you opt for innovative education, when was the last change in this system, and what was it (and why)?
- which teaching methods/books do you use (and possibly which edition) and why?
- are there spaces for sports, creativity, and music? What materials do you use?
- what ICT resources does school have, and (more importantly) how do they deploy them?
- how was your last assessment by the inspection? What do you think is the most important point from this report?
- what kind of student feels at home at your school?
- would you recommend this school to your niece nephew and why yes/no?
- with what color would you describe the atmosphere at school?
5. Seek advice from elementary school teachers is applicable
Consult your child’s grade 8 teacher for recommendations for suitable high schools. They can offer valuable insights into the type of school that would best suit your child and provide guidance on what to focus on during your search and comparison of schools in your area.
Making an informed decision about your child’s high school education involves gathering comprehensive information and considering various factors to ensure a suitable and enriching learning environment.
Significant people at secondary school
The people who could be significant for your child and yourself are next to the teachers:
- The mentor. The mentor not only pays attention to students’ academic performance, but also looks at issues such as social-emotional well-being, absenteeism and physical health. If it appears that a pupil needs extra care or support that the mentor himself or herself cannot provide, the mentor discusses this with the IB-teacher.
- The IB-teacher. This internal supervisor is responsible for student care and has coordinating and supervisory duties. He helps teachers and parents with requests for help about children. He also conducts discussions with parents and teacher about the child.
Furthermore he ensures effective use of the student monitoring systems/group administrations and supports teachers to analyze the results of observations and tests and translate them into concrete plans and activities. Finally, the ib’er also conducts his/her own research at student, group and school level.about the child
- The team leader. The team leader is often a teacher who performs tasks in addition to the core task of “teaching. Often this team leader and teacher is a specialist in teaching. He provides his team with skills and advice. The team consisting of teachers is his or her responsibility.
Enrolling your child in a secondary school: how to do this
To enroll your child in high school:
- Check your municipality’s website for enrollment procedures.
- Typically, enrollment starts mid-March, and you may need your child’s citizen service number (BSN).
- Attend open days in January or February if you’re moving or new to the area.
- Meeting in person always helps.
Be aware of possible school capacity limitations; you can register at multiple schools.
The school board assesses your child’s admission based on factors like the school recommendation from their previous school, suggesting the most suitable type of secondary education: vmbo, havo, or vwo.
An international switching class (ISK, also known as a first reception school) is for children of 12 and 18 who have just come to live in the Netherlands. Currently, there are some 8,500 students who receive education through an ISK, 70% of whom have been in the Netherlands for up to 2 years. When the language level is sufficient, after an average of 2 years, students are switched to regular (secondary) education.
Secondary schools with isk education: Via the website of LOWAN you can search for secondary schools.
These four videos that give a picture of the ISK in relation to the Dutch education system are not to be missed. It explains the Dutch school system in general as well. According to the LOWAN very suitable for students and parents who do not have a good command of Dutch and want to know more about the ISK and the Dutch education system.
- Introduction, how is the ISK positioned in the Dutch school system and what do you learn at the ISK.
- Learning route 1, which outflow does the student work towards when he is in route 1.
- Learning route 2, which follow-up schools is the student working towards in route 2.
- Learning route 3, which follow-up education is possible with output profile route 3.
In the Dutch version, these videos are available in many languages (google-translate). In the separate video, select Settings, subtitles and then choose the language of your choice under Automatic translation. Via Youtube you can watch all of them.
What are the costs associated with my child attending secondary school?
Parents are not required to pay tuition fees for their child’s attendance at secondary school. The school typically provides most of the necessary books, although parents may need to cover the costs of certain educational materials. Additionally, there may be a parental contribution charged by the school.
Voluntary parental contribution for secondary education
The school might also request a voluntary parental contribution for various activities, including:
- school camps
- cultural activities
- in the case of children with disabilities, there might be an allowance available to cover school transportation costs. For more details on this,
- parents can reach out to the school or the local municipality.
Tuition fees for pupils aged 18 and above
Pupils who are 18 years or older on August 1 and are enrolled in full-time education at secondary general adult education (vavo) or intermediate vocational education (mbo) are required to pay tuition fees.
Ownership of a laptop or tablet is not mandatory for parents
A laptop or tablet is not considered free educational equipment. While schools may suggest that parents or guardians purchase a laptop, it cannot be made mandatory. Schools are responsible for ensuring that all students can fully engage in the curriculum, even if part of it is delivered digitally.
If parents are unable or unwilling to purchase a laptop, the school must provide a suitable alternative, such as a loaner laptop. The school may request a voluntary contribution from parents for this purpose, but parents are not obligated to pay if they are unable or unwilling. The school must ensure alternative appropriate learning materials are available in such cases.
Only in case of emergency: Where to turn to if you have problems with finding a placement at a school
Unfortunately there are some experiences of parents who can’t find a spot in a suitable school for their children. It is good to know that schools have the obligation to provide education to all children, following the Compulsory education act.
This Compulsory education act states that every child between 5 and 16 years old have the right and the obligation to education: All children between the ages of 5 and 16 living in the Netherlands are subject to compulsory education. This also applies to children of other nationalities. And for children of asylum seekers and foreigners.
Enrolling in school
Parents or guardians must enroll their children of compulsory school age in a school. The children must also actually attend that school. This also applies to children of another nationality and newcomers (asylum seekers and foreigners).
Supervision by Education Inspectorate
The Education Inspectorate checks whether schools comply with the Compulsory Education Act 1969. This inspection does so at least every 4 years and extra if there are signs that the school is not complying with the Compulsory Education Act.
The school attendance officer supervises compliance with the Compulsory Education Act. Each municipality must employ at least 1 compulsory education officer.
If your child is not doing well at school and/or you are unable to resolve the situation with the school, you can call or email the school attendance officer for advice. The school attendance officer is independent.
Please Google: ‘leerplicht ambtenaar’ and the name of your city or nearby city in Dutch and you will find the contact number. Some first contact numbers or websites for the leerplichtambtenaar in:
- The Hague
- Wassenaar or call 14070
- Rotterdam or call 14 010
- Amstelveen or call (020) 5404911
- Eindhoven or call 14 040
- Utrecht or call (030)286 26 60
Do you need help with the Dutch language for secondary education?
Please let us know by email and we will plan an online meeting to discuss what kind of help your child needs. If you like to know more about how we work teaching Dutch as a second language, please read here.