Dutch Language Blog

The Dutch school system Posted by on Oct 20, 2008 in Dutch Language

Today I will tell you something about the Dutch school system.

In the Netherlands the children have a compulsory education up to their 16th year. Most of the Dutch children go to primary school when they reach the age of 4. Before that, parents can choose to bring their young ones to kindergarten. Usually, this means they can sign up their child after their second birthday and when the child turns three, they are transferred on a list of ‘new arrivals’. When there is room for the child, the parents are notified when they can first bring their child to kindergarten.

The place I used to live, had quite a few primary schools but only one kindergarten. Because the local government didn’t want to run the risk that a lot of children were signed up for a particular primary school and just a few with another, they created a ‘district system’. This means that the children living in a certain district, would automatically be signed up for the primary school linked with that particular district. The only facility offered by the local government in this regard, is giving the parents the chance to give their first choice of primary school. But, I fear it’s an ‘in name facility’ only because they usually enroll the children in the appointed primary school anyway.

In the place I used to live most of the primary schools held the Christian values. Besides the district system, it also matters which church you belong to. Without discussing all the different religious main streams in my home town village (really an anomaly in the Netherlands in that regard) it’s needless to say that if you belong to a very conservative church, your child would go to the district primary school with the same believes.

Where I live now, there are ‘only’ three primary schools. A school upholding the Christian values, a school upholding the Catholic values and a public-school where no religious believes are upheld.

Everywhere in the Netherlands, education becomes compulsory at the age of 5. Should you choose to keep your child at home until that age, no one would probably mind.

The primary school is divided in 8 groups or grades. The youngest children start in grade 1 (or 0/1, depending where you live, the dividing in groups is not the same everywhere) and the ‘seniors’ are in the 8th grade.

Where I live, the children can go to school from the age of 4, so they start in grade 0/1. Grade 0/1 is divided in two sections though they stay in the same class. The section that just turned 4 only get to play and putter. There’s also a section in the same class with children who will turn 5 that year, they get their first introduction with the alphabet and the year after, they will go to grade 2.

I’m not sure if every primary school in the Netherlands uses this same shared class system.

When the children finish primary school, they are generally at the age of 12 and get a continued education at a high school. This is a big change for them because while they were seniors at first, now they have to start all over again in the first form. Also, while they first had to deal with just one teacher in primary school, now they have several professors and of course now they get home work.

The school where they get their continued education is called a ‘college’.

The children starting first form are often called ‘brugpiepers’ or ‘brugklassers’.

In recent years, the system of the High school has changed in the Netherlands. In my schooldays you could either go to MAVO, HAVO or VWO.

MAVO took 4 years, HAVO 5 years and VWO 6 years.

There was also a VBO or IVBO, these were the technical schools to prepare children for a technical profession. Many further educations required at least a HAVO diploma. So, children with a MAVO diploma needed additional years of education to get into the education they needed.

Today, the system is slightly different. MAVO no longer exists, this was combined with the VBO and is now called VMBO.

VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs à preparing profession oriented education) = 4 years

HAVO (hoger algemeen vormend onderwijs à higher general shaping education) = 5 years

VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs à preparing scientific education) = 6 years.

VWO can also be divided in ‘atheneum’ and ‘gymnasium’.

Atheneum is VWO-level with or without Spanish. Gymnasium is VWO-level with either Greek and/or Latin.

When a student has finished high school, they get further education in a higher level, depending on the level they started with.

VMBO à MBO (profession oriented eductation)

HAVO à HBO (higher profession oriented education)

VWO à WO (scientific education)

After graduation in high school, you can get a Dutch title (baccalaureus, ingenenieur, meester, doctorandus) or an international grade (Bachelor or Master).

Bachelor educations in HBO level are 4 years. An education at university level consists out of a three year bachelor degree followed by a one or two year master degree.

There are two kinds of bachelors: after a bachelor education at university level you are either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. If you graduated at a HBO level, you can become for example a Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Arts and Economics.

I hope I could help you a bit to understand the Dutch learning system a little better. If you are still confused, don’t worry, so am I! Luckily I don’t have to deal with this all for at least 7 more years (that’s when my eldest becomes a ‘brugpieper’) J

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  1. Peter Simon:

    I’ve just found this blog. Thank you for this text about education, I’ve found it very-very useful.
    Just one correction, if you don’t mind: the plural of belief is beliefs in E. It must have been a mistake.
    Thank you again. Hope to get some more and useful stuff about Dutch culture. Cheers

  2. corneilius:

    I met someone recently who told me his children went to a school in Holland that worked on the basis that childrens learning is best self directed, and thus has no formal classes or curriculum. The children there follow their own path in learning and refer to adults only when they decide they want help.

    He told me is was called ‘the lake’ or ‘da vigit’ (I think… as his english was not so good, and I speak no dutch)

    Are you aware of such a school?

    Kindest regards


    do what you love, it’s your gift to universe

  3. alice:

    thanx, this works!

  4. Johanes L. Taloko:

    Thank you for your article.
    It’s really useful for me.
    I used to live in Groningen for a year to take my Master’s Program in Education in RuG. I need your information concerning to the kind of curriculum is used in Dutch High Schools especially in teaching English. I need this important information in order to complete my article in a journal.
    Thanks for your concern.
    I’m looking forward to receiving your reply.

    Johanes – INDONESIA

  5. David D. Branstetter:

    So how are the grades set up? Like is the highest grade one can get an A, or a 1, like in Germany? I really need to know how the people in the Netherland’s grade their student’s scores, with numbers or letters. What goes on their report cards?

  6. Simmelle:

    Is it true that the final exams to acheive your Havo or VWO diploma are in Dutch only and you only have 2 opportunities to take the test or fail to receive you certificate?

  7. vijay:


    what are the recent innovative methods introduced in netherland education

  8. sarah:

    Hi Vijay,

    Right now I’m not sure of any recent innovative methods introduced in the Dutch education system, though it is currently undergoing a financial overhaul at the university level. But I also don’t fully understand the education system here myself, so perhaps there is actually something going on that I don’t know about.

  9. joseph:

    for the havo final exam how many times can one take the exam and if you do pass what are your other options to going to hbo

  10. mads:

    For the schools near me in the Hague, you don’t apply from the age 2, but much earlier. Some dads go in when the baby is 1 day,at 2 you will be far too late.
    You can choose any school you wish.

  11. H. Jansma:

    beste lezer,

    Tijdens de voorbereiding van mijn lessen Innovative Dutch School Systems, kwam ik dit artikel van u tegen. Uw uitleg tav het VWO is onjuist. Het VWO staat niet voor Voortgezet Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs maar voor het Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs. Mogelijk kunt u dit alsnog in uw blog wijzigen?

    met vriendelijke groet, H. Jansma (docent Pabo NHL)

    • Sten:

      @H. Jansma Het is gewijzigd!

      Sorry voor het late antwoord. We hebben een verandering in het team gehad, waardoor vroeger commentaar soms niet meer is beantwoord.

      Innovative Dutch School Systems – dat klinkt erg interessant! Waar gaat dat over?