Dutch Language Blog

Untranslatable Dutch Words: de Zesjescultuur Posted by on Oct 12, 2016 in Culture

Zesjescultuur. Literally “little sixes culture”. What in the world is that? Do little sixes live in the Netherlands? Is there some tribe called “Six”? No, no, no, it all has to do with a hotly debated topic in Dutch politics and schools.

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Are Dutch students gambling with their studies? (Image by Jamie at Flickr.com under license CC BY 2.0)

Are Dutch students gambling with their studies? (Image by Jamie at Flickr.com under license CC BY 2.0)

The Dutch grading system

Dutch schools grade not by letters, as is the case in the United States. They also don’t grade in a system from 6 to 1, as is the case in Germany. Instead, the Dutch grade from 1 to 10, and also use one decimal. So, you can get a 5.7 for a test, for example. And since we use commas instead of points between whole numbers and decimals, we write 5,7 and say vijf komma zeven.

As this is about schools and grades, you can excel, pass, or fail. In the Netherlands, you excel with a grade above 7,5, pass with a grade between 5,5 and 7,5 and fail with a grade below 5,5. Grades are sometimes, primarily for final grades, rounded up. So a 7,5 becomes an 8, a 5,4 a 5 – and a 5,5 a 6. And this is where the zesjescultuur comes in.

The Zesjescultuur

Dutch scholieren (students) and studenten (undergraduates and graduates) are accused by leraren (teachers) and politici (politicians) to study just enough to pass – to get a six. Students would calculate exactly how much they need to know in order to get a passing grade. More is not required, and so why would they do more to excel?

Such behavior is so widespread, that it has become a problematic culture of sixes – a zesjescultuur. Why zesjes (little sixes) and not just zessen (sixes)? Well, that’s a Dutch thing.

Some Master (graduate studies) programmes in the Netherlands now have a minimum requirement of a 7 to be able to enter. The debate is opened!

Is it a problem?

Dutch scholieren mirror the criticism and accuse the school system of being too harsh on them, and not allowing grades above sixes and sevens. Besides, they say, the system says a six is sufficient, so why does it matter whether you have a seven or more? At university, it is not all about grades, but also about getting to know what you want, where you want to be later, and a grade does not measure nor determine this. Depending on what you want. This piece explains this point well and with some humor!

On the other hand, university education is heavily subsidized by the Dutch state. A very important point in the debate. As another argues here, you go to university primarily for studying – not to find out what you want or what you find important. You do not need to be enrolled for that and use up public money. If you do not know what you want, or you are not even sure that you want to study, you should not study at all, she thinks.

What do you think? Is the zesjescultuur a problem in your opinion? Are there similar debates about student performance in your country? Let me know in the comments below!


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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.


  1. Bram:

    Mediocrity is always a problem, especially when it becomes the standard. This stems to the system being adjusted to a pace and level where everybody should ‘at least’ score a passing grade.
    A ‘zesje’ is I think anything between 6 and 6.5 — not quite a 7 yet.
    It is my personal opinion that youngsters should always try to invest time in their talents and interests so they learn to excell, rather than the subjects that come less natural to them just so they can keep up.