Education in the Netherlands

Education in the Netherlands

Education in the Netherlands is characterized by division: education is oriented toward the needs and background of the pupil. Education is divided over schools for different age groups, some of these in turn divided in streams for different educational levels. Schools are furthermore divided in public and special (religious) schools. The Programme for International Student Assessment, coordinated by the OECD, ranks the education in the Netherlands as the 9th best in the world as of 2008, being significantly higher than the OECD average. []

General overview

Education policy is coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, together with municipal governments.

Compulsory education ("leerplicht") in the Netherlands starts at the age of five, although in practice, most schools accept children from the age of four. From the age of sixteen there is a partial compulsory education ("partiële leerplicht"), meaning a pupil must attend some form of education for at least two days a week [] . Compulsory education ends for pupils age eighteen and up.

There are public, special (religious), and private schools. The first two are government-financed and officially free of charge, though schools may ask for a "parental contribution" ("ouderbijdrage").

Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board. Special schools are typically based on a particular religion. There are government financed Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. In principle a special school can refuse the admission of a pupil if the parents indicate disagreement with the school's educational philosophy. This is an uncommon occurrence. Practically there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas like Zeeland and the Veluwe (around Apeldoorn). Private schools do not receive financial support from the government.

There is also a considerable number of publicly financed schools which are based on a particular educational philosophy, for instance the Montessori Method, Pestalozzi Plan, Dalton Plan or Jena Plan. Most of these are public schools, but some special schools also base themselves on any of these educational philosophies.

In elementary and high schools the students are assessed annually by a team of teachers, who determine whether the pupil has advanced enough to move on to the next grade. If the pupil has not advanced enough he or she may have to retake the year ("blijven zitten", English: "stay seated"); this is an uncommon occurrence. Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and usually in elementary schools.

All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called "Onderwijsinspectie" (Education Inspection) and can be (asked) forced to make changes in educational policy or risk closure.


Elementary School

Between the ages of four to twelve, children attend "basisschool" (elementary school; literally, "basic school"). This school has eight grades, called "groep 1" (group 1) through "groep 8". School attendance is compulsory from group 2 (at age five), but almost all children commence school at four (in group 1). Groups 1 and 2 used to be called "kleuterschool" (nursery). From group 3 on, children will learn how to read, write and do maths. In group 7 and 8 many schools start with teaching English to their students. In group 8 the vast majority of schools administer the "Citotoets" (Cito test, developed by the "Centraal instituut voor toetsontwikkeling" [] ) to recommend what type of secondary education should be followed. In recent years this test has gained authority, but the opinion of the group 8 teacher has remained a crucial factor in this recommendation.

"High School"

After attending elementary education, children aged 12 years old attend "voortgezet onderwijs" (high school; literally "continued education"). Depending on the advice of the elementary school and the score of the Cito test, pupils are assigned to either vmbo, havo or vwo.

The first year of all levels is referred to as the "brugklas" (litt. "bridge class"), as it connects the elementary school system to the secondary education system. During this year, pupils will gradually learn to cope with differences such as dealing with an increased personal responsibility.

When it is not clear which type of secondary education best suits a pupil, there is an orientation year for both vmbo/havo and havo/vwo to determine this. In addition, there is a second orientation year for havo/vwo when inconclusive.

Furthermore it is possible for pupils who have attained the vmbo diploma to attend two years of havo-level education and sit the HAVO-exam, and for pupils with a havo-diploma to attend two years of vwo-level education and then sit the VWO exam.


The vmbo ("voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs", literally, "preparatory middle-level vocational education") education lasts four years, from the age of twelve to sixteen. It combines vocational training with theoretical education in languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. Sixty percent of students nationally are enrolled in vmbo. Vmbo itself has four different levels, in each a different mix of practical vocational training and theoretical education is combined.
*"Theoretische leerweg" (literally, "theoretical learning path") is the most theoretical of the four, it prepares for middle management and vocational training in the mbo-level of tertiary education and it is needed to enter havo.
*"Gemengde leerweg" (literally, "mixed learning path") is in between the "Theoretische-" and "Kaderberoepsgerichte Leerwegen".
*"Kaderberoepsgerichte Leerweg" (literally, "middle management-oriented learning path") teaches theoretical education and vocational training equally. It prepares for middle management and vocational training in the mbo-level of tertiary education.
*"Basisberoepsgerichte Leerweg" (literally, "basic profession-oriented learning path") emphasizes vocational training and prepares for the vocational training in the mbo-level of tertiary education.
*"Praktijkonderwijs" (literally, "practical education") consists out of mainly vocational training. It is meant for pupils who would otherwise not obtain their vmbo-diplomas. After obtaining this diploma pupils can enter the job market without further training.

For all of these levels there is "Leerweg Ondersteunend Onderwijs" (literally, "learning path supporting education"), which is intended for pupils with educational or behavioural problems. These pupils are taught in small classes by specialized teachers.


The havo ("hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs", literally, "higher general continued education") has five grades and is attended from age twelve to seventeen. A havo diploma provides access to the HBO-level (polytechnic) of tertiary education.

The first three years together are called the "Basisvorming" (literally, "basis forming"). All pupils follow the same subjects: languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. In the third year pupils must choose one of four profiles. A profile is a set of different subjects that will make up for the largest part of the pupil's timetable in the fourth and fifth year, that are together called the "Tweede Fase" (literally, "second phase"). A profile specializes the pupil in an area, and some hbo and wo studies therefore require a specific profile. Students must also choose one to three additional subjects. Furthermore, Dutch and one foreign language (most often English), as well as some minor subjects, are compulsory. In all profiles mathematics is compulsory, but the level of difficulty differs for each profile. Pupils still have some free space, which is not taken by compulsory and profile subjects: here they can pick two subjects from other profiles. Sometimes pupils choose more than two subjects, this can result in multiple profiles.


*"Cultuur en Maatschappij" (literally, "culture and society") emphasizes on arts and foreign languages (French, German and less frequently Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Turkish). In the province of Friesland, West Frisian is also taught. The mathematics classes focus on statistics and stochastics. This profile prepares for artistic and cultural training at the hbo.
*"Economie en Maatschappij" (literally, "economy and society") emphasizes on social sciences, economy, and history. The mathematics classes focus on statistics and stochastics. This profile prepares for social science and economy training at the HBO.
*"Natuur en Gezondheid" (literally, "nature and health") emphasizes on biology and natural sciences. The mathematics classes focus on algebra, geometry and calculus. This profile is necessary to attend medical training at the HBO.
*"Natuur en Techniek" (literally, "nature and technology") emphasizes on natural sciences. The mathematics classes focus on algebra, geometry and calculus. This profile is necessary to attend technological and natural science training at the HBO.


The vwo ("voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs", literally, "preparatory scientific education") has six grades and is attended from age twelve to eighteen. A vwo diploma provides access to wo training, although universities may set their own admittance criteria (e.g. based on profile or on certain subjects). The vwo shares the profiles system described above with the HAVO route. The distinctions that can be made are that the difficulty level is higher, and that the Tweede Fase lasts three years instead of two.

The vwo is divided in "Atheneum" and "Gymnasium". A Gymnasium programme is similar to the Atheneum, except that Latin and Greek are typically compulsory until the third year. Not all schools teach the ancient languages throughout the entire Basisvorming. Latin may start in either the first or the second year, while Greek may start in second or third. At the end of the third year, a pupil may decide to take either or both languages in the Tweede Fase, where the education in ancient languages is combined with education in ancient culture. The subject that they choose, although technically compulsory, is subtracted from their free space.

Vwo-plus, which is also known as Atheneum-plus, Vwo+ or Lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, extra foreign languages and courses to introduce students to scientific research.


Vavo ("voortgezet algemeen volwassenen Onderwijs", literally, "prolonged general adult education") is ghvmbo, havo or vwo taught for adults.

Tertiary Education


Mbo ("middelbaar beroepsonderwijs", literally, "middle-level vocational education") is oriented towards vocational training. Many pupils with a vmbo-diploma attend mbo. Mbo lasts three to four years. After mbo, pupils can enroll in hbo or enter the job market.


With an mbo, havo or vwo diploma, pupils can enroll in hbo ("Hoger Beroeps Onderwijs", literally "higher professional education"). It is oriented towards higher learning and professional training, which takes four to six years. The teaching in the hbo is standardized as a result of the Bologna process. After obtaining enough credits (ECTS) pupils will receive a 4 years (professional) Bachelor's degree. They can choose to study longer and obtain a (professional) Master's degree in 1 or 2 years.


With a vwo-diploma or a propedeuse in hbo, pupils can enroll in wo ("wetenschappelijk onderwijs", literally "scientific education"). Wo is only taught at a university. It is oriented towards higher learning in the arts or sciences. The teaching in the wo, too, is standardized due to the Bologna process. After obtaining enough credits (ECTS), pupils will receive a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Laws degree. They can choose to study longer in order to obtain a Master's degree of different fields. At the moment, there are four variants: Master of Arts, Philosophy, Sciences, and Master of Laws. A theoretical Master typically lasts one year, however the majority of practical (e.g. medical), technical and research Masters require two or three years.

History of education

Compulsory education for children was implemented in the Netherlands in 1901. The main purpose of the law was to counter child labour, the first moves for which are credited to legislator Samuel van Houten, whose "kinderwetje" (literally, "children's little law") of 1874 made child labour under the age of 12 illegal.

The original law of 1900 only affected children aged 6 to 12, but in 1969 the law was expanded to 9 years of compulsory education, and in 1975 it became 10 years.

Before 1968 the system was different and consisted of:
* "Kleuterschool" - kindergarten (ages 4 to 6)
* "Lagere school" - primary education, (ages 6 to 12) followed by either;
** "ITO" (invidual technical education) - now "VMBO - praktijkonderwijs" (ages 12 to 16)
** "Ambachtschool" (vocational training) - comparable with "VMBO - gemengde leerweg" , but there was more emphasis on thorough technical knowledge (ages 12 to 16)
** "ULO" - now "VMBO - theoretical learning path" (ages 12 to 16)
** "MULO" - now "HAVO" (ages 12 to 16)
** "HBS" ("Hogere Burger School" - mixed) - comparable "VWO - Atheneum" (ages 12 - 17)
** "MMS" ("Middelbare MeisjesSchool" - girls only) - comparable with "VWO - Atheneum" (ages 12 - 17)
** "Gymnasium" - secondary education - comparable with "VWO - Atheneum with compulsory Greek and Latin added (ages 12 to 18)
* "MTS/HTS" - middle and higher level vocational/technical training, similar to a polytechnic college
* University - only after completing "HBS/MMS/Gymnasium/HTS"

This was all changed that year with the "Wet op het Voortgezet Onderwijs" (literally, "law on secondary education"), better known as the "Mammoetwet" (literally, "mammoth act"). This piece of legislation got its peculiar name after ARP-MP Anton Bernard Roosjen [ [ Trouw] (Dutch)] was reported to have said „Let that mammoth remain in fairyland”. This law passed in 1963 at the initiative of legislator Jo Cals and created a system on which the current one is based.

Before the "Mammoetwet" a student wanting to complete "gymnasium-β" would have to pass exams in;
* 6 languages (all consisting of three separate parts, an oral book report, a written essay, and a written summary);
** Ancient Greek
** Latin
** French
** German
** English
** Dutch
* 5 sciences
** Physics
** Chemistry
** Biology
** Mathematics - consisting of two out of the following three sub-fields; (a student would be exempted from one based on a draw)
*** analytic geometry and Algebra
*** trigonometry
*** solid geometryNext to these courses history and geography were also compulsory courses and taught until the final year, but students would not take exams in them.

The Mammoetwet introduced four streams (LTS/VBO, MAVO, HAVO and VWO), of which VBO and MAVO were fused into VMBO in 1999.

The Mammoetwet was reformed significantly in the late 1990s. "Basisvorming" standardized subjects for the first three years of secondary education and introduced two new compulsory subjects (technical skills and care skills). The remainder of secondary school training was reformed with the Tweede Fase, which gave rise to the HAVO and VWO "profiles" described above; specific aims of this reform were also the introduction of information management skills and integration between different subjects.


In The Netherlands, grades from 1.0 up to 10.0 are used, with 1 being worst and 10 being best. Generally one decimal place is used and a +/− means a quarter, rounded to either 0.8 or 0.3. Thus, a 6.75 could be written as 7− and count as an 6.8, whereas a 7+ would be a 7.25 and count as an 7.3.

The grade scale with the labels:
* 10 (perfect)
* 9 (excellent)
* 8 (very good)
* 7 (more than sufficient)
* 6 (sufficient)
* 5 (insufficient)
* 4 (strongly insufficient)
* 3 (very strongly insufficient)
* 2 (bad)
* 1 (very bad)

Depending on the grade, several honors are available: total average of grades 8 with no grade under 7 and finishing in time: "cum laude". For an average better than 7, but not meeting the criteria for "cum laude", "met genoegen" (with honor), is sometimes awarded. This honor system is typically only used at universities.

Usually 5.5 and up constitute a pass whereas 5.4 and below constitute a fail. If no decimal places are used, 6 and up is a pass and 5 and below a fail. Sometimes, when no decimal place is used, an additional grade, 6−, is used as "barely passed". This is what would have been a 5.5 if a decimal place were used.

Grading systems compared

Converting the numbers of the Dutch grading system into the letters of systems such as those used in the United States and Great Britain, is difficult. It can really only be done if one can compare the frequency distribution of grades in the two systems.

The grades 9 and 10 are hardly ever given on examinations (on average, a 9 is awarded in only 1.5%, and a 10 in 0.5% of cases).

As the incidence of a 9 or 10 in "hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs" (literally: "higher general continued education") (HAVO) examinations is considerably lower than that of the top marks in the American or British grading system, it would be a mistake to equate a 10 to an A, a 9 to a B, and so forth. If the 8, 9 and 10 are taken together, as in the table above, they represent the top S to 15% of examination results. If, in a grading system based on letters, the A represents the top 10% or thereabouts, grade A may be regarded as equivalent to grades 8 and above.

It also has to be noted, very clearly, however that the HAVO represents the second level in the Dutch secondary education system that is tiered from an early age. The UK for example has no real equivalent to this, and is organised completely differently, with many candidates who would most likely have been sent through the HAVO system either doing A-levels and scoring relatively modest grades, or taking a more vocational path via the GNVQ system that introduces a less academic tone already at age 16. A thorough exploration of other systems is not warranted here, but care must be taken not to assume too much in the equivalences of qualifications that play different roles, in different systems, in the context of different traditions.

The conversion of the lowest passing grade may present another problem. A grade of 4 is a clear fail, although one 4 at the examination is acceptable if high grades are obtained in all the other subjects. A 5, on the other hand, is 'almost satisfactory'. For purposes of assessing a pupil's progress throughout the year, a 5 is usually considered to be good enough, provided the pupil does better on the next test. For examinations, a 5 is unacceptable only as an average, but is condoned in one or two subjects. Its use is comparable to that of the D in many systems: a weak pass, but as an average too low for admission into a higher cycle of education. Note again that the "gearing" of the education system need not be the same. There is no reason to expect the overall difficulty to be the same, or to expect systems to favour the exact same types of candidates, it is also not reasonable to assume that lowest-passing-grades will always equate, because, amongst more obvious reasons, the Dutch system allows resits and considers them more normal, whereas sundry other systems tend to send candidates away with whichever grade they obtain however comparitively unsatisfactory that may be.

Taking the A-Level system applied in much of the UK and commonwealth as an example, grades E for A-level are in principle fairly unimpressive, and although they correspond to a "pass" would not constitute a passing level in a Dutch VWO class (the equivalent grade for HAVO could be debated, while philosophies and methods are still completely different). The class of candidates obtaining grades D and E for their A-levels would not be likely to pass their VWO examinations and be admitted to Universities in The Netherlands. This said, they would be more likely to return and retry, while British candidates would be more likely to simply proceed to a lower level of further/vocational education. This raises arguments about how well less able candidates may have done in a course more geared to their level.

For the award of the HAVO diploma, the average final grade should be a 6. In view of the high frequency of 6s, coupled with the fact that it is the minimum requirement for admission into a higher cycle of education, there are good grounds for equating a 6 with a C, which has a similar frequency and purpose.


* Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap. [ Algemene informatie over de leerplicht] , retrieved June 23, 2006.

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