Week One: Nitty Gritty Dutch Education Details

After meeting with dAvid at the University of Amsterdam last Tuesday, we decided that it would be best to write a one-pager each week about observations I make, research findings, data analysis, and questions that arise. My first one-pager is on the structure of the Dutch education system. Definitely a more informative read, with fair less pictures or corny captions, but if you want to get the whole scope of my Fulbright journey please continue!

Week One: How is the Dutch Education System Structured?

Types of Schools

The Netherlands has both private and public schools. Both types of schools receive equal funding. At the secondary school level, only 27% of schools are public. However, students have the freedom to attend any school that they choose. The Dutch do not have a national curriculum, but do have core objectives in courses, and student tracking systems are mandatory in both primary and secondary schools. Additionally, at the end of secondary education pupils must pass a national exam to receive a certificate.


All students are required to attend school from age 5-18 years old. Before age five there are several facilities that provide free childcare, including day nurseries (for children 6 weeks to 4), playgroups (for children ages 2-4), and preschools (aimed at mitigating language gaps in students from disadvantaged backgrounds).

There are eight years of required primary education in The Netherlands (ages 4-12). Primary education spends 50% of the time covering Dutch language and mathematics. English, geography, history, biology, physical education and health, expression (art, music, drama), and social studies (religion and state) comprise the other 50% of the the curriculum. Dutch children also learn about religious movements that contributed to the creation of a pluralistic society.

After primary school, students go through 4-6 more years of secondary education. The amount of secondary education is determined by the track students take. Tracks are first decided at the age of 12, and are largely influenced by teacher recommendations. Parents that I spoke with mentioned that they have observed parents with higher educational backgrounds pushing both their students and the schools to ensure that their pupil is in the highest track (vwo). They also explained how difficult it can be to move up tracks after you are placed at age 12.

Following primary school, students can enter one of four tracks:

  • Pre-university Education (VWO-6 years)

  • Senior general Secondary Education (HAVO- 5 years)

  • Pre-vocational Secondary Education (VMBO- 4 years)

  • Practical Education

Each track has specialized paths that students can take once they enter.

VWO prepares students for research orientated education.

Track: Pre-university VWO > WO (Bachelor) > Master > PhD

HAVO prepares students for higher professional education.

Track: Senior general Secondary Education HAVO > HBO (similar to associates) > Master

Pre-vocational VMBO prepares students for vocational education and contains four different tracks can lead to a MBO:

  1. the basic vocational program (BL)

  2. the middle-management vocational program (KL)

  3. the combined theoretical and vocational program (GL)

  4. the theoretical program (TL)

Practical Education PRO: teaches students skilled trades so that they can find employment.

For children with learning differences, there are special education primary and secondary schools that provide additional supports. Under Core Objective 38, these pupils are also taught about taking care of their own physical, sexual and psychological health.​


Dutch schools receive block grant funding. There is an extra budget for small schools, and schools with pupils from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Primary and secondary schools are free of charge. However, there can sometimes be a parental contribution, but it is a small fee and not compulsory. Public expenditures in The Netherlands average about €5300 per pupil for elementary school, and €7400 on secondary school pupils.

Teacher Workforce

There are three levels of Dutch teacher education. Training to become a teacher in primary and lower secondary education is completed by finishing a higher vocational track. Whereas, individuals hoping to become an upper secondary teacher must go to a university. Largely, primary and lower secondary education teaching jobs are not valued in society, and many cities in The Netherlands are experiencing a teacher shortage. Teachers, primary especially, often work part-time (three or four days a week). Teaching in The Netherlands, similar to the United States, consists mostly of white women. Whereas, the majority of male teachers teach secondary education.

School Climate

The Ministry of Education named that Dutch students are among the happiest in the world, and experience less bullying than students in other countries. Furthermore, pupils feel like they belong at schools. In 2015, the Dutch established an anti-bullying law that requires schools to measure social safety. Schools must also provide a person to coordinate anti-bullying policies.


The Netherlands scores higher than the US, but is still not a leader in PISA scores. The Ministry named that the challenge is to increase test scores and student motivation, while keeping pupils happy.

Adapted from a presentation by the Ministry of Education and material from “Inclusive education in The Netherlands” by SLO.

One of the biggest differences in the Dutch education system, when compared to American public schools, is the determination of specific career tracks at age 12. After teaching for seven years and analyzing the impact of tracking (with honors and AP courses) in American schools, I have a strong opinion on how tracking further segregates and disadvantages students in US schools. However, I am interested to learn more about the Dutch system, and would love to hear your ideas...

Do you believe American schools should track students from age 12? Why or why not?

Read Moore