Education system in Holland

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Full-time education is compulsory from the first school day in the month after a child's fifth birthday, until the end of the school year in which they reach 16 or have completed at least 12 full years of schooling. From 16-18, students must receive at least part-time education and can participate in work. However, it is very common for children to remain in full-time education until they are at least 18 and to begin education at four (QCA 2002).

Fees for schooling are required for children over 16 on 1st August of that year but many families are granted assistance.

Age in years Phase
0 to 4 Pre-compulsory education This is provided by day nurseries, playgroups and company childcare schemes. Parents, employers and the government are expected to contribute to childcare costs with parents’ contributions being income-dependent. There is no universal, free, state education in this age range and no formal curriculum. The focus is on play, stimulating children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.
4 to 12 Primary school

(grades 1-8)

Primary school is only compulsory from the age of 5. The national curriculum specifies core subjects:
  • Sensory co-ordination and physical exercise
  • Dutch
  • Arithmetic and mathematics
  • Expressive activities e.g. music
  • Social and life skills
  • Healthy living
  • Factual subjects including geography, history, science and social studies
  • English for at least the final two years

Schools have to offer religious education though students do not have to participate in it. There are also a number of cross-curricular objectives that schools are expected to include to improve children’s general skills. Furthermore, due to the great diversity of people living in Holland, it is expected that pupils will learn about the customs and origins of other peoples.

The curriculum specifies time allocation and attainment targets for both subject areas and cross-curricular strands. Schools are free to decide on the content and methods of teaching as long as these targets are reached by the end of primary school. Pupils are continually assessed by their teachers and the majority of schools also use tests set by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (CITO). The assessments do not result in a certificate but are used to help formulate a report that advises which type of secondary school a child should attend.

12 to 18 Secondary school

(grades 9-14)

Secondary education begins with a 3-year period of general education (basisvorming/the foundation cycle).

The compulsory subjects at all levels of secondary school are:

  • Dutch
  • English language
  • second foreign language
  • mathematics
  • biology, physics and chemistry
  • ICT
  • history and politics
  • geography
  • economics
  • technology
  • life skills
  • at least two of: visual arts, music, drama and dance
  • physical education

Optional subjects are also taken at this phase and during the final year when students undertake general upper secondary education, pre-university or pre-vocational education which prepares them for different end-of-course examinations, the HAVO, VWO and VMBO respectively. The emphasis placed on subjects is the major difference between these courses.

The VMBO is a one-year course and can be taken in engineering and technology, business, agriculture or care and welfare with students following theoretical, combined, basic vocational or middle-management programmes.

The HAVO is a two-year course and the VWO is of three years duration. There are four fixed combinations of subjects which students can select: science and technology, science and health, economics and society or culture and society. These are all associated with particular courses in higher education.

There are ‘final’ exams for both the basisvorming (though these can be taken after two years) as well as for the VMBO, HAVO and VWO. These are nation-wide exams set by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (CITO), resulting in grades from 1-10 (6 being a pass). The basisvorming assessments are used by the competent authority to advise whether a student should switch to another course. The VMBO, HAVO and VWO certificates provide access to further education or training.

Higher Education Courses are generally four years long (with the exception of medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy), requiring students to earn credits and then take final exams.

Institutes of higher education (hogescholen) provide vocational and professional training. Admittance requires students to have at least the HAVO or VMBO middle-management certificate where as the VWO is needed for a place at university. Universities offer courses in the fields of science, health, behaviour and society, law, economics, engineering and technology as well as language and culture. Technical universities focus on engineering and technology.

Adult Education This is provided by regional training centres (ROCs) offering a range of adult and vocational training programmes. The courses are open to people from the age of 16 and basic courses require no prior qualifications. The focus is to develop adults’ knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes in order to improve their participation in society. Some adult education courses result in qualifications including 3 levels of basic skills (KSE), 5 levels of Dutch as a second language (NT2) and the various levels of the adult general secondary education course (VAVO) which are equivalent to the VMBO, HAVO and VWO.

Alternative Education

Home schooling

There is quite strong opposition to this in Holland. It has been argued that it should not be legal. Only parents who have strong religious objections to their local schools may home educate their children.

International Schools

There are a number of schools at primary and secondary level in Holland with an international element. They can be state or private schools. Students sit the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) followed by the International Baccalaureate (IB).


Eurydice Database – the Information Database on Education Systems in Europe: The Education System in the Netherlands, (Visited 12-July-05).

QCA (2002) International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks, (search for Netherlands) (Visited 11-July-05).

Useful Links

The Database of the European Glossary on Education
This website allows you to search from the categories of certificate, exam, title, institution, teachers and assistants in the different stages of education for all European countries. (Visited 12-July-05)

Ministry of OCW – Education, Culture and Science in the Netherlands (Visited 11-July-05)

The National Institute for Education Measurement (CITO)
This website provides information on vocational, higher and adult education as well as that for 3-12 year olds and 12-19 year olds. Unless you can read Dutch, stay in the international section! (Visited 12-July-05)