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A Guide to Education & International Schools in the Netherlands

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  • Pascal Tremblay

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The Dutch education system on the primary school level is relatively easygoing. Divided into eight groups and stretching over eight years, it provides the necessary knowledge without too much stress. However, at the end of eight years the students need to take an aptitude test that determines what secondary school they can attend.

It is the higher education system that makes the secondary school divisions so complicated. The type of secondary school a child attends determines what type of university they will be allowed to enter. The best schools lead to the best universities that are usually focused on academia and theoretical knowledge.

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The Education System in the Netherlands

In general, the education system in the Netherlands is rather international. Bilingual public schools are common, especially on the secondary school level. Schools also offer adaptation programs for young children that do not speak Dutch. Still, the language is important in everyday school life in the country. So, if it might be an issue for your child, you will have to look for private international schooling options.

What is the Education System Like?

The Dutch school system is a lot like other European examples. Children start school at four or five years of age. Primary and the initial years of secondary school is mandatory (or up until the student obtains their degree). After primary school children have to decide whether they want to study a vocation or opt for further theoretical studies to pursue a research-based university degree. Students can also choose an in-between version of these two types of schools that prepare for university-level studies of applied sciences. You can find more on this distinction later in this guide.

International parents will be pleased to know that part of the Netherlands’s school system is bilingual. There are both primary and secondary schools around the country that teach 30–50% of their subjects in English (also German or French, depending on the region). These schools often have a more international approach to schooling as well and offer student exchange programs to their pupils. However, if your child does not speak any of the aforementioned languages, finding a suitable public school can be an issue. Also, keep in mind that Dutch is still widely used in these schools.

What is the School Age System in the Netherlands?

It is compulsory for children age 5 to 16 to attend school in the Netherlands, or until they receive their secondary school diploma. Daycare is available for babies and children up until four years or age, but it is not mandatory.

School type Age Daycare 0–4 Pre-school 2–4 Primary School 4–12 Secondary School (VMBO) 12­–16 Secondary School (HAVO) 12–17 Secondary School (VWO) 12–18

What is the School Grading System in the Netherlands?

The grade system in the Netherlands is used for both secondary and higher education. It goes from 1 to 10, ten being the highest score, six being the lowest passing grade. Note that grades 1–3 are almost never assigned.

Grade Meaning 1 Very poor 2 Poor 3 Very unsatisfactory 4 Unsatisfactory 5 Almost satisfactory 6 Satisfactory 7 Very satisfactory 8 Good 9 Very good 10 Excellent

Education Facts in the Netherlands

  • Pupils attend school Monday through Friday.
  • School hours in primary school are from 8:30 to 15:00 with an hour-long lunch at 12:00. Wednesdays are half-days and children go home at 12:00.
  • School hours for secondary school students start at 8:30 until about 16:00–17:00, depending on the day’s schedule.
  • School years in the Netherlands start in August or September and end in June or July, depending on the region and school.
  • There are two different types of public school in the country: special (religious Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim) and general (religiously neutral).

The Main Differences Between Public and Private Schools

Private schools are uncommon in the Netherlands as most kids, even children of Dutch monarchs, attend public schools. Private schools are mostly for children with special needs or international students that cannot speak any Dutch. The country encourages foreign students to learn the language and runs a lot of programs that help them adjust to the schooling system in the Netherlands.

However, if your child does not speak English or Dutch, is uncomfortable with learning Dutch, or you do not think it will be useful long-term, you can always opt for private international schooling. The main difference here is the language and the schooling fees, because, unlike public schools, private ones are not free.

Daycare and Kindergarten

In the Netherlands, daycare and pre-school (not to be confused with kindergarten) are two separate institutions. However, both of them focus on taking care of children under the age of four. Neither daycare nor preschool is mandatory in the Netherlands, but there are some exceptions.

Daycare in the Netherlands

Daycare centers provide care for children from three months up to four years. The children can stay in the center for up to eleven hours (from around 08:00 to 18:30–19:00) where they are taken care of by professional and fully-qualified staff. Apart from playtime, music classes, and other activities, children at daycare centers get meals and snacks throughout the day. These centers are especially useful for parents that are busy working or studying during the day.

What Age Do Children Start Pre-school?

Pre-school is for children aged two (or two-and-a-half) to four. School days typically last four to five hours. However, some schools do offer full day programs as well. The school years in pre-school are not separated into junior or senior levels.

Is Pre-school Mandatory?

No, pre-school is not mandatory, in the Netherlands. The mandatory schooling starts with pre-school at 4-5.

Educational Approach in Pre-school

In pre-school, children are taught in a similar manner to the first two grades in primary school. In fact, many pre-schools co-operate with primary schools to adjust their curriculum to suit the school years ahead. This approach is supposed to ease the transition to the school environment.

Language, social, physical, and creative development are the main focus of pre-school. All of the skills are taught through play. Children sing, participate in outdoor activities, and listen to stories.

Daycare and Pre-school Fees

Daycare and primary school fees are calculated depending on your child’s age, the school or center you want them to attend, and how many hours of care are necessary. The fees can get relatively high. Pre-school and daycare costs can go from around 800 EUR (880 USD) to 2,000 EUR (2,110 USD) per month for five days of classes each week.

However, the government (national or municipal) provides monetary support to parents with children under twelve years old. They receive a childcare allowance that relieves the burden by covering at least three-quarters of the necessary sum. The size of your allowance depends on how much you and your partner earn and how many hours you work per week. Depending on your situation, the relief can lower the costs to 100–550 EUR (110–610 USD) per month for full-week classes.

Talk to other international parents with young children in Netherlands

Talk to other international parents with young children in Netherlands

Primary and Secondary Schools

Primary schools in the Netherlands do not differentiate much between students. However, once you enter the secondary school realm, academic potential becomes very important.

Children need to choose between educational approaches that allow them to achieve different levels of education––the more theoretical schooling is, the higher level it is considered to be. And while each student chooses what is best for them, the highest educational level can be achieved in schools with an academic approach to learning.

Primary (Elementary) School

Primary education is eight years long and divided into eight levels (groups 1–8). In the Netherlands, it is mandatory for children to attend school from five years of age, but many children start at four. If you want your child to start school at five, they will be admitted into group 2.

In some schools, groups 1 and 2 are merged. These first two years of primary school are the closest thing to kindergarten in the Netherlands. The approach to schooling here is very similar to daycare centers where teaching is play-based. More substantial learning starts from group 3, where children start learning to read and write.

Primary School Curriculum

The core curriculum in Dutch primary schools consists of the following subjects:

  • Dutch
  • English (could start at group 1 or 7)
  • arithmetic and mathematics
  • social and environmental studies (e.g., geography, biology, history, science, road safety, healthy living, social and life skills, study of political, ideological and religious movements)
  • creative expression (e.g., arts and crafts, painting, music)
  • sports and movement

Schools may choose to include other subjects in the curriculum as well, such as other languages, but it is not mandatory.

Children usually are not given too much homework (under 30 minutes per day) so that they can join after-school activities.

At the end of primary school, students need to take an aptitude test that determines which type of secondary school they can attend. They usually get a recommendation to either opt for vocational training or general education.

Primary School Schedule

The school year in primary school is divided into six-week intervals of learning and one week’s break in between. Holiday breaks are longer, so for Christmas children get two weeks off while the summer break lasts six weeks.

Primary School Costs

Public primary school in the Netherlands is free. However, you can expect to make some optional contributions (e.g., for after class activities, school lunch, etc.) throughout the year. In total, that can get to around 100 EUR (110 USD) per year.

International Students at Primary Schools

Children that have lived in the Netherlands for less than a year and speak little to no Dutch can attend a newcomers’ class that will help them catch up with their peers. The class lasts one academic year.

Secondary (High) Schools

There are two types of secondary education in the Netherlands:

  • vocational training (VMBO)
  • general education (HAVO and VWO)

Depending on the student’s academic capabilities, they have to choose which type of education is the most suitable for them. Students that wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree need to get general education as it prepares students for university.

Types of Secondary Schools

Depending on which educational path a student opts for, they can attend one of three types of secondary schools:

  • VMBO (four years) – provides pre-vocational education. Followed by vocational training at MBO.
  • HAVO (five years) – called senior general secondary education. It prepares students to attend an applied sciences university (HBO).
  • VWO (six years) – pre-university education that prepares children for a research university (WO).

Note that while these are the common pathways to education this does not mean they are the only ones. Each student is allowed to choose their own path; however, some transitions might require additional bridge years of studies when it comes to higher education.

Pre-Vocational Education at VMBO

  • VMBO stands for voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs and provides pre-vocational education that leads to professions, such as a nurse or mechanic.
  • The schooling consists of four years of training (two in lower-level and two in upper-level years).
  • Lower-level years offer a general education with a broad range of subjects.
  • Upper-level years are for specializing in an occupation. The pupil can choose the study approach: more academic, more practical, combined, or basic studies, providing the minimum knowledge required for graduation.
  • To graduate you need to take national exams in six subjects.
  • Four types of diploma are available after graduation (VMBO-bb, VMBO-kb, VMBO-gl, or VMBO-T), depending on the study approach.

After obtaining their diploma, students need to attend MBO (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, or vocational training school) to get the full vocational training. This usually takes about three years.

General Education at HAVO and VWO

If your child opts for general education, they have a choice between HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) and VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs) schools. The three lower-level years cover a broad range of subjects and are fairly similar in both educational institutions.

However, the upper-level years allow for more in-depth specialization according to the subject cluster. Typically, students receive a recommendation on which school to choose after the first two years of secondary education.

Possible Subject Clusters

  • culture and society
  • economics and society
  • nature and health
  • nature and technology

Main Differences Between HAVO and VWO


  • Pre-university education, usually followed by HBO type university
  • Five years of training: three in lower-level and two in upper-level years
  • Need to take exams in at least seven subjects to graduate
  • More practical approach to learning


  • Pre-university education, usually followed by WO type university
  • Six years of training: three in lower-level and three in upper-level years
  • Need to take exams in at least eight subjects to graduate
  • More academic approach to learning

There are a few types of VWO schools (atheneum, gymnasium, and VWO plus) that differ in mandatory supplemental languages (Greek and Latin specifically). Technasium is available for students of both HAVO and VWO. There, the educational approach is based on research and design and focuses on developing a science-related skillset.

Secondary School Costs

Public schools in the Netherlands are free. However, some parental contributions might be necessary, whether it is for school trips or other activities.

International Students at Dutch Secondary Schools

Sometimes a student’s educational level does not equal their level of Dutch and this might hinder their success in school. That is why internationals that wish to bridge their language gap can attend a special international class that will help them learn Dutch. Their language level is determined upon enrollment and they can stay in this class for one or two years.

International Schools

You can find many school options for foreigners in the Netherlands as the Dutch government is eager to best adapt the international students to the local programs. Dutch language is taught in special classes for children of all ages. However, if you think international schools are the best for you and your child, the country offers such schooling options as well.

Schools in the Netherlands for International Students

Expats can rely on international schooling when it comes to both primary and secondary education. Parents can find French, Japanese, and German schools, as well as those that follow the British curriculum. Some of them are:

  • Amsterdam International Community School
  • Deutsche Internationale Schule (The Hague)
  • International School Eindhoven
  • Le Lycée Français Vincent van Gogh (The Hague)
  • Rotterdam International Secondary School, Junior and Secondary Campuses

Tuition Fees for International Schools

Some international schools in the Netherlands are subsidized by the government while others are not. If you opt for a subsidized school, you will find that the fees range from around 3,600 to 6,000 EUR (3,980–6,630 USD). The schools that do not receive government contributions can be two or four times the price, ranging from around 12,000 to 24,000 EUR (13,250–26,510 USD). The schools might also require a security deposit or other application fees.

International Schools Requirements and Admission

While the admission processes differ from school to school, most of them require the following documents:

  • filled-out application form
  • child’s birth certificate
  • previous school records
  • passport-style photo

Some schools require the child’s parents’ documents or proof that their residence in the country is temporary. Other schools require the potential pupil to visit the school before submitting a formal application.

Note that some schools might only allow for your child to start school at the beginning of the school year, while others might accept them mid-term as well.

Higher Education

Higher education in the Netherlands is divided into two sections:

  • research-oriented learning
  • practice-oriented learning

Researched-Based Programs

Universities with research-based programs (WO) are often considered to be training the top achieving students in the country. They encourage pupils to develop their analytical thinking, consider abstract concepts, and ask questions. The teaching approach requires self-initiative as there is little supervision and results mostly depend on the student’s effort and discipline.

The teaching pace is rapid so students need to quickly process the information. Graduates of such universities do not have strict professions per se. The typical career paths are in fields like administration and policies, management, and research. Schooling for bachelor’s in such universities last three years while master’s can take 1–3 years.

Practice-Based Programs

The training at practical approach universities (HBO) is more focused. These educational institutions provide a clear occupational path for their students that often lead to white-collar jobs. The teaching speed in such universities is slower and there is much more group work and supervision.

HBO universities encourage students to apply their knowledge in practical terms in search of a solution. Here, the bachelor’s degree or equivalent is obtained after four years of studies and internships are mandatory for graduation.

Graduating either of these universities grants you a bachelor’s degree. However, there are some differences. HBO universities can be more science and technology-oriented, so the name of the degree might be Ingenieur which means engineer. Bachelor of Arts, Science, and Laws are titles granted by the academic universities (WO). If you wish to pursue a master’s or further academic degree, you will need to look into options suggested by WO universities.

(Promotion) Higher Education for Working Professionals

If you want to gain enough knowledge to reach a higher managerial level, upskill, or change career paths, there are now many opportunities available. For working professionals, one aspect is crucial — flexibility. One of the most flexible offers available are the accredited Master and MBA online degrees offered by IU International University of Applied Sciences. Learn more here.

Best Universities for International Students in the Netherlands

Most university programs in the Netherlands are taught in Dutch. However, there are quite a few English study programs all over the country as well, with around 300 options for bachelor’s degrees and over 1,300 for master’s.

According to US News’ global university rankings, the best higher education institutions in the Netherlands are:

  • University of Amsterdam
  • Utrecht University
  • Erasmus University Rotterdam

How Much Does It Cost an International Student to Study in the Netherlands?

The price for your bachelor’s studies in Dutch universities depends on where you are from. Tuition fees for EU/EEA nationals are capped at 2,083 EUR (2,300 USD) per year or less. For citizens of other countries that want to study in the Netherlands, the price jumps way higher. Depending on the course, a foreign student might pay 6,500–12,000 EUR (7,180–13,250 USD) for an academic year.

Prices for EU/EEA nationals for master’s degrees are the same as for a bachelor’s degree, but third country nationals will notice an even bigger price gap. For them, master’s degrees in the Netherlands can cost 7,700–18,750 EUR (8,520–20,750 USD) yearly.

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Language Schools

While maneuvering through everyday life in the Netherlands might be easy for English speakers, learning Dutch is still advised. Attending a language school and learning the basics helps expats to adjust to the new culture and often proves to be useful for their career.

Top Rated Local Language Schools

  • NedLes (Amsterdam)
  • Talencoach (Amsterdam)
  • BSN Language Centre (The Hague)
  • DNA Languages (The Hague)
  • iplus1 (Rotterdam)

Apart from language schools, you can choose to attend a university course or evening school or library-organized classes. Their schedule might be less flexible, yet the costs might be lower (in some cases, free of charge).

Language School Fees

The price for a language course differs from school to school. It depends on the length and intensity of the course, how big the learning group is, as well as where the school is situated. For a twelve-week beginners course expect to pay around 1,400–2,000 EUR (1,550–2,210 USD). Less intensive or shorter courses can cost around 300–500 EUR (330–550 USD).

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