Kelly Atkinson lays out the basics of the leerplicht law to give you an overview of the hows and whys.
Many parents from outside the Netherlands are surprised to learn that schools rarely grant permission for children to miss school during the school year, regardless of the reason. This is because schools are considered responsible for monitoring and controlling absences from school, and they are legally required to inform the ‘eerplichtambtenaar (similar to a truant officer) when a child misses more than three consecutive days of school.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding this law, known as the leerplicht amongst expat parents. This isn’t helped by the fact that, as with so many things in this country, if you ask two different people you usually get two different answers. It seems that everyone has heard of someone who was able to get two weeks off to take their children to Disneyland, yet your teacher is shaking her head ‘no’ at the idea of one extra day of vacation.
What is this leerplicht all about, anyway?
By law, children from age 5 to age 16 must attend school when it is in session (unless, of course, they are unwell). The plicht (obligation) begins on the first day of the month following a child’s fifth birthday, and remains in force until the end of the school year in which the child turns 16.
Most children begin basisschool when they turn 4, and so for the first year they are not legally obliged to attend school. However, most schools have rules about attendance (these vary per school) which must of course be followed – though if your child hasn’t turned 5 yet, there’s a good chance that your request for an extended absence will be granted.
So why do we have this law? Surely I’m the best judge of what’s best for my child?
While most developed countries have laws about school attendance, the Netherlands is particularly strict. One reason for this is that, in many places in the Randstad, there are large numbers of children who simply can’t speak enough Dutch to do sufficiently well at school. Their parents don’t speak Dutch, so the children are not exposed to the language at home. If they don’t attend school regularly, they quickly fall behind in all subjects; it’s impossible to follow a Maths or Geography class if you can’t understand what’s being said.
Many of these children have extended family in their parents’ home countries and missing more than a few days of school for a visit might well lead to them to fall hopelessly behind. Dutch culture tends towards the ‘regels zijn regels’ (rules are rules) approach rather than looking at things on a case-by-case basis; hence one rule for everyone, regardless of their personal situation.
Aren’t there any exceptions? My child speaks good Dutch, so what if we want to go back to our home country for a while?
Yes, there are exceptions. Certainly for events like weddings, funerals and moving house, children will be granted days off school without any problem. However, holidays are a separate issue.
Many expat families would like to take their children out of school during term time in order to visit relatives overseas, but such permission is rarely granted (see ‘regels zijn regels’). The rumour goes that the leerplichtambtenaars (truant officers) look out for children who miss a day or two of school at the beginning or end of term, in case their parents are leaving for holidays early to miss the traffic!
While the law is an annoyance to many parents whose children are doing well at school and could easily miss a day or two without problems, there is a good reason behind it. And it certainly never hurts to ask permission, even if you don’t think it will be granted. Schools will usually do their best to work with you. Understanding that they don’t have a lot of leeway, thanks to their legal obligation to report all extended absences, can help to ease the frustration … at least a little bit.