One of the main challenges for families new to Amsterdam is figuring out the school system. Annebet van Mameren, from relocation specialists New2nl, explains the basics.
In the Netherlands, school is compulsory for children from the age of 5 until 16, or until they have a diploma. The philosophy behind the Dutch education system is to encourage pupils to live and learn in an open-minded, independent, and creative manner.
Generally, schools in the Netherlands offer high-quality education. For example, the renowned global Pisa/OECD survey among 15-year-olds shows high rankings for Dutch pupils, especially in mathematics, and all 13 state-funded Dutch universities score well in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
All Dutch schools are obliged to adhere to core objectives set by the government. These specify what pupils in all schools need to accomplish each year. Individual schools may fill in specific details. For example, some schools have chosen to dedicate some extra attention to arts (the ‘art magnet’ (kunstmagneet) schools), science and technology, or foreign languages.
In the Netherlands, there are both regular (openbare) and special (bijzondere) schools. The regular schools are funded and run by the government, whereas special schools have their own board, usually consisting of parents or the foundation that set them up. The special schools get the same funding from the government as the regular schools.
Special schools should not be confused with special-needs schools that teach pupils with (severe) learning problems. Most special schools are religious (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Jewish), or follow specific pedagogic principles (e.g. Montessori, Waldorf/Steiner, Dalton, Jenaplan). Usually, the religious schools are fairly moderate in terms of religion and are open to children who have a different religion or are not religious.
Some schools follow new educational trends. You’ll find, for example, iPad schools and those with a bilingual curriculum (usually Dutch and English). The bilingual schools in Amsterdam are De Visserschool, DENISE, School of Understanding, Kindercampus Zuidas, and Little Universe School. These schools vary in the amount of time they teach in English, and they usually require a child aged 6 or older to have a decent level of Dutch before they can join classes with their Dutch-speaking peers (see below).
International Families in Dutch Schools
4 and 5-year-olds who don’t speak Dutch can usually start a regular primary school straight away. They normally pick up the language quickly and are (almost) fluent before the ‘real learning' starts at age 6. In Dutch schools, children usually start the first day after their fourth birthday, and most schools combine ages 4-6 in one class called the kleuterklas. In the kleuterklas, the focus is on learning through play, Dutch language acquisition, social and motor skills, and gradual preparation for reading and writing.
Children aged 6 and older are usually required to follow a Dutch immersion programme first. This takes about a year, after which they can continue their education with children of the same age at a regular school.
As the schools’ approach and experience with non-Dutch families vary greatly, it is always a good idea to ask specific questions about this before you choose a school.
Most Dutch primary schools don’t give homework until the higher classes, or give no homework at all. This means that, as a non-Dutch speaking parent, you won’t need to worry much about not being able to help your child with his or her homework.
It is usual that two parents volunteer to be a 'class parent' (klassenouder). They meet with the teacher regularly and keep the other parents updated (usually by email) about what is going on in the class and what is expected from the parents. If you don’t speak Dutch, you could ask the class parents to regularly explain to you what is happening, to avoid missing anything.
The Application Procedure
The application procedure for Dutch schools differs by city, and sometimes even by school. Schoolwijzer is your starting point for the Dutch schools in Amsterdam.
In general, you have priority for the eight schools closest to your house which take part in the central application system. On the application form that the Municipality sends to your home address, you rank at least 5 schools in order of preference, and then a lottery decides which school your child will be placed in. You may also apply to a school where you don't have priority, but there your chances will be much smaller. On average, the application deadline is when your child is 3 years 2 months old, although the actual cut-off point can differ from this by a few months.
There are some schools, called eenpitter schools, which have pulled out of the central application system. Most of these are located in the South (Zuid) part of Amsterdam. They have their own lottery, application form, and deadline. You can apply to these schools in addition to the central schools. Read more about Amsterdam's school application policy.
I hope that your children have a happy and successful time in their chosen school(s) in the Netherlands!
Useful Education-Related Websites
Special needs education in the Netherlands (in Dutch)
Private (fee-paying) schools in the Netherlands (all levels)
Information for International Families
Dutch immersion classes (for non-Dutch speaking children aged 6+)
Article: Going Dutch with your children?
Annebet van Mameren is Dutch, and married to an American. They are based in Amsterdam, and have two sons who they are raising bilingually; and who go to Dutch primary and preschool. Annebet has a research background in Intercultural Conflicts at Work, along with many years of experience in the corporate world. She has spent time living abroad, and has a thorough understanding of the issues faced by international families when selecting a school for their children in the Netherlands.
New2nl is a network run by Annebet van Mameren, bringing together experts in schooling, housing, and taxes, to provide services for international families in the Netherlands.