The standard of schools and education in the Netherlands is high. While finding the right school is a big decision for expat families, there are plenty of good education options in the Netherlands, so expats are sure to find something that suits them. Most schools in the Netherlands are government-run, though there are a few independent international schools.
It's important to keep in mind that older children usually find it easier to adjust when they study with peers who speak their home language. Almost all public schools teach in Dutch. However, bilingual public school programs are being piloted in select schools across the Netherlands, most of which are in or around Amsterdam. In addition, there are a handful of public schools that offer non-Dutch curricula such as the International Baccalaureate and the International Primary Curriculum. Both these options are good middle-ground choices.
However, should these schools be inaccessible or not fit families' needs, the numerous independently run international schools throughout the Netherlands are well worth considering. These schools offer foreign curricula with teaching either in English or in other languages such as French and German.
Public schools in the Netherlands
Public schools are government-funded, and all children, including expats, can attend them free of charge. However, most schools will ask for what is known as a 'parental contribution' (ouderbijdrage). This covers activities such as excursions and extra-curricular activities. At the age of 16, school fees apply but as these are subsidised by the government, the cost of public school remains far lower than that of international schools.
Some public schools offer specialised programmes to help non-Dutch-speaking students learn the language and culture of the Netherlands. Between the ages of 6 of 12, these are known as newcomers' classes (nieuwkomersklas) or reception classes (opvangklas). Students from 12 to 18 can join an international bridging class (internationale schakelklas). Students remain in this programme for a year before integrating with mainstream classes.
Teaching standards in Dutch public schools are generally high and schools are efficiently run, albeit with a more laid-back feel than some expats may be used to.
Attendance of primary school (basisschool) is discretionary for the first year and becomes compulsory on a child’s fifth birthday.
While there aren't strict catchment areas in the Netherlands, children in a particular neighbourhood are usually given priority spaces at the closest schools. Applying outside one's priority area is possible, but there is a lower chance of being accepted. Therefore, many parents choose to find accommodation in an area close to their preferred school.
Most students live within cycling distance to school and generally go home for lunch. Supervised lunchtime programmes (overblijven) are available for children with working parents, but a small fee is charged and pupils provide their own lunches.
The benefit of local public schools is that expat children learn Dutch quickly, which makes it easier to adapt to their new surroundings and make friends with local children.
After completing primary school, students have three options for public secondary schools in the Netherlands. Primary schools usually make recommendations to ensure students are matched with the avenue that best suits them.
The three options are known as VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs), HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) and VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs).
They all begin with a generic curriculum for the first few years before going on to specialise in different areas. VMBO offers a practical and vocational programme, and the HAVO and VWO streams are more academically focused, often preparing students for university.
International schools in the Netherlands
International schools in the Netherlands are often the best option for older children or those who won’t be staying long. International school curricula vary depending on the institution and their educational philosophy.
Some schools are based on a particular nationality and teach that country's curriculum in the country's main language. This could be advantageous for children who will return to their home country when they leave the Netherlands. There are also international and local private schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, which is a worthy alternative to any national curriculum and makes for an easy transfer to other IB schools around the world.
Fees are expensive if they aren’t subsidised by an employer. Expats lured abroad by a lucrative package should try to negotiate an education allowance in their contract.
Places at international schools can also be scarce. It’s important to apply early, and if placed on a waiting list, some parents send their children to a local public or private school at first while waiting for space to open up.
Enrolment requirements vary between schools and can be seen on their individual websites.