Going local: Dutch public schools for expat families
There are long waiting lists for international schools in Amsterdam. But for expat families, local Dutch schools are an option, too.
A family story: finding a Dutch school
“Our family moved to Amsterdam from Dubai, where we had lived for 10 years,” says expat family Hewitt. “One of the decisions we faced concerned education for our two boys. As Dubai does not offer a public school system for expatriates, our children attended private school. Tuition was high and accompanied by many fees. Our children loved the school and, aside from the cost, we were also pleased.
“We researched schools in the Netherlands by focusing on international private schools similar to what we knew. We applied to an American curriculum school and an international school in Amsterdam, which offered similar experiences to the private school in Dubai – beautiful facilities, large campuses, extracurricular activities – and the price tag to match.”
International schools in the Netherlands
International schools, which offer globally recognised curriculums such as IB, are recommended if you plan to move frequently. A unique feature in the Dutch school system, which all follow the same curriculum, is the choice in education. Among the state-funded schools are religious schools and schools following certain philosophic or pedagogic principles.
Children ages four to 12 attend Dutch primary schools, often no further than 1km from their homes. After age 12, children attend secondary school, which has different levels (VMBO, HAVO, VWO, Gymnasium). If you plan to stay longer in the Netherlands, choosing a local Dutch public school is a great option.
Choosing the right local Dutch school
“The international schools seemed too similar to what we had experienced in Dubai,” the family Hewitt says. “We did not want to be ‘outsiders’ in the Netherlands. Instead, we wanted a different experience: cycling five minutes to school, language immersion, long-term friendships, school and clubs. Despite the fact there would be Dutch classes, the administration made it clear that the level of Dutch would not be sufficient to support a transition to a Dutch school. Our family in Hungary had simple advice: if you don’t go to public school, you will always be an outsider.
“Nonetheless, the prospect of navigating the public school system was daunting and often discouraging. Ahead of a trip to Amsterdam, I wrote several public schools asking if I could schedule a visit. They all answered, ‘As we foresee no free spots, we see no point in meeting.’
“Luckily, I was introduced to the Young Expat School (YES). On our first call, we were informed it was possible to find a public school, that the schools were excellent, and that the Dutch system had a special programme of language integration. We visited a couple schools in Amsterdam and Haarlem accompanied by YES.”
From the age of six (in some cities from the age of four), children in primary or secondary schools follow a Dutch immersion programme (language class or Nieuwkomers class) for a year before starting a regular Dutch school. Secondary immersion classes take about 1.5 – 2 years; the child sometimes starts secondary school in a lower age group.
Overcome challenges and celebrate success
“We have been with the school of our choice for a few months, and our experience has been excellent. For example, our younger boy started in what turned out to be the wrong group. The teachers and administration took a pragmatic and deliberative approach in observing our son, assessing his level and needs, and recommending a change of group. The instructors running the Nieuwkomers class (newcomers class) have vast experience helping foreign children integrate, and they respond immediately to our queries and concerns.
“Yes, there have been some integration challenges. Learning a new language is not easy, but it will come for our kids. In addition, making friends is probably taking a bit longer than it would have at an international school simply because of the communication barrier.”
If your child speaks English, an international school may give you a more secure feeling – making friends in an international school with native English speakers is easier, so the adjustment period is shorter. Nevertheless, it has been proven that learning another language has many positive effects on the brain.
“In the end, with the help of YES, we found the ideal solution that allows us to cycle to school, save on fees, integrate into the community and allow our kids to acquire a language.”
Dutch school fees and funding
Most Dutch schools are funded and monitored by the government. Except for some private schools, most Dutch primary and secondary schools are free. The parents pay a small contribution, which the schools use for extra things. Some international schools are partly funded by the government, and others are private. For a subsidised international school, the annual fee is between €3,600–€8,000, while private schools have fees between €12,000–€26,000.