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Secondary School

After group 8, the final year of primary school, pupils leave primary school (basisschool) for secondary school (middelbare scholen) for secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs).

Branches of secondary education

Secondary education in the Netherlands is divided into four branches and is designed to pave the way for vocational or tertiary (higher) education. The choice of level is dependent on the recommendation of a pupil’s teacher in their last year of primary education (‘group 8’) and their score in a national test that all group-8 pupils take, known as the Centrale Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (centralised final exam of primary education, also known as CITO test or CITO-toets).

 The results of the test and the recommendation, as well as pupils’ and parents’ own preferences, determine the type of curriculum the pupil should follow at secondary school. In this system, the school’s recommendation usually outweighs the test result unless the test result places the student in a higher curriculum type than the recommendation.

There are four branches of secondary education, with the three main levels of secondary education are known by the acronyms of VMBO, HAVO and VWO.

The four branches of secondary education are:

  • Practical education (praktijkonderwijs) for pupils who have the ability to learn a trade but for whom VMBO (see below) would be too difficult.
  • VMBO is preparatory secondary vocational education (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs). It usually takes four years. After VMBO, students may continue with MBO – vocational education – to obtain a diploma for a wide range of occupations. More than 700 vocational courses are available in the Netherlands.
  • HAVO is senior general secondary education (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) and takes five years. It prepares students to study at a university of applied sciences (Hogeschool – HBO). HBO students study for a bachelor’s degree, which usually takes four years. Students with an MBO diploma also have access to HBO education.
  • VWO is pre-university education (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs) and takes six years. Students can then continue to university (WO). VWO education is in general more analytical and research-oriented than HAVO. There are two types of schools: Atheneum and Gymnasium. Gymnasium includes Latin, Ancient Greek and Classical studies, while Atheneum does not. Both give equal access to university.

Click here for an in-depth explanation of the differences between VMBO, HAVO and VWO. 

For international students, a lack of Dutch language skills may have a negative influence on their secondary school recommendation. If this is the case, attending a Kopklas may be a good option. This is a one-year extension of primary school, intended for bright students who typically perform better than their test results suggest and are likely held back by a lack of language skills.

Choosing a secondary school

Once the branch of secondary education has been decided, it is possible to visit the schools. Some schools only offer one branch, others several. Schools organise open days (informatiedagen) where one has the opportunity to put questions to the teachers. It does happen that a school has too many applicants and must reject some of them. It is therefore important to apply in good time and consider alternatives. Please note that it is only possible to register with one school at a time. Be aware that a lottery system is used within Amsterdam and haarlem to determine who gets into the schools so applicants are required to list their top 12 choices.

Amsterdam has 75 secondary schools. For more information on primary and secondary schools in Amsterdam excluding international schools, click here. A school guide (scholengids) can be obtained from your city district or municipality.

International bridging classes

If a child is relatively new to the Netherlands and would normally follow a VMBO-t, HAVO or VWO education, but his or her command of Dutch is not quite sufficient, he or she can attend an international bridging year. This year is known as kopklas and takes place between primary and secondary school. The kopklas is located in the building of a secondary school, but administratively the child remains in primary education, meaning that pupils are enrolled in the kopklas via their primary school but follow the secondary school timetable, keeping in touch with their peers. They take an admission test to see if it is appropriate for them to take part in the bridging class. Children aged four to 12 that are new to the Netherlands can attend specially designed newcomers' classes to acquaint them with Dutch language and culture. 

Bilingual secondary education

Various secondary schools in and around Amsterdam offer bilingual education. The enrollment procedure for these schools is the same as for other schools.


Berlage Lyceum (HAVO and VWO)

Bredero Mavo (VMBO and HAVO)


Hervormd Lyceum West (HAVO and VWO)

- Ir. Lely Lyceum (HAVO and VWO)

Montessori College Oost (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

Amsterdam Area and beyond

Alberdingk Thijm College (ATC), Hilversum (VMBO-t, HAVO and VWO)

Da Vinci College, Purmerend (HAVO and VWO)

Haarlemmermeer Lyceum, Hoofddorp (HAVO and VWO)

Hermann Wesselink College, Amstelveen (VMBO-t and VWO)

Jac. P. Thijsse College, Castricum (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

Laar & Berg, Hilversum (HAVO and VWO)

Mendelcollege, Haarlem (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

OSG De Meergronden, Almere (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

Het Schoter, Haarlem (HAVO and VWO)

St. Aloysius College, Hilversum (HAVO)

Vechtstede College, Weesp (VWO)

- OSC Willem Blaeu, Alkmaar (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

Farel College, Amersfoort (MAVO, HAVO and VWO)

-  ’t Atrium, Amersfoort (MAVO, HAVO and VWO)

- Van Lodenstein College, Amersfoort (VMBO, HAVO and VWO)

Broklede, Breukelen (MAVO, HAVO and VWO)

Specialised schooling

The are many special schools providing lessons based on a particular pedagogical vision or religious conviction. Examples of the former are the Montessori or Steiner educational systems. There are also schools based on Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Islamic principles. Alongside special education there are also special needs schools, directed towards handicapped children or those with behavioural problems.

Costs of secondary schooling

Secondary schools do ask for a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). This contribution is voluntary. The cost of education is borne by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap), but there are costs for other activities, such as school trips. The level of the contribution varies per school. The contribution amounts are listed in the guide to selecting secondary schools (keuzegids middelbare scholen) (online PDF viewer; in Dutch).

As well as the parental contribution, there are the costs of text books, exercise books, other materials and excursions. These must be paid for by the parents.

School hours

The minimum number of lessons is stipulated by law: 1040 hours a year for the initial four years or initial three years in HAVO or VWO. In the final years of VMBO, HAVO and VWO the pupil must receive at least 1000 hours of tuition. This applies to every year of vocational education. In the final exam year, the number of lessons is lowered to 700. Most schools begin at 08:30, Monday to Friday. The lesson timetable determines when the day finishes. 

Compulsory attendance

Please note that school attendance is compulsory for children aged 5-16. If a child is often absent from school, the school will notify the municipality. As a parent you are responsible for compliance with the rules of compulsory education, and if parents consciously allow their children to miss school, they can be prosecuted. Parents and young people over the age of twelve can be fined, receive a study order (leerstraf), or, in extreme circumstances, be jailed. In the case of ‘luxury absence’ (luxeverzuim) (extra holiday during school time without permission) there is a very good chance of an official report being made. If your child has a reason to be absent, you must notify the school.

Truant officers

The municipality (gemeente) employs school attendance officers (leerplichtambtenaren) to check whether children are going to school. Should a student play truant for more than three consecutive days, the school is required to notify the school attendance officer. They will investigate the reason behind the absence and may take action. They can draw up an official report.


Only in exceptional situations can a child be temporarily exempted from compulsory education, e.g. if your profession makes it impossible for you to be free during the school holidays. Your employer must provide proof of this. The period of leave may not take place during the first two weeks of the school year.

Under other special circumstances, a child may also obtain leave-of-absence from their compulsory education. This is for a maximum of ten days. In cases of longer leave, the school attendance officer will decide, in consultation with the school's head teacher. Applications must be submitted to the school's management for exemptions from compulsory education.

Obtaining a diploma

If a child reaches the age of 16 and has not obtained a diploma, they must train for a qualification (kwalificatieplicht). This means they must stay at school until their 18th birthday or until they have obtained a diploma.

More information

For more information about the school system in the Netherlands, visit the website of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap, OCW). If you live in Amsterdam, find out more about choosing a secondary school on the City of Amsterdam's English-language website.