Choosing a primary school
Although children from the age of three may attend school, they only come under compulsory education (leerplicht) at the age of five. Children in the Netherlands generally attend primary school (basisschool) from age 4 to age 12. Most primary schools combine groups 1 and 2. The children in this class are called kleuters (pre-schoolers) and the focus is on learning through play, social skills, structure, and gradual preparation for reading and writing. Formal reading and writing starts in group 3 (age 6). Most Dutch primary schools do not focus heavily on homework (a maximum 30 minutes per week is assigned on average). Children attend primary school for eight years. After group 8 (age 12), they move on to secondary school (or high school).
It is advisable to look for a school soon after arriving in the Netherlands. Primary schools are typically public schools or independently-run state schools, though all are funded by the government. These schools can take very different educational approaches, so it's always a good idea to read up on their curriculum, the education ethos of the school, and to try to arrange a visit. Most organise information days (voorlichtingsdagen) – details can typically be found on the schools' websites – or accept private appointments. Amsterdam has more than 200 primary schools (almost 30 of which are special education schools). Click here for more information about how to choose a school and how to apply.
You can check for primary schools (basisschool) in your area by visiting the website ‘Scholen op de Kaart’. Although it is in Dutch, simply enter your postcode on the homepage to immediately see a list of schools. These are ordered by their distance from your home, along with other details, such as religious background or particular educational approaches.
Children that are between four and 12 years old, new to the Netherlands and don’t speak Dutch join so-called newcomers' classes. These classes focus on learning Dutch and acquaint the children with Dutch culture, with the aim of them continuing in regular Dutch or bilingual education after one year.
There are several schools in Amsterdam and surroundings where some lessons are given in English and others in Dutch. These include the Visserschool, Little Universe (private education), the School of Understanding (Amsterdam and Amstelveen), the International School Hilversum and De Wilge (both Alberdingk Thijm schools in Hilversum).
Before going to primary school, children can visit a preschool. Preschools take the form of playgroups (peuterspeelzaal) or day-care centres (kinderdagverblijf), which have special educational programmes for children between two-and-a-half to four years old. The emphasis is on language and on social, physical and creative development. The children draw, sing, play outside, listen to stories, and talk about them together. Preschools always work together with a primary school, and their programme and approach is geared to the curriculum and way of working in year groups 1 and 2 at the primary school. This makes the transition to primary school easier for your child. Preschool is not compulsory.
In addition to a number of international schools, Amsterdam offers a variety of 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.
Special needs schools
Alongside special education there are also special needs schools, directed towards handicapped children or those with behavioural problems. These are grouped in so-called ‘clusters’: cluster 1 for children with a visual impairment, cluster 2 for children with a hearing and/or speaking impairment, cluster 3 for mentally and/or physically challenged children and cluster 4 for children with behavioural and/or social difficulties. Click here for more information (in Dutch only).
Central end test for group 8
In the last year of primary school, when your child is 12 years old (group 8), all students take a national aptitude test known as the Centrale Eindtoets Basisonderwijs. This is to measure what the students have learned over the previous eight years. All primary schools are obliged to participate in the test, which is held in April each year. Before it takes place, the group 8 teacher assesses what level of high school education would best fit each student. They base their recommendation on the student’s test scores for their whole school career, as well as their intelligence, attitude towards learning, interests, etc. Based on the outcome of the test and the opinion of the teacher, the students receive advice about the appropriate level of high school education to follow. The assessment of the teacher is the decisive factor.
Cost of schooling in the Netherlands
Every child in the Netherlands receives free education until the age of sixteen. The cost is borne by the government. Schools are permitted to request a contribution for a child, called a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). This is used to fund school activities, such as school trips and swimming. In the Netherlands, primary school children are given swimming lessons (schoolzwemmen). The parental contribution is voluntary and varies per school.
The minimum number of lessons that a school must offer is governed by law. Children in the Netherlands go to primary school from Monday to Friday. Primary schools must provide 940 hours of tuition per year; how it is organised is their own responsibility. For this reason school times may vary. Most lessons take place between 08:30 and 15:00.
Children are often free for lunch from 12:00 to 13:00. They may go home, but schools are obliged to provide between-school care (overblijven). Most schools are closed after 12:00 or 12:30 on Wednesday afternoons. The education inspectorate (onderwijsinspectie) ensures schools provide the required number of tuition hours.
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.
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.
Click here for more information.