Center on International Education Benchmarking

Netherlands Overview

The Dutch education system is unique in Europe and across the globe.  With long-standing commitments to religious and other freedoms, the Dutch have an education system of publically funded choice.  The Dutch allow any public, private or religious organization or individual to establish and administer a school.  About two-thirds of Dutch primary-age children attend “independent” schools, run by private or religious organizations.   All schools, independent or public, are granted public funding at an equal level, as long as they operate according to guidelines set by the Ministry of Education and agree to be monitored by its Inspectorate.  All students, whether in public or independent schools, must also take required subjects and achieve attainment targets in those subjects on national examinations.  Schools, though, maintain a great deal of autonomy, and are able to choose their own curriculum, making hiring and promotion decisions and allocate resources at the school level.

The Netherlands, which has historically considered education to be a “right” for all citizens, was also the first country in the world to offer free education to 4-year-olds, and in 1985 integrated pre-primary school into its primary schools.  The Dutch also have one of the most robust vocational education systems in the world, with over half of all secondary students enrolled in this pathway. Labor market outcomes for Dutch young people are among the best of the OECD.  A vocational pathway is introduced early in the Netherlands, right after primary school, but students have multiple opportunities to move to the academic secondary school or to higher education. Students apply to either academic or vocational secondary schools based on teacher recommendations and the results of a national primary school exam. Still, students do have the right to apply to any school they want to and schools can accept who they want.

The Netherlands has consistently scored well above the OECD average on PISA since 2000, with a high point in 2006 when they were among the top few performers in mathematics.  Since then, their scores have declined slightly across all three subjects although they remain in the top tier of performance among OECD countries, and one of the highest scoring countries within Europe.  The Netherlands ranks at about the OECD average on most measures of equity for PISA performance. The one measure they have been persistently below the OECD average is the variation in PISA performance between schools.  They had the most between school variation of any OECD jurisdiction in the 2015 administration of PISA, indicating that the schools students attend has a strong affect on the students’ learning outcomes.

In recent years, the Dutch have tried to address the equity issues head one. The Netherlands is one of the first countries in the world to use weighted student funding for its schools.  Currently, primary school students with parents who have low education levels receive additional funding.  Students with two parents (or a lone parent) with very low education levels received more than double the base student funding level addressing the equity.  The Netherlands reformed the funding of post-secondary and higher education in 2014, moving from a system of full support for all students in higher education to a mixed system of grants, low-interest loans and tuition, all income-tested.  Their idea was to shift the focus of public funds to those who need it the most.  Another area of focus in recent years has been raising the quality of the teaching force, particularly in primary and vocational schools where qualifications requirements have not been as rigorous as those in secondary schools.

For more about the structure of New Zealand’s education system and the recent policy initiatives that have enabled it to attain such high performance, please look forward to CIEB’s forthcoming profile, coming soon.



Ethnic Makeup

Dutch 78.6%, EU 5.8%, Turkish 2.4%, Indonesian 2.2%, Moroccan 2.2%, Surinamese 2.1%, other 6.7%


$869.4 billion; $51,000 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 70.4%, Industry: 17.8%, Agriculture: 1.6%


Unemployment: 6%; Youth Unemployment: 8.8%

Educational Attainment

Secondary School Completion: 95%

Sign up to receive updates from NCEE

* indicates required
Check here if you would like to receive information about NCEE Events in DC