Center on International Education Benchmarking

The Netherlands was among CIEB’s Top Performing Countries for 2009. This profile has been archived and is no longer being updated.

The Dutch have a rather distinctive character.  One aspect of it has been characterized as the “polder model,” named after the areas of lowland reclaimed from the sea.  The Dutch discovered early that these great technological achievements could only come as the result of working closely together, producing a “we are all in the same boat” collectivist mentality, leading to a consensual political style and an instinctive need to deal fairly with one another.  Another is the deeply religious origins of the country, which have always included a commitment by each of the major religious groups to taking care of the most vulnerable in their midst.  And the last is a belief in working democracy, letting individuals and families decide for themselves matters that in other countries are dealt with by government.

All these aspects of Dutch character come together in the design of their rather unusual education system.  There are very few privately funded schools in the Netherlands.  But the Constitution of 1848 provides that any small group of parents can require the state to establish a school for their children at state expense. Many of these schools are affiliated with religions, though a substantial number are not.  In practice, most schools are managed by a school board responsible for several schools, to which the money supplied by the state is given.  In the case of the religious schools, these management entities are affiliated with the religious group.  In the case of the non-religious primary schools, the management organizations are often affiliated with organizations committed to a particular pedagogical approach, such as Montessori or Waldorf schools.

In 1985, the Dutch integrated their pre-school system with their primary schools, so that both functions are now carried on in the public schools.  Though education is compulsory for students from the ages of 5 to 16, 99% of four-year-olds attend school in the Netherlands.  There are no defined school catchment areas in the Netherlands, so parents may enroll their children in any primary school they wish.  Though schools affiliated with religions can refuse students who do not subscribe to their beliefs, in practice, they typically accept students from many religions and no religion, though, if the schools are oversubscribed, they typically take children from the neighborhood first, and the siblings of students already at the school and the best schools have big waiting lists.

The secondary school system in the Netherlands is organized very differently than the primary sector.  Whereas primary school students can go to any school they like, students can only go to secondary schools that will accept them, and the secondary schools can establish their own entrance requirements.  In general, the decision as to where students will apply is made on the recommendation of the primary school teachers and is based partly on the student’s performance on the primary school leaving exams developed by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (Cito).  These exams are not mandated by the state, but they are produced under the auspices of the state and are taken by the vast majority of the students (92%) because most secondary schools require them.  The structure of the secondary system is defined by the state. There are three main streams in the secondary education system, and, within these streams, there are further divisions.  Roughly speaking, the three streams are the academic or university prep track, the general track, and the vocational track.  There are separate schools within the second and third of these streams, typically corresponding to the occupations that students wish to enter and the mix of theoretical and practical studies they want to pursue.  Each of these streams also culminates in examinations which result in qualifications to go on to further education or to begin a career, for those who succeed.

Though schools have considerable freedom to decide how to teach, the state does define what they must teach, in the form of attainment targets for the schools in each of the subject matter areas.  The Dutch Inspectorate is charged with inspecting schools on a regular schedule to make sure that the schools’ funds are being spent appropriately, the curriculum is in place and the attainment targets are being met. In the Dutch system, the schools are responsible for hiring teachers, but teachers’ compensation and working conditions are set by national negotiations between the government and the teachers union.  The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is responsible for setting the standards for entrance into the teacher education institutions, for the curriculum of those institutions and for teacher licensure, thereby giving it substantial control over the quality of teachers in the Netherlands.

For a long time, the right of parents to choose freely among schools operated by non-governmental agencies did not result in substantial segregation of Dutch schools by social class or ethnicity.  Each of the major sponsors of schools took in members of their own belief group from many social classes and the vast majority of students came from a Dutch background.  But, in the 70s and 80s, that changed.  As the Dutch economy boomed, large numbers of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds came to the Netherlands from the former Dutch colonies and many others were recruited as guest workers from Turkey and Morocco, and they stayed.

Many Dutch parents, apparently deciding that their children would be more likely to get a better education in schools populated by children from better educated families, chose schools that answered to that description, leaving behind what have come to be called “Black schools,” populated by students who, though they have the right to move to other primary schools, often cannot do so or do not wish to do so.  Similarly, teachers getting offers from multiple schools have often chosen to teach in the more affluent schools, making it difficult for the “Black schools” to find qualified teachers.  The strong commitment of the Dutch to choice has made it very difficult for them to deal with this issue.

One of the paradoxes of the Dutch system is the contrast between the secularization of the society as a whole (like much of Northern Europe, rates of churchgoing in the Netherlands is very low) and the persistence of a system in which religious organizations operate a large share of the public schools.  Dutch researchers speculate that some parents use the availability of religious schools to avoid having to send their children to schools with significant populations of immigrant children, or because the better teachers decide to accept offers from schools serving the children of better-educated parents because they are easier to teach and to take advantage of the smaller class sizes and less bureaucratic environment they find there.

We come now to the question as to why the Dutch have placed in the top ranks of the world’s education league tables since the data on which those tables have been constructed was first collected.  We take the answer to that question to rest on the following:  the very high level of support for young children in the Netherlands; the willingness of the Dutch to provide substantially more financial support to schools serving poor and minority children than to others; the high standards set by the government for student attainment and the effectiveness of the Dutch accountability system with respect to those standards; the almost legendary effectiveness of the Dutch approach to mathematics teaching; a system of pathways through secondary education that does an unusually good job of matching student learning styles and personal preferences to available education program options and motivates students to work hard in school by assuring them that there will be jobs for them if they do so; and, finally, the Dutch system for assuring teacher quality.  We describe each of these in more detail below.

A comprehensive, integrated and effective system for the development of young children

Any examination of the sources of the Netherland’s success in primary and secondary education must begin with the way it treats its young children.  A 2009 UNICEF survey of the well-being of children in the world’s richest countries found that the Netherlands outperformed all other countries surveyed. The Netherlands provides a very high level of services and financial support to families with children.  That begins with a substantial cash payment to such families.  The free health insurance system includes free prenatal care, free birthing services, five hours per day of home assistance to the new mother in the home, followed by substantial assistance for the mother after that, including the provision of help with the mother’s laundry and instruction on the care of a newborn. When all that ends, the state pays for 70% of the cost of a high quality, state-regulated but privately-provided child care system.

On top of all this, which is available to all families with young children, the state provides substantial additional help to poor and minority families.  As the reader will see in a moment, this generous system of support for young children is seamlessly integrated with the Dutch system of early childhood education.  The result is that young Dutch children enter school as well prepared to succeed there as any children in the world.

A primary school system that is fully integrated with their day care and pre-school system and has a very strong curriculum, especially in the area of mathematics

For a long time, the Dutch system of early childhood education was quite separate from their system of schooling. But they then decided to bring the provision of early childhood education into the primary schools under the same management.  Although compulsory education does not begin until the age of five, 98% of Dutch four-year-olds are enrolled in school.  There is no middle school in the Netherlands.  So children are under one roof from the age of four until the age of 12, when they begin secondary school.  These schools are small and children, teachers and parents get to know each other well.

One would think that the strong tradition in the Netherlands of having schools managed by different religious groups and other groups committed to particular educational philosophies would produce schools with very different curricula.  But that is not the case.  The observer is struck, instead, by the degree to which the curriculum followed in schools managed by different groups look much the same, from school to school.  Even in the area of religion, where one would expect to see the greatest difference in content, there is little.  Generally, the schools with religious affiliations teach courses that cover many religions and introduce students to the values and concepts of those religions from a comparative perspective.  This is perhaps because the Netherlands has become a highly secular country and the various religious groups, in order to attract students to their schools, have had to produce a curriculum that will attract students from other religions or no religion to their schools.

But one might similarly expect a wide divergence of approach in more ostensibly neutral subjects, like mathematics.  Not so.  In fact, one of the great strengths of Dutch education is a very broad and deep, though not universal, adherence to the principals of mathematics teaching laid down by Hans Freudenthal, a former Dutch professor of mathematics, in the 1970s.  Freudenthal’s ideas have greatly influenced the teaching of mathematics not just in the Netherlands, but around the world.

In brief, Freudenthal believed that mathematics teaching should be heavily applied in nature.  Rather than being focused on theory and divorced from real life, it should be based in real life and students should derive mathematical principles and procedures from real life rather than learn the principles first and then apply them.  In this, there is a certain similarity to the way mathematics is taught in Japan and certain other Asian nations, where the teacher is responsible for creating lessons that illustrate a principle in which students can get highly engaged, before the principle itself is introduced.

Freudenthal’s emphasis on having the student draw the principles of math from real life and on applying what he or she is learning to real life have carried over into other aspects of the Dutch curriculum, which is generally very well thought of among observers around the world. In many other countries with a strong curriculum, one can see that the Ministry is clearly in charge and the source of the curriculum.  But in the Netherlands, consistent with the Polder mentality, the broad agreement on curriculum appears to be a result of the Dutch consensus-building process.  Because that is so, once a consensus is reached, it becomes very easy to implement, because it arose organically, as it were, from within the system, rather than being imposed on it.

This well-thought-through curriculum culminates in a set of examinations at the end of primary school which are not mandated by the Ministry, but are nonetheless given to more than 90% of the students because the results on those tests are demanded by the secondary schools to assist them in deciding who they will admit.  These are, for those students, high stakes tests, designed by an agency affiliated with the government, and they therefore provide a strong motivation for students to do well in their courses and for the staff to help them do so, because they constitute a common measure of school effectiveness.  This, of course, is a key part of the accountability story, to be told below, but it also has a powerful effect on the curriculum and on the style of teaching.  This is no doubt another reason that schools sponsored by very different private organizations end up looking very much alike to visitors.

The good start that all students have as they begin primary school combines with the strong continuity that this whole primary school system provides students and the equally strong and well-thought-out curriculum to which students are exposed to produce students who leave primary school very well equipped for what comes next.

It should be noted that students are asked to repeat grades more often in the Netherlands than in other OECD countries.  There does not seem to be the same degree of opposition to this practice that is found in other countries.  This may be because of the way common, externally scored tests are used to determine which secondary schools students will go to.  Repeating a grade becomes an opportunity to get a higher score and to widen one’s choices in secondary education.  This may be yet another sign of the power of the Dutch primary school system to produce student effort and to enlist all the actors in helping students do as well as possible in primary school.

A secondary system that is highly applied, ties theoretical studies to applied work, motivates students and is closely connected to the economy

Many of the advanced industrial countries have been busy reducing the streaming they do in secondary education.  At first glance, that would not appear to be true of the Dutch.  But the evolving structure of their system, though different from others, may in fact be tending in exactly the same direction, by creating a highly flexible system of pathways for young people.

Parents and students are strongly counseled by their primary school faculties when considering which secondary schools to apply to.  Those schools can determine whom they will admit. The broad structure of those schools is set by the government.  There are three broad classifications of secondary school: academic, general and vocational.  Within those divisions, there are further divisions.  On the vocational side, one important source of those further divisions is the degree to which theoretical work or practical or applied work dominates the program.  The whole system is modularized and largely performance-based.  So students can carve their own path through the system.  Researchers looking at the choices actually made by a cohort of secondary school students between 2003-2007 counted more than 2,000 different routes taken through the system of secondary education. It is easier and easier now for students to start out on one path and change to another later.  And, because the first year of lower secondary school is a “bridge” year where the students and their teachers look closely at the pathway that the student has chosen in relation to the student’s performance that year, students often change direction after that time.  Sometimes this entails a change in vocational choices.  In others it will give a student who started out looking for a vocational qualification an opportunity to take some more courses and qualify to go to university.  In others, it will mean the converse, an opportunity for a student in the university-prep option to complete the qualification and then to go for a vocational qualification before going on to university.  In much of the system, the student can go on to the next stage as soon as he or she has earned the qualification by taking the necessary examinations.  It is in this sense that the system is performance-based, a move-on-when-ready system.  Because the system is modular, students can shift fields without having to start all over again.  Credit is given for modules already taken that apply to the new qualification.

This system makes for a very smooth transition from schooling to work.  It is designed so that students know just what they have to do to qualify for the career of their choice or for the next step in their education.  But there are no dead ends in the system for the students, and there is always an opportunity to change one’s mind and head in another direction.

About half of Dutch students elect to go in the direction of vocational education, one of the highest proportions in the OECD.  And more than 90% of Dutch secondary students complete secondary school and leave with a qualification, one of the highest completion rates in the OECD, making the Dutch system one of the most efficient in the world.

From the standpoint of system design, the Dutch have managed to create systems at both the primary and secondary level that engage and motivate students, and provide seamless connections to what went before (day care and preschool education) and what goes after (further education and work), all to a very high standard.

More resources for those who need them to achieve high standards

We have already noted that the Dutch provide a generous supplement to their youth support program for the children of poor and minority families.  Once those children get to school, that support continues, but in another form.  Their school finance system is very simple.  All Dutch children get a certain amount of money that is given to the school of their choice to provide them their educational services.  That amount is the same for all Dutch children, with two exceptions.  The first exception is for students whose parents have very low education levels.  This includes a small proportion of children from families with a Dutch heritage and a large proportion of students from immigrant families.   The amount given to the schools chosen by these students is more than twice the amount given for students who are not so designated.  Furthermore students who come to school with physical or neurological handicaps also get an additional amount of money, which they can take either to regular schools to supplement their regular allotment, or to special schools for the handicapped.  This system of school finance, generally called a pupil weighted financing system, obviously provides substantially more money behind students who need more resources to get to high standards than to those who need less to get to the same standards.  Once the students choose their schools and the money is distributed by the state based on the characteristics of those students, the school is free to spend that money as it wishes and is not obligated to spend any particular sum on the students who brought additional money into the school.


Netherlands13 Data

Source: CIA World Factbook (September 2013)
and <em>OECD Education at a Glance 2013</em>

PISA 2009 Mean Scores by Country

Source: OECD


The Netherlands’ Education System at a Glance

A public choice system set to common high standards, matched by an effective accountability system

The Dutch realize that there is a tension between their strong commitment to parents’ right to choose the education for their child, on the one hand, and their commitment to certain substantive national objectives on the other.  So it is not the case that whatever the parents are satisfied with is sufficient, in the eyes of the state.  To the contrary, the state has adopted a clear set of national goals for its schools and has instituted a strong accountability system to make sure those goals are achieved.

The Ministry is responsible for establishing a national curriculum and for setting attainment targets for the students with respect to that curriculum.  How the schools go about implementing the curriculum and helping students achieve the targets is up to the school.  But implementing the curriculum and achieving the targets is not.  To make sure that the governors and staff of the school are behaving responsibly, the Dutch have created an Inspectorate whose job is to visit the schools on a regular schedule and to report to the Ministry and the public as to whether the schools are implementing the curriculum, are meeting the targets and are spending the funds according to the rules.  Neither the Inspectorate nor the Ministry can close a school, but they can shut off the flow of state funds to the school, and that threat by itself is sufficient to make the schools very attentive to the reports of the Inspectorate.

A system for recruiting, training, employing and compensating teachers that has, at least until recently, served to make teaching competitive with the other professions

Many observers would agree that the quality of a nation’s teaching force is a very important determinant of the level of achievement of its students.

In many countries, responsibility for teacher quality is dispersed, but that is not the case in the Netherlands.  The national government is responsible for specifying which institutions will be responsible for preparing the teachers going to each kind of school in the system, establishing the criteria for hiring teachers, setting the criteria for admitting candidates to the schools of education, setting the curriculum for the teacher education institutions and bargaining wages and working conditions with the national teachers’ union. Individual schools are responsible for hiring teachers, but the teachers they hire must be paid at the rates on the schedule negotiated nationally.

Teachers are trained either in one of the small number of research universities or in one of the much larger number of tertiary institutions known as Hoger Beroeps Onderwijs, most commonly referred to as hogescholen or simply HBOs.  Which of these institutions they must attend and what program they take when they get there depends on which type of primary or secondary school they will be teaching in.

For example, candidates for teaching positions in the academic upper secondary schools must attend the rather prestigious national research universities, get a bachelors degree there in the subject they will teach and follow that with a masters degree in teaching.  A substantial number of teachers in these schools have doctorate degrees as well.  All of these teachers will have come up through the upper secondary academic program themselves, which means that they are among the top quarter of all school graduates.

Someone who wants to teach in an upper or lower secondary general school must have attended one of the tertiary institutions known as HBOs.  These higher education institutions are designed to prepare people for most of the professions in the Netherlands.  They will have come up through the general upper secondary path in high school.  The amount of time they will spend in tertiary education will depend on how much actual experience they have had in the arena in which they will be teaching, but it will in any case vary between two and four years.  Primary school teachers follow the same path.

High school students in the vocational stream can become teachers either by attending a non-education HBO program in the vocational field in which they will be teaching, followed by a one-year program of instruction in teaching, or by going to a full HBO education program.

Teachers are paid well in the Netherlands.  Mid-career lower secondary teachers, for example, are paid $60,174, substantially more than the OECD average of  $41,701. Over the years, beginning teachers’ compensation has generally kept pace with beginning engineers’ compensation, but, whereas engineers’ compensation increases steadily over time, teachers’ compensation levels out quickly and then plateaus.  In recent years, the Netherlands has developed a severe shortage of teachers.  This appears to be the result of a combination of factors, some of them demographic, some economic, some having to do with a decline in the perceived status of teachers and some having to do with what the teachers perceive as government intruding in recent years on their professional prerogatives.

That problem with have to be solved, but, for the moment, the quality of teachers in the Netherlands continues to be high.  The Educational Testing Service conducted an international survey following one of the administrations of TIMSS to gauge the quality of mathematics teaching in the survey countries.  The Netherlands came out in the top tier of their survey, with a finding that 90% of the students surveyed at the 8th grade level had mathematics teachers who had majored in mathematics in college.

Despite their high international rank, the Dutch government is committed to further improvement and innovation often by drawing on some of the features of the education systems even closer to the top of the international rankings.  In 2006, the Netherlands’ coalition government decided to embark on a series of reforms in conjunction with the European Union’s education goals for 2010. These included more autonomy for schools, a move towards smaller schools (or schools within schools, where this was not possible), free textbooks, and streamlined funding. These reforms were intended to improve the education system already in place, rather than to overhaul the system. In 2008, the government also introduced an action plan to tackle the teacher shortage, improve teacher quality and elevate teacher prestige.  The plan called for strengthening a professional organization for teachers and opportunities for ongoing job training, rebalancing the teaching workload to alleviate pressure on teachers by reassigning some duties to support staff, providing incentives for excellent teachers (with teaching excellence determined by teachers themselves), and an overall improved salary and benefits structure.  The government is also in the process of increasing the work week from 36 to 40 hours with a commensurate salary increase to provide more time for lesson preparation and professional development, and providing flexible hours for senior employees, to keep the most experienced staff in schools longer. Finally, the government hopes to recruit qualified teachers from other professions, provide fast-track teacher training for people with appropriate qualifications, and encourage graduate students to consider teaching careers.

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