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 This profile has been archived and is no longer being updated.

System Design

Children can begin attending pre-school at age four, but it is not compulsory until age five. Ninety-eight percent of Dutch students, however, begin attending school at the age of three years and ten months, which is the earliest the government will allow pre-school enrollment. From ages five to twelve, students attend primary school. Students take a national examination at the end of primary school (age 12) that serves as the main determinant in the type of secondary school that they will pursue. Secondary schools are categorized as general, academic or vocational track, but the majority of their education experience in the first two years of lower secondary school is common and students can move between tracks easily if they change their minds.

As of 2007, all students must attend school until the age of 18 or until they receive a basic qualification from one of the upper secondary programs. This has resulted in increasing the upper secondary completion rate from 85% to 91% from 2001 to 2009. They can do this through school or by attending a combined school and work-based program until they become qualified. There are three tracks from which a student can choose. Two of these tracks are academic. HAVO is a five-year, general secondary program leading to an upper secondary certificate and higher professional education (HBO). VWO is a six-year academic program, leading to a certificate and university.  At the end of these programs, students take a final examination, half of which is developed internally by the schools, and the other half is national, developed by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (Cito), the Netherlands’ national test development center. VMBO is a four-year vocational track leading to a VMBO Diploma and higher vocational education. About 76% of VMBO students continue on to a Regional Education Center for further training at the age of sixteen.

Ninety-one percent of students go on to upper secondary school; 38% of students choose to pursue HAVO or VWO courses and an additional 53% choose VMBO. The percent of Dutch students completing some form of upper secondary vocational education either in the VMBO or HAVO tracks is 67.5%, a figure that is higher than the other top performers and one of the highest in the OECD. These programs are available in schools specifically designed to offer them as well as in comprehensive schools.  The Ministry’s preference is for students to attend comprehensive secondary schools, in which students can transfer between tracks if necessary. According to the National Institute for Educational Measurement, roughly 85% of primary schools use a national leaving examination in order to help secondary schools and students assess student performance and make appropriate placement decisions. Schools make recommendations about the appropriate track based on test scores and primary school performance, though the decision is ultimately the parents’ and students’ to make. For the first year, there is some fluidity between the programs, so students who feel they have made the wrong decision can change their minds.


The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sets a general national curriculum framework. The framework outlines suggested time allocation and attainment targets (what students should know and be able to do) for subject areas and cross-curricular topics. However, schools are free to teach the core subjects in any way they see fit, provided they meet the attainment targets. The Ministry consults with the Education Council and the Consultative Committee for Primary and Secondary Education before establishing curriculum frameworks. Additionally, the government funds the National Institute for Curriculum Development, which serves as an independent advisory group to provide consultation on major education reforms.

Upon determining specific curricular goals, each school must establish a participation council that represents staff, parents and students. Parents and staff can also establish separate councils to serve in an advisory capacity on curriculum implementation. Every school, in conjunction with the council(s), creates a school plan in which development objectives, teaching methods, school organization and assessments are outlined, which is submitted to the Education Inspectorate (an autonomous body within the Ministry) for approval.

Primary school students are taught in the core subjects of Dutch language, English, Frisian language (another Germanic language spoken in some parts of the Netherlands; these programs are only available where applicable), mathematics, social studies, art and physical education. These six subjects were made compulsory under the revised Primary Education Act of 2006.

In secondary school, the core subjects are Dutch, English, mathematics, man and nature (an interdisciplinary subject covering man, animals and their relationship to the environment, biological and chemical functions, caring for oneself and others, the human body and research skills), man and society (another interdisciplinary subject focusing on formulating research questions and answering them, using sources, organizing themes and ideas, citizenship, and the relationship between past and current events), art and culture, and physical education and sports. Elective subjects include foreign languages, religious studies, astronomy, philosophy, drama, health care and home economics and nutrition and clothing. Vocational subjects include engineering and technology, care and welfare, business and agriculture.

In 1999, the curriculum in the pre-university and general secondary schools was revamped, with the innovations including combining subjects to learn them together and learn how they complement each other, and an increased focus on independent learning. Primary schools, too, are expected to provide a “made-to-measure curriculum” for their students, with each school being directed to spend their budget as they see fit for the best possible education quality. As of 2008, all schools at both the primary and secondary levels are required to allow individual members of the staff to be fully responsible for their own work and the quality of education they provide.


Following the completion of primary school, students receive a school report detailing their educational achievement and potential compiled by the school head in conjunction with the student’s teacher(s). One copy is given to the secondary school a child will be attending, and another copy is given to the student’s parents.

Cito also develops national tests that are used to assess both students and the education system itself. The most commonly used Cito test is one that students take at the end of primary school, and it is generally used by secondary schools to determine program placement. The test is multiple-choice and designed to measure aptitude, rather than content knowledge in Dutch, math, comprehension skills, study skills and “world orientation” (which includes geography, biology and history). About 85% of primary schools administer this test. Cito also provides a series of optional tests to monitor student progress during primary school, and has an array of other optional tests focusing on special education, vocational education, secondary education and adult education.

There is a national examination at the end of upper secondary school for students who wish to go on to university; this examination makes up 50% of the student’s final exam results, with the other 50% made up of the student’s performance on a school-designed internal test. Schools must submit their examination syllabi to the Education Inspectorate every year in order to assure quality and comparability. School exams are generally focused on two or more subjects, and can take many forms, from oral to written to practical. The national examination tests several subjects and involves both open-ended and multiple-choice questions.

On a day-to-day basis, teachers practice continuous assessment through homework, oral exams and classwork. These assessments are considered to be diagnostic in nature, so that teachers can address student needs and guide them through the curriculum.


Schools in the Netherlands have a fair degree of autonomy in determining how students will be instructed. Administrators determine both class size and composition, and teachers can choose their own instructional materials and teaching philosophies. In primary school, though most schools organize students into age groupings, some schools elect to group students by achievement level or to combine two age groups into one classroom. In secondary school, students are typically grouped both by age and by the type of upper secondary education they intend to pursue. At this stage, class size is generally small and students can be held back if they are unable to meet achievement standards. Upper secondary students are grouped by program – HAVO, VWO or VMBO. However, in some comprehensive schools that provide all three courses or tracks, there may be occasional classes that enroll students from multiple tracks, if they are relevant to each course. Subjects vary across tracks and programs, but Dutch, English and mathematics are mandatory in all of the programs, with the exception of the practical vocational stream in VMBO. In recent years, the Dutch Ministry of Education has indicated that schools should be viewed as “learning centers,” rather than “teaching centers,” and encourages teachers and administrators to make teaching and learning student-focused and to provide students with greater opportunities for experiential learning, as well as career advice.

The Structure of Netherlands’ Education System


There are three major gateways in Dutch education. These take place at the end of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary school. At age 12, upon completion of primary school, the majority of Dutch students take the Cito examination that is a major component in determining their path into secondary education. Cito is scored on a scale of 500-550; scores of 536 and below tend to point a student towards vocational secondary education, while scores of 545 and above tend to lead to academic secondary. Students with scores in between these ranges are typically recommended to take the general secondary pathway. However, the scores are not the only determinant; a student’s overall academic performance in primary school and interests and goals are also taken into account when a primary school makes a secondary school recommendation. If a student fails to obtain the test scores necessary for his or her selected track, he or she may appeal to the primary school for an exemption when the school makes its recommendation.  Even if a student receives a recommendation for vocational education, they can still apply to an academic school, though it is not guaranteed that they will be accepted. The first year of secondary school serves as a bridge year to prepare students for the next stage of their education and an opportunity, if necessary, to change educational paths depending on a student’s  interests, academic performance and teacher recommendations.

Students who complete the HAVO (general secondary) and VWO (academic secondary) courses must undergo both a school examination and a national examination at the end of their studies. The school examination is generally in the form of a student portfolio, in which students present their work to evaluators. Schools decide what the exam requirements will be, and how students will be evaluated. The national exam is uniform; this, alongside the student’s school-based examination results, helps determine a student’s admission to higher education.

Students who pursue vocational secondary education have an additional gateway at the end of the first two years of their program of study. These students take an exam that is both written and task-based.  They can choose at this point to end their education (with a basic qualification) or continue on into various types of upper secondary vocational education. Upper secondary and post-secondary vocational pathways have their own varied requirements depending on the post-secondary vocational program that a student is interested in pursuing, however, all secondary vocational streams have national examinations.

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