Center on International Education Benchmarking

System Structure

Compulsory education starts at age 5 in the Netherlands, although more than 95 percent of  Dutch children begin publically funded preschool at age 4. About 80 percent of 3-year-olds participate in early childhood education as well. There are eight years of primary education followed by four to six years of secondary education, depending on the pathway students pursue. In 2007, the Netherlands extended compulsory education from age 16 to 18, or until students receive an upper secondary qualification. The upper secondary completion rate has risen from 85 percent in 2001 to 93 percent in 2015.

More than two-thirds of Dutch primary and lower secondary school students attend independent schools, which receive public funding and are established and run by private or public organizations or individuals, often parents. Most are religious schools, although some are based on educational methods like Montessori or specializations like STEM or the arts. At the end of primary school, students apply to a lower secondary school. They have a choice of three pathways: pre-vocational education, or VMBO; general education, or HAVO; or pre-university education, or VWO. Each pathway culminates in its own national exam and diploma.

About half of all Dutch students pursue pre-vocational education. This lower secondary program lasts four years, after which most students continue to upper secondary vocational education. Upper secondary vocational graduates earn one of four qualification levels, depending on the program of study, the highest of which provides entrance to higher professional education at universities of applied sciences. Universities of applied sciences offer practically-oriented degree programs that emphasize gaining work experience through internships. They may focus in a particular industry area, like agriculture or art.

The remaining half of secondary students pursue general or pre-university education, either in a five-year general education program (about 30 percent of students) or a six-year pre-university program (about 20 percent of students). General education graduates can apply to universities of applied sciences, while pre-university graduates can apply to either universities of applied sciences or research universities. In both types of university, some degree programs admit all upper secondary graduates who have completed coursework in relevant subject areas, while more competitive programs – such as those in economics – or programs with limited capacity may select students based on additional criteria.

Secondary school students have opportunities to transfer to different pathways, although some transfers require additional support or study time. In 2014-15, about 8 percent of secondary students transferred from pre-vocational to general education or from general education to pre-university. In 2017, the government announced two initiatives to allow students more time to decide on a pathway: 1) “transitional classes” that allow students to explore both vocational and academic studies in lower secondary school before choosing a pathway; and 2) expansion of middle schools, which combine the last two years of primary curriculum with two years of a common lower secondary curriculum to allow student to delay a choice of pathway.

Standards and Curriculum

In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sets general core objectives in required subjects to guide instruction during primary and secondary education. In literacy and numeracy only, there are more specific “reference levels” that set performance benchmarks in those skill areas that students should reach by the end of each phase of education. National exams at the end of primary and secondary education also guide what is taught in schools. Schools have a great deal of flexibility in designing curriculum and instruction, although curricula and other materials developed by the National Institute for Curriculum Development (SLO) are available for teachers and schools that want them.

Core subjects for primary school are Dutch, English, mathematics, social and environmental studies, creative expression (art and music), and physical education. By 2020, all primary schools will also offer science and technology as a subject, with an emphasis on digital skills. This is a result of the government’s 2013 “Technology Pact,” an effort to improve alignment between education and the technology job market.

Lower secondary education in all three secondary school pathways covers the following core subjects: Dutch; English; mathematics; Man and Nature, including topics related to science, technology, and healthcare; Man and Society, including topics related to history, social studies and citizenship; arts and culture; and physical education. Schools decide how to organize instruction in core subject areas and differentiate content for students in each of the three secondary school pathways. In some schools, lower secondary students in all three secondary school pathways can take classes together.

Curricula diverge more significantly in upper secondary school. In general secondary education, the core subjects are Dutch, English, social studies, culture and the arts, and physical education. Pre-university secondary education includes the same core subjects plus general science and a second foreign language. All general education and pre-university students choose one of four areas of specialization: Science and Technology, Science and Health, Economics and Society, or Culture and Society. There is a list of additional required courses for each specialization, almost all of which include mathematics. The curriculum in vocational secondary education varies by the program of study and level of qualification students pursue.

In 2015, the Ministry initiated a nationwide dialogue on the knowledge and skills students will need to be prepared for a changing global economy. Recommendations included focusing on social and emotional skills, improving digital literacy and emphasizing transversal skills such as cooperation, critical thinking, learning to learn, creativity, and problem solving. To implement these recommendations, the Ministry is leading a collaborative curriculum development and reform effort through which teams of educators will determine what students should know and be able to do in nine areas: citizenship, digital literacy, English, Dutch, numeracy and mathematics, sports and exercise, arts and culture, humans and nature (including technology), and social sciences. The goal is to submit the teams’ findings to Parliament for approval in early 2019 and then begin developing updated core objectives and attainment targets.

Assessment and Qualifications

All students in the last year of primary school (age 12) take a national test measuring language and mathematics skills. The Ministry allows schools to choose from a list of approved exams. More than 80 percent of schools use an exam developed by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (CITO), and this exam is often called the “CITO.”

Students apply to lower secondary school based on the results of the CITO (or other exam), an achievement report from their primary school, teacher recommendations, and their own preferences. The influence of the CITO scores in this process has decreased in recent years, as a wider range of criteria is used to determine entry to secondary schools. Some schools, particularly in more competitive urban areas, set a minimum CITO score or other additional requirements for admission.

Students must pass national exams in order to earn diplomas at the end of all vocational, general and pre-university secondary school programs. Performance on the exams can impact which universities and programs will accept students for higher education. Students take exams in up to eight subjects, depending on the pathway. These exams generally include both a national written component developed by CITO and a school-based component developed locally and approved by the Education Inspectorate, an autonomous body within the Ministry of Education. In vocational programs, some subjects only have a school-based exam, which may include completion of an internship. In all pathways, the school-based component of exams may take the form of a portfolio or a series of exams taken throughout the course, and may include written, practical, and oral components. To help schools develop their exams, the National Institute for Curriculum Development publishes exam guidelines for every subject and level of education.

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