Primary school in the Netherlands (Photo: Arianna Ardia)

Primary school in the Netherlands

Compulsory education under Dutch law applies to children of all nationalities from 5 to 18 years who are residing in the Netherlands. Primary school starts at the age of four and is obligatory from five years old. In this article a basic explanation of the Dutch primary school system.

Primair onderwijs or basisonderwijs

Dutch Primary school: for who?

Children of all nationalities who are residing in the Netherlands, accepted from four years old, “leerplichtig” or learning obliged from five years old.

Dutch Primary education: what?

There are eight years of primary schooling. Children are placed in group one upon entry and move up a group every year; different age groups may therefore be in the same class depending on when each child started. In the last year, children are tested on their numeracy and language skills in a test made mandatory in 2013 (held in April). Additionally, ‘Group 8′ children in 85 percent of primary schools (basisscholen) sit the CITO test ( in February, which advises their next level of education. The government sets attainment targets in six curriculum areas: Dutch, English (taught in Groups 7 and 8), arithmetic and mathematics, social and environmental studies, creative expression and sports and movement. New targets include citizenship, technology and cultural education.

Types of Primary schools

Public (openbare) schools

State-run schools (non-denominational) provide secular education, but they can also offer teaching around specific philosophic or pedagogic principles (Montessori, Steiner etc.). Public schools are governed by the municipal council or a public leg legal entity or foundation set up by the council.

Private schools

Most private schools are denominational (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu) or follow specific philosophic principles, as above. Private schools are governed by a board or the foundation that set them up. Financially, they have the same status as public schools and are basically free, although all schools ask for a small contribution for things such as school trips.

Special schools

By August 2014, all schools will be required to cater to any child’s needs under the ‘All inclusive Act’, although participation in mainstream schools has been encouraged through other policies for several years. Additionally, there are schools for children with special needs and also special needs teachers at Dutch schools.

Lighthouse Special Education caters to the international community with special needs children providing extensive assistance in English. Entry is by referral.

Ipad schools

Under a new teaching model ‘Education for a New Era’ (Dutch acronym: O4NT), 11 so-called ‘Steve Jobs Schools’ opened in the Netherlands as of August. Ipads and educational apps will replace everything from books to blackboards and teachers will act as ‘coaches’ to help students direct their own learning.


Primary and secondary state education is free, with parents being asked to contribute a ‘voluntary’ nominal amount, which varies from school to school with additional payments for lengthier school trips and lunchtime supervision (tussenschoolse opvang) and after-school care (naschoolse opvang), which the school is supposed to provide or sub-contract.

Local or international?

Your finances, location, nationality, the age of your children and how long you are likely to stay in the Netherlands are the main factors you should take into account when selecting a school.

International education is available at both Dutch and private schools throughout the country.

Many companies reimburse international school fees as part of a relocation package and the reimbursements could be exempt from income tax (though not for all schools).

While teenagers might appreciate the educational and social continuity provided by an international school, younger children might get a greater sense of belonging by attending a local school if you plan to stay for a while.

By learning good Dutch they will connect to their new world more easily. You certainly won’t be the only non-Dutch parent in the playground.

The first bilingual primary school in Haarlem will open in September. Read more about this school in our interview with the founder: 21th Century Global School, Interview – bilingual primary education in Haarlem.

Choosing a school

Source schools at or via your city’s website (onderwijs = education). Ask friends and locals for information and experiences.

The differences in teaching methods and recognised quality are getting less and less evident, except from some pedagogic schools like Montessori.

My husband and I raise our children in two languages. One of them is Dutch and we are planning to stay longer in the Netherlands, so the choice was easy for us: a Dutch school. Also in another situation I would have chosen for a Dutch school or a bilingual school. Our final choice has become a Dutch public school, relatively close to our house, where some other Dutch and international little friends of Luca are going too. Today is Luca’s first school day at the “Grote school”. He is a bit scared. But that will pass.

First day at school

Luca’s first day at the “Grote school” (Photo: Arianna Ardia)

Applying for a school

Register your child as soon as possible at the school of your choice. Technically, public schools are not allowed to refuse admission.

Popular schools, however, have waiting lists (you can register a child from the age of three) and the municipality can assign catchment areas based on postcodes. With our oldest son we were faced to a two years long waiting list. Finally he got accepted because the school was segmented in pure postcode area.

All schools have brochures and websites where they announce ‘open days’ when you can visit the school.

Most children are enrolled by the age of four (when children are invited to attend five orientation days). Children are leerplichtig (under a learning obligation or leerplicht) at five years old for 12 years full-time education and one or two years part-time (until the attainment of a diploma).

School inspection reports can be viewed online (this applies to state schools and Dutch international schools only) at under Zoek Scholen, enter the name of the school and/or town. The visual representation of green (good) and orange/red (weak/not good) will at least give you some idea of performance. In the Pisa/OECD international rankings for 15-year-olds in 75 countries (published in December 2010), the Netherlands was ‘above average’ for mathematics (11th), reading (10th) and science (11th).

Education policy

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sets quality standards, attainment targets and social objectives but individual schools ‘fill in the details’ of the curriculum and budget allocation. Education policy includes combating school segregation, integrating special needs children, tackling early school leaving, addressing teacher shortage and raising the quality of schools that do no meet the Education Inspectorate’s standard.

Read also the article of Leóny, primary school teacher in HaarlemImportant facts for the first step to elementary school 


(Source: Expat Survival Guide 2014, by Expatica)