I have a 14 year old daughter who is coming to live with me in the Netherlands. She does not speak any Dutch. Therefore, can you recommend a Dutch state school where my daughter can learn the language as well as being taught the normal academic subjects?

From 12 years of age, Dutch children will normally choose from more vocationally-based training to pre-university diplomas depending on their academic ability. In the first year, pupils will study the same curriculum, but to different academic depth. This is known as the basisvorming. In the second year specialist profiles are selected based upon the chosen academic route for the child. As all classes in Dutch schools are taught in Dutch, those children who do not have a good command of the Dutch language will be at an obvious disadvantage.

Therefore, after registering with the municipality in which they live, those children who meet the following criteria are usually required to attend ‘bridging’ schools known as Internationale Schakelklas – ISK:

  • Have lived in the Netherlands for less than two years
  • Need tuition to become competent in speaking the Dutch language
  • Are between the ages of 12 and 18

Children will usually be assessed for their linguistic skills in the Dutch language before they are allowed to enrol in an ISK school. There are ISK schools located throughout the Netherlands. There is no list of ISK’s anymore. Best is to check with your municipality.

The ISK schools prepare pupils for intake into secondary education or vocational education, depending on the age of the students. The aim of these schools is to teach children as much Dutch as possible over a two-year period, so that the children are capable of going on to learn to the same level of academic ability in the Netherlands as they would in their home country. At the ISK schools the teenage children will be given dedicated lessons to learn Dutch for approximately 16 to 20 hours per week.

In addition, to the teaching of other academic subjects such as mathematics, geography, history and economics, art and culture, the ISK schools also provide additional support for the students. This support is often in the form of a dedicated mentor and access to other specialised services, for example a speech therapist for those children who experience difficulty in pronunciation of the Dutch language.

Depending on their age and ability in mastering the Dutch language, children will typically spend between 1.5 to 2 years attending an ISK school before transferring to the mainstream Dutch educational system.

What are the principle aims of Dutch primary school education and what subjects will my child be taught?

The Dutch government has set kerndoelen (attainment targets) which define what children are expected to have acquired in the way of knowledge, understanding and skills by the end of primary school. Whilst these attainment targets describe in general terms the skills and knowledge a child must have acquired, the referentieniveaus (benchmark levels) for mathematics and language specifically prescribe the degree of proficiency that a child must attain in any given year of schooling.

The core curriculum for all basisscholen (primary schools) must include the following subjects:

  • Dutch
  • English (from group 7 on- 10/11 years years old)
  • Arithmetic and mathematics
  • Social and environmental studies (including, for instance, geography, history, science – including biology, citizenship, social and life skills – including road safety, healthy living, social structures – including political studies, and religious and ideological movements)
  • Creative expression (including, for instance, music, drawing and handicrafts)
  • Sports and movement.

Schools are free to offer other subjects such as French, German or religious studies, but these subjects are not required by law.

I want to raise my children bilingually. Are there any Dutch schools that teach (partly) in English?

There are an increasing number of schools providing bilingual lessons. Most of them are secondary schools. In the Netherlands,  Tweetalig Onderwijs – TTO (bilingual education) came into existence in 1989. In most cases, TTO refers to bilingual (mostly English-Dutch) and  Voorbereidend  Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs – VWO, where this is the pre-university stream in Dutch secondary education.

In the TTO schools, a wide variety of subjects such as history, geography, math, physics, biology, chemistry, economics, IT, arts and music are taught in English. Bilingual lessons are taught over the preceding six years leading up to university entrance. Whilst in the last three years, students will focus upon the academic subjects that they will be examined on (in Dutch), some of the lessons will still be provided in English. Bilingual students also have the opportunity to sit the internationally recognised International Baccalaureate (IB) English Certificate. A successful result qualifies these students to enrol at English-speaking universities.

The aim of bilingual education is to prepare students for an increasingly global environment. Hence, whilst foreign language skills are important, the lessons are taught in a broad, internationally oriented context.

It should be noted that the Dutch bilingual school system has been set up with the emphasis upon native speaking Dutch children becoming competent in speaking English as their second language rather than vice versa.

What are the options for my child’s secondary and higher education options in Dutch schools and universities?

During the final year of primary school (normally in April/May), Dutch children take a mandatory test. The aim of this test is to assess the extent to which a child has progressed in his or her proficiency of the Dutch language and in mathematics. The results of the test, together with the teacher’s assessment over the preceding years, will determine which type of secondary education would be most appropriate for the pupil. The secondary and higher education options are:

  • VMBO: practical secondary education
  • HAVO: senior general secondary education (entrance to HBO – university of applied science)
  • VWO: university preparatory education (entrance to hbo – university of applied science or wo – research university)

VMBO (preparatory secondary vocational education)

The VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs) prepares its students for a more vocationally based secondary education at a MBO (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs) senior school or, in some cases, a more general secondary education at a HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) senior school. A pupil will spend four years in VMBO education and whilst in their second year choose their preferred vocational direction. At the MBO they will be taught subjects that will prepare them for various occupations ranging from shop manager to mechanic or nursing assistant.
Pupils who successfully complete the theoretical, combined or middle-management vocational programme at the VMBO level can enrol in professional and middle-management training. Holders of a middle-management MBO certificate may go on to study at the HBO level (higher professional education).

HAVO (senior general secondary education)

A HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs) education takes five years and prepares students for a professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs – HBO).

VWO (pre-university education)

A VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs) education takes six years and prepares students for a research university education . In the first two years, students follow a common curriculum. All students at a VWO school must study three languages (French, German and English) up to the end of their third year. At the end of the third year, the students choose an academic ‘profile’ package, which includes both compulsory and optional subjects.

Find more information about foreign education systems and international baccalaureate as well as overviews of foreign diplomas in comparison with Dutch diplomas on: www.nuffic.nl.

I am moving to the Netherlands soon. I am considering home schooling for my children. Is this allowed in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, all children aged 5-18 are required to attend school. Hence, ‘home schooling’ is not allowed. There are, however, a few situations in which an exception can be made. If you have objections to the view of life (e.g. religion) of every school in your area, you need to give a declaration to your municipality about this. You can contact your municipality for more information about the content of the declaration.

If your child is physically and/or mentally unable to attend school, you need permission for home schooling from your municipality.

Nederlandse Vereniging voor Thuisonderwijs – NVvTO is the Netherlands home schooling association. It is an organisation of parents (and other adults who function as such) who wish to home school their children whilst in the Netherlands and have done so in the past, or plan to do so in the future. More information regarding this can be found on Thuisonderwijs.nl/english.

Who is the leerplichtambtenaar and why did I get a letter from this person?

The leerplichtambtenaar is an official in charge of checking that the rules regarding leerplichtwet (compulsory educational law) are followed.

According to Dutch law, schools are responsible for monitoring and controlling all absences of their children from school. They are legally required to inform the leerplichtambtenaar (official in charge) when any child misses more than sixteen hours of school over a period of four weeks. The school may also inform the leerplichtambtenaar if a child has been late twelve times for school.

Once the leerplichtambtenaar has received such information from the school, he/she will contact the parents to determine what action may be taken.

Only in a few specific circumstances can schools grant permission for children to miss school during the school year.
Schools may grant permission for a child to be absent from school for events such as weddings, funerals, religious holidays and moving house. For every other absence, it is compulsory for the parent to ask for permission from the head of school in advance.

School attendance records are regularly inspected by a leerplichtambtenaar, who tends to also check for pupil absentees right at the beginning or end of the school term, as they are regarded as very suspicious periods.

My child has been diagnosed with a learning or behavioural difficulty/physical handicap. Are there any schools here in the Netherlands that cater specifically for children with special needs and how can I find one?

There are special needs schools throughout the Netherlands. Regional centres of expertise (regionale expertisecentra, REC) have been set up to cater for children with special needs. If you are unsure of what kind of support is needed for your child, a good place to start is your huisarts (GP). They will be able to provide you with an assessment. Please note that a letter from the GP will be helpful to find the appropriate support. The same applies if you have a child with a diagnostic already settled in a certified institution abroad.

Children who are physically healthy but have learning difficulties or exhibit mild behavioural problems will normally begin their schooling in a mainstream primary school. This is in line with the Dutch national education law that children with special needs (kinderen met rugzakje) must be given a place at a school that suits their abilities and potential, even if they need additional support. Meaning that a child with special needs cannot be refused at a regular school unless there is a severe physical disability, chronic illness or serious behavioural problems. The school will have up to six weeks to evaluate if the child can be admitted. Only in the case that the school cannot provide with the appropriate support, you will then be referred to another regular or special school. You can find further information about this topic at the government’s website (in Dutch only): www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/passend-onderwijs/vraag-en-antwoord/hoe-krijgt-mijn-kind-passend-onderwijs

Special schools are funded by the Dutch government in a similar manner to the mainstream schools. The municipality is given responsibility for providing places at these special schools. There are two types of special schools:

  • Speciaal basisonderwijs – SBO (special primary education) schools, which cater for children who require support with their learning or who have mild behavioural needs such as: low IQ, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), delayed learning development, etc
  • Speciaal onderwijs – SO (special education) for specific special needs or children who require intensive supervision. For example because they have a disability, chronic illness or disorder

An organisation called MEE can help you find, among other things, an appropriate school for your child. They specialise in supporting people with learning difficulties or physical handicaps. Their website is Mee.nl (in Dutch only). However we have listed below some of the centres and schools that can provide additional support to children with special needs in case you wish to do your own research:

Dedicated Special Education International School in the Hague (ages 2½-13)

  • Special International Primary Education: Lighthouse Special Education (ages 5-13). Find more information at Lighthousese.nl
  • Inclusive Pre-school (part of Lighthouse Special Education): Three Little Ships International Pre-school (ages 2½-5). Visit Threelittleships.nl

International schools with special education department

Amsterdam area

  • International School of Amsterdam
  • The British School of Amsterdam
  • Amsterdam International Community School
  • Florencius

The Hague


  • Nord Anglia International School Rotterdam

Support groups and expert centres

  • AAOF Autism Association for Overseas Families offers support and advise in English on the facebook page Autism Netherlands – AAOF
  • ADHD Parent support group for international parents on Adhd.eseng.nl

You can find further information about this topic on this article from Amsterdam Mamas.

How can I find a children’s therapist/psychologist or a special educator?

There is a Dutch website with the list of addresses detailing where you can get additional help for your children. The kindertherapeuten (child therapists) are available all over the Netherlands and you can locate them on the interactive map here (in Dutch only).

ACCESS also has a Counselling Service Network (CSN) which consists of licensed English-speaking professionals with practices all over the Netherlands. Counsellors are men and women who are psychologists, mental health counsellors and social workers from a variety of different cultural backgrounds. All counsellors have a minimum of a Master’s level degree with at least two years supervised work experience. Please visit the ACCESS website for more information.

What kind of after school/leisure activities are available in English in the Netherlands?

Having interests outside of school is an important part of Dutch society. There are many kinds of after school and leisure activities for children, such as arts, music, libraries/reading, many different sports, swimming, horse riding, parks and playgrounds, playgroups, scouting, and activities in community centres. However, the availability of these activities for non-Dutch speaking residents will very much depend upon where you are living in the Netherlands. Typically the major cities, with a high population of expats, will have clubs and societies that work in English as well as Dutch. For specific activities in your area, please contact the ACCESS helpdesk. It is worth it to note that some international schools have after school programs.