Sending children to Dutch schools
2019-04-22 | By Ute Limacher-Riebold
When moving to a new country with children, the priority for most is finding a suitable school.
Very mobile families tend to prefer international schools, where curricula may promise a smoother international transition. Families expecting to stay longer tend to send their children to local schools. This is not simply cost-related, as they may want their children to integrate into the local community, learn the local language and develop a sense of belonging.
What if my child doesn’t speak Dutch (yet)?
The main concern when sending a child to a local school is that most, if not all, subjects are taught in the local language. In order to make transition and integration easier for newcomers, some Dutch schools offer special classes for children to learn and improve their language skills in schakelklassen (newcomers primary bridging classes) for children who are under 12 years old, or kopklassen (international secondary bridging classes) for those who are older.
For families with English as their home language, a bilingual education or tweetalig onderwijs (TTO) might be an attractive option, as some subjects are taught in English and the rest of the curriculum in Dutch. However, these schools require a certain degree of Dutch fluency.
Anne Voyce, who is Dutch, lived in the UK, USA and the Netherlands as a child and attended local and international schools, now teaches English in an Amsterdam Dutch school. She observes that “not all schools are geared towards international pupils, but although a regular school will be eager to help non-Dutch speakers, letting them use the English lessons to further their Dutch, for example,” she says. “It might be a good idea to organise a personal tutor in the first transitional year(s) from an international system to Dutch school.” Another option is to enroll the children in online language classes, where they get personalised attention and tutoring even before moving to the Netherlands. This helps to fully immerse them in the language, and parents can also learn Dutch, thus leading by example.
What are the main differences between an international school and a Dutch school?
The variety of international schools and Dutch schools makes it difficult to point out the major differences. “International schools may provide a full service to the students,” says Voyce. “Most Dutch schools offer excellent tutor-, extracurricular– and care-programmes.” Furthermore, local schools have “fewer friends coming and going, the mix of backgrounds is more in line with the location, and learning Dutch is inevitable: it should make it easier to join clubs outside school and build up your own local network”.
Good integration into the local community and being fluent in the local language helps children fitting in and having a sense of belonging. International children, in particular, who switch back and forth between their home culture and the local or community culture on a daily basis, can find it is reassuring in an international school to know that they are not the only ones in this situation.
While parents often prefer the international community found in international schools, many Dutch schools welcome children with an international background and have systems in place to help them integrate easier. But international parents should consider that school-parent communication at local schools is most likely in Dutch and in order to better support their children with school-related matters, making the effort to learn the local language is greatly beneficial.
Where can I find information about the different schools?
Generally speaking, the Dutch secondary school system is similar to that in other European countries: the VMBO prepares students for vocational training, the VWO prepares them for research universities, and the HAVO prepares students for universities of applied sciences.
Across the Netherlands, every city or town has its own school application policy. In January and February, secondary schools organise open days, then, “In Amsterdam, junior school pupils now have to list 12 middle schools, in order of preference, in accordance with the relatively new ‘matching’ system,” says Voyce. “This means that they all want to visit almost all the schools in their region!”
“The Dutch support system in schools is thorough, with specialised systems in place for AD(H)D, dyslexia, autism, fear of failing or motivational issues. In addition, the routes between parents, the school and the council are well-trodden: a child that misses school for medical reasons will be kept on course, a pupil needing psychological support will be closely monitored,” says Voyce. Families who require this special support need to find a school meeting their expectations–what is common practice in one country might not be in another–and that support is in a language that both child and both parents sufficiently understand.
What if I want my child to become biliterate in the local and home language?
For internationals whose home language is not English or another language part of the Dutch school curriculum, the main concern is how to support home languages and cultures. Depending on the school, by law, Dutch and English are compulsory in Dutch schools. Most offer French and German from the first or second year of secondary school at all levels, some offer Spanish; Gymnasium (a secondary school with a strong emphasis on academic learning) offers Latin and/or Greek. For all other languages, families will have to find alternative ways to foster them, such as weekend classes or providing the necessary lessons themselves, privately or with home tuition.
State-run schools are technically not allowed to refuse admission, unless they are full. On schools’ websites you can find information about their open days. Be prepared that most of the information sessions will be held in Dutch.
School inspection reports can be viewed online at owinsp.nl under Zoek Scholen (enter the name of the school or town), with a visual representation of green (good) and red (weak) performance. This applies to state schools and Dutch international schools only. Go to scholenopdekaart.nl for more information about schools in the Netherlands and their results.
Making a choice
Cost and length of stay in the country are the most likely considerations when choosing which school, local or international, as are cultural issues It is true that many internationals are more comfortable in an educational environment with other internationals. However, the standard and diversity of local Dutch schools make them a good option for international children.
Secondary school education (12–18 years)
After group 8 (the final year of primary school), students attend voortgezet onderwijs (secondary education)
There are different types of Dutch secondary education:
- VMBO*: preparatory secondary vocational education (four years), followed by MBO (secondary vocational education)
- HAVO*: senior general secondary education (five years), followed by HBO (university of applied sciences)
- VWO*: pre-university education (six years), followed by a research university
* These are standard paths followed by most students but there are exceptions.
(Many secondary schools offer a mixed-level “bridge class” in the first year. After obtaining a diploma for a lower level, if the student’s grades are good enough, they may proceed to the next level, but this educational pathway may take additional time)
About the author
Ute Limacher-Riebold is a multilingual Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer. She has lived “abroad” her whole life, in Italy, Switzerland and France, and now the Netherlands. She is fluent in six languages and her children grow up multilingually. Ute provides workshops and trainings for parents and teachers working with children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. She often uses use two paintings to talk about Dutch culture; Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs and Children’s Games.