Education in the Netherlands is characterized by division: education is oriented toward the needs and background of the pupil. Education is divided over schools for different age groups, some of which are divided in streams for different educational levels. Schools are furthermore divided in public, special (religious), and general-special (neutral) schools, although there are also a few private schools. The Dutch grading scale runs from 1 (very poor) to 10 (outstanding).
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ranks the education in the Netherlands as the 9th best in the world as of 2008, being significantly higher than the OECD average.
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Educational policy is coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science with municipal governments.
Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands starts at the age of five, although in practice, most schools accept children from the age of four. From the age of sixteen there is a partial compulsory education (partiële leerplicht), meaning a pupil must attend some form of education for at least two days a week. Compulsory education ends for pupils aged eighteen and up or when they get a diploma on the VWO, HAVO or MBO level.
Public, special (religious), and general-special (neutral) schools are government-financed, receiving equal financial support from the government if certain criteria are met. Although they are officially free of charge, these schools may ask for a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). Private schools rely on their own funds, but they are highly uncommon in the Netherlands, to the extent that even the Dutch monarchs have traditionally attended special or public schools. Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board and are typically based on a particular religion; those that assume equality between religions are known as general-special schools. These differences are present in all levels of education.
As a result, there can be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. A special school can reject applications of pupils whose parents or guardians disagree with the school's educational philosophy, but this is uncommon. In practice, there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas of the Dutch Bible Belt. All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.
In elementary and high schools, pupils are assessed annually by a team of teachers who determine whether they advanced enough to move on to the next grade. Since forcing a pupil to retake the year (blijven zitten; literally, "remain seated") has a profound impact on the pupil's life in terms of social contacts and remaining in the educational system longer, this decision is not taken lightly and mechanisms are in place to avert retaking years, such as remedial teaching and other forms of guidance or making them go to a different type of schooling, such as moving down from HAVO to TL. As a result, retaking a year is uncommon, but it happens more often in elementary schools than in high schools because there are fewer negative consequences at a younger age. Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and usually happens in elementary schools.
Between the ages of four and twelve, children attend elementary school (basisschool; which is literally, "foundation school"). This school has eight grades, called groep 1 (group 1) through groep 8 (group 8). School attendance is not necessary until group 2 (at age five), but almost all children commence school at age four (in group 1). Groups 1 and 2 used to be held in a separate institution akin to kindergarten (kleuterschool; literally, "toddler's school"), until it was merged with elementary schools in 1985.
From group 3 on, children learn how to read, write and do arithmetics. Most schools teach English in groups 7 and 8, but some start as early as group 1. In group 8 the vast majority of schools administer an aptitude test called the Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (literally, "Cito final test primary education", often abbreviated to Citotoets (Cito test), developed by the Centraal instituut voor toetsontwikkeling (Central Institute for Test Development)), which is designed to recommend the type of secondary education best suited for a pupil. In recent years, this test has gained authority, but the recommendation of the group 8 teacher along with the opinion of the pupil and his/her parents remains a crucial factor in choosing the right form of secondary education.
The Cito test is not mandatory; some schools instead administer the Nederlandse Intelligentietest voor Onderwijsniveau ("Dutch intelligence test for educational level", usually abbreviated to NIO-toets) or the Schooleindonderzoek ("School final test").
A considerable number of elementary schools are mostly based on a particular educational philosophy, for instance the Montessori Method, Pestalozzi Plan, Dalton Plan, Jena Plan, or Freinet. Most of these are public schools, but some special schools also base themselves on one of these educational philosophies.
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After attending elementary education, children in the Netherlands (by that time usually 12 years old) go directly to high school (voortgezet onderwijs; literally "continued education"). Informed by the advice of the elementary school and the results of the Cito test, a choice is made for either voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs (VMBO), hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs (HAVO) or voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs (VWO) by the pupil and their parents. When it is not clear which type of secondary education best suits a pupil, or if the parents insist their child can handle a higher level of education than what was recommended to them, there is an orientation year for both VMBO/HAVO and HAVO/VWO to determine this. At some schools, it's not even possible to do HAVO the 1st year, so you have to do a combination. After one or two years, the pupil will continue in the normal curriculum of either level. A high school can offer one or more levels of education, at one or multiple locations. A focus on (financial) efficiency has led to more centralization, with large schools that offer education on all or most educational levels.
Since the Dutch educational system does not have middle schools or junior high schools, the first year of all levels in Dutch high schools is referred to as the brugklas (literally "bridge class"), as it connects the elementary school system to the secondary education system. During this year, pupils will gradually learn to cope with the differences between school systems, such as dealing with increased personal responsibility. Sometimes people also call the second year brugklas.
It is possible for pupils who have attained the VMBO diploma to attend the final two years of HAVO level education and sit the HAVO exam, and for pupils with a HAVO diploma to attend the final two years of VWO level education and sit the VWO exam. The underlying rationale is that this grants pupils access to a more advanced level of higher education. This system acts as a safety net to diminish the negative effects of a child's immaturity or lack of self-knowledge. For example, when a bright pupil was sent to VMBO because she/he was unmotivated but later discovered its potential or has acquired the desire to achieve better, the pupil can still attain a higher level by moving on to HAVO. Most schools do require a particular grade average to ensure the pupil is capable of handling the increased study load and higher difficulty level.
Aside from moving up, there is also a system in place where pupils can be demoted to a lower level of education. When for example a pupil has entered secondary education at a level they cannot cope with, or when they lack the interest to spend effort on their education resulting in poor grades, they can be sent from VWO to HAVO, from HAVO to VMBO, and from any level of VMBO to a lower level of VMBO.
The VMBO (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs; literally "preparatory middle-level applied education", in international terms "pre-vocational education") education lasts four years, from the age of twelve to sixteen. It combines vocational training with theoretical education in languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. Sixty percent of students nationally are enrolled in VMBO. Students cannot choose between the four different levels of VMBO that differ in the ratio of practical vocational training and theoretical education, but the level depends from the score. Not all levels are necessarily taught in the same high school.
At all of these levels, Leerwegondersteunend onderwijs (literally "learning path supporting education") is offered, which is intended for pupils with educational or behavioural problems. These pupils are taught in small classes by specialized teachers.
Secondary education, which begins at the age of 12 and, as of 2008, is compulsory until the age of 18, is offered at several levels. The two programmes of general education that lead to higher education are HAVO (five years) and VWO (six years). Pupils are enrolled according to their ability, and although VWO is more rigorous, both HAVO and VWO can be characterised as selective types of secondary education. The HAVO diploma is the minimum requirement for admission to HBO (universities of applied sciences) but you can get into the HBO when you achieved an MBO Diploma. The VWO curriculum prepares pupils for university, and only the VWO diploma grants access to WO (research universities).
The first three years of both HAVO and VWO are called the basisvorming (literally "basis formation"). All pupils follow the same subjects: languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. The last two years of HAVO and the last three years of VWO are referred to as the second phase (tweede fase), or upper secondary education. This part of the educational programme allows for differentiation by means of subject clusters that are called "profiles" (profielen). A profile is a set of different subjects that will make up for the largest part of the pupil's timetable. It emphasizes a specific area of study in which the pupil specializes. Compared to the HAVO route, the difficulty level of the profiles at the VWO is higher, and lasts three years instead of two. Pupils pick one of four profiles towards the end of their third year:
Because each profile is designed to prepare pupils for certain areas of study at the tertiary level, some HBO and WO studies require a specific profile because prerequisite knowledge is required. For example, one cannot study engineering without having attained a certificate in physics at the secondary educational level. Aside from the subjects in the profile, the curriculum is composed of a compulsory segment that includes Dutch, English, mathematics and some minor subjects, and a free choice segment in which pupils can choose two or more subjects from other profiles. Picking particular subjects in the free curriculum space can result in multiple profiles, especially the profiles N&G and N&T that overlap for a large part.
The HAVO (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs; literally "higher general continued education") has five grades and is attended from age twelve to seventeen. A HAVO diploma provides access to the HBO level (polytechnic) of tertiary education.
The VWO (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs; literally "preparatory scientific education") has six grades and is typically attended from age twelve to eighteen. A VWO diploma provides access to WO training, although universities may set their own admission criteria (e.g. based on profile or on certain subjects).
The VWO is divided into atheneum and gymnasium. A gymnasium programme is similar to the atheneum, except that Latin and Greek are compulsory courses. Not all schools teach the ancient languages throughout the first three years (the "basic training"). Latin may start in either the first or the second year, while Greek may start in the second or third. At the end of the third and sometimes fourth year, a pupil may decide to take one or both languages in the second three years (the second phase), when the education in ancient languages is combined with education in ancient culture. The subject that they choose, although technically compulsory, is subtracted from their free space requirement.
VWO-plus, also known as atheneum-plus, VWO+ or lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, additional foreign languages and courses to introduce students to scholarly research.
Some schools offer bilingual VWO (Tweetalig VWO, or TVWO), where the majority of the lessons are taught in English. In some schools near the Dutch–German border, pupils may choose a form of TVWO that offers 50% of the lessons in German and 50% in Dutch.
VAVO (Voortgezet algemeen volwassenen onderwijs; literally "extended general adult education") is an adult school, which teaches VMBO/MAVO, HAVO or VWO, for students who in the past were unable to receive their diploma, who want to receive certificates for certain subjects only, or who for example received their diploma for HAVO but want to receive their VWO-diploma within one or two years.
As of January 2015, the International Schools Consultancy (ISC) listed the Netherlands as having 152 international schools. ISC defines an 'international school' in the following terms "ISC includes an international school if the school delivers a curriculum to any combination of pre-school, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country, or if a school in a country where English is one of the official languages, offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum and is international in its orientation." This definition is used by publications including The Economist.
The MBO (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs; literally "middle-level applied education") is oriented towards vocational training. Many pupils with a VMBO-diploma attend MBO. The MBO lasts one to four years, depending of the level. There are 4 levels offered to students:
At all levels, MBO offers 2 possible pathways: a school-based education, where Training within a company takes between 20 and 59% of the curriculum, or an apprenticeship education, where this training represents more than 60% of the study time. Both paths lead to the same certification. Students in MBO are mostly between 16 and 35. Students of the "apprenticeship" path are overall older (25+). After MBO (4 years), pupils can enroll in HBO or enter the job market. Many different MBO studies are typically offered at a regionaal opleidingen centrum (ROC; literally "regional education center"). Most ROCs are concentrated on one or several locations in larger cities. Exceptions include schools offering specialized MBO studies such as agriculture, and schools adapted to pupils with a learning disability that require training in small groups or at an individual level.
Higher education in the Netherlands is offered at two types of institutions: universities of applied sciences (hogescholen; HBO), open to graduates of HAVO, VWO, and MBO, and research universities (universiteiten; WO) open only to VWO-graduates and HBO graduates (including HBO propaedeuse-graduates). The former comprise general institutions and institutions specializing in a particular field, such as agriculture, fine and performing arts, or educational training, while the latter comprise twelve general universities as well as three technical universities.
Since September 2002, the higher education system in the Netherlands has been organised around a three-cycle system consisting of bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees, to conform and standardize the teaching in both the HBO and the WO according to the Bologna process. At the same time, the ECTS credit system was adopted as a way of quantifying a student's workload (both contact hours, and hours spent studying and preparing assignments). Under Dutch law, one credit represents 28 hours of work and 60 credits represents one year of full-time study. Both systems have been adopted to improve international recognition and compliance.
Despite these changes, the binary system with a distinction between research-oriented education and professional higher education remains in use. These three types of degree programmes differ in terms of the number of credits required to complete the programme and the degree that is awarded. A WO bachelor's programme requires the completion of 180 credits (3 years) and graduates obtain the degree of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Laws degree (B.A./B.Sc./LL.B.), depending on the discipline. An HBO bachelor's programme requires the completion of 240 credits (4 years), and graduates obtain a degree indicating their field of study, for example Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.) or Bachelor of Nursing (B. Nursing). The old title appropriate to the discipline in question (bc., ing.) may still be used.
Master's programmes at the WO level mostly require the completion of 60 or 120 credits (1 or 2 years). Some programmes require 90 (1.5 years) or more than 120 credits. In engineering, agriculture, mathematics, and the natural sciences, 120 credits are always required, while in (veterinary) medicine or pharmacy the master's phase requires 180 credits (3 years). Other studies that usually have 60-credit "theoretical master's programmes" sometimes offer 120-credit technical or research masters. Graduates obtain the degree of Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Laws or the not legally recognized degree Master of Philosophy (M.A./M.Sc./LL.M./M.Phil.), depending on the discipline. The old title appropriate to the discipline in question (drs., mr., ir.) may still be used. Master's programmes at the HBO level require the completion of 60 to 120 credits, and graduates obtain a degree indicating the field of study, for example Master of Social Work (MSW).
The third cycle of higher education is offered only by research universities, which are entitled to award the country's highest academic degree, the doctorate, which entitles a person to use the title Doctor (Dr.). The process by which a doctorate is obtained is referred to as "promotion" (promotie). The doctorate is primarily a research degree, for which a dissertation based on original research must be written and publicly defended. This research is typically conducted while working at a university as a promovendus (research assistant).
To enroll in a WO bachelor's programme, a student is required to hold a VWO diploma or to have completed the first year (60 credits) of an HBO programme resulting in a propaedeuse. The minimum admission requirement for HBO is either a HAVO school diploma or a level-4 (highest) MBO diploma. In some cases, pupils are required to have completed a specific subject cluster. A quota (numerus fixus) applies to admission to certain programmes, primarily in the medical sciences, and places are allocated using a weighted lottery. Applicants older than 21 years who do not possess one of these qualifications can qualify for admission to higher education on the basis of an entrance examination and assessment.
For admission to all master's programmes, a bachelor's degree in one or more specified disciplines is required, in some cases in combination with other requirements. Graduates with an HBO bachelor's may have to complete additional requirements for admission to a WO master's programme. A pre-master programme may provide admission to a master's programme in a different discipline than that of the bachelor's degree.
A guaranteed standard of higher education is maintained through a national system of legal regulation and quality assurance.
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is responsible for legislation pertaining to education. A system of accreditation was introduced in 2002. Since then, the new Accreditation Organization of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) has been responsible for accreditation. According to the section of the Dutch Higher Education Act that deals with the accreditation of higher education (2002), degree programmes offered by research universities and universities of professional education will be evaluated according to established criteria, and programmes that meet those criteria will be accredited, that is, recognised for a period of six years. Only accredited programmes are eligible for government funding, and students receive financial aid only when enrolled in an accredited programme. Only accredited programmes issue legally recognised degrees. Accredited programmes are listed in the publicly accessible Central Register of Higher Education Study Programmes (CROHO). Institutions are autonomous in their decision to offer non-accredited programmes, subject to internal quality assessment. These programmes do not receive government funding.
The HBO (Hoger beroepsonderwijs; literally "higher professional education") is oriented towards higher learning and professional training. After HBO (typically 4–6 years), pupils can enroll in a (professional) master's program (1–2 years) or enter the job market. In some situations, students with an MBO or a VWO diploma receive exemptions for certain courses, so the student can do HBO in three years. The HBO is taught in vocational universities (hogescholen), of which there are over 60 in the Netherlands, each of which offers a broad variety of programs, with the exception of some that specialize in arts or agriculture. Note that the hogescholen are not allowed to name themselves university in Dutch. This also stretches to English and therefore HBO institutions are known as universities of applied sciences.
The WO (wetenschappelijk onderwijs; literally "scientific education") is only taught at research universities. It is oriented towards higher learning in the arts or sciences. After the bachelor's programme (typically 3 years), students can enroll in a master's programme (typically 1, 2 or 3 years) or enter the job market. After gaining a master, a student can apply for a 3 or 4 year PhD candidate position at a university (NB a master's degree is the mandatory entry level for the Dutch PhD program). There are three technical universities, an Open University, six general universities and four universities with unique specializations in the Netherlands, although the specialized universities have increasingly added more general studies to their curriculum.
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A national system of education was introduced in the Netherlands around the year 1800. The Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen ("Society for the Common Good") took advantage of the revolutionary tide in the Batavian Republic to propose a number of educational reforms. The Education law of 1806 encouraged the establishment of primary schools in all municipalities and instated provincial supervision. It also introduced a mandatory curriculum comprising Dutch language, reading, writing, and arithmetics. History, geography, and modern languages such as French, German and English were optional subjects. All newly established schools needed consent from the authorities or would be disbanded as freedom of education was not proclaimed until the Constitutional Reform of 1848.. In addition to primary education, gymnasia (or, Latin schools) and universities constituted higher education. What could be considered secondary education or vocational training was unregulated.
This situation changed in the second half of the nineteenth century in the wake of social and economic modernisation. In 1857, a Lower Education law replaced the 1806 law supplementing the mandatory curriculum with geometry, geography, history, natural sciences, and singing. Modern languages and mathematics remained optional. Drawing and physical education would be added in subsequent reforms. The introduction of the so-called Kinderwetje (literally, "children's little law") by legislator Samuel van Houten in 1874 forbade child labour under the age of 12. An amendment in 1900 led to compulsory education for children aged 6–12 in 1901.
A political struggle during several decades, from about 1848, culminated in the equalization of public financing for religious schools and public schools in 1917. This so-called school struggle (schoolstrijd) was very important for the emancipation of the Roman Catholic part of the country, which is traditionally mainly Protestant.
Secondary education was introduced in 1863. This now comprised the Hogere burgerschool (hbs; "higher commoner's school") and the polytechnic. Classical education was still given in higher education: the gymnasium and universities. This distinction between the secondary and higher based on the type of education rather than the students' age would gradually alter in the twentieth century. After 1917, an hbs-diploma could also give access to a number of courses at universities, while the lyceum, combining hbs and gymnasium, became an increasingly common type of school.
Thus, by the 1960s, a range of school types existed:
The different forms of secondary education were streamlined in the Wet op het voortgezet onderwijs (literally, "law on secondary education") in 1963 at the initiative of legislator Jo Cals. The law is more widely known as the Mammoetwet (literally, "mammoth act"), a name it got when ARP-MP Anton Bernard Roosjen was reported to have said "Let that mammoth remain in fairyland" because he considered the reforms too extensive. The law was enforced in 1968. It introduced four streams of secondary education, depending on the capabilities of the students (lts/vbo, mavo, havo and vwo) and expanded compulsory education to 9 years. In 1975 this was changed to 10 years.
The law created a system of secondary education on which the current secondary school is based albeit with significant adaptations. Reforms in the late 1990s aimed at introducing information management skills, increasing the pupils' autonomy and personal responsibility, and promoting integration between different subjects. Lts/vbo and mavo were fused into vmbo, while the structure of havo and vwo were changed by the introduction of a three-year basisvorming (primary secondary education; literally, "basic forming"), followed by the tweede fase (upper secondary education; literally, second phase"). The basisvorming standardized subjects for the first three years of secondary education and introduced two new compulsory subjects (technical skills and care skills), while the tweede fase allowed for differentiation through profiles.
The influx and emancipation of workers from Islamic countries led to the introduction of Islamic schools. In 2003, in total 35 Islamic schools were in operation.
In general, all schools in the Netherlands observe a summer holiday, and several weeks of one or two-week holidays during the year. Also schools are closed during public holidays. Academic terms only exist at the tertiary education level. Institutions are free to divide their year, but it is most commonly organized into four quadmesters.
The summer holiday lasts six weeks in elementary school, and starts and ends in different weeks for the northern, middle and southern provinces to prevent families from all going on vacation simultaneously. For the six-week summer holidays of all high schools, the same system applies. Universities have longer holidays (about 2 months, but this may include re-examinations) and usually start the year in late August or early September. The summer holiday is followed by a one-week autumn holiday in the second half of October at all levels except for most research universities. At elementary and high school levels, the week depends on the north/middle/south division also used around the summer holidays. There is a two-week Christmas holiday that includes New Year's in the second half of December, and a one-week spring holiday in the second half of February (around Carnival). The last school holiday of the year is a one- or two-week May holiday around 27 April (Kings Day); sometimes including Ascension Day. Easter does not have a week of holiday, schools are only closed on Good Friday and Easter Monday. The summer holiday dates are compulsory, the other dates are government recommendations and can be changed by each school, as long as the right number of weeks is observed.
The Dutch educational system divides children in educational levels around the age of 12. In the last year of primary school, a test, most commonly the “Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs”, is taken to help choose the appropriate level of secondary education/school type. Although the ensuing recommendation is not binding, it does have great influence on the decision making process. Unless caretakers identify the need, in most cases an IQ test is not given to a child, which may result in some children who for various secondary reasons do not function well at school, but who do have the academic ability to learn at the higher levels, mistakenly being sent to the lower levels of education. Within a few years these children can fall far behind in development compared to their peers who were sent to the higher levels.
It is possible for students to move up (or down) from one level to another level. If there is doubt early on about the level chosen, an orientation year may be offered. However, moving up a level later on may require a lot of extra effort, motivation and time resulting in some students not reaching their full potential.
Research has shown that 30% of gifted children  are (mistakenly) advised to attend the VMBO, the lower level to which 60% of twelve-year-olds are initially sent. In this particular group of children there is a higher than normal percentage of drop-outs (leaving school without any diploma).
Although IQ testing may aid to reduce mistakes in choosing levels, research  has also shown that IQ is not fixed at the age of 12 and may still improve with exposure to the proper educational stimuli, which the current Dutch system by design (early separation into levels) may fail to provide.
Another area of concern is that although parents have the right to have their voice heard in the school's decision making process, not all parents make use of this right equally, resulting in unequal opportunities for children.
The Programme for International Student Assessment has found that the Netherlands' educational standing compared to other nations has been declining since 2006, and is now only slightly above average. School inspectors are warning that reading standards among primary school children are lower than 20 years ago, and the Netherlands has now dropped down the international rankings. A similar trend is seen in arithmetic, maths and science.