The freedom of education is guaranteed under article 23 of the Dutch constitution, and includes the freedom to establish schools, organise teaching, and attend a school based on the student’s own convictions. The education system is therefore diverse and reflects various religious, ideological, and educational beliefs. While education has a long history in the Netherlands, the present-day system is complex, as it includes various streams of education designed to position the Netherlands among the world’s top five knowledge economies (UNESCO 2012).
Organisation of the educational system
The present-day educational system is comprised of primary education for children ages four to 12 (approximately), secondary education for children ages 12 and over, and higher education. Since 1985, preschools (for four-year-olds) have been integrated into the overall primary school system.
Streaming between different types of education takes place in secondary school. As early as the end of primary school children take a test (usually the CITO test) to assess their numeracy and language skills. The test results, together with teachers’ assessments, are then used to provide advice (which is not binding) to pupils and their parents about the most appropriate type of secondary school (UNESCO 2012). Students can choose between pursuing a four-year pre-vocational education track (VMBO), which may or may not be followed by enrolment in a senior secondary vocational education track (MBO); a five-year general education track (HAVO); or a six-year pre-university education track (VWO). Currently, a very large number of schools offer these secondary education programmes. All of these schools are, however, held to the same national standards. The government may intervene if a school does not meet these standards, and has on occasion even forced the closure of a school. Moreover, and despite the educational streaming, there is a certain degree of flexibility in that there are mechanisms in place to allow students to transfer under certain conditions from VMBO to HAVO, and from HAVO to VWO.
At the tertiary or higher education level, students can choose between pursuing a higher professional education institution (at an HBO, which is sometimes referred to as a high school (hogescholen)), a university (WO), or a higher distance learning programme (open university). In recent years, these tertiary institutions have been under increasing pressure by the government to specialise in order to better address the country’s societal and economic challenges (as identified by the country’s top sectors).
The Compulsory Education Act of 1901 made primary education compulsory for all children between six and 12 years old (Leerplichtwet). This compulsory education age was extended in 1969, when children became obliged to attend daytime classes starting on the first day of school of the month following their fifth birthday until the end of the school year in which they reach the age of 16. An amendment of the Compulsory Education Act in 2007 required students to attend school until they have obtained a basic qualification (HAVO, VWO, or MBO 2 level). This means that young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who have finished the compulsory period of education, but who have not yet obtained a basic qualification, are now obliged to continue to attend school.
- UNESCO (2012). World Data on Education. Netherlands. 7th edition, 2010/11.