How is the Dutch education system structured?

In short

The Dutch education system consists of 18 levels, starting with regular primary education, special needs primary education and special needs education. After primary education, there are seven forms of secondary education, followed by three forms of post-secondary education. The highest degree in the education system is a PhD.

How is the Dutch education system structured?

The Netherlands is committed to accommodating students with education paths that best fit their various qualities, learning styles, needs and interests. Each sector - from primary to post-secondary education - has different sub-levels. It should be noted that every school year or academic year runs roughly from the end of August/beginning of September through July, depending on the particularities of the education sector, and the region within the country (north, middle or south). In this article, we have mapped out all education levels for you, starting with education for the youngest children.

1. Primary education (primair onderwijs; po)

It is common for children to start primary education (po) around their 4th birthday, regardless of the start of the school year. From the age of 5, it is obligatory for children to attend school (leerplicht). They start at primary school (basisschool), which has eight grades, group 1 through group 8. The last group is completed around the age of 12, after which children transfer to secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs). Four different forms of primary education (po) exist in the Netherlands.

Regular primary education (regulier basisonderwijs)

The majority of children in the Netherlands attend regular primary education. This type of education is followed by students who do not have special learning needs. Children start in group 1 and are taught by one or more teachers according to a set weekly schedule through group 8. Subjects include math, Dutch spelling and grammar, history, geography and physical education.

Special needs primary education (speciaal basisonderwijs; sbo)

In the Netherlands there are also special needs primary schools (sbo scholen). These schools are intended for children who have extensive learning needs that regular primary schools (reguliere basisscholen) cannot attend to. For example, due to learning disabilities or developmental and educational challenges. These schools apply the same learning goals as schools in regular primary education, only the teaching material is offered in a way that takes into account the specific situation and needs of each child.

Special needs education (speciaal onderwijs; so)

A school for special needs education (so) is meant for children who cannot find a suitable place within regular primary education (regulier basisonderwijs) or special needs primary education (sbo) because of significant developmental challenges. Schools with special needs education do not apply the same learning goals as regular primary education or special needs primary education. Students follow a customized path. Therefore, many children who start off in special needs education continue to secondary special needs education (vso), although some might transfer to regular secondary education (vo).

Special needs education (so) is organized into four clusters:

  • Cluster 1: blind and visually impaired students;

  • Cluster 2: deaf or hearing-impaired students or students with a language-speech development disorder;

  • Cluster 3: physically or mentally disabled students and students with long-term illnesses;

  • Cluster 4: children with psychological and behavioral challenges.

Differences between regular primary education and special needs (primary) education

There are a number of differences between special needs (primary) education and regular education. For example, the average group size in the special needs (primary) education is a lot smaller than in a regular school. Because of this, more individual guidance is possible.

In addition, more experts work in special needs (primary) education to help guide and facilitate the students versatile needs. These experts have often followed additional training, such as the master Educational Needs. There are also extra facilities within special needs schools, for example speech therapy and play therapy.

Secondary special needs education (voortgezet speciaal onderwijs; vso)

Although students in secondary special needs education (vso) are generally the same age as students in regular secondary education (vo), secondary special needs education falls under the umbrella term primary education (po) according to the Primary Education Act (Wet op het primair onderwijs).

Secondary special needs education (vso) primarily includes children who transit from special needs education (so). It is meant for students who need specialized support that regular secondary schools cannot provide. The learning goals can therefore differ from the learning goals in other forms of secondary education. The level at which a student can obtain their diploma depends on the specificities around their learning needs because they, for example, have visual, hearing, physical, and/or learning disabilities, long-term illnesses, or mental and behavioral problems. Some may obtain a preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) diploma and continue their studies at one of the post-secondary vocational education and training levels (mbo). Others may not and will then move on to guided daytime activities (dagbesteding).

It is estimated that approximately 110.000 children in the Netherlands follow some form of special needs education.

2. Secondary education (voortgezet onderwijs; vo)

After group 8 in primary school, children attend a secondary school (middelbare school). This education form is referred to as secondary education (vo). With the transition to this new education sector, the number of the group starts at 1 again, thus every student starts off in class 1. The average group size varies by type of education, but generally consists of 20-30 students. Students in secondary education on average are between twelve and eighteen years old. In the Netherlands secondary education is offered at different levels (note that not all vo-schools offer the same levels):

Practical training (praktijkonderwijs; pro)

Practical training (pro) is a six year pathway in which students receive intensive instruction and guidance. For example, teachers explicitly help students to develop important general skills, such as self-reliance, communication skills and general employee etiquette that is deemed essential in any workplace. Students follow the same subjects that are offered in regular lower secondary education (onderbouw), but in much smaller groups.

Preparatory vocational secondary education (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs: vmbo) Preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) is a four-year pathway that prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training (mbo). There are four pathways within preparatory vocational secondary education:

  • Basic vocational pathway (beroepsgerichte leerweg; vmbo-b): for students who learn best in practice. This pathway prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training level 2 (mbo-2);

  • Middle-management vocational pathway (kaderberoepsgerichte leerweg; vmbo-k): for students who are practically oriented and have little difficulty with theory-based education. This pathway prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training level 3 or 4 (mbo-3/mbo-4);

  • Combined education pathway (gemengde leerweg; vmbo-gl): for students who have no difficulty with theory-based education but also enjoy practical subjects. This pathway prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training level 3 or 4 (mbo-3/mbo-4). With a combined education pathway (vmbo-gl) diploma, students can also continue their studies at senior general secondary education (havo) level.

  • Theoretical education pathway (theoretische leerweg; vmbo-t): for students who have no difficulty with theory-based education. This pathway prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training level 3 or 4 (mbo-3/mbo-4). With a theoretical education pathway (vmbo-t) diploma, students can also continue their studies at senior general secondary education (havo) level.

Senior general secondary education (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs: havo) Senior general secondary education is a five-year pathway that prepares students for higher professional education (hbo). There is more room for in-depth theoretical study compared to preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) and students are encouraged to work more independently. At the end of their third year (onderbouw), students choose one of the following subject profiles:

  • Culture and society – C&M (cultuur en maatschappij)

  • Economics and society – E&M (economie en maatschappij)

  • Science and health – N&G (natuur en gezondheid)

  • Science and technology – N&T (natuur en techniek)

After passing the final exams, some students may continue their studies at university preparatory level (vwo).

University preparatory education (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs: vwo) University preparatory education is a six-year pathway that prepares students for a scientific study at a research university (universiteit). The main focus is in-depth theoretical learning. At the end of their third year (onderbouw), students choose one of the following four subject profiles:

  • Culture and society – C&M (cultuur en maatschappij)

  • Economy and society – E&M (economie en maatschappij)

  • Science and health – N&G (natuur en gezondheid)

  • Science and engineering – N&T (natuur en techniek)

There are two different tracks within university preparatory education:

  • Atheneum can be considered the mainstream track, with 15 foundation subjects and 8 exam subjects.

  • Gymnasium is a track with the additional subjects Latin, Greek and classical cultural education. Typically students only take the exam of either Greek or Latin, which is sufficient for a gymnasium diploma.

More information on the subject profiles for havo and vwo can be viewed here.

Bilingual education (tweetalig onderwijs)

Bilingual education is a branch within secondary education. In bilingual schools or study paths, some courses are offered in English, such as history, geography and gymnastics. English is not only the language of instruction, but also the language of communication: the teacher speaks English to the students and the students speak it among each other.

At least half of the subjects in the lower grades (onderbouw) of bilingual education are taught in English. In the senior years (bovenbouw) this percentage is lower, at approximately 25%. Schools that offer bilingual education must meet the requirements of the Dutch government. Students at a bilingual school take the regular Dutch final exams and receive a vwo, havo or vmbo diploma. Vwo and havo students receive a certificate of the Baccalaureate of Cambridge International upon completion of their bilingual education. Bilingual education is offered at most levels of secondary education, however not at every school.

3. Tertiary education (vervolgonderwijs)

Tertiary education refers to all forms of post-secondary education, including post-secondary vocational education and training (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs) and higher education (hoger onderwijs).

Post-secondary vocational education and training (mbo)

Preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) prepares students for post-secondary vocational education and training (mbo). With a senior general secondary education (havo) diploma, you can also attend post-secondary vocational education and training. Mbo courses prepare you for a specific trade or profession, such as baker, electrician, hairdresser or administrative assistant. There are approximately 500 courses in which you can obtain an mbo diploma.

Mbo has four levels of study:

  • Level 1: Assistant training (mbo niveau 1) - for basic executive work;

  • Level 2: Basic vocational training (mbo niveau 2) - for executive practical work;

  • Level 3: Professional training (mbo niveau 3) - to become an independent practitioner;

  • Level 4: Middle-management and specialized training (mbo niveau 4) - after which a person can practice a profession fully independently, with a wide range of applications and/or specialization.

Secondary general adult education (voortgezet algemeen volwassenonderwijs; vavo) Secondary general adult education (vavo) is usually meant for people of 18 years and older. For example, adults who did not yet obtain a secondary school diploma, adults who want to obtain a secondary school diploma at a different level, or those who want to obtain a partial certificate for certain subjects because of their further education. At vavo schools, students can obtain a vmbo diploma, a havo or a vwo diploma or partial certificates for certain school subjects. Vavo is officially part of the mbo education sector and is therefore offered by mbo institutions, even though one obtains a secondary education diploma. 

Higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs: hbo)

After obtaining a havo or vwo diploma, secondary school students can go on to higher professional education (hbo) at a university of applied sciences (hogeschool). In addition, students who have an mbo diploma on level 4 can also continue their studies at a university of applied sciences. In comparison to academic education, higher professional education is more focused on professional practice.

Higher professional education is divided according to the bachelor-master system. There are three levels of higher professional education:

Associate degree (ad):

This is a practice-oriented, two-year program. You will obtain an Associate degree which in terms of level is between mbo-4 and a professional bachelor (hbo-bachelor). It is sometimes referred to as a mbo-5 level.

Professional bachelor (hbo-bachelor):

This is a four-year program that you follow after you have completed havo, vwo, ad, or mbo-4. You will graduate with a bachelor's degree in higher professional education.

Professional master (hbo-master):

This is a one- or two-year program that you follow after completing your hbo bachelor's degree. During a master's you dig deeper into your field of study. You complete this program with a master’s degree in higher professional education.

Research oriented education (wetenschappelijk onderwijs: wo)

After vwo, secondary school students are eligible to follow research oriented education at a university. Students who have completed their propaedeutic year at a university of applied sciences may also go on to study at a university bachelor program. Students who have completed a full hbo bachelor can opt for a research university master through a pre-master program. Within academic education, the emphasis is not on preparing for professional practice, but on research skills. You learn to be analytical and critical when dealing with subject matters.

Research oriented education (wo) in the Netherlands, like higher professional education (hbo), is divided according to the bachelor-master system. You can follow a research oriented program at two levels:

University bachelor (wo-bachelor): This is a theory-based, three-year program after which you receive a bachelor's degree. Following your bachelor's degree, you can pursue a university master's program.

University master (wo-master): This is a more specialized theory-based, one- or two-year program. You will complete this program with a master's degree.


A PhD is the highest academic degree you can obtain. If you aspire a career in science or if you want to become a professor or researcher later on, then in most cases you need to complete a PhD. Upon completion you receive the title of Dr. and become a doctor of science. The average duration of a PhD is 4 years.

Do you have any questions about the Dutch education system or would you like more information about your possibilities to work in Dutch education? Contact the advisors of the Onderwijsloket through this form.

More information about education in the Netherlands can be found on Nuffic’s website.

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