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 educational paths that best fit their various qualities, learning styles, needs and interests. There are no less than 18 levels within the Dutch education system. Each sector - from primary to post-secondary education - has different sub-levels. We have mapped out all education levels for you here, starting with education for the youngest children. Thus, the aim of this article is to familiarize you with the different levels by providing a comprehensive overview.

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.

Mainstream primary education (regulier basisonderwijs)

The majority of children in the Netherlands attend mainstream primary education. Mainstream primary education is designed for 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 (special basisonderwijs; sbo)

In the Netherlands there are several special needs primary schools (sbo scholen). These schools are intended for children who have more extensive learning needs that mainstream primary education (regulier basisonderwijs) cannot provide. For example, due to learning disabilities or behavioral and educational challenges. These schools apply the same learning goals as schools in mainstream 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 education (so) is meant for children who cannot find a suitable place within mainstream primary education (regulier basisonderwijs) or special needs primary education (sbo) because . Schools with special needs education as mainstream 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 mainstream 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 mainstream primary education and special needs (primary) education

There are a number of differences between special needs (primary) education and mainstream education. For example, the average group size in the special needs (primary) education is fourteen children, while in a mainstream school it is twenty-three. Because of this, more individual guidance is possible. In addition, more experts work in the special needs (primary) education to help children learn. These experts have often followed additional training, such as the master SEN (Special 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 mainstream secondary education (vo), secondary special needs education falls under the umbrella term for 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 more specialized support that mainstream 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 intellectual 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 be able to do so and will then move on to some form of guided daytime activities (dagbesteding). It is estimated that approximately 110 thousand 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. In secondary education, the average group size varies by type of education but generally between 20-26 students. Students in secondary education are on average 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 that prepares students for a place in the labor market. In practical training, students receive intensive instruction and guidance. They follow the same subjects that are offered in mainstream lower secondary education (onderbouw), but in much smaller groups (on average 10-15 less). In addition, there are practical subject matters provided, such as healthcare or sales. Teachers also help students to develop important general skills, such as self-reliance, communication skills and general employee skills that are deemed essential in any workplace.

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): for students who learn best by 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 educational 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 educational pathway (vmbo-gl) diploma students can also continue their studies at senior general secondary education (havo) level.
  • Theoretical educational 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 educational pathway (vmbo-t) diploma students can also continue their studies at senior general secondary education (havo) level.

Learning support (leerwegondersteunend onderwijs: lwoo)

Learning support is officially not a type of secondary education, it is additional support for preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) students who benefit from extra guidance with their schoolwork. Learning support offers students with learning difficulties additional help to enable them to more easily obtain their diploma. Learning support lessons are characterized by small group sizes in order for teachers to lend support and give optimal attention to each student. The supplementary lessons can take place during but also outside the regular lessons, and even outside of normal school hours.

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 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). There is a lot of room for in-depth theoretical learning within this level of studies. At the end of their third year (onderbouw), students choose one of the following four subject profiles:

  • Culture and society (cultuur en maatschappij)
  • Economy and society (economie en maatschappij)
  • Science and health (natuur en gezondheid)
  • Science and engineering (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 university preparatory 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 the Netherlands this regards Dutch and English. In bilingual schools or study paths, courses are (partly) offered in English, such as history, geography and gymnastics. English is not only the language of instruction and teaching materials, but also the language of communication: the teacher speaks English with the students and the students speak it among each other.

Bilingual education is offered at all levels of secondary education, however not at every school. 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 mainstream Dutch final exams and receive a university preparatory (vwo), senior general secondary education (havo) or preparatory vocational secondary education (vmbo) diploma. University preparatory (vwo) and senior general secondary education (havo) students receive a certificate of the Baccalaureate of Cambridge International upon completion of their bilingual education.

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 secondary school 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) - entrance training for basic executive work;
  • Level 2: Basic vocational training (mbo niveau 2) - basic vocational training for executive practical work;
  • Level 3: Professional training (mbo niveau 3) - professional training to become an independent practitioner;
  • Level 4: Middle-management and specialized training (mbo niveau 4) - middle management training and specialist training, after which a person can practice a profession fully independently, with a wide range of applications and/or specializations.

Secondary general adult education (voortgezet algemeen volwassenonderwijs; vavo)

Secondary general adult education (vavo) is meant for people of 18 years and older. Exceptions can be made for those who are younger and did not graduate for their final secondary school exams at another school. 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 the vavo, adults can obtain a vmbo diploma, a havo or a vwo diploma or partial certificates for certain school subjects. The vavo is officially part of the mbo education sector and is therefore offered by mbo institutions.

Higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs: hbo)

Secondary general adult education (vavo) is meant for people of 18 years and older. Exceptions can be made for those who are younger and did not graduate for their final secondary school exams at another school. 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 the vavo, adults can obtain a vmbo diploma, a havo or a vwo diploma or partial certificates for certain school subjects. The vavo is officially part of the mbo education sector and is therefore offered by mbo institutions.

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 training program on level 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 higher professional 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 university preparatory education (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 level). 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 study 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 degree.

University master (wo-master):

This is a theory-based, one- or two-year program. You will complete this program with a master's degree.

PhD:

A PhD is the highest academic degree you can obtain. If you aspire to a career in science, for example or if you want to become a professor later on, then in most cases you need to do a PhD. If you are appointed to a PhD position at a university, you will be emersed in scientific research and write a dissertation on a topic within the field of study in which you will obtain your PhD. This used to be called a . 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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