Country information for Netherlands - Legislation and policy
Freedom of education
One of the key features of the Dutch education system, guaranteed under Article 23 of the Constitution, is freedom of education. This refers to the freedom to found schools (freedom of establishment), to organise the teaching in schools (freedom of organisation of teaching) and to determine the principles on which they are based (freedom of conviction). People have the right to found schools and to provide teaching based on religious, ideological or educational beliefs. As a result, there are both public and privately-run schools in the Netherlands.
Publicly-run schools are state funded and open to all children, regardless of religion or outlook. They provide education on behalf of the state. They are governed by the municipal council or by a public legal entity or foundation set up by the council. Some publicly-run schools base their teaching on specific educational ideas, such as the Montessori, Jenaplan or Dalton methods.
Privately-run schools are also state funded, although they are not set up by the state. These schools are governed by the board of the association or foundation that set them up. These so-called denominational schools base their teachings on religious or ideological beliefs. They include Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and anthroposophical schools. Some private schools base their teaching on a specific educational idea, such as the Montessori, Jenaplan or Dalton methods. Denominational schools can refuse to admit learners whose parents do not subscribe to the belief or ideology on which the school’s education is based.
The freedom of education is, however, limited by the qualitative standards set by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in educational legislation. These qualitative standards – core objectives – refer to what needs to be taught and studied in both public and private primary, secondary and special education: a global method of educational programming. Freedom of education gives schools the right the decide how to translate global frameworks into specific education. In addition, the number of instructional hours is prescribed at a national level. However, schools are free to decide where they want to place emphasis in their educational programming.
The Constitution places public and private schools on an equal footing. This means that public and private education are equally funded. Primary and secondary education is free; parents do not have to pay tuition fees.
Although most private schools are funded by the government, a small number of schools is privately funded. The number of learners in private, non-government-funded primary education (International Standard Classification of Education – ISCED 1) is marginal (0.3%). In general secondary education (ISCED 2–3), a small number of learners (3.4%) is enrolled in non-government-funded private education.
The Dutch education system is governed by different acts. Each type of education has its own legislation:
- Primary education: Primary Education Act (WPO, 1985)
- (Secondary) special education: Expertise Centres Act (WEC, 1998)
- Secondary education: Secondary Education Act (WVO, 1998)
- Adult and vocational education: Adult and Vocational Education Act (WEB)
- Higher education: Higher Education and Research Act (WHO).
In addition to the laws mentioned above, other education system laws in the Netherlands are the Compulsory Education Act (1969) and the Childcare Act (2005).
The Netherlands has signed up to several international agreements regarding inclusive education. These include the Resolution of the Council and the Ministers for Education concerning integration of children and young people with disabilities into ordinary systems of education (1990), the Salamanca Statement (1994) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
On top of that, a number of legal and regulatory frameworks are in place to ensure the inclusive nature of the education system:
The Primary Education Act and the Secondary Education Act were amended to include an additional specification, stating that primary and secondary education should ‘stimulate active citizenship and social integration’.
Since August 2006, a weighting system for funding schools with learners with (potential) educational disadvantages has been in place in primary education. In 2019, the weighting system was updated and is now based on five criteria:
- The educational level of both parents
- The mother’s country of origin
- The mother’s duration of stay in the Netherlands
- The average educational level of all the mothers in the school
- Whether parents are participating in a debt restructuring programme.
In 2007, the Equal Treatment by Virtue of Disability and Chronic Illness Act was adapted. Before, the Act only applied to employment, living and vocational education. Since 2009, the Act also applies to primary and secondary education.
The Act on Quality of (Secondary) Special Education (2012/2013).
The Appropriate Education Act (2014): Education that Fits policy.
There is no formal educational provision for children under the age of four. However, there are various childcare facilities available outside the education system. There is no legal curriculum for children aged 0–4. Childcare facilities as a policy area falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The following organised facilities are available:
- Playgroups: these groups are open to all children aged two to four years. Children usually attend the playgroups twice a week, for two to three hours per visit. The main aim of the playgroups is to allow children to meet and play with other children and to stimulate their development.
- Pre-primary schools: an increasing number of playgroups offer development stimulation programmes and have a more educational focus. These ‘pre-primary schools’ are particularly intended for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (children of parents with low levels of education and at risk of language disadvantages). The central aim is to prevent and mitigate educational difficulties, particularly in the domain of language development.
- Day nurseries: these cater for children aged from six weeks to four years. Their main function is to care for children in order to allow parents to work. They provide daily care for children and opportunities to meet and play with other children.
Recently, new legislation has entered into force which includes rules about the quality of both day nurseries and playgroups. The child-staff ratio for baby care has been lowered to one carer per three children. There is also a greater focus on child development. All children are assigned a mentor. All day nursery and playgroup staff must be fluent in Dutch and meet minimum language proficiency standards.
Primary education in the Netherlands comprises mainstream primary education and learning support education (‘mainstream-plus’). The primary education programme consists of eight years of education, from age 4–12. Compulsory education starts at the age of five, but children can attend primary school from the age of four. In the 2018/2019 school year, there were 6,474 primary schools for 1,440,451 learners.
There is a primary education curriculum in the Netherlands. It consists of:
- core objectives, which indicate what subjects should be taught during the eight years in primary school;
- reference levels, which indicate what level children should achieve in language and arithmetic at the end of primary school;
- a compulsory test for all children in the highest grade of primary education. This is not an exam that has to be passed, but rather a measure of language and arithmetic levels. It also provides the school and child with advice for the best type of secondary education in the following school year.
For younger children (age 4–5), there are guidelines which include goals to be achieved by the end of kindergarten.
On average, learners are 12 years old when they enter secondary education. In the 2018/2019 school year, there were 638 secondary schools that catered for 974,911 learners. Secondary education encompasses schools providing pre-university education (VWO), general secondary education (HAVO), pre-vocational education (VMBO) and practical training (pro). VMBO comprises four learning pathways:
- Basic pre-vocational programme (BL)
- Middle management pre-vocational programme (KL)
- Combined theoretical and pre-vocational programme (GL)
- Theoretical programme (TL).
VMBO learners can receive additional learning support (LWOO). After VMBO, at an average age of 16, learners may transfer to upper-secondary vocational education (MBO). Those who have completed the theoretical programme can also choose to transfer to HAVO, which is intended as a preparation for higher professional education (HBO). VWO is intended to prepare learners for research-oriented education (WO university). In practice, however, VWO graduates also transfer to HBO. The school types differ in terms of duration of their programmes: VMBO takes four years, HAVO five years and VWO six years.
Learners must attend school full-time for 12 full school years (from the age of five onwards), until the end of the school year in which they turn 16.
Since August 2007, young people under the age of 18 who have finished compulsory education but not obtained a basic qualification are obliged to continue education. They must obtain a basic qualification – that is, at least a diploma at general secondary (HAVO), pre-university (VWO) or vocational (MBO-2) level.
After VMBO and HAVO, learners may transfer to upper-secondary vocational education (MBO). MBO comprises school-bound vocational training (BOL) and block or apprenticeship programmes with work components (BBL). MBO courses are offered in four subject fields (economics, technology, agriculture, and personal and social care/health care). The courses can be taken at four different qualification levels:
- Assistant worker (entrance level/level 1)
- Basic vocational training (level 2)
- Professional training (level 3)
- Middle management or specialist training (level 4).
Of all Dutch education branches, the MBO division is closest to the labour market. MBO colleges have frequent contact with companies and organisations where learners obtain work experience. Regional trade organisations and industries communicate with the colleges about the quality and content of the courses on offer. This relationship between colleges and companies is extremely important to ensure the education provided in the colleges meets labour market demands.
After HAVO or VWO, learners may transfer to higher education. The Netherlands has a binary higher education system, which means there are two types of programme: research programmes (WO), offered at research universities, and practical programmes (HBO), offered at universities of applied sciences. The distinction between the two types is important, as it determines the admission requirements, content and length of degree programmes, as well as the degrees awarded.
Admission to HBO requires a HAVO or MBO-4 diploma. Admission to WO requires a VWO diploma. An HBO Bachelor’s programme lasts four years, while a WO Bachelor’s programme lasts three years. The Dutch higher education system offers Associate, Bachelor, Master and PhD degree programmes. The two-year Associate degree programmes are relatively new (2006) and were initially part of the HBO Bachelor programmes. Since 2013, they have acquired a more independent status within Bachelor programmes.
(Secondary) special education
Although inclusive education in mainstream schools is promoted and stimulated, special schools are sometimes in a position to offer the best support. Parents’ choice of special schools must also be respected.
There are roughly four types of learners with special educational needs who can attend special schools:
- Learners with visual impairment or with multiple disabilities including visual impairment
- Learners with hearing impairment and/or communication disorders (due to hearing, language or speech difficulties or autism), or learners with multiple disabilities including hearing, language or speech impairment
- Learners with physical and/or intellectual disabilities and/or with a chronic physical illness, such as epilepsy
- Learners with mental or behavioural disorders.
An increasing number of learners in the period since the Expertise Centres Act was implemented and a lack of visible output in terms of qualification for primary and secondary special education, led to the Quality of (Secondary) Special Education Act. This Act’s main objectives are:
- to raise achievements in (secondary) special education;
- to increase educational quality in special education;
- to ensure that special schools draw up a developmental perspective plan for all learners. The plan must, among other things, forecast a long-term outcome destination and note the learner’s specific needs and support.
Secondary special education is built on three profiles connected to the learners’ outcome:
- Continuous education
- Labour market
- Everyday activities.
In order to maintain a connection with mainstream primary and secondary education, qualitative standards – core objectives – are formulated. These are mostly, and where possible, based on the core objectives of mainstream education and adapted to the different groups’ needs.
Education that Fits policy
Suitable education aims to provide all learners with the best fitting educational context, which might be mainstream or special education. It means that learners with special educational needs can be placed in mainstream schools, following the mainstream programme while receiving the specific support they need. In this way, education becomes more customised. It is therefore necessary that mainstream schools co-operate intensively with schools for special education, among others. Regional school alliances were formed for this purpose.
Parents enrol their child – with or without special educational needs – in a mainstream school of their choice. The school is obliged to construct a suitable educational programme within the school of application or another school within the regional school alliance.
The regional school alliances have their own educational assessment procedures (instead of a nationwide procedure) for admission to special education. The outcomes of the assessment procedure can lead to a declaration of admission to special education. The declaration of admission is valid for at least a year. The regional school alliance sets the criteria for the duration and review of the declaration. The decision about the declaration is made by a multi-disciplinary team. The law requires two experts to be involved in the assessment procedure. One of the experts must be a special education generalist or a psychologist; the other expert is chosen by the school or the regional school alliance.
After admission, schools are obliged to provide an individual development plan, which describes the expected outcome and educational objectives for that learner. It indicates the level the learner can achieve and the support that they will need to achieve it. The parents must agree with the development plan.
Last updated 27/11/2019