Country information for Netherlands - Systems of support and specialist provision

Participation and enrolment

Equality and equity are important characteristics of the Dutch education system. Policy strives to include all learners. This is visible in the accessibility of education. Although compulsory education starts at the age of five, most children start school at the age of four. The general enrolment rate in the Netherlands for mainstream education is about 97%, while the enrolment rate in special education is about 3%. In 2018, 0.17% of learners could not attend school due to a lack of required support from school and/or youth care. These are often learners with complex difficulties who need more than average support. Regional school alliances and municipalities are working together to create tailor‑made support for these learners.

Combating poverty, social inclusion and marginalisation 

Education is seen as a very important tool to combat poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation. Education is available to all learners, emphasises equality, provides each learner with equal opportunities for development and participation in society, and fosters social inclusion and cohesion. To make this happen, a number of policy measures are in place.

Compulsory education is free of charge. Schools may ask for voluntary parental contributions for extra activities (e.g. celebrations, excursions), but it may not constitute an obstacle to learners’ admission.

Policies are in place to provide schools with additional resources and staff to support learners with a potential educational disadvantage in order to improve their educational achievements and career prospects.

The policy on support for disadvantaged learners (Kansen gelijkheidsbeleid) requires municipalities to draw up a local educational agenda together with school boards and childcare providers. In the local agenda, school boards, local municipalities and childcare providers discuss and decide how best to combat educational disadvantages and avoid segregation in education.

Combating early school leaving is a central policy priority, alongside:

  • early detection of potential disadvantages among young children;
  • increasing enrolment of children from underprivileged backgrounds, who are at risk of educational or language disadvantage, in pre-primary schools.

The development of community schools is encouraged. These schools collaborate with other social services, like the police, health and welfare services, and sports and cultural institutions, to enhance learners’ development opportunities.

To foster social inclusion and the participation of learners in society, the Primary Education Act and Secondary Education Act were amended with an additional specification. It obliges schools to offer education that ‘stimulates active citizenship and social integration’. More specifically, these Acts state that education should enable learners to become acquainted with the various cultural backgrounds of their fellow learners.

Quality of education for learners with special educational needs 

The philosophy of inclusion is also visible in special needs education. In the last two decades, there has been a growing tendency to include more learners with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream education. Policy aims to decrease the number of learners with SEN in special schools and increase their inclusion in mainstream schools. The emphasis is on improving the resources for dealing with diversity in mainstream schools, tailor-made support and encouraging co-operation between schools at a regional level.

The quality of special needs education, in both mainstream and special schools, is an important policy ambition. Learners with SEN should have equal chances for further education or a position in society and/or the labour market as their peers without SEN. In 2012, the Act on Quality of (Secondary) Special Education took effect.

Like mainstream schools, (secondary) special education schools have core objectives/attainment targets. These objectives are developed for all the specific groups within (secondary) special education. They give a global curricular description of the education programme for each profile. Schools are responsible for giving form to these global curricular descriptions in the school and in the classrooms.

Secondary special education is built on three profiles connected to learner outcomes:

  • Continuous education
  • Labour market
  • Everyday activities.

In secondary special schools, learners can take examinations. These examinations are the same as in mainstream secondary education. More than 95% of the learners who take examinations pass their final exams; this percentage is higher than the average in mainstream education. Also, learners with SEN in both mainstream and special education have higher marks than their peers in mainstream education.

Education that fits every learner 

The Education that Fits policy was launched in 2014. An important aim is to improve the realisation of education for every learner with SEN within the education system. The policy arose from the need and desire to improve care for learners with SEN, to streamline the provisions for special needs education which each had their own funding and procedures, and to prevent learners getting lost between systems. Under this policy, every school board is responsible for providing adequate education for every learner who enrols, regardless of their specific educational needs or the kind of support they need. By co-operating with other school boards at a regional level, within regional school alliances, schools are required to arrange educational provisions in such a way that every learner can be educated, taking into account their special educational needs. Schools are free to decide on how arrangements are offered.

Some important features of the Education that Fits policy are:

  • No learner left behind: school boards are responsible for providing an adequate place in the education system for every learner
  • Co-operation between boards of different school types, including primary education, secondary education, vocational education and special education
  • Co-operation between schools and other organisations and institutions responsible for children’s care and well-being (health organisations, youth care, etc.)
  • Participation of all stakeholders (school board, management, teachers and parents).

Provision in mainstream and special schools for special educational needs 

Mainstream schools

Parents choose a mainstream school to enrol their child in, based on their preference. The school of application must provide learners who require extra support with the most appropriate schooling. If a school cannot offer the necessary support, the school must find another school that can offer the support needed. To fulfil this obligation, school authorities must offer tailor-made educational solutions within the framework of the school alliances. These solutions can be offered in mainstream or (secondary) special education. The regional school alliance decides on the budget needed for individual learners, if the schools are not able to arrange the funds themselves.

Schools are obliged to describe the support they offer to learners with SEN every four years in a ‘school support profile’ (schoolondersteuningsprofiel). School development and teacher education in special educational needs are based on these profiles. In the profiles, schools not only describe what support they can offer learners with SEN, but also the regular support they offer for learners with dyslexia, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gifted learners. The document sets future aims as well: the profile the school would like to grow into and what is necessary to achieve this.

Schools must provide an individual development plan for every learner who receives extra support. The plan describes the expected outcomes and educational objectives for that learner. It indicates the level the learner can achieve and the support they will need to achieve it. The parents have to agree with the development plan.

Learners with mild learning disadvantages can (temporarily) attend ‘mainstream-plus’ schools in primary education. These schools have smaller classes, so learners receive more guidance. Mainstream-plus learners complete the mainstream curriculum and take the compulsory test when they are in the highest class. After completion, most learners transfer to mainstream secondary education; a smaller number transfer to secondary special education.

In secondary education, two types of mainstream schools offer extra support. Regional school alliances receive extra funding for learners with mild learning disadvantages. They can allocate this to schools at the pre-vocational secondary education level (VMBO), in order to provide smaller classes and/or extra assistance in class. Practical training schools specialise in learners with a learning disadvantage and lower IQ. Learners attain a certificate at the end and can then transfer to upper-secondary vocational education level 1 (assistant worker).

Upper-secondary vocational education consists only of mainstream schools. They provide additional support individually.

Special schools

Although inclusive education in mainstream schools is promoted and encouraged, special schools are sometimes in a position to offer the best support. Parents’ preference for special schools must also be respected. There are roughly four types of children with SEN who can attend special schools:

  • Children with visual impairment or multiple disabilities, including visual impairment
  • Children with hearing impairment or communication disorders (due to hearing, language or speech difficulties or autism), or children with multiple disabilities including hearing, language or speech impairment
  • Children with physical and/or intellectual impairments and children with a chronic physical illness, such as epilepsy
  • Children with mental or behavioural disorders.

When learners are admitted to a special school, a personal development plan is written. It describes the expected outcomes and educational objectives for that learner. It indicates the level the learner can achieve and the support they will need to achieve it. The parents must agree with the development plan.

Special schools also have smaller classes, more specialised staff and more specialised tools for instruction.

Young children aged 0–7 with severe development disadvantages, due to intellectual, physical or social problems, can attend a medical day-care facility. Parents are eligible for reimbursement for this facility. The medical support team creates an individual development plan for the child and also supports the parents.


Last updated 27/11/2019

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