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Overview of the Dutch education model

In 1985, the Dutch integrated their pre-school system with their primary schools, so that both functions are now carried on in the public schools.  Though education is compulsory for students from the ages of 5 to 16, 99% of four-year-olds attend school in the Netherlands.  There are no defined school catchment areas in the Netherlands, so parents may enroll their children in any primary school they wish.  Though schools affiliated with religions can refuse students who do not subscribe to their beliefs, in practice, they typically accept students from many religions and no religion, though, if the schools are oversubscribed, they typically take children from the neighborhood first, and the siblings of students already at the school and the best schools have big waiting lists.

The secondary school system in the Netherlands is organized very differently than the primary sector.  Whereas primary school students can go to any school they like, students can only go to secondary schools that will accept them, and the secondary schools can establish their own entrance requirements.  In general, the decision as to where students will apply is made on the recommendation of the primary school teachers and is based partly on the student’s performance on the primary school leaving exams developed by the National Institute for Educational Measurement (Cito).  These exams are not mandated by the state, but they are produced under the auspices of the state and are taken by the vast majority of the students (92%) because most secondary schools require them.  The structure of the secondary system is defined by the state. There are three main streams in the secondary education system, and, within these streams, there are further divisions.  Roughly speaking, the three streams are the academic or university prep track, the general track, and the vocational track.  There are separate schools within the second and third of these streams, typically corresponding to the occupations that students wish to enter and the mix of theoretical and practical studies they want to pursue.  Each of these streams also culminates in examinations which result in qualifications to go on to further education or to begin a career, for those who succeed.

Though schools have considerable freedom to decide how to teach, the state does define what they must teach, in the form of attainment targets for the schools in each of the subject matter areas.  The Dutch Inspectorate is charged with inspecting schools on a regular schedule to make sure that the schools’ funds are being spent appropriately, the curriculum is in place and the attainment targets are being met. In the Dutch system, the schools are responsible for hiring teachers, but teachers’ compensation and working conditions are set by national negotiations between the government and the teachers union.  The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is responsible for setting the standards for entrance into the teacher education institutions, for the curriculum of those institutions and for teacher licensure, thereby giving it substantial control over the quality of teachers in the Netherlands.

For a long time, the right of parents to choose freely among schools operated by non-governmental agencies did not result in substantial segregation of Dutch schools by social class or ethnicity.  Each of the major sponsors of schools took in members of their own belief group from many social classes and the vast majority of students came from a Dutch background.  But, in the 70s and 80s, that changed.  As the Dutch economy boomed, large numbers of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds came to the Netherlands from the former Dutch colonies and many others were recruited as guest workers from Turkey and Morocco, and they stayed.

Many Dutch parents, apparently deciding that their children would be more likely to get a better education in schools populated by children from better educated families, chose schools that answered to that description, leaving behind what have come to be called “Black schools,” populated by students who, though they have the right to move to other primary schools, often cannot do so or do not wish to do so.  Similarly, teachers getting offers from multiple schools have often chosen to teach in the more affluent schools, making it difficult for the “Black schools” to find qualified teachers.  The strong commitment of the Dutch to choice has made it very difficult for them to deal with this issue.

One of the paradoxes of the Dutch system is the contrast between the secularization of the society as a whole (like much of Northern Europe, rates of churchgoing in the Netherlands is very low) and the persistence of a system in which religious organizations operate a large share of the public schools.  Dutch researchers speculate that some parents use the availability of religious schools to avoid having to send their children to schools with significant populations of immigrant children, or because the better teachers decide to accept offers from schools serving the children of better-educated parents because they are easier to teach and to take advantage of the smaller class sizes and less bureaucratic environment they find there.

We come now to the question as to why the Dutch have placed in the top ranks of the world’s education league tables since the data on which those tables have been constructed was first collected.  We take the answer to that question to rest on the following:

  • the very high level of support for young children in the Netherlands;
  • the willingness of the Dutch to provide substantially more financial support to schools serving poor and minority children than to others;
  • the high standards set by the government for student attainment and the effectiveness of the Dutch accountability system with respect to those standards;
  • the almost legendary effectiveness of the Dutch approach to mathematics teaching;
  • a system of pathways through secondary education that does an unusually good job of matching student learning styles and personal preferences to available education program options and motivates students to work hard in school by assuring them that there will be jobs for them if they do so;
  • and, finally, the Dutch system for assuring teacher quality.

Read more about each of these points in detail…

Further reading:

Via Centre on International Education Benchmarking 


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