Netherlands Country Profile - Education System

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System Structure 

The Netherlands has an exceptionally high standard of state-funded education and full-time schooling is compulsory for children aged 5 to 16/17. Primary education (basisschool) is attended from age 4 or 5 to age 12 and covers eight grades (or groeps) of schooling. Following primary education, students are placed within three branches of secondary education (middelbare scholen), according to vocation and aptitude. The type of secondary education assigned to pupils is determined by the final grade 8 examination results and the advice of the grade 8 teacher. Students stay in secondary school until they have gained a diploma at age 18, when they can then choose to enter higher education. The education system is governed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap).

Academic Year

Academic terms in the Netherlands exist only at higher education level (from September to June). State schools are free to set their yearly timetables and major school holidays have staggered start times according to region, making it easier for Dutch families to travel outside of busy times.

The school day begins at 8.30am and ends at around 3pm, Monday to Friday, although again, schools have a degree of autonomy in how they organise their timetables. Most primary schools are closed on Wednesday afternoons.

Higher Education

The Netherlands has one of the oldest and highly-regarded systems of higher education in the world, with some institutions dating back to the 16th century. Five Dutch universities feature in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings, with highest places being taken by The University of Amsterdam (55th) and the Delft University of Technology (64th). Dutch higher education is state-funded and divided into two types of education; research-oriented degrees offered by research universities (universiteiten, WO) and ‘higher professional’ degrees offered by universities of applied sciences (hogescholen, HBO), which prepare students for specific arts or science-based careers. There are 14 research universities and 41 universities of applied sciences. The type of university students choose depends on the diploma they gained at secondary school. For more information consult the Dutch Government website here 


The standard annual tuition fee for all Dutch and EU students is around €1,951 (£1370), but can be higher for more specialised courses. In some circumstances, students from the EU can also apply for Dutch state grants.

Students from outside the EU will pay between €6,000 and €15,000 per year. There are a variety of scholarships options available to these students such as the Holland Scholarship, which is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.


All university courses (WO and HBO) are divided into a bachelor-masters system. A HBO Bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete and a WO degree around three years. A Master’s degree can take up to two years, depending on the course of study. Dutch universities are popular among international students, as more than 1,500 courses are taught entirely in English, ranging from short training seminars to Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes. The Netherlands has the largest offering of English-taught degree programmes in continental Europe, outside of the UK. Students can apply to university in the Netherlands through the Studielink portal, which tells you if your qualifications are suitable.


The Netherlands is recognised worldwide for the high standard of its research-led institutions, which place great emphasis on furthering research traditions. The country’s universities have produced a wealth of Nobel Prize winners and world-leading scientists. The national research council, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), receives over €400million per year from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The organisation funds top researchers and aims to further Dutch innovation and progress in science. 

Primary and Secondary Education

Primary school education (basisscholen) is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Pupils follow a core curriculum of Dutch, science, maths and English, with many learning other foreign languages from an early age. Primary school has eight grades, groep 1 (group 1) through to groep 8 (group 8) and is free to all children, regardless of nationality, although parents are expected to make an annual contribution to extra-curricular activities. On reaching groep 8 (aged 12) students are required to sit the ‘Cito final test of primary education’ (Citotoets), the results of which will determine their route into secondary education.

Secondary education is divided into three branches as follows:

  • VMBO (Voorbereidend Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs): pre-vocational secondary education, for students wishing to enter a vocational career.
  • HAVO (Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs): Senior general secondary education, for students who wish to prepare for a Bachelor’s degree at university.
  • VWO (Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs): pre-university education for those wishing to take a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at university.

The curriculum at all types of secondary school is basically the same for the first three years, before students branch off into more specialised subjects. English is a compulsory subject throughout all types of secondary education.


Children can attend pre-school (peuterspeelzaal) in the Netherlands from between age two-and-a-half to age four or five, when they begin primary school. Pre-school education is provided Monday to Friday for 3 or 5 hours (according to parents’ wishes) and the cost is split between parents, their employers and the government. Parental contributions to pre-school education are means-tested according to income. Children attending Dutch pre-school follow a programme of play-centred education, sports and music.

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