Leiden Expat Center



The Education System in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, school is compulsory for children from the age of 5 until 16, or until they have a diploma. The philosophy behind the education system is to encourage pupils to live and learn in an open-minded, independent and creative manner.

Generally, schools in the Netherlands offer high-quality education. For example, the renowned global Pisa/OECD survey among 15-year-olds shows high rankings for Dutch pupils, especially in mathematics, and all 13 state-funded Dutch universities score well in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Education in the Netherlands consists of the following levels:

  • Preschool (voorschool or peuterspeelzaal) (age 2-4)
  • Primary Education (Basisschool) (age 4-12)
  • Secondary Education: VMBO (4 years), HAVO (5 years), or VWO (6 years)
  • Tertiary Education:
    - Intermediate Vocational Education (MBO and company schools)
    - Higher Vocational Education (University for Applied Sciences) (HBO)
    - University (Universiteit or WO)

Primary school

Although by law children don't have to start school until the age of 5, most start the first day after their fourth birthday. This means that everyone starts school on a different day throughout the year. At age 4 a child starts in grade 1, which is called ‘groep 1’ in Dutch. Groep 8 (age 11 or 12) is the last grade of primary school, after which the pupils proceed to secondary school.

Most schools have groups 1 & 2 combined. The children in this group are called ‘kleuters’, and the group is known as ‘kleuterklas.’ In the ‘kleuterklas’ the focus is on learning through play, social skills, fine and gross motor skills, structure, and gradual preparation for reading and writing. Formal reading and writing starts in group 3 (age 6).

Apart from a few private, fee-paying schools, all schools are funded by the government. In the Netherlands we distinguish between openbare (regular) and bijzondere (special) schools. The openbare schools are both funded and run by the Dutch government. The bijzondere schools have their own board, which usually consists of parents or the foundation that set them up.

Special schools have equal state funding to openbare schools.
Parents are only asked to pay a small ‘voluntary parent contribution’ (ouderbijdrage) with which the schools pay for extra things such as school trips, celebrations (Sinterklaas, Christmas), a dedicated music teacher, or a pupil-run vegetable garden.
The openbare schools usually ask a parent contribution of about 50 euros per year, per child. Special schools may decide themselves how much parent contribution they ask, but it is rarely higher than 800 euros per year. Some special schools base the rate of the parent contribution on the parents' household income.

Most special schools are religious (Catholic, Protestant, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu) or follow specific philosophic or pedagogic principles (e.g. Montessori, Waldorf/Steiner, Dalton, Jenaplan).

Usually the religious schools are fairly moderate in terms of religion and are open to non-religious children and those who have a different religion. However, as this varies per school, you should always check with the school to make sure.

All schools are obliged to adhere to the ‘core objectives’ (kerndoelen) set by the government. They specify what all pupils in all schools need to accomplish each year. The individual schools may fill in the specific details.

Home schooling is generally not allowed.

Most schools only start giving homework in the higher groups, to prepare for secondary school (where they will get a lot of homework). The homework policy also varies per school.

Foreign language education

By law Dutch schools have to start teaching English by group 7 (about age 10) at the latest. More and more schools have decided to start earlier, sometimes from group 1. Such schools are called VVTO schools, which refers to Early Foreign Language Education.

In or near Leiden, the following Dutch schools teach English from group 1 (as of January 2016):

  • Zijlwijkschool
  • Het Kompas
  • De Tweemaster
  • De Singel
  • St. Joseph
  • Joppensz (former Roomburg school)
  • Pacellischool
  • ’t Klankbord
  • De Zwaluw

Special needs education

Special schools should not be confused with "speciaal onderwijs", which are special needs schools that teach pupils with severe learning problems. The national ‘Appropriate Education’ (Passend Onderwijs) policy is designed to enable as many children with minor learning difficulties as possible to be educated in mainstream schools.


Holiday periods for primary schools are set nationally with staggered start/finish times across three regions in order to spread out most of the holiday rush. Leiden belongs to the central region (Midden).

The summer holiday lasts for six weeks. During the school year, there is at least one week of holiday after each period of about six weeks, so both pupils and teachers can recharge their batteries.

School hours

Schools may decide on their own teaching hours. Usually school starts around 8.45am and ends around 3.15pm. Most schools have a lunch break of about 45-60 minutes, during which the children can either go home or have lunch at school (‘overblijven’). For the children who stay at school, an additional fee (overblijfgeld) has to be paid. They have to bring their own lunch - usually a sandwich, milk and some fruit. Before or after lunch they play outside (weather permitting).
On Wednesday afternoons most schools close at around 12.30pm for the day.

After-school care (BSO)

Basisscholen are required to offer after-school care to their pupils. Usually they contract an external organisation. The BSO teachers pick up the children from the school and take them to the BSO location. You pick up your child there, usually before 6pm or 6.30pm.
Ask your school which BSO they have contracted, and register your child there for the days of your choice.

During school holidays and other weekdays that the school is closed, the BSO is open all day.

You will have to pay a fee to the BSO, for which you may get a tax rebate (Kinderopvangtoeslag).

Sports and other activities usually take place in clubs outside of school, with children from other schools.


From groups 1 or 2 on, the pupils take a test twice a year to measure their progress and to spot any learning difficulties at an early stage, such as dyslexia. This is called the ‘pupil monitor system’ (leerlingvolgsysteem, LVS). It is also a way to measure the quality of
teaching. Please note that the pupils can’t pass or fail these tests and that there are no direct consequences based on their outcome.

In group 8, the last year of primary school, the pupils take the ‘Central End Test for Primary Education’ (Centrale Eindtoets Basisonderwijs/Cito test). This is a standardised aptitude test that measures what pupils have learned in the past eight years. The test
consists of questions testing their Dutch language and comprehension skills, mathematics, study skills, and (optionally) world orientation, which is a combination of history, geography, biology and world religions. All primary schools are obliged to take part in the end test.

Before the end test takes place, the group 8 teacher assesses what level of secondary school education would fit each pupil best. They base their recommendation on various factors including the pupil’s test scores from their whole school career, their intelligence,
their attitude towards learning, their eagerness to learn, their interests, and their motivation.

Based on the outcome of this end test and the opinion of the teacher, the pupils get a recommendation for the appropriate level of secondary school education. The assessment of the teacher is the decisive factor.

If the test scores of the central end test are higher than the teacher’s recommendation, the test scores count. If the test scores are lower, the teacher’s recommendation is followed.

Secondary school

Once they leave primary school at the age of 11 or 12, children enter secondary education, which generally continues till the ages of 16-18, depending on the level. Secondary schools are also funded by the Dutch government. All secondary schools start with a basic curriculum. Every pupil takes a wide variety of classes that are more or less the same regardless of what school they attend. There are different types of secondary schools available that vary in academic level (see below).
In the higher groups, pupils are required to select a combination of subjects in which they take their final exams.

In the Netherlands there are three ability levels in secondary school. They are, from lowest to highest academic ability:

VMBO - preparatory secondary vocational education: 4 years, followed by MBO (Intermediate Vocational Education)
HAVO - senior general secondary education: 5 years, followed by HBO (Hogeschool/University of Applied Sciences)
VWO - pre-university education: 6 years, followed by University (=WO)

secondary school


Many secondary schools have a mixed-level ‘bridge class’ (brugklas) in the 1st year.

After obtaining a diploma from one level (for example HAVO), you may proceed to the next level (VWO). Likewise, after completing HBO you may continue to university. This route will take some extra time.

Compulsory education

Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands applies to all children aged 5 to 16, or until they have a diploma. These children are required by law to attend school. Due to this obligation, schools will not give parents permission to take children on holidays in the weeks outside of the official school holiday periods. A child is only allowed to miss school because of a family emergency, or when their parents can prove that they couldn’t go on holiday during the school holidays because of work.

International or Dutch school?

Your search for a school for your children will start by choosing between an international or a Dutch school, both of which have their own advantages. If you are planning to stay in the Netherlands for a short period, or if you will move to another foreign country following your stay in the Netherlands, an international school may provide your child with a certain sense of continuity. If you are planning on staying for a longer period and would like your child to mix with the local culture and learn the Dutch language, you may prefer to choose a regular Dutch school.
An international school follows a curriculum that is more in line with the educational system and legislation of a specific country other than the Netherlands. These schools are mainly attended by foreign children, and their fees are (much) higher than the Dutch schools. Some of the international schools are partly subsided by the Dutch government, while others are completely private. For a subsidised school, like for example Elckerlyc International Primary School in Leiderdorp, the annual fees are about €3,800 per child. The tuition fees of The British School (BSN) in Voorschoten, which is not subsidised, start at €13,680 per year.

If you choose a Dutch school, children aged 6 and older are usually required to follow a Dutch immersion programme (schakelklas or nieuwkomersklas) before starting a regular school. In Leiden the dedicated schools for newcomer children are: OBS Telders, OBS Merenwijkschool, and RKBS Singel. Younger foreign children can usually start a regular primary school straight away.

How to find a Dutch primary or secondary school

In order to find a Dutch primary or secondary school, the website of your municipality is probably a good place to start. Unfortunately, these websites are likely to be in Dutch only. Nonetheless, they will provide you with a list of schools in the region. Please find below a list of words that will be useful in your school search. 

On the following websites you can find more information on the regular schools in the Netherlands: www.scholenopdekaart.nl and http://10000scholen.nl.

The 'Guide to choosing a school'gives a lot of detailed information about the options for primary education in Leiden. Visit the schools you are interested in on an ‘information morning’ (informatie-ochtend). Ask lots of questions, for example how much experience they have in teaching non-Dutch children. See also the extensive 'Checklist Basisschool'.

Visit multiple schools so you can get a feel for each school – it is a very personal decision. When deciding upon the school for your child, you determine to a large extent how they will learn academically and how they will grow emotionally, physically and socially.

How to apply for a Dutch primary school in Leiden

When your child is 18 months old, you will receive a letter from the Municipality explaining the school application procedure in Leiden. You can apply from your child’s second birthday. As some schools fill up quickly, you are advised to apply as soon as you can. If the school of your preference is already full for your child's age group, you will unfortunately have to find another one.

Education in the Leiden region


Education in the Leiden region
Leiden has a regional role in secondary education. The large number of secondary schools in Leiden represent a variety of backgrounds and approaches, offering students from the city and the surrounding areas plenty of choice.
Many municipalities near to Leiden are home to several international schools:

• Elckerlyc International Primary School

• The British School in the Netherlands (secondary school campus)

• The Indonesian Embassy School in the Netherlands
• The American School of The Hague (ASH)

• Het Rijnlands Lyceum International Secondary

The Hague
• The British School in the Netherlands (3 primary school campuses within the Hague)
• The International School of The Hague (ISH)
• European School of The Hague (ESH)
• International department of the Haagsche Schoolvereeniging (HSV)
• Lighthouse Special Education
• Deutsche Schule (German school)
• Le Lycée Français Vincent van Gogh (French school)

For more information contact:
Jihann Pedersen
Head of Communications

+31 (0)70 315 4076

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Tuition fees for a degree programme or course at a Dutch higher education institution start at approximately €1,950 per year for EU students. The costs of programmes and courses for non-EU students are generally higher, starting at €6,000 per year for a bachelor’s and €8,000 for a master’s programme. Under certain conditions students are eligible for a student loan from the government.

This website gives a good overview of all studies in the Netherlands you can follow in English: www.studyfinder.nl.

Leiden University
Leiden University offers a number of international study programmes, most of which are taught entirely in English.

The university is a so-called research-oriented university. Special attention is paid to excellent and internationally competitive research. Cooperation allows the university to gain expertise in a wide range of disciplines and academic fields. Interdisciplinary
cooperation occurs not only between various research fields within the university but also with other research institutions, non-profit organisations, companies and the government.

Education is strongly connected to academic research. In addition to one-year master's programmes, Leiden University also offers challenging two-year research master’s degrees.These are designed to prepare those individuals who plan to do a PhD.

Leiden University consists of six faculties: Archaeology, Medicine, Law, Social Sciences, Maths & Natural sciences, and Humanities (formerly known as the faculties of Religious Studies, Arts, Creative and Performing Arts and Philosophy).

Webster University
Webster University is an accredited American university with annexes in various countries including the Netherlands. Webster Leiden aims to enrich its students from around the world intellectually by offering them flexible, innovative and practical-minded education. In Leiden, Webster University's main building is located in the historic city centre.

Since 1983 Webster Leiden has been offering American bachelor's and master's programmes in four departments: Business and Management, Psychology and Social Sciences, International Relations and Media Communication.

Higher vocational education (HBO - University for Applied Sciences)

Leiden also offers many opportunities in higher vocational education. One can choose from a wide range of study programmes in Education, Management and Business Studies, Technology and Health and Social Care. These studies prepare students for occupations such as teachers, accountants, managers, team leaders, bankers, architects, art directors, journalists, translators, estate agents, advisors, consultants, midwifes, artists, or pilots.

Intermediate vocational education (MBO)

Intermediate vocational education prepares students for a wide range of jobs, for example work as a baker, an assistant, a secretary, a security officer, an office employee, a hairdresser, a nurse, or a childminder. All programmes combine practical learning in the
classroom with hands-on training. The amount of theory and practical training varies depending on the particular study programme.

Useful education-related websites

Education in Leiden

General information from the municipality of Leiden:
www.leiden.nl/themas/onderwijs/basisonderwijs (in Dutch)

Guide with detailed information about the options for primary education in Leiden
(in Dutch):

Information about raising children in Leiden:
www.cjgleiden.nl (partly in English)

National websites

Compare schools (national websites):

National school holidays:

Special needs education in the Netherlands:
www.passendonderwijs.nl (in Dutch)

Special information for international families

Expat Special Educational Needs Group in the Netherlands:

Dutch immersion classes (for foreign children 6+):

Independent educational consultant for international families in the Netherlands:

Higher education

Overview of all studies in the Netherlands you can follow in English:

Universiteit Leiden/Plexus
Kaiserstraat 25
2311 GN Leiden
+ 31 (0)71 5278011

Webster University
Boommarkt 1
2311 EA Leiden
+31 (0)71 516 8000

Useful words and phrases to make your school search easier

English Dutch
Application form Aanmeldingsformulier
Catchment area Voedingsgebied
Compulsory school attendence Leerplicht
Education Onderwijs
Holiday Vakantie
Lunch break (at school) Overblijven 
 Neighbourhood Buurt 
Primary school (age 4-12)  Basisschool  
Private school (no government funding)  Particuliere school 
Regular school (both run and funded by the government; non-religious)  Openbare school 
Pupils Leerlingen 
Religion  Godsdienst/religie 
School hours  Schooltijden 
Secondary school  Middelbare school 
Special school (funded by the government, but they have their own board)  Bijzondere school 
Teachers  Leerkrachten 
To apply  Aanmelden 
To register  Inschrijven 
University (Applied sciences)  HBO/Hogeschool 
University (research-oriented)  Universiteit 

See also the Glossary – Dutch education system, with over 420 words that will help you to understand the Dutch education system and to decipher the letters you will receive from school.

Last update: 05-07-2016