Executive summary

The strengths of the Dutch education system

The Dutch school system is one of the best in the OECD, as measured by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). It is also equitable, with a very low proportion of poor performers. Basic skills are very good on average, while the system minimises weak basic skills among teenagers as effectively as the East Asian champions of Japan and Korea. This is supplemented by a strong vocational education and training system with good labour market outcomes. The system is underpinned by: a high level of decentralisation, balanced by a national examination system and a strong Inspectorate of Education; school financing which supports disadvantaged students; experimentation and innovation; and good data and research. Strong stakeholder intermediate institutions inform a lively research and policy debate. However, some challenges remain, and the Netherlands aspires to greater excellence.

Challenges and recommendations

Strengthen quality in early childhood education and care

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) can have extensive benefits, particularly for disadvantaged children. This review recommends that the quality of general ECEC services should be strengthened through the development of a curriculum framework, and by improving and standardising the qualifications and training of ECEC staff. At the same time, the review argues that the Netherlands should move towards a more integrated approach to ECEC provision.

Reform initial selection and subsequent permeability

Despite early tracking, student outcomes in the Netherlands are good on average and in respect of equity. But large performance differences within tracks are a problem. The review argues that as one component of a reform package, the Netherlands should consider options for reducing the extent of early tracking. At the same time, a student’s right to enter a track could be established based on a national objective test. Schools may then be required to respect national test standards when placing students in tracks and subsequently sustaining them in those tracks. This would facilitate upward transition between tracks throughout the school career.

Promote and reward student motivation and excellence

The Netherlands has more 15-year-old top-performers in basic skills than most of Europe, but is still behind some Asian countries; some of the most promising students are not reaching their full potential. To address these challenges, the review argues that teacher capacity to respond to individual learning needs should be improved, while rewards for excellence at every level of education are also reinforced through the opportunity for track promotion. High expectations should be set through a relevant curriculum, and parental engagement in education that supports excellence and motivation should be fostered.

Strengthen teacher professionalism and further develop the career structure

This review argues that teacher professionalism should be sustained and developed through a life cycle approach that starts with effective initial selection arrangements and mandatory induction, while promoting collaborative working and learning within and across schools. The career structure for teachers requires further development, with greater salary and career diversity supported by clear competence standards, and effective appraisal linked to professional and school development goals. Sustained attention to differentiated teaching skills is also necessary.

Develop a leadership strategy that promotes professional collaboration and a culture of continuous improvement

The quality of school leadership is especially critical in the decentralised Dutch school system. In response, the Netherlands needs to develop a leadership strategy that promotes collaboration among school leaders, teachers and school boards and a culture of continuous improvement. There should be a mandatory national induction programme for school leaders that guarantees the quality of induction and mentoring support, annual appraisals for all school leaders and personal development plans that are aligned to school goals. School leaders and leadership teams should also continue to develop their capacity to conduct school self-evaluations, fostering the goal of schools as learning organisations.

Enhance the accountability and capacity of school boards and rebalance their authority

School boards have a key governance role in the Netherlands, but accountability mechanisms are weak and there are sometimes capacity issues within the boards. This review argues that the work of school boards should be made more transparent and that they should open up their operations to meaningful challenge. The strategic leadership capacity of school boards and their professionalism should be enhanced systematically, while the authority of school boards should be rebalanced to give more authority to school leaders.