Chapter 1. The Dutch education system1

The Dutch education system is a strong performer, with outcomes for cognitive skills that are both strong on average and in terms of equity. These outcomes emerge from a system that balances a high level of decentralisation and school autonomy with a strong set of accountability measures. But challenges remain, and the Netherlands rightly aims high. Early childhood education and care, while extensive, faces quality issues: the integrity of early tracking faces growing difficulties because of variations in the initial track selection, student motivation is low, and there are few really strong performers. As in all countries, the quality of teachers and school leaders is critical to educational performance, but collective learning and working is underdeveloped. School boards are not always as accountable as they should be.


Introduction and background

In many respects, the Dutch education system stands out from the crowd

Within broad parameters set by government, schools have extensive freedom, with no national curriculum. In contrast to more “comprehensive” systems students are “tracked” from around the age of 12. The number of separate tracks is large, even when compared with other countries that track early. A strong vocational education and training system plays a big role, with good employer links and a dual apprenticeship system; the Netherlands has one of the lowest levels of young people neither employed nor in education or training (NEET) in the OECD. Literacy and numeracy outcomes are very good, on average, and the system minimises weak basic skills among teenagers as effectively as the East Asian champions of Japan and Korea, far ahead of most European countries. Education systems thrive on relentless evaluation and self-criticism, and a constant aspiration for improvement is found in the Netherlands. 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, alongside strong stakeholder intermediate institutions to inform a lively research and policy debate. However, some challenges inevitably remain, and the Netherlands aspires to greater excellence.

This review examines the Dutch education system up to the end of secondary school

This review documents the strengths and challenges of the education system from early childhood up to the end of secondary education, and makes policy recommendations for further improvement. The terms of reference for the review can be found in Annex A. An OECD team visited the Netherlands in July and September 2015. This chapter describes the main characteristics of the Dutch education system and its outcomes, and compares them with those of other countries. It concludes with an assessment of the strengths of the system, and documents some outstanding challenges. The remaining chapters address these challenges and offer policy recommendations.

Box 1.1. The OECD education policy review process

OECD Education Policy Reviews are tailored to the needs of the country and cover a wide range of topics and sub-sectors focused on education improvement. The reviews are based on an in-depth analysis of strengths and weaknesses that use various available sources of data, such as PISA and other internationally comparable statistics, research and a review visit to the country. They draw on policy lessons from benchmarking countries and economies, with expert analysis of the key aspects of education policy and practice examined. The methodology aims to provide analysis and recommendations for effective policy design and implementation.

A typical Education Policy Review consists of 5 phases, usually over 8 to 12 months depending on the scope of the review. The phases are: 1) definition of scope; 2) desk review and first visit to the country; 3) second review visit; 4) drafting of the report; and 5) launch of the report.

Education Policy Reviews are conducted in OECD member countries and non-member countries, usually upon request by the countries.

A snapshot of the Dutch education system

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is widely accessible

General ECEC is provided in day care centres (kinderdagverblijven) and offers care for children under four years of age. In 2013, 52% of Dutch children aged two to three attended these centres one or more days a week. Pre-kindergarten facilities (peuterspeelzalen), or playgroups, provide a more formal type of early childhood education than childcare centres for children between 2.5 and 4 years. A total of 37% of Dutch children attend pre-kindergarten facilities (CBS, 2016). A small proportion of Dutch children (about 9%) under four receive in-home care by childminders (gastouderopvang). There are subsidised programmes targeted at disadvantaged groups and those from non-Dutch speaking backgrounds. Chapter 2 discusses this in more detail.

Education is compulsory from age five, but most children start primary school at age four

Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands starts at the age of five but most children (98%) enter primary education at age four. From the age of 16, students must attend some form of education for at least two days a week. All young people up to 18 must attend school until they attain a basic qualification. A basic qualification is a HAVO (general secondary education), VWO (pre-university education) or MBO (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, upper secondary vocational education) level 2 diploma (MoECS, 2016). Figure 1.1 illustrates the structure of the education system.

Figure 1.1. The structure of the Dutch education system, 2013

Source: OECD (n.d.), “Diagram of the education system: The Netherlands”, OECD Education GPS,

Primary education lasts eight years

Primary schools typically cater for children aged 4 to 12. Schools are free to determine the content and methods of teaching, subject to national attainment targets and reference levels for literacy and numeracy. At the end of primary education, students receive a school report describing their cognitive achievement levels and potential. Students transfer into different types of secondary education based on the advice of their primary school teacher and objective end-of-primary test results (Figure 1.2). Recent policy changes have given more weight to teacher advice.

Figure 1.2. Recommendations after primary education in 2014 (in %)

Source: MoECS (2016), Key Figures Education, MoECS (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science), The Hague.

There are three types of secondary education

Upon leaving primary school, children may enter: pre-vocational secondary education or “VMBO” which lasts four years; general secondary education, or “HAVO”, which lasts five years; and pre-university education, “VWO”, which lasts six years (MoECS, 2016). As in a number of European countries (e.g. the Flemish Community of Belgium, Germany, Hungary), children are selected for a track at the end of primary school. However, the Netherlands differs from other early tracking countries as it has six or seven (depending on how they are counted) “early” tracks, rather than the more usual two or three (see Figure 1.1). Secondary schools have the freedom to delay selection where needed through “bridge classes” in the first years of secondary school. Most secondary schools already stream their students at this stage.

Pre-vocational secondary education is typically for those aged 12-16

This programme prepares students for MBO or HAVO. VMBO and includes four alternative study programmes:

  • Theoretical programme (theoretische leerweg), “VMBO-t”: best suited to students who want to continue on to MBO or to the 4th year of HAVO.

  • Combined programme (gemengde leerweg), “VMBO-g”: offers a mix of theoretical and practical subjects.

  • Middle-management vocational programme (kaderberoepsgerichte leerweg), “VMBO-k”: tailored to students aiming for further vocational training (e.g. as manager of a food franchise operation).

  • Basic vocational programme (basisberoepsgerichte leerweg), “VMBO-b”: a mix between general education and practical experience.

Two secondary education programmes prepare Dutch students for university entry

HAVO, for students normally aged 12 to 17, prepares students for professional higher education (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO), typically at universities of applied sciences. In 2015/16, 28% of Dutch 16-year-olds were enrolled in HAVO (CBS, 2016). In the same year, 19% of Dutch 16-year-old students were enrolled in pre-university education (CBS, 2016). A VWO diploma grants access to all universities, including research universities.2 In the second phase of their curriculum, HAVO and VWO students choose between four profiles: nature and technology; nature and health; economy and social studies; and culture and social studies (MoECS, 2016).

Those from poor and migrant backgrounds are less often found in academic tracks

Among the cohort that entered secondary education in 2005, students of the top quartile of parental income were four times more likely to be in pre-university education (VWO) four years later (2008/09) than children from the bottom quartile. By contrast, students from the bottom quartile of parental income were more than five times more numerous in the basic vocational programme (VMBO-b) than their top-quartile counterparts. In 2010/11, only 30% of non-Western ethnic-minority students were enrolled in HAVO or VWO, compared to almost 50% of the native Dutch population (MoECS, 2012).

There has been a gradual shift in the number of students from vocational to academic tracks

Over time, there has been a shift from vocational to academic tracks. Between 1990 and 2011, the proportion of students in pre-vocational education (VMBO) decreased from 58% to 39%, while the share in general secondary education (HAVO) and pre-university education (VWO) rose from 32% to 44% (MoECS, 2012).

Upper secondary vocational education prepares students for work or study

The length of MBO programmes depends on the qualification chosen. The programmes can be followed at regional training centres (ROCs), agrarian training centres (AOCs) and vocational schools (vakscholen) (see Table 1.1). There are four levels of qualification:

  • Level 1: assistant training lasts six months to one year and leads to an assistentopleiding diploma.

  • Level 2: basic vocational training lasts two to three years and leads to a basisberoepsopleiding diploma.

  • Level 3: vocational training lasts two to four years and leads to a vakopleiding diploma.

  • Level 4: management training lasts about four years and leads to a middenkaderopleiding diploma. It also provides admission to higher professional education. Specialist training (specialistenopleiding) is also at qualification level 4 and lasts one to two years. It is preceded by vakopleiding or middenkaderopleiding (EP-Nuffic, 2015).

Table 1.1. Fields and levels of study in upper secondary vocational education programmes (MBO)
Numbers of students enrolled in 2013

Field of study

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4



2 642

44 519

47 870

82 473

177 504


3 233

41 587

28 566

69 444

142 830

Care and welfare

1 294

25 756

58 461

88 845

174 356


3 100

6 014

8 172

12 238

29 524


10 706



2 522

13 474


20 975

118 106

143 085

255 522

537 688

Source: DUO (2013), “Aantal onderwijsdeelnemers in het MBO” [Number of students in MBO], (accessed 23 January 2014).

The strong upper secondary vocational education system consists of two parallel structures

The apprenticeship track (Beroepsbegeleidende Leerweg or BBL) and the school-based track (Beroepsopleidende Leerweg or BOL) both combine learning and working. In the apprenticeship track, at least 60% of the learning takes place in the workplace. In practice, most apprenticeship programmes have one day of formal schooling and four days of workplace training. The school-based track includes at least 20%, and typically around 30%, of workplace training (Vrieze, van Kuijk and de Loo, 2009). Over half of the Dutch labour force had a vocational qualification in 2012. But unlike Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which also have strong vocational systems linked to dual apprenticeship, vocational education is not actively championed (Fazekas and Litjens, 2014).

Box 1.2. Policy recommendations from the OECDs review of vocational education and training

This review looked at both upper secondary vocational education and training (VET) and the postsecondary sector in the Netherlands. It made policy recommendations for the upper secondary level as follows:

  • Actively champion and promote apprenticeship and work-based learning throughout the Dutch VET system, including at the postsecondary level. Negotiate reform with the social partners to sustain tripartite support for the system.

  • Facilitate the entry of industry practitioners into the teaching workforce and promote skills updating among existing teaching staff through regular industry placements.

  • Merge pre-vocational education levels 1 and 2 at lower secondary level and refocus upper secondary VET level 1 programmes as a more effective entry route into upper secondary VET level 2.

Source: Fazekas, M. and I. Litjens (2014), A Skills beyond School Review of the Netherlands, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Tertiary education takes two forms

The two forms of tertiary education are: 1) Research oriented education programmes (WO) at universities that include bachelors, Masters and Ph.D programmes; 2) practical-oriented programmes (HBO) that are provided mainly at universities of applied sciences (hogescholen) and include both professional bachelor (four years) and masters programmes (a further two years). HBO programmes emphasise skills and knowledge that are directly applicable to the labour market.

Governance and financing

School systems balance decentralisation of decision-making with accountability for results

School systems across OECD countries vary a great deal regarding the extent to which they centralise the control of education. For example, teachers in Germany are civil servants, recruited centrally, and allocated to schools, whereas teachers in the United States are typically locally recruited within an often small school district. Many other decisions on the use of resources can also be taken centrally or in a decentralised manner. Decentralisation, balanced by accountability, has been widely encouraged by education policy experts, not least because it resonates with wider trends in public management that grant freedom to local providers of public services to use their resources flexibly, and in return hold them accountable for delivering good results.

The Netherlands has a highly decentralised school system

In 2011, at the lower secondary level, schools made 86% of key decisions (compared to an OECD average of 41%), with the remaining 14% made by central government. Schools made 100% of the decisions regarding the organisation of instruction, personnel management and resource management, but only 43% of the decisions regarding planning and structures3 (OECD, 2012) (Figure 1.3). There is no national curriculum (although there are national examinations), which allows extensive freedom over what is taught and how it is taught, subject to a final assessment in an examination. Since the 1980s, Dutch schools have acquired increasing levels of responsibility (see Chapter 7). School autonomy is grounded in the principle of “freedom of education”, guaranteed by the Dutch Constitution since 1917. This allows any person to set up a school, organise teaching, and determine the educational, religious or ideological principles on which teaching is based. Parents may choose the schools attended by their children in principle, (although this is somewhat restricted by the school guidance given to students at age 12), with control applied at the local level to mitigate imbalances in school composition or weighted student funding to support greater social diversity in schools (OECD, 2014a).

Public and private schools receive equivalent public funding

In 2011, about one third of students in primary education were in public schools, another third in Catholic schools, one quarter in Protestant schools, with the remainder in other types of government-dependent private schools (MoECS, 2012). While public schools are open to all students, government-dependent private schools may refuse students whose parents do not subscribe to the school’s profile or principles.

Figure 1.3. Percentage of decisions taken at each level of government in public lower secondary education, 2011

Countries are ranked in descending order of the percentage of decisions taken at the school level.

Source: OECD (2012), Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Schools are managed by school boards that have acquired an increasingly important role

A distinctive feature of the Dutch system is the institution of school boards (see Table 1.2). Many powers are vested in these boards, rather than directly in the schools that are governed by these boards. The boards oversee the implementation of legislation and regulations in the school and employ teachers and other staff. While in the past public schools were governed mostly by local government, governance has increasingly been passed to independent school boards. The school governors who make up the boards may be volunteers (laypersons receiving an honorarium) or professionals (receiving a salary). The role of the school boards is under active discussion in the Netherlands. This issue is further examined in Chapter 7.

Table 1.2. Overview of the school governance system in the Netherlands



Intervention/support repertoire

Minister of Education, Culture and Science (MoECS)

Responsible for the overall quality of education in schools.

  • Development of national policy.

  • Development of quality norms.

  • Development of financing of supportive measures.

  • Power to stop funding or close schools.

Inspectorate of Education

Supervision of education: quality, finance, social security, and citizenship.

  • Assess schools using a supervision framework. Since 2007 also school boards.

  • Discuss absolute and relative performance with boards and professionals in the schools. Report (very) weak schools to MoECS.

  • Identification of “excellent schools” (see

  • Provide public reports of judgements.

Sector councils i.e. PO-Raad, VO-Raad and MBO-Raad

Representation of education school boards’ interests.

  • Development and implementation of national policies.

  • Assist schools to improve performance.

Local Government (Alderman for Education)

Owner of school buildings and responsible for their maintenance.

  • Improve the quality of education in schools by making funding and assistance available at the local level.

School board

Formal constituent of the school(s), responsible and accountable for corporate and educational quality of school.

  • Set the organisational vision and structure.

  • Hire, professionalise and lay off school leaders/management and other personnel.

  • Hire support.

  • Internal quality monitoring.

  • Determine the organisational/learning climate in the schools.

  • Steer educational quality.

  • Change schools’ budget.

Internal supervisory council

Integral supervision and focusing on the importance of education. Acts as adviser and sounding board to the school board. Employer of the board members.

  • Ensures compliance with the code of good governance in education.

  • Approval of strategic policy, annual reports and accounts.

  • Appointment, dismissal and legal status and remuneration of board members.

  • Annual appraisal of the board and its members.

  • Amendment of the statutes.

  • Appointment of an external auditor.

(Joint) participation council

Co-decision/advisory role in the management of the school. The joint participation council fulfils these functions at the board level in case a school board consists of more than one school.

  • Right to information, right to consent and prior consultation on a number of defined pieces of the school board.

School principal

Managing the day-to-day business in the school.

  • Hire and lay off personnel.

  • Shape team climate.

  • Invest in teachers or methods.

  • Contact with parents.


Responsible for the quality of education in the classroom.

  • Make changes in classroom.

  • Contact with parents.


Client of the education system, some formally part of school board or member of the parents’ council representative.

  • Participate actively in school.

  • Assist with day-to-day activities.

Source: Adapted from van Twist, M. et al. (2013), “Coping with very weak primary schools: Towards smart interventions in Dutch education policy”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 98, OECD Publishing, Paris,

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (MoECS) has overall responsibility

An optimal model of public service provision will balance local flexibility with central accountability; this is apparent in the Netherlands. MoECS initiates legislation and determines the structure and funding of the system, but it only engages with individual schools in cases of serious underperformance. In the context of teacher policy, the Dutch government (2011, p. 3) described the distribution of responsibilities for educational reform as follows: “the government will establish the objectives of the policy measures (‘what’) while the field itself will decide how best to pursue those objectives (‘how’).” MoECS holds the schooling system accountable by setting standards, attainment targets and organising central examinations. The Minister of Education is responsible for the scope of school inspection, which is carried out by an independent inspectorate that submits an annual plan to Parliament after approval by the Minister.4 The Inspectorate monitors both education quality and compliance with statutory regulations.5

There is a large intermediary structure of school support organisations

Some of these are organised according to religious denominations. The Council for Primary Education (PO-raad), the Council for Secondary Education (VO-raad) and the Netherlands Association of VET Colleges (MBO-raad) represent the employers (school boards) of their respective sectors and offer support services to schools, such as a team of “flying brigades” that work with schools identified by the Inspectorate of Education as weak or unsatisfactory (Nusche et al., 2014).

The Netherlands achieves good results with an average level of expenditure

Looking across countries, the link between expenditure on education and outcomes is tenuous at best. With an expenditure of 3.8% of GDP on primary and secondary education in 2012, similar to the OECD average, the Netherlands achieves good student outcomes (see below) (OECD, 2015). Over four fifths of expenditure on educational institutions is from public sources (also similar to the OECD average). Annual expenditure per student in the Netherlands is lower than the OECD average in primary education at USD 8 185, and higher than the average in secondary education at USD 12 296 (OECD, 2015).

Education expenditure has increased

Between 2000 and 2012, expenditure on primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education, as a percentage of GDP, increased by 0.6 percentage points (compared to an OECD average increase of 0.2 percentage points). Between 2005 and 2012, expenditure per student in primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education increased by 13%, while enrolment increased by 1% (OECD, 2015).

Funding mainly reflects the number of students

School funding arrangements may be categorised into three types. In the first type, school funding depends on the local tax base, as in the United States and, to some extent, China. This means that disadvantaged students in poor areas tend to have poorly resourced schools. The second type makes school funding depend very simply on the number of students, with few adjustments (often for students with special needs). This arrangement applies, for example, in Hungary. A third type allows for per capita funding but makes more substantial adjustments, partly to reflect local cost-drivers, such as rural location, but more commonly to reflect the additional demands of teaching disadvantaged students. The Netherlands falls into this third category.

School boards receive block grants for staffing and operating costs

Block grants based on the student population are given to school boards. Schools with students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, those with special education needs, or other specific student populations can receive additional funding. Schools can also receive additional funding from municipalities for specific educational purposes (such as for students at risk of dropping out of education). Other sources of funding for schools include voluntary contributions from parents or businesses. Parents receive an allowance until a child is 18, based on the age of the child and the number of children in the family. For early childhood education, municipalities receive grants from the government’s Municipality Fund, based on parents’ educational background and school location.

Outcomes: Quality and equity

Attainment and participation in education

Attainment rates are similar to the OECD average

In 2014, 76% of 25 to 64 year-olds had completed at least upper secondary education. Among 25 to 34 year-olds, 85% had attained at least upper secondary education and 44% had completed tertiary education (OECD, 2015). For many years, and even today, attainment rates have been seen as a key indicator of the success of education systems. However, attainment is measured largely in terms of the time students spend sitting in classrooms, and there are few means of testing across countries whether they have learnt useful things during this time. The exception is survey measures, such as the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), that focus on basic skills. However, these tend to show a somewhat tenuous relationship between attainment and literacy and numeracy skills. Today, in developed countries and emerging economies, the emphasis is therefore shifting from quantity to quality.

The cognitive skills of Dutch students are among the highest in the world

The PISA 2012 results show that among the 65 countries that participated, the Netherlands ranked 10th in mathematics, with an average score of 523, 15th in reading (511) and 14th in science (522) (OECD, 2014b). At the primary school level, among the 49 countries participating in the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Netherlands ranked 13th in reading and outscored the international average (500 points) by 46 points. Only nine countries had significantly higher scores. Only seven countries performed significantly better than the Netherlands in mathematics in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) (Meelissen et al., 2012).

But there has been a decline in performance since PISA 2003

The PISA mathematics test score of the Netherlands fell by 1.6 points a year between 2003 and 2012, a decline shared across educational tracks and one of the largest declines among all participant countries. At the primary level, PIRLS and TIMSS data show stable results in all domains since 2003. But the average scores are significantly lower than the high levels initially obtained in 1995 for mathematics and in 2001 for reading (Meelissen et al., 2012).

Equity and inclusion

The Dutch schooling system leaves few teenagers with weak basic skills and few who become NEET

Very few teenagers in the Netherlands have weak basic skills (Figure 1.4). In 2011, the Netherlands had the lowest rate of 15 to 29 year-olds who were NEET across all OECD countries (7% compared to an OECD average of 16%) (OECD, 2015).

Social background has less impact on outcomes than in many other countries

In the Netherlands, there is a weaker link between mathematics performance and socio-economic status than on average in the OECD, and the weakest among the countries with highly stratified education systems.6 Some 9% of students are “resilient” – meaning they succeed at school despite a disadvantaged background – which is significantly higher than the OECD average of 6% (OECD, 2013).

Figure 1.4. Very few teenagers in the Netherlands have low basic skills
Percentage of 16-19 year-olds with low literacy or numeracy (below level 2)

Note: Adults who obtained their highest qualification outside the host country: those with foreign qualifications and 1st generation migrants who obtained their highest qualification prior to entering the host country are excluded.

Countries are ranked in ascending order of the percentage of 16-19 year-olds with low literacy or numeracy (below level 2).

Source: OECD (2016), Building Skills for All: A Review of England, OECD Publishing, Paris,

There are concerns about increasing diagnoses of special educational needs

In 2011, 17% of students were identified as having special needs. This was nearly double the figure for 1990, with increases concentrated in the secondary sector. In response, the Appropriate Education Act (Wet Passend Onderwijs) of 2014 made school boards responsible for providing “inclusive” education to every student. As a result it is expected that more students will be placed in mainstream education and that separate facilities will increasingly be of a temporary nature (Inspectorate of Education, 2015).

The performance of migrant students remains an important challenge

Fifteen-year-old students with an immigrant background scored 57 points less on average than their native peers in PISA 2012(OECD, 2013). PIRLS, TIMSS and national test results (CITO7 test) all show that these gaps are visible from the earliest years. TIMSS, for example, shows that at the age of 10, immigrant students are already behind their Dutch peers by 22 points in reading and 34 points in mathematics. After controlling for socio-economic differences, both first- and second-generation immigrant students still score far behind non-immigrant students, with 41 and 31 point differences respectively (Meelissen et al., 2012).

As in many other countries, girls are better at reading and boys are better at mathematics

In PISA 2012, Dutch girls performed substantially better than boys at reading (by 26 points), while boys were slightly better than girls at mathematics (by 10 points) (OECD, 2014b). At the primary level, PIRLS 2011 found that Dutch girls outperformed boys by 7 points in reading, which is far below the international average of 16 points. TIMMS 2011 found that boys outperformed girls in mathematics by 8 points, one of the largest gaps among countries (Meelissen et al., 2012).

Demographic change

The Netherlands is facing a demographic decline in its student population

Initially, primary education has been most affected by the demographic decline of its student population. Between 2011 and 2020 the number of students in primary education is expected to decline by 100 000 (a decrease of 7%), with declines of up to 20% in the Achterhoek and the Rivierenland regions. Within these regions, some municipalities face declines of up to 30% of the student population by 2020. This has inevitably led to an increasing number of schools with very small student rolls. For example, in the primary sector, 5% of schools are very small (fewer than 50 students) and 15% are small (50 to 99 pupils). Less than half (45%) of all primary schools can be considered large schools that have more than 200 students (Haartsen and Wissen, 2012).

Small schools face particular challenges

The quality of education in smaller schools is harder to ensure due to financial and staffing problems (Moseley and Owen, 2008; Huitsing and Bosman, 2011). There are a limited range of teaching methods and styles, difficulties in teaching a wide range of ages and abilities in a single class, and fewer social opportunities with children of a similar age. Schools that have experienced a strong demographic decline are more often classified as weak or very weak by the Inspectorate of Education (Haartsen and Wissen, 2012).

School closures are unpopular

In rural areas, schools may symbolise sustainable local societies (Witten et al., 2001; Egelund and Laustsen, 2006). Closures and mergers reduce local school choice and increase travel distances, although in the densely populated Netherlands, nearly 90% of primary school children live within one kilometre of their school. Compensatory financial and other measures have been developed to support school mergers, maintain quality, and stimulate innovative solutions. Strengthened co-operation between small rural schools can help to solve staff and financial problems (Huitsing and Bosman, 2011). Sometimes the measures have eliminated traditional differences between public and religious schools. In Drenthe, the brede scholen (literal translation “broad schools”) integrates early childhood and primary schooling (Van Leer et al., 2012). At the secondary level, experiments have begun with reducing the number of tracks, a development that parallels developments in the eastern parts of Germany, and may be desirable on other grounds. Sometimes the pressure of adversity stimulates innovation.

Appraising the Dutch school system

Why does the Netherlands perform so well?

School freedom is balanced by strong accountability mechanisms

As set out in this chapter, the education system in the Netherlands appears to balance a remarkable degree of freedom at the level of schools and school boards alongside the strong accountability mechanisms of: national examinations; the influential Inspectorate of Education, particularly through its role in challenging individual school weaknesses; and the pressures of free school choice. This balance seems to work relatively well.

Early tracking is balanced by moderating influences

In some respects, basic skills outcomes of the Dutch school system appear to break the rules, conflicting with the argument that early tracking damages equity. Tracking by ability takes place early and is intensive, with more tracks than almost any other OECD country. Since the Dutch school system performs well both on equity and on average, it is harder to advance the argument for radical change to establish a comprehensive school system.

A strong vocational system plays a key role

In some countries, vocational education and training involves poor quality, inadequately resourced schools, and weak connections to the labour market. These quality problems mean that those tracked into vocational education and training are more likely to have poor education and career outcomes. Under such circumstances, the overall impact of initial tracking is very bad for equity. However, in the Netherlands the upper secondary vocational education (MBO) schools are well-resourced and perform well, with strong links to the labour market that are mediated through extensive work based learning. At the top of the vocational system there is good access to tertiary education in the universities of applied science. School to work transition is also smoother in the Netherlands than in most other countries with a low NEET rate (Fezekas and Litjens, 2014). This all means that the potential equity risks of a highly tracked system are significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

Traditional flexibilities in tracking are important

Historically, schools have maintained two important mechanisms to moderate early tracking. First, secondary schools have traditionally been given the freedom to delay selection where needed through “bridge classes” in the first years of secondary schools. Second, the legal framework enables “scaffolding” diplomas. Once the student has graduated within his or her track level, he or she is automatically allowed to gain access to the next level. Many students have thus been allowed to obtain, with some delay, diplomas at higher educational levels than those at which they were initially placed. Some emerging threats to these flexibilities will be discussed in Chapter 3.

A competent education workforce

The quality of education depends on the quality of staff. The vast majority of Dutch teachers provide a good pedagogical climate for their students, explain things clearly and are focused on helping students improve their learning. The Inspectorate of Education also finds that in many schools, teachers, school leaders and school board members are working hard to improve the quality of education (Inspectorate of Education, 2015). Although there are clear areas for further improvement (see Chapters 5 to 7), the quality and dedication of teachers is one of the key reasons for the success of the Dutch school system.

This overall positive appraisal of the Dutch system determines the approach of this review

Radical changes in a system that seems to be working well are always risky. Intellectual humility may be unfashionable, but our understanding of the factors that drive the success and failure of education systems has some limitations. Reform in the Netherlands should therefore be pursued in an incremental fashion and accompanied by evaluation to ensure that results are positive and that unintended effects are monitored. In this context, this review – guided by the terms of reference (see Annex A) – has sought to identify a number of areas for further improvement.

Six areas for further improvement, addressed in the six following chapters, are as follows:

  • High participation rates and a strong focus on early intervention programmes for vulnerable groups reflect the effort that has been made in the Netherlands to improve access and provide quality early childhood education and care (ECEC). However, several challenges remain: the quality of ECEC is sometimes too weak, there is no ECEC curriculum, staff qualifications are low, and the organisation of provision is fragmented.

  • Early tracking is controversial, but in the Netherlands the outcomes seem to be relatively good. Initial selection into tracks is based on variable criteria, and an increased emphasis on teacher assessment, rather than objective tests, is creating new risks. The measured cognitive skills of those in different tracks overlap extensively. There is a tension between the central principle of tracking, that students of given cognitive skills are best suited to a particular type of educational programme, and school discretion, in which tracking decisions depend on teachers’ advice and cognitive test scores that are interpreted on a variable basis.

  • Although the Netherlands has a high proportion of top-performers compared to other European countries, there remains room for improvement. There are challenges of motivation among all groups of Dutch students, despite efforts by the Dutch government, including several policy initiatives, to improve the motivation and performance of the country’s most talented students.

  • The Netherlands has pursued numerous initiatives to improve the quality and attractiveness of the teaching profession, including the establishment of a teacher’s register, greater salary flexibility and more selective entry into teacher training. But some challenges remain with initial teacher training, the lack of systematic induction arrangements, and weaknesses in differentiated teaching skills. More broadly, teachers needs to develop an approach in which they are part of schools as learning organisations, learning collectively and collaboratively with other teachers.

  • In the highly decentralised Dutch school system, school leadership is vital but inadequately recognised. Recent initiatives to strengthen school leaders’ capacity are insufficient and the quality of school leaders is too variable.

  • School boards in the Netherlands enjoy extensive autonomy in various areas and have become increasingly responsible for guaranteeing the quality of education. But unlike many other countries, school boards in the Netherlands are not subject to the kind of democratic accountability faced by their counterparts. This means that other accountability measures are particularly critical. School boards, which vary enormously in scale, sometimes also face significant capacity challenges.


CBS (2016), “VO; leerlingen, onderwijssoort in detail, leerjaar” [Secondary education; students, education type in detail, academic year], StatLine, Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, (accessed 11 January 2016).

DUO (2013), “Aantal onderwijsdeelnemers in het MBO” [Number of students in MBO], (accessed 23 January 2014).

Dutch Government (2011), Teaching 2020, A Strong Profession!, Dutch Government,

Egelund, N. and H. Laustsen (2006), “School closure: What are the consequences for the local society?”, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 50, pp. 429-439.

EP-Nuffic (2015), Education system The Netherlands: The Dutch Education System Described, EP-Nuffic, The Hague,

Fazekas, M. and I. Litjens (2014), A Skills beyond School Review of the Netherlands, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Haartsen, T. and L.J.G. van Wissen (2012), “Causes and consequences of regional population decline for primary schools”, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, Vol. 103/4, pp. 487-496.

Huitsing, G. and M.H. Bosman (2011), Toekomstbestendig Plattelandsonderwijs. Verkenning van Mogelijkheden en Belemmeringen voor Samenwerking Tussen Dorpsscholen [The Future of Rural Education: Exploration of Different Possibilities and Obstacles for Cooperation between Rural Schools], Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Groningen.

Inspectorate of Education (2015), The State of Education in the Netherlands in 2013/14, Inspectorate of Education, Utrecht,

Meelissen, M.R.M. et al. (2012), PIRLS- en TIMSS-2011: Trends in leerprestaties in Lezen, Rekenen en Natuuronderwijs [Trends in Learning Achievments in Reading, Numeracy and Science], Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen/Universiteit Twente,

MoECS (2016), Key Figures Education, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, The Hague.

MoECS (2012), Key Figures 2007-2011, Ministry of Education Culture, and Science, The Hague.

Moseley, M.J. and S. Owen (2008), “The future of services in rural England: The drivers of change and a scenario for 2015”, Progress in Planning, Vol. 69, pp. 93-130.

Nusche, D. et al. (2014), OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Netherlands 2014, OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2016), Building Skills for All: A Review of England, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014a), Education Policy Outlook: Netherlands, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014b), PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I, Revised edition, February 2014): Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2013), PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (Volume II), PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2012), Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (n.d.), “Diagram of the education system: The Netherlands”, OECD Education GPS, OECD, Paris,

Van Leer, R. et al. (2012), Krimpen met Perspectief. Demografische Ontwikkelingen, Gevolgen en Kansen voor het Drentse Basisonderwijs [Decline with Perspective: Demographic Developments, Consequences and Opportunities for Primary Education in Drenthe], Stamm CMO, Assen.

Van Twist, M. et al. (2013), “Coping with very weak primary schools: Towards smart interventions in Dutch education policy”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 98, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Vrieze, G., J. van Kuijk and J. de Loo (2009), Tijd voor beroepspraktijkvorming en andere onderwijsactiviteiten [Time for Vocational Training and Other Educational Activities], ITS, Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen.

Witten, K. et al. (2001), “The impacts of a school closure on neighbourhood social cohesion: Narratives from Invercargill, New Zealand”, Health & Place, Vol. 7/4, pp. 307-317.


← 1. The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

← 2. Gymnasium is a pre-university education (VWO) programme that includes the classical languages Greek and/or Latin. The term gymnasium can also refer to a type of school that only offers a gymnasium programme.

← 3. The four domains of decision-making comprise the following areas: Organisation of instruction: student admissions; student careers; instruction time; choice of textbooks; choice of software/learningware; grouping of students; additional support for students; teaching methods; day-to-day student assessment. Personnel management: hiring and dismissal of principals, teaching and non-teaching staff; duties and conditions of service of staff; salary scales of staff; influence over the careers of staff. Planning and structures: opening or closure of schools; creation or abolition of a grade level; design of programmes of study; selection of programmes of study taught in a particular school; choice of subjects taught in a particular school; definition of course content; setting of qualifying examinations for a certificate or diploma; accreditation (examination content, marking and administration). Resource management: allocation and use of resources for teaching staff, non-teaching staff, capital and operating expenditure, professional development of principals and teachers.

← 4. The relationship between the Inspectorate of Education and MoECS is described in the 2006 Regulation on Educational Inspection, available at:

← 5. The tasks of the Inspectorate of Education are stipulated by the 2012 Education Supervision Act (Wet op het onderwijstoezicht, WOT), available at:

← 6. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium (Flanders).

← 7. At the end of primary education, vast majority of schools administer an aptitude test called the CITO Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (“CITO final test primary education” abbreviated to CITO toets (CITO test)), developed by the Central Institute for Test Development, which is designed to recommend the type of secondary education best suited for a pupil given his or hers cognitive abilities.