Chapter 2. Improving quality in early childhood education and care in the Netherlands1

High participation rates and a strong focus on early intervention programmes for vulnerable groups reflect efforts to improve access and provide quality in early childhood education and care (ECEC). However, the quality of ECEC is sometimes too weak and the organisation of provision is fragmented. This chapter examines challenges and solutions for strengthening the quality of ECEC in the Netherlands. It analyses the governance, financing and structural and process quality of different ECEC services and identifies a need to strengthen the quality of ECEC through the development of a national curriculum framework, better skills for ECEC staff, and a move towards a more integrated approach to ECEC provision.


Why early childhood education and care matters

Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of ECEC for cognitive development, school achievement and completion, and socio-emotional development (Barnett, 1995; Burger, 2010; Heckman, 2006; Love et al., 2003; Magnuson, Ruhm and Waldfogel, 2007; Winsler et al., 2008). The benefits are greater for disadvantaged children (Magnuson et al., 2004; Wen et al., 2012). Good quality ECEC also supports the working lives of parents and the emancipation of women through labour market participation. As a result, increasing the provision, quality and accessibility of ECEC is high on the policy agenda in many countries (OECD, 2006, 2011).

Diverse forms of provision

There are different types of provision for children under four years

The ECEC system in the Netherlands refers to all settings that provide care and early education to children under the age of four. Although compulsory schooling starts at the age of five, children can enrol in primary school at age four. Consequently, there is almost universal enrolment in primary school at age four. The first two grades of primary school are equivalent to kindergarten (kleutergroepen). The provision of ECEC to children below the age of four includes:

  • Private day care centres (kinderdagverblijven), offering care for children between birth and four-years-old up to five days a week throughout the year. These are primarily for working parents. Over 52% of children aged two to three attend centre-based day care, but on average only for two full days a week (CBS, 2016).

  • In-home care by child-minders (gastouderopvang) for children between birth and 12. A small proportion of Dutch children (about 9%) in the age group two to three receive such care. As in day care centres, the main aim is to support working parents.

  • Public pre-kindergarten facilities (peuterspeelzalen), or playgroups, provide a more formal type of ECEC. Children enrol on a per-session basis. Some 37% of Dutch children attend pre-kindergarten facilities, in most cases for two to four half days a week for the age group two to three years (CBS, 2016

Disadvantaged children are offered support through special programmes

Day care centres and pre-kindergartens can offer VVE (voor en vroeg schoolse educatie) programmes for up to four half days a week, in addition to a general programme. The programme is free of parental costs and covers ages two-and-a-half to six years old, spanning the preschool and kindergarten ages. There is a structured curriculum that focuses on holistic development, but with an emphasis on Dutch language development.

Responsibilities are divided across different ministries and bodies

  • Since 2002, the Ministry for Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) has been responsible for childcare policy, including implementation of the Childcare Act (2005) and the Welfare Act, which includes pre-kindergarten for two- to three-year-olds.

  • MoECS is responsible for the education system and the special intervention programme (VVE) for disadvantaged groups (two and a half to four years old). The Inspectorate of Education monitors the educational aspects of ECEC provision, focusing mainly on the quality of provision in these programmes.

  • The Municipal Health Service (Gemeentelijke Gezondheidsdienst, GGD) is in charge of monitoring the structural quality of ECEC and conducts annual inspections of providers. Since 2010, National Quality Standards have set out uniform quality standards for all day care settings.

Funding for ECEC comes from various sources and differs by municipality

Funding for the general provision of ECEC comes from three sources: 1) government and municipal funding of public pre-kindergarten facilities and childcare subsidies; 2) contributions from employers; and 3) parents. Each contribute around a third of overall costs (Bettendorf, Jongen and Muller, 2015). The 2005 Childcare Act increased the role of the private sector: day care centres now operate in a private market and parents are free to choose the day care centre they prefer. Means-tested day care subsidies are paid to working parents and unemployed parents, subject to active labour market programmes. The government fully finances the VVE programmes used by disadvantaged children (Education Council, 2015).

Public expenditure on ECEC has increased from a low base

Public and private expenditure on childcare and early education services, including expenditure on four- and five-year-olds (in primary education), was 0.9% of GDP in 2011, close to the OECD average of 0.8% (OECD, 2015a). Subsidies for parents increased substantially between 2005 and 2008, which cut the effective parental fee for day care by half (Bettendorf, Jongen and Muller, 2015) and trebled public expenditure to 2.7 billion euros in 2009. This ensured sufficient provision for working parents (Akgunduz and Plantenga, 2014). Following the financial crisis, childcare subsidies were reduced by 2% to 5% for the first child and 10% for the second child in 2012. This had the largest impact on medium- to high-income families.

The cost of childcare services for parents is above the OECD average

In 2012, the gross costs of full-time childcare represented 56% of the average wage in the Netherlands for a two-year-old in full-time care, double the OECD average (Figure 2.1). By 2017, parental costs should fall due to the increase in government funding. In practice, full time childcare is unusual; Dutch children participate, on average, only two days a week.

Figure 2.1. Childcare costs for Dutch parents relative to wages
Childcare fees per two-year-old attending accredited full-time care and education services as a percentage of average wage (2012)

Countries are ranked in ascending order of childcare fees per two-year-old as a percentage of the average wage.

Source: OECD (2014), “PF3.4: Childcare support”, OECD Family Database, OECD, (accessed 11 January 2016).

Levels of participation

Enrolment rates are high

On average across OECD countries, 74% of three-year-olds attended ECEC in 2013. In the Netherlands, participation rates in ECEC are above the OECD average, with 83% of three-year-olds attending ECEC (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2. Enrolment rates at age three in ECEC, 2013

Countries are ranked in descending order of the enrolment rates of three-year-olds in 2013.

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

But Dutch children usually make only part-time use of facilities

In the Netherlands, a child attended ECEC for an average of 17 hours per week in 2013, which is below the 30 hours for full-time care (Figure 2.3). The full-time equivalent (FTE) participation rate for 0-2 year-olds is 31%, which reflects high participation but low average hours. Around one third of OECD countries have higher FTE participation rates, including Denmark, Iceland and Norway that have 60% or higher (OECD, 2013).

Figure 2.3. Participation in formal care of 0-2 year-olds, 2013

Notes: Data include children in centre-based services, organised day care and pre-school (both public and private), and those who are cared for by a professional childminder. Data exclude informal services provided by relatives, friends or neighbours. Weekly hours data for Germany refer to 2012.

1. Unweighted average for the 24 OECD countries for which data on average weekly hours are available.

Countries are ranked in descending order of the participation rate for 0-2 year-olds in formal childcare and pre-school services.

Source: OECD (2013), “PF3.2: Enrolment in childcare and pre-school”, OECD Family Database, OECD, (accessed 11 January 2016).

Social background is strongly linked to participation and the form of ECEC provision

Although participation rates in the age group 0-3 years are above the OECD average, participation in ECEC is strongly determined by socio-economic status (CBS, 2016). About 40% of children under three from the lowest income group (20th percentile) attend no form of ECEC provision, compared with 8% for the highest income group.

There is a strong socio-economic dimension in the choice of ECEC facility

Private day care centres typically cater for dual-earner, mainly wealthier, households. Pre-kindergartens typically serve children from low-income families and with minority backgrounds (Slot, 2014; Akgunduz and Plantenga, 2014). VVE programmes for the disadvantaged are therefore mainly organised within the context of pre-kindergarten. Some, including the Education Council (2015) and Social and Economic Council (2016), have warned of the ensuing risks of social segregation.

ECEC as a labour market instrument

At home childcare is mainly provided by women

In the Netherlands, as in many countries, childcare for very young children is often provided by the family, and mothers in particular (Education Council, 2015). While female labour force participation is high (at around 80%), more than three quarters of women workers are part-time, which, together with Switzerland, is the highest among OECD countries. However, the part-time choice of work is heavily gender biased (Figure 2.4) in the Netherlands, which leads to an unequal division of paid and unpaid work. Part-time working women are paid less and have fewer opportunities for promotion. In the Netherlands, the pay of women lags further behind that of men (by 20%) than in other OECD countries (15% is the OECD average), and few women occupy managerial and top positions in the private sector (17%).

Increased ECEC subsidies had relatively limited impact

Increased childcare subsidies between 2005 and 2009 had little impact on female labour market participation (this increased by only 3%), but a bigger impact on female working hours per week (up by 6.2%) (Bettendorf, Jongen and Muller, 2015). This may reflect a strong cultural preference for family childcare, and potentially concerns about the quality or affordability of available day care. Other government policies may also be a factor. For example, Dutch men are entitled to 5 days of paid paternity leave, while women are entitled to 16 weeks paid maternity leave. This is in contrast to Nordic countries where fathers have more rights.

Figure 2.4. Distribution of working hours for employed adults in couple households with children, by gender, 2014

Source: OECD (2015c), “LMF2.1: Usual working hours per week by gender”, OECD Family Database, OECD, (accessed 7 April 2016).

The quality of general provision ECEC

High quality is crucial for ECEC to have beneficial impacts for children

Research has shown that low quality ECEC can damage rather than promote child development (OECD, 2011). There are two main dimensions of ECEC quality:

  • Structural quality refers to characteristics of ECEC provision: group sizes, child/staff ratios, staff educational qualifications with specialisation in ECEC, ECEC curriculum, suitable professional development and on-the-job training (OECD, 2011; Leseman and Slot, 2013; Slot, 2014). All of these structural requirements, except for the ECEC curriculum, are strongly regulated for all types of ECEC provision. Structural quality is a precondition of process quality.

  • Process quality concerns the social-emotional and instructional features of teacher-child and child-child interactions that have been found to be positively related to children’s development of self-regulation, pre-academic, and social skills (Curby et al., 2009; Howes et al., 2008; Mashburn et al., 2008; Slot, 2014).

Process quality in general ECEC is low to medium, and is particularly insufficient in privately provided day care institutions

The emotional aspects of process quality are handled well in all types of ECEC services (Leseman and Slot, 2013; Social and Economic Council, 2016). Staff are generally sensitive to children’s needs and create a good atmosphere. However, educational quality is low to medium in all types of ECEC services (Veen and Leseman, 2015), particularly in private sector institutions (Slot, 2014).

Structural quality

A common quality framework now applies

Legislation in 2010 brought day care centres and pre-kindergartens under the same statutory quality framework with the aim of equalisation. The two forms of ECEC provision have become highly comparable in structural quality (Slot, 2014).

The qualification levels of ECEC staff could be improved

The minimum qualification requirement of an MBO diploma (upper secondary vocational education) for ECEC staff working with children up to age four is low compared to many other OECD countries. For example, all Nordic countries, New Zealand and the United Kingdom require tertiary diplomas for ECEC staff (OECD, 2011).

There are concerns about the quality and lack of standardisation of initial education programmes, which are mainly at the MBO level and often have little specialised ECEC content (Lindeboom and Buiskool, 2013). The Education Council (2015) has argued for many years that staff qualifications at the university level would improve the quality of ECEC. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all staff would need such high qualifications, rather that teams could have skills at different levels, ranging from MBO to the university level, thus limiting the cost implications of more qualified staff. The importance of continuous professional development is increasingly recognised, which has led to several professional development initiatives, such as MoECS’s programme “Versterk” (2010-2014) and the “Quality Impuls” (Kwaliteitsimpuls) programme (2013-2016) that have been implemented in recent years (Social and Economic Council, 2016; Education Council, 2015).

The Netherlands lacks a common ECEC curriculum

By setting standards for ECEC provision, a curriculum promotes quality and consistency, recognising that much cognitive and emotional development takes place prior to ages of three or four (Figure 2.5) (OECD, 2006). Most OECD countries have an ECEC curriculum that describes developmental objectives and explains what subjects (such as early reading) should be pursued (OECD, 2011, 2015b). In the Netherlands, there is no curriculum for children below the age of two and a half, and only a loose description of developmental goals for those between the ages of two and a half and four. The VVE programme curricula were designed for disadvantaged children but are increasingly being used in additional childcare contexts.

Figure 2.5. Sensitive periods in early brain development, by age

Source: OECD (2015b), Starting Strong IV: Monitoring Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, OECD Publishing, Paris,

The effectiveness of the VVE programme in reducing early learning disadvantages

While many continental European and Nordic countries follow a universalist approach to early childhood education, the Netherlands explicitly targets disadvantaged children through VVE programmes that are mainly offered in public pre-kindergartens. Following the 2010 Law on Disadvantaged Education (Wet OKE:Ontwikkelingskansen door Kwaliteit en Educatie), VVE funding was substantially increased, doubling the number of registered places in 2015 and bringing the total to 110 000 children (Akgunduz and Heijnen, 2016).

First findings of the VVE programme’s positive effects

Based on a national large scale longitudinal cohort study (Pre-COOL), Slot (2014) showed that VVE programmes have positive effects on emotional and educational process quality for all children. A recent study found that the increased funding of VVE programmes has caused a large reduction in the grade repetition of children in the early years of primary education (Akgunduz and Heijnen, 2016) – in Dutch primary schools the rates of year repetition are three times higher than the OECD average (7.7%). Repetition is most common during the first two years of primary education (at age four or five) and is heavily biased towards children from socio-economically disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds. In some schools, nearly half of the student population repeats a grade. This is both costly and wasteful, given the evidence that the effectiveness of the grade repetition in increasing students’ outcomes is very limited (Akgunduz and Heijnen, 2016).

Recommendation 1: Strengthen educational quality in early childhood education and care

Recommendation 1: Strengthen educational quality in early childhood education and care through the development of a curriculum framework and through improving and standardising the qualifications and training of ECEC staff. Move towards a more integrated approach to ECEC provision

Develop a national curriculum framework for all ECEC settings

By setting standards, a curriculum promotes quality and consistency in provision, objectives that are particularly important in the Dutch context where ECEC provision is fragmented and general ECEC is of average to low process quality. An integrated approach to national curriculum development is needed, but should be adapted to local needs in partnership with staff and families.

Raise qualifications of staff and strengthen initial and continuous education that strongly focuses on ECEC

The Netherlands should invest in raising the qualification levels of staff. To achieve this, the level of initial and continuous education and training programmes need to be raised and their content strongly focussed on ECEC. Harmonisation of the numerous programmes that give access to ECEC will be needed.

Moving towards a more integrated approach

For some years, the Dutch Education Council has been encouraging the government to move towards an integrated approach that involves both the integration of “childcare” and “early education” objectives alongside the integration of different providers and their resources. The Council argues that cost considerations and conflicts of interest have been obstacles (Education Council, 2015). Three concrete steps would facilitate the establishment of an integrated approach: 1) introduce a national ECEC curriculum to help raise and equalise the process quality of ECEC; 2) consolidate the governance, financing and monitoring of ECEC under one single ministry to improve coherency and follow the examples of many other OECD countries; 3) incentivise local innovations, including public-private partnerships, to work towards more integrated ECEC provision.


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← 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.