Children start primary school (basisschool) one day after their 4th birthday. When they turn 5 all children are obliged to go to school this is called leerplicht. The Basisschool has eight grades. After this they transfer to a secondary school. Until they receive a diploma they should continue until they are 18.
Between the ages of four to twelve, children attend elementary school (basisschool). This school has eight grades, called groep 1 (group 1) through groep 8. School attendance is not compulsory until group 2 (at age five), but almost all children commence school at age four (in group 1). Groups 1 and 2 used to be held in a separate institution akin to kindergarten (kleuterschool; literally, "toddler's school"), until it was merged with elementary schools in 1985.
From group 3 on, children learn how to read, write and do arithmetics. Most schools teach English in groups 7 and 8, but some start as early as group 4. In group 8 the vast majority of schools administer an aptitude test called the Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (Cito test), which is designed to recommend the type of secondary education best suited for a pupil. In recent years, this test has gained authority, but the recommendation of the group 8 teacher along with the opinion of the pupil and its parents remain a crucial factor in choosing the right form of secondary education.
After elementary education, pupils go directly to high school. Informed by the advice of the elementary school and the results of the Cito test, a choice is made for either vmbo, havo or vwo. When it is not clear which type of secondary education best suits a pupil, or if the parents insist their child can handle a higher level of education than what was recommended to them, there is an orientation year for both vmbo/havo and havo/vwo to determine this. At the end of the year, the pupil will continue in the normal curriculum of either level. For havo/vwo, there is sometimes an additional second orientation year when inconclusive. A high school can offer one or more levels of education, at one or multiple locations. A focus on (financial) efficiency has led to more centralization, with large schools that offer education on all or most educational levels.
Since the Dutch educational system does not have middle schools or junior high schools, the first year of all levels in Dutch high schools is referred to as the brugklas (literally, bridge class), as it connects the elementary school system to the secondary education system. During this year, pupils will gradually learn to cope with the differences between school systems, such as dealing with an increased personal responsibility.
It is possible for pupils who have attained the vmbo diploma to attend the final two years of havo level education and sit the havo exam, and for pupils with a havo diploma to attend the final two years of vwo level education and sit the vwo exam. The underlying rationale is that this grants pupils access to a more advanced level of higher education. This system acts as a safety net to diminish the negative effects of a child's immaturity or lack of self-knowledge. For example, when a bright pupil was sent to vmbo because she was unmotivated but later discovered its potential or has acquired the desire to achieve better, the pupil can still attain a higher level by moving on to havo. Most schools do require a particular grade average to ensure the pupil is capable of handling the increased study load and higher difficulty level.
Aside from moving up, there is also a system in place where pupils can be demoted to a lower level of education. When for example a pupil has entered secondary education at a level it cannot cope with, or when it lacks the interest to spend effort on its education resulting in poor grades, it can be sent from vwo to havo, from havo to vmbo, and from any level of vmbo to a lower level of vmbo.
International Schools are available both state-funded and private schools throughout the country. Seventeen primary schools in the Netherlands have officially implemented bilingual education. Check a list of all Internatonal Schools here.
The Netherlands is home to one of the world’s oldest and most highly respected systems of higher education, dating back to the 16th century. 13 universities in the Netherlands, all ranked within the world's top 350, and an impressive seven of these are within the global top 150. Read more in this section.
Is speaking Dutch a necessity in The Netherlands? In the larger cities the Dutch speak very good English and you will get by without a problem. Doing your shopping without knowing the basics of talking Dutch isn't going to be a problem.
But if you are staying for a longer period you do not have to feel excluded or disrespectful and have more choice for jobs, education, entertainment, friends, or business opportunities.
Check a list of Dutch Language Schools here.