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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of the education system and of its structure


2.Organisation and governance

2.3Organisation of the education system and of its structure

Last update: 14 December 2023

The diagram at the overview page shows the structure of the national education system.



Various forms of childcare are included in the Wet Kinderopvang (Child Care Act). In this act is included:

  • daily care
  • extramural care
  • host family care
  • parents’ participation
  • daycare centres.

Informal day care is not included, for example an au pair or friends or family. 


Early childhood education and primary education

Early childhood education and care (VVE):

  • Is geared to children aged 2 to 5 who are at risk of educational disadvantage and is provided at playgroups and schools in primary education.
  • The aim is to offer these children in a deprived situation, who run the risk of an educational or language deprivation, optimal chances in development and prepare them for primary education.

Primary education (ISCED 1):

  • Most children start primary school at the age of 4, although they are not required by law to attend school until the age of 5. It lasts till the age of 12 (average).
  • Primary schooling lasts eight years and takes place at a primary school.


In the Netherlands, children usally go to primary school at age four. However it it is important to know that up to age of 5, this is seen as pre-primary education (ISCED 0). Wwhen children are six years old they transfer to third class (groep 3), which is ISCED 1.


Secondary education 

When leaving primary school at the age of about 12, children choose between three types of secondary education:

  • VMBO (pre-vocational secondary education: four years)
  • HAVO (senior general secondary education: five years)
  • VWO (pre-university education: six years).

There are four learning pathways in VMBO:

  1. basic vocational programme (VMBO-B);
  2. middle-management vocational programme (VMBO-K);
  3. combined programme (VMBO-G);
  4. theoretical programme (VMGO-T).

Most secondary schools are combined schools offering several types of secondary education so that pupils can transfer easily from one type to another. All three types of secondary education distinguish between the lower years and the upper secondary years.

Lower secondary education

  • The first three years of general  secondary and pre- university education (HAVO and VWO) are part of general lower secondary education (ISCED 2). When we speak about VMBO in ISCED level 2 than we mean the complete 4 years of VMBO.
  • In the lower years the emphasis is on acquiring and applying knowledge and skills, and delivering an integrated curriculum. Teaching is based on attainment targets which specify the knowledge and skills pupils must acquire (Source: National Institute for Curriculum Development, SLO).
  • The school itself translates these targets into subjects, projects, areas of learning, and combinations of all three, or into competence-based teaching, for example.
  • Besides English, which is compulsory for all pupils, those in HAVO and VWO study two other modern languages, while pupils in VMBO study one language.

Upper secondary education

  • The last two years of general education and the last three years of pre- university education (HAVO and VWO) are part of  general upper secondary education (ISCED 3)
  • In the upper secondary education phase the preparation for higher education starts. The pupils work towards the central exam through an exam dossier.


Secondary vocational education

  • MBO education leads pupils to a specific occupation.
  • After completing VMBO at the age of around 16, pupils can go on to secondary vocational education (MBO). Pupils who have successfully completed the theoretical programme within VMBO can also go on to HAVO.


Higher education

  • HAVO certificate-holders and VWO certificate-holders can opt at the ages of around 17 and 18 respectively to go on to higher education. HAVO is designed to prepare pupils for higher professional education/universities of applied sciences (HBO). HAVO graduates can also go on to the upper years of VWO and to secondary vocational education (MBO).
  • VWO is designed to prepare pupils for university. In practice, many VWO certificate-holders enter HBO. MBO certificate-holders can go on to higher professional education, while HBO graduates may also go on to university.
  • A large number of HBO institutions (hogescholen) in the Netherlands are government-funded. Others are officially recognized but receive no government funding.
  • The Netherlands has many universities offering a broad range of programmes of study, several universities of technology and a number of universities that specialize in a small range of academic sub disciplines.

• An Associate Degree is (ISCED 5):

  • a two-year study in an hbo-programme (university for applied sciences).
  • part of an bachelor degree programme at an institution for higher education.
  • The level is between vocational education level 4 (mbo-4) and a hbo-bachelor (bachelor degree at an higher university for applied sciences).
  • Especially students in vocational education (level 4) and people with a number of years of work experience can increase their chances on the labour market with an Associate Degree. Graduates can move on directly to a hbo-bachelor programme (university for applied sciences) which is linked to the Associate Degree.


Special education

In addition to mainstream primary and secondary schools  we know special education. There are three types of schools in special education:

  • Special (secondary) education: There are also separate schools for children with disabilities of such a kind that they cannot be adequately catered for in mainstream schools.
  • Special primary education: for children with learning and behavioural difficulties who – temporarily at least – require special educational treatment.
  • Practical training: for pupils who are unable to obtain a VMBO qualification, even with long-term extra help, can receive practical training, which prepares them for entering the labour market.


Adult education and training

Adult education covers a variety of courses and training programmes in the following subjects:

  • Adult general secondary education (VAVO);
  • Dutch language and arithmetic, aimed at basic literacy and the starting level for vocational education;
  • Dutch as a second language (NT2) I and II, leading to the qualification in Dutch as a second language, as referred to in the Decree on State Examinations in Dutch as a Second Language;
  • Dutch as a second language, aimed at basic proficiency in the Dutch language;
  • Dutch as a second language, aimed at basic literacy.


Home schooling

  • It is estimated that between 200 and 2,000 pupils in the Netherlands receive home schooling. The exact numbers are not officially recorded. The government feels that there is no need for home schooling in the Netherlands and therefore does not encourage it. There is already a sufficiently large range of schools based on a particular faith or ethos for parents to choose from.
  • The Compulsory Education Act provides that all school-age children must go to school.
  • Special exceptions are made for the children of travellers, children who are mentally or physically unable to attend school, and children whose parents have a religion or belief not catered for by schools in the vicinity. Parents in the latter category frequently apply for permission to home-school their children. Applications for exemption from school attendance are made to the regional authorities.


Rights and responsibilities of parents and pupils

In the Netherlands there is compulsory education for pupils from 5- 16 years old. The obligation to acquire a basic qualification is for pupils from 16- 18 years old.

  • A school attendance officer checks whether parents and young people comply with the Compulsory Education Law and informs on the consequences if parents and pupils have broken the Law. The officer will look for a solution, in cooperation with the parents and school if any problems occur with school attendance. He can serve a summons on a pupil who plays truant or is not registered in a school.
  • If a pupil in primary education is absent too often the school will warn the school attendance officer. He ascertains  why the child failed to attend school. Primary schools and schools for special education and practical training are obliged to report absence of more than 16 hours in 4 consequent weeks to the municipality.
  • Schools are obliged to report illicit absence to the ‘Verzuimloket van de Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO)’ (only in Dutch available) if a pupil is absent for 16 hours in a period of 4 weeks. The Verzuimloket (literally: absence counter) reports to the municipal school attendance officer who will investigate the case and can, if necessary, issue a summons. The summons will be sent to the Public Prosecutor.
  • The school attendance officer can report the absence to the Sociale Verzekeringsbank (SVB; the National Insurance Institute). He will do this if he thinks that efforts to get a pupil back in school fail. The SVB can stop the child benefit. This measure only applies to pupils who are 16 and 17 and  do not have a basic qualification.


Unpermitted absence and consequences

The Education Inspectorate supervises the enforcing of the Compulsory Education Law. Young people from 5 to 18 years old must attend school. If a pupil is not in school this is considered as unpermitted absence. In case of unpermitted absence parents are liable to punishment as are pupils from the age of 12 years old.

  • Court can impose community service or a fine on pupils from the age of 12 and over.
  • Young people governed by the obligation to acquire a basic qualification can be fined, as can be the case for parents or guardians. This fine can run up to € 3,900.
  • In serious cases court can impose a suspended sentence with probation.
  • Total absence is when a young person in the school age or basic qualification age is not enrolled in a school at all. This is a breach of the Compulsory Education Law for which the school attendance officer can issue a summons and which will be judged by court.


Permitted absence

 In exceptional circumstances absence is permitted, there three exceptions:

1. This can be for instance in case of exceptional days such as religious feasts,  weddings, funerals, illness or suspension.

2. There is a special exemption for children of 5 years old. Parents and guardians can keep the child at home for 5 hours per week. Permission is not required but school must be informed. With special permission of the head of school this exemption can be expanded to 10 hours if there is danger of overburdening the child.

3. Besides there is exemption of enrolment. This exemption, which is only granted for one year and has to be renewed, applies in one of the following circumstances and has to be renewed annually:

  • The child cannot be enrolled in school due to psychological or physical reasons. The request has to be made to the municipal school attendance officer before 1 July. Parents/guardians need to produce a medical certificate of a certificate from another expert.
  • If parents/guardians object to the religious or ideological denomination of the schools in the neighborhood they can make an appeal to exemption. The request has to be made to the municipal school attendance officer before 1 July. They have to indicate their objection to denomination in a certificate.
  • Children in border regions and enrolled in school in Belgium or Germany are exempted from attendance in a Dutch school. Parents/guardians have to supply proof that the child attends a school abroad.
  • Children of itinerant parents/guardians, such as showpeople and circus performers, can obtain exemption under condition for a part of the year.

If parents cannot go on vacation during the usual holidays they can ask for extra holidays permission at the school director. This is can be granted once a year for a maximum of 10 days. The Dutch education system is shown in the table below.

For more information about the different education structures, take a look at Eurydice’ report 'The Structure of the European Education Systems'.