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Organisation of general secondary education (HAVO, VWO)


6.Secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education

6.1Organisation of general secondary education (HAVO, VWO)

Last update: 27 November 2023

Types of education

Secondary education includes all types of education that follow on from primary education. Just as in primary education, there is a difference between publicly run schools and privately run schools schools. Broadly speaking, there are three types of secondary education:

Pre- vocational secondary education (VMBO)

​See for more information chapter 6.4: Organisation of Vocational Lower Secondary Education (VMBO).

Senior general secondary education (HAVO)

  • Lasts five years and is for pupils aged 12 to 17 years (average).
  • HAVO provides pupils with a basic general education and prepares them for higher professional education. Pupils can also transfer to pre-university education (VWO). After completing a core curriculum in the three lower years, HAVO pupils enter the second stage where they choose one of four subject combinations. Each group of subjects includes a compulsory component and an optional component.
  • The first three years of senior general secondary education are ISCED 2.
  • The last two years of senior general secondary education are ISCED 3.

Pre-university education (VWO)

  • Lasts six years and is for pupils aged 12 to 18 years (average).
  • The first three years of pre-university education are ISCED 2.
  • The last three years of pre-university education are ISCED 3.
  • The second stage starts in the fourth year, when pupils must choose one of four subject combinations, each comprising a compulsory and an optional component. A ‘gymnasium’ offers a pre-university programme including the subjects Latin, ancient Greek and classical culture. Some schools offer bilingual programs in which, from the first year on, about half of the subjects are taught in English.



Internationalisation in secondary education takes place by bilingual education (tto). In this form of education at least half of all subjects are taught in a foreign language, most often English. There are 132 tto- schools in the Netherlands. For more information on internationalisation in secondary education, please see chapter 13.1.

School communities

Most schools in secondary education are part of a comprehensive school (school community). Most secondary teaching takes place in combined schools offering a number of different types of secondary education (VMBO, HAVO and VWO):

  • Some are narrow-based and consist of only one pathway.
  • Others are broad-based and offer all the different VMBO programmes as well as HAVO and VWO. Schools offering the VMBO theoretical programme only, together with HAVO and VWO, are known as combined schools for general secondary education (AVO).

Geographical accessibility

On average there are 660 schools in the Netherlands. The average distance for all the inhabitants to the closest school for secondary education is 2.4 kilometers. Every year, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science draws up a three-year plan for secondary schools  that aims to guarantee a balanced provision of educational facilities, taking into account the demand for education in each region.

Admission to secondary education

  1. Pupils are admitted to secondary education after leaving primary school or a special school for primary education, at an average age of 12.
  2. Decisions on admission to VMBO, HAVO or VWO are made by the competent authority (school board), which may appoint an admissions board to take such decisions under its aegis.The admissions board consists of the head and one or more teachers from the school. It may also include heads and teachers from primary schools. The head of the child’s primary school is required to draw up a report on his or her educational potential and level of attainment (educational report).
  3. For admission to VMBO, HAVO and VWO, pupils must be assessed to establish their suitability. The most common method of assessment is the advice of the primary school. The pupils are also tested in the final year of primary school, using tests developed centrally to gauge pupils’ level of knowledge and understanding. Each year the National Institute for Educational Measurement (CITO)  publishes  a primary school leavers’ attainment test. A school in secondary education may not refuse a pupil based on the results of this test. There are also other tests available.

Since 2016, applications for admissions to learning support departments and training courses have been assessed by a regional committee. The committee then advises the school on whether to admit the child.

Choice of school

At secondary level, pupils are free to attend the school of their choice, provided they meet certain general conditions. In practical terms, pupil's freedom of choice is limited only by their primary school's advice on the most appropriate type of education and the admission requirements of the VMBO pathways, HAVO and VWO.

Age levels and grouping of pupils/students

  • Most schools make the year group system with children of the same age being placed together in the same class. Schools are free to group pupils by type of education or place pupils following different types of education in the same class. Combined schools often group their pupils in combined classes in the first year.
  • The sizes of the groups differ per pathway in secondary education. In general there is no lower and upper- limit. As upper limit most schools maintain 30-32 pupils per  group.
  • More than half of all first-year pupils are in mixed VMBO/HAVO or HAVO/VWO classes. VMBO pupils choose a sector and a learning pathway at the end of the second year.
  • HAVO/VWO pupils have until the end of the 3rd year to choose one of four fixed subject combinations. They are then often regrouped in accordance with the choices made.

Organisation of the school year

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science determines the dates of the school year and the length and dates of the summer holiday. In secondary education, the school year runs from 1 August to 31 July of the following year.

  • The summer holidays last six weeks and are staggered across the three regions (northern, central and southern) into which the country is divided for this purpose. The length and dates of the summer holidays, and how they are staggered across the country, are prescribed by the Minister. There are two weeks of Christmas holidays and one week of May Holidays. For the autumn holiday and the spring holiday there are advice data.
  • The dates of the shorter holidays (autumn, Christmas, spring and May holidays) can be decided by the competent authority of the school (school board), in consultation with the participation council, without having to obtain the Minister’s consent. The Minister recommends a period of one week’s holiday after every seven to eight weeks of school.
  • Per school year there is a maximum of 55 holidays, 12 rostered days off, and four free (public) days.

More information can be found in the Eurydice report ‘The organisation of School Time in Europe’.

Organisation of the school day and week

The participation council advises the competent authority of the school (school board) on the school timetable and any changes to it. The competent authority also determines when the school day starts and ends, and the duration of the lessons, with the approval of the parent and pupil representatives on the participation council.

Teaching hours in secondary education: statutory minimum norms

Since 2015-2016 there is no prescribed or advisory timetable, and no prescribed minimum for the number of teaching hours in each subject. The old norm is replaced by a norm per study field, set in the law ‘Wet modernisering onderwijstijd’  (Law modernisation of instruction time). Schools decide for themselves how these hours should be spread over the school year, as long as they maintain  the  norm for the hours throughout the whole studies:

  • 3700 hours in VMBO
  • 4700 hours in HAVO
  • 5700 hours in VWO

Another compulsory aspect is that there are at least 189 days of education. The length of the lessons can change roughly from 50-90 minutes.

There is no prescribed timetable or advice table. There is no box for a prescribed minimum number of teaching hours. However, there are requirements for teaching in physical education. It should be spread across all grades and spread over the weeks during the school year.

In the upper years of HAVO and VWO, the length of lessons and the length of the school day are also determined on the basis of study load. The study load is calculated on the basis of the time required by the average pupil to master a particular quantity of material, both at school and at home. This covers every element of the curriculum, including writing up projects, reading, using a resource center, excursions and homework.

For more information take a look at the Eurydice report 'Recommended Annual Instruction Time in Full-time Compulsory Education’.