Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands starts at the age of five, although in practice, most schools accept children from the age of four. From the age of sixteen there is a partial compulsory education (partiële leerplicht), meaning a pupil must attend some form of education for at least two days a week. Compulsory education ends for pupils age twenty-three and up, or when they get a degree.
In elementary and high schools, pupils are assessed annually by a team of teachers who determine whether he or she has advanced enough to move on to the next grade. Since forcing a pupil to retake the year (blijven zitten; literally, “stay seated”) has a profound impact on the pupil’s life in terms of social contacts and remaining in the educational system longer, this decision is not taken lightly and mechanisms are in place to avert retaking years, such as remedial teaching and other forms of guidance.
Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and if it does, it usually happens in elementary schools.
Between the ages of four to twelve, children attend elementary school (basisschool; literally, “basic school”). This school has eight grades, called groep 1 (group 1) through groep 8. School attendance is compulsory from group 2 (at age five), but almost all children commence school at age four (in group 1). From group 3 on, children will learn how to read, write and do mathematics. Most schools teach English in groups 7 and 8, although some start as early as group 4. In group 8 the vast majority of schools administer an aptitude test called the Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (literally, “Cito final test primary education”, often abbreviated to Citotoets (Cito test), developed by the Centraal instituut voor toetsontwikkeling (Central Institute for test development), which is designed 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. The Cito test is not mandatory; some schools instead administer the Nederlandse Intelligentietest voor Onderwijsniveau (“Dutch intelligence test for educational level”, usually abbreviated to NIO-toets) or the Schooleindonderzoek (“School final test”).
After attending elementary education, Dutch children (by that time usually 12 years old) go directly to high school (voortgezet onderwijs; literally, “continued education”). 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 by the pupil and its parents. 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 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.
The vmbo (voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs; literally, “preparatory middle-level applied education”) education lasts four years, from the age of twelve to sixteen. It combines vocational training with theoretical education in languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. Sixty percent of students nationally are enrolled in vmbo. Students can choose between four different levels of vmbo that differ in the ratio of practical vocational training and theoretical education. Not all levels are necessarily taught in the same high school.
The havo (hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs; literally, “higher general continued education”) has five grades and is attended from age twelve to seventeen. A havo diploma provides access to the hbo level (polytechnic) of tertiary education.
The vwo (voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs; literally, “preparatory scientific education”) has six grades and is attended from age twelve to eighteen. A vwo diploma provides access to wo training, although universities may set their own admission criteria (e.g. based on profile or on certain subjects). The vwo is divided into atheneum and gymnasium. A gymnasium programme is similar to the atheneum, except that Latin and Greek are compulsory courses. Not all schools teach the ancient languages throughout the entire basisvorming. Latin may start in either the first or the second year, while Greek may start in the second or third. At the end of the third year, a pupil may decide to take one or both languages in the tweede fase, where the education in ancient languages is combined with education in ancient culture. The subject that they choose, although technically compulsory, is subtracted from their free space requirement.
Vwo-plus, also known as atheneum-plus, vwo+ or lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, additional foreign languages and courses to introduce students to scientific research.