Education policy is coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, together with municipal governments.
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 eighteen and up.
Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board. Special schools are typically based on a particular religion. There are government financed Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. In principle a special school can refuse the admission of a pupil if the parents indicate disagreement with the school's educational philosophy. This is an uncommon occurrence. Practically there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas like Zeeland and the Veluwe (around Apeldoorn). Private schools do not receive financial support from the government.
There is also a considerable number of publicly financed schools which are based on a particular educational philosophy, for instance the Montessori Method, Pestalozzi Plan, Dalton Plan or Jena Plan. Most of these are public schools, but some special schools also base themselves on any of these educational philosophies.
In elementary and high schools the students are assessed annually by a team of teachers, who determine whether the pupil has advanced enough to move on to the next grade. If the pupil has not advanced enough he or she may have to retake the year (blijven zitten, English: stay seated); this is an uncommon occurrence. Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and usually in elementary schools.
All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Onderwijsinspectie (Education Inspection) and can be (asked) forced to make changes in educational policy or risk closure.
The first year of all levels is referred to as the brugklas (litt. bridge class), as it connects the elementary school system to the secondary education system. During this year, pupils will gradually learn to cope with differences such as dealing with an increased personal responsibility.
When it is not clear which type of secondary education best suits a pupil, there is an orientation year for both vmbo/havo and havo/vwo to determine this. In addition, there is a second orientation year for havo/vwo when inconclusive.
Furthermore it is possible for pupils who have attained the vmbo diploma to attend two years of havo-level education and sit the HAVO-exam, and for pupils with a havo-diploma to attend two years of vwo-level education and then sit the VWO exam.
For all of these levels there is Leerweg Ondersteunend Onderwijs (literally, "learning path supporting education"), which is intended for pupils with educational or behavioural problems. These pupils are taught in small classes by specialized teachers.
The first three years together are called the Basisvorming (literally, "basis forming"). All pupils follow the same subjects: languages, mathematics, history, arts and sciences. In the third year pupils must choose one of four profiles. A profile is a set of different subjects that will make up for the largest part of the pupil's timetable in the fourth and fifth year, that are together called the Tweede Fase (literally, "second phase"). A profile specializes the pupil in an area, and some hbo and wo studies therefore require a specific profile. Students must also choose one to three additional subjects. Furthermore, Dutch and one foreign language (most often English), as well as some minor subjects, are compulsory. In all profiles mathematics is compulsory, but the level of difficulty differs for each profile. Pupils still have some free space, which is not taken by compulsory and profile subjects: here they can pick two subjects from other profiles. Sometimes pupils choose more than two subjects, this can result in multiple profiles.
The vwo is divided in Atheneum and Gymnasium. A Gymnasium programme is similar to the Atheneum, except that Latin and Greek are typically compulsory until the third year. 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 second or third. At the end of the third year, a pupil may decide to take either 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.
Vwo-plus, which is also known as Atheneum-plus, Vwo+ or Lyceum, offers extra subjects like philosophy, extra foreign languages and courses to introduce students to scientific research.
With a vwo-diploma or a propedeuse in hbo, pupils can enroll in wo (wetenschappelijk onderwijs, literally "scientific education"). Wo is only taught at a university. It is oriented towards higher learning in the arts or sciences. The teaching in the wo, too, is standardized due to the Bologna process. After obtaining enough credits (ECTS), pupils will receive a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Laws degree. They can choose to study longer in order to obtain a Master's degree of different fields. At the moment, there are four variants: Master of Arts, Philosophy, Sciences, and Master of Laws. A theoretical Master typically lasts one year, however the majority of practical (e.g. medical), technical and research Masters require two or three years.
The original law of 1900 only affected children aged 6 to 12, but in 1969 the law was expanded to 9 years of compulsory education, and in 1975 it became 10 years.
Before 1968 the system was different and consisted of:
This was all changed that year with the Wet op het Voortgezet Onderwijs (literally, law on secondary education), better known as the Mammoetwet (literally, "mammoth act"). This piece of legislation got its peculiar name after ARP-MP Anton Bernard Roosjen was reported to have said „Let that mammoth remain in fairyland”. This law passed in 1963 at the initiative of legislator Jo Cals and created a system on which the current one is based.
Before the Mammoetwet a student wanting to complete gymnasium-β would have to pass exams in;
Next to these courses history and geography were also compulsory courses and taught until the final year, but students would not take exams in them.
The Mammoetwet introduced four streams (LTS/VBO, MAVO, HAVO and VWO), of which VBO and MAVO were fused into VMBO in 1999.
The Mammoetwet was reformed significantly in the late 1990s. Basisvorming standardized subjects for the first three years of secondary education and introduced two new compulsory subjects (technical skills and care skills). The remainder of secondary school training was reformed with the Tweede Fase, which gave rise to the HAVO and VWO profiles described above; specific aims of this reform were also the introduction of information management skills and integration between different subjects.
In The Netherlands, grades from 1.0 up to 10.0 are used, with 1 being worst and 10 being best. Generally one decimal place is used and a +/− means a quarter, rounded to either 0.8 or 0.3. Thus, a 6.75 could be written as 7− and count as an 6.8, whereas a 7+ would be a 7.25 and count as an 7.3.
The grade scale with the labels:
Depending on the grade, several honors are available: total average of grades 8 with no grade under 7 and finishing in time: cum laude. For an average better than 7, but not meeting the criteria for cum laude, met genoegen (with honor), is sometimes awarded. This honor system is typically only used at universities.
Usually 5.5 and up constitute a pass whereas 5.4 and below constitute a fail. If no decimal places are used, 6 and up is a pass and 5 and below a fail. Sometimes, when no decimal place is used, an additional grade, 6−, is used as "barely passed". This is what would have been a 5.5 if a decimal place were used.
The grades 9 and 10 are hardly ever given on examinations (on average, a 9 is awarded in only 1.5%, and a 10 in 0.5% of cases).
As the incidence of a 9 or 10 in hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs (literally: "higher general continued education") (HAVO) examinations is considerably lower than that of the top marks in the American or British grading system, it would be a mistake to equate a 10 to an A, a 9 to a B, and so forth. If the 8, 9 and 10 are taken together, as in the table above, they represent the top S to 15% of examination results. If, in a grading system based on letters, the A represents the top 10% or thereabouts, grade A may be regarded as equivalent to grades 8 and above.
It also has to be noted, very clearly, however that the HAVO represents the second level in the Dutch secondary education system that is tiered from an early age. The UK for example has no real equivalent to this, and is organised completely differently, with many candidates who would most likely have been sent through the HAVO system either doing A-levels and scoring relatively modest grades, or taking a more vocational path via the GNVQ system that introduces a less academic tone already at age 16. A thorough exploration of other systems is not warranted here, but care must be taken not to assume too much in the equivalences of qualifications that play different roles, in different systems, in the context of different traditions.
The conversion of the lowest passing grade may present another problem. A grade of 4 is a clear fail, although one 4 at the examination is acceptable if high grades are obtained in all the other subjects. A 5, on the other hand, is 'almost satisfactory'. For purposes of assessing a pupil's progress throughout the year, a 5 is usually considered to be good enough, provided the pupil does better on the next test. For examinations, a 5 is unacceptable only as an average, but is condoned in one or two subjects. Its use is comparable to that of the D in many systems: a weak pass, but as an average too low for admission into a higher cycle of education. Note again that the "gearing" of the education system need not be the same. There is no reason to expect the overall difficulty to be the same, or to expect systems to favour the exact same types of candidates, it is also not reasonable to assume that lowest-passing-grades will always equate, because, amongst more obvious reasons, the Dutch system allows resits and considers them more normal, whereas sundry other systems tend to send candidates away with whichever grade they obtain however comparitively unsatisfactory that may be.
Taking the A-Level system applied in much of the UK and commonwealth as an example, grades E for A-level are in principle fairly unimpressive, and although they correspond to a "pass" would not constitute a passing level in a Dutch VWO class (the equivalent grade for HAVO could be debated, while philosophies and methods are still completely different). The class of candidates obtaining grades D and E for their A-levels would not be likely to pass their VWO examinations and be admitted to Universities in The Netherlands. This said, they would be more likely to return and retry, while British candidates would be more likely to simply proceed to a lower level of further/vocational education. This raises arguments about how well less able candidates may have done in a course more geared to their level.
For the award of the HAVO diploma, the average final grade should be a 6. In view of the high frequency of 6s, coupled with the fact that it is the minimum requirement for admission into a higher cycle of education, there are good grounds for equating a 6 with a C, which has a similar frequency and purpose.