5 Impressions of the Dutch Educational System

18 October 2013



When I wrote “The 8 Secrets of Dutch Kids, the Happiest Kids in the World“, I received quite a few disgruntled complaints, especially in regards to my 4th secret -“Dutch kids feel no pressure to excel in school and have very little stress. They have no homework or have very little and thus have plenty of time to play after school.”

Since my time is actually very scarce (I am an expat mom with absolutely no family help, a workaholic husband and a precocious toddler), I decided to dedicate a blog post directly addressing the comments about the Dutch educational system.

I’m convinced that part of the underlying reason for the resounding happiness of Dutch kids is because they are in a relatively, stress free educational environment that emphasizes learning and here are my five reasons why:



1. Dutch researchers reiterate the stance that pressure on academic performance is not as high as compared to the rest of the world.

Utrecht University, the Trimbos Institute and the Netherlands Institute for Social Research participated in a comprehensive study where  200,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 39 different countries were surveyed. The children were asked how happy and healthy the children felt, their relationships with their parents and friends and their overall school experience.

According to Professor Wilma Vollebergh of Utrecht University, “The Netherlands has a social culture, with open and safe relationships between parents and their children, and the same applies to the relationships that children have with each other. The pressure to perform is also not as high here.”

I’m trusting that the Dutch kids surveyed were honest about their answers and that these Dutch researchers know a thing, or two about the Dutch educational system. Wouldn’t you?


2.  For the most part, Dutch students under the age of 10, receive very little or almost no homework.

Some newspapers circulating around actually state that abslutely no homework given to school children under the age of ten. The amount of homework depends upon the discretion of the local schools, but overall, Dutch teachers and parents recognize the importance of play after school is more important than hitting the books. Students start receiving homework at the end of their primary school year but definitely not in the same quantity as those in the United States.  Who really benefits from homework anyway?





3. Dutch students are tested for their relative intelligence, but the advice given is not binding.

At the end of the their 8th year of school, usually around age 12, Dutch children must take a CITO test designed to evaluate their overall “intelligence“. While there might be some moderate levels of stress, overall, Dutch students take it with stride. Here is what is crucial to understand–the results of the CITO test are suggestion only.

According to the Dutch government’s official stance, “primary schools advise each child and their parents the most appropriate type of secondary education, based on the CITO test score, the child’s performance in previous years and his/her personal interests.” An important caveat is-“The advice is not binding.”

The parents and child are ultimately the ones who decide which best educational track the child would be happiest in. For a more detailed, official explanation of the Dutch educational system, please refer to the official Dutch Education website.


4. Dutch high school students do not face the same high anxiety stress levels as students from the rest of the world ( such as the United States, Singapore, China, and Korea to name a few).

When a group of VWO Dutch students were shown a video called Race to No Where depicting the streotypical American high school experience, they unanimously agreed that they did not experience anything even remotely similar to what they saw in the video.



5. There is a general acceptance of mediocrity among Dutch parents and kids.

In the same Volkskrant article, one pre-university VWO student, which supposedly means that she is part of the intellectual elite, stated:

“I’m a six out of ten person”, Alicia says. “I do lots of things outside school like dancing and hockey. I could work harder for higher marks but I don’t want to.”

The relatively relaxed environment can (being the operative word, not always) also extend to places of higher education. According to the University of Twente, international students are given the impression that:

“Competition hardly plays a role in Dutch educational culture: students are seldom graded against each other. The teacher sets a minimum score and passes all students that meet this criterion. Dutch students are usually not very interested how they rank in class; they are mainly concerned with passing the course. Students striving to be the best will not talk about it as it is not done in the Netherlands to be too competitive or work too hard

You can still become very successful regardless of how well you do in school, or what level of schooling you’ve accomplished. Supposedly more is being done in parliament to change this attitude. The Volkskrant cautions this movement as being spearheaded by “a significant number of ministers who only got nines by holding their report cards upside down.”




Bonus Number 6: If you actually graduate from a pre-university VWO program, you can apply directly to medical school. High school students who graduate with an 8 get automatic admission into a 6 year medical school program. Those who scored lower can join a weighted lottery to get into medical school. And they can keep reapplying to the medical school lottery up to a certain number of times. How lucky is that?


In all fairness, Dutch students may still face moderate levels of stress. However, it is important to keep in mind (assuming that I am writing to a world audience), that the “stress” Dutch students encounter is definitely not the same degree as to those students in much more competitive environments, particularly their Asian counterparts. There are also many Dutch families who place a lot of importance on the academic performance of their children. In fact, times are changing and there might be a social revolution that would end the cultural emphasis on being mediocre, the infamous zesjescultuure.

Most importantly, the current and future happiness of Dutch children is not inextricably linked to what level schooling they are placed under, nor does it really determine their future earning potential. Actually, being born Dutch pretty much guarantees you a decent life (but that’s a whole other blog post all together-please come back to read that one!).

Perhaps the rest of the world can learn a bit more about this obscure Nothern European country that consistently ranks time and time again as having the happiest kids in the world.

What’s it like in other countries? Do they also experience a similar institutional educational system where there is less stress?

  • Anna Sorrell-van Ast

    I think I need to move back, at least before my kids go to school 😉 I really like al the research you have done!

  • Shobha George

    I can assure you that my children who are in the British school system (in London and yes, private education) face a silly, silly amount of pressure. I’m thinking of taking them into the American School because I feel so bad for them. My English husband thinks it will build “character” and “discipline’. They started formal education at 3 and have both had homework since the age of 5. The “kindergarden” equivalent for us was a small reading book home every night, and now that they are 7 it’s ramped up. My son gets about 20 minutes every night. My daughter gets about 1 hour total a week of written homework and 15 minutes every night of reading. They both get 20 spelling words every week. No wonder these kids have so much vacation – they need a break!!

  • This post is fascinating, I think that there are a lot of things that many countries could learn from the Dutch education system. I’m amazed when I here about homework being given out to kids here in the UK more or less from the start of primary school. It probably isn’t all that much, but I hardy ever had any homework in my seven years of primary school. By the way, I love the photos that you’ve used in the post!

  • eenoog (one-eye)

    Hmmmm, all nice and dandy, but as the product of the Dutch educational system now living in the US for many years, I perceive a major problem with the “average performance is good enough” attitude.

    Dutch schools neither promote nor celebrate excellence. Great for the mental wellbeing of average performers, but destructive for those who could achieve so much more yet are never challenged to do so.

    Significant peer pressure to conform (to mediocrity) leads to students who avoid doing anything that might get them noticed. Self-promotion is frowned upon, as is touting in ones accomplishments, resulting in risk-averse grownups that lack personal marketing skills.

    This celebration of mediocrity, which often persists into adulthood, makes us less competitive on the world stage, and as life-time jobs become scarcer by the minute, the Dutch educational system won’t sufficiently prepare students for the more self-reliant future of the work-force.

    Thus, I feel it would behoove the Dutch educational system, and Dutch society as a whole, to take a hint from the US and other countries that celebrate success and appreciate people taking risks, so we can survive and remain relevant, even if it’s at the expense of a lower level of happiness of the average child…

    • Simon

      I know right?! I absolutely agree with what you said.

  • AadvdW

    The impression from your assessment of Dutch education is that the level of achievement is generally lower than in the US or Britain, since the students don’t have to work so hard. Well, that’s not what international research is saying.

    In the worldwide PISA tests Dutch 15 year olds perform significantly better at mathematics, reading and science than their British and American peers. Indeed, in the first subject they are in the worldwide top-10. The percentage of top performers is much higher than in the US or UK. Japan, with its extreme pressure environment, didn’t score much better than Holland.

    (See http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf)

    So how is this possible without a ratrace for excellence? Some suggestions:

    – The Dutch school system with its many different levels challenges students to perform at a level and in an environment that is right for them. Average at a ‘gymnasium’ is very different from average at a ‘vmbo’.

    – Schools with many disadvantaged students get extra money.

    – The Dutch government doesn’t tolerate bad education. Bad schools are closed down, if necessary.

    – Maybe ‘hard work’ doesn’t equal smart work.

    As regards tertiary education, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, there’s no Dutch university among the world top-25. But at the same time, and maybe more significantly, there’s not a single Dutch university *outside* the world top-250.

    In the top-200, there are more Dutch universities than institutions from any country except the US and the UK.

    So Holland may be a country of average achievers, but our level of average is a lot higher than in most other places.

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  • Kim

    To be honest I wish I had homework when I was younger. When I went to highschool I couldn’t do all the homework because I had about 3 hours of it every day and I never did before. Also my primary school didn’t teach me ANYTHING at all, I wasn’t good at math, dutch, basically everything because my school just didn’t care apparently.. I wish I would’ve had homework and good education, if I did I’d still do gymnasium now

  • Shashi Sawhney

    I thoroughly enjoyed your well written article on Dutch education system at an early childhood. The best part, I liked with this education system is that they are focused in building happier adults rather than frustrated / stressed rich loaded with wealth without any signs of happiness. I wonder, how those stressed adults can give happiness to the newer generation. I have known so many wealthy, well educated adults committed suicide or live under depression when things go wrong (life does go through downtrends) for everyone. What is the point of looking for happiness when time to live happily is diminishing?

    In the back of mind, I was thinking, I wish that if I have to born again then I should be born in Netherland in a Dutch family.
    Unfortunately, when I reached to the last point in your article, I felt that it is too late again, since you mentioned the time is changing and Dutch education system is changing and following same patterns as in USA or other developed countries.

    I decided that I wouldn’t like to be born in this world since I can’t compromise happiness with anything else.
    It is easier and possible for a happier person to be competitive, successful and risk taker etc.
    However IT IS NOT POSSIBLE for a competitive, successful and risk taking person to be a Happier person. [ Happiness is not equivalent to Comfort].

  • GekkeGeert

    It is true we don’t have any homework until we are ten but when we do start getting homework it’s like brining an african kid to disney land amounts of ”culture shock” and you most likely don’t know but VWO is really hard to get into for the average person unless you are lucy enough to just be smart enough for it, so not all dutch people get entrance into a medical school.
    And now i’ll give you examples of my own experiences of dutch school from age 11-15, If you are bad at math, english or dutch then you are pretty much screwed because if you don’t get a 5,5 or higher for all of those classes you have to do the entire year all over and there is no help at all if you are bad at one or more of those classes(there is but it is useless)
    On T wich is what the average dutch person is on(VWO is 2 ”levels” above that wich is allot) most teachers are nuts, I was talking to my dutch teacher about my shitty handwriting(it’s horrible) and he randomly grabbed my knees and shook them for a second, and another teacher had toilet paper in the classroom and randomly wiped his ass with it(pants on) and tossed it at someone.(not very school related but slightly traumatic)
    And lastly almost every teacher tells you almost every day that you need to do better no matter what and it isn’t said calmy but really in your face.

  • Kencathedrus

    As a British teacher teaching in the Dutch higher education system, I found the ‘zesjes-cultuur’ maddening. I’m not strict nor inflexible by any means, but I was always pushed to revise papers that I failed and find ways to pass them.
    That meant that the onus of failure fell to me as a teacher and not the students who believed that their failures were also the teacher’s fault. This was reinforced by the management and evaluation culture that also held the teacher accountable for the students’ effort and work. Now that Dutch colleges have outcome-based learning (college funding based on pass rates) teachers are pushed even harder to pass students. But – and here comes the crux of the matter – teachers are also responsible for the ‘quality’ of their students’ work! So if any accreditation team spots an essay that passed, but should have failed, the teacher is held accountable. This puts teachers on edge, because not only is their judgment perpetually questioned, they have to walk a fine line between passing and failing students. And even if students fail they have endless ‘herkansingen’ (extra opportunities) to pass assignments, again creating more work for teachers that have to grade them all.

    I remember talking to one of the managers about this, with the result that he told me that I, and I quote word-for-word, ‘needed to come to terms with mediocrity’. That thought didn’t sit well with me and a year later I emigrated to the US and am now happily teaching in a college here that does value hard work and effort.

    I loved teaching in Higher Education, but in Holland good students are made to suffer because the system is designed for mediocre students. Most of my time was spent trying to get the low-level students up to speed. A lot of these were too lazy to buy text books or even come to class, yet I was expected to get them all exam-ready, with the result that the motivated and bright students would lose interest in the course, because their efforts were invisible.

    For now Dutch society works, but what I noticed while living there was that many intelligent and ambitious Dutch people are leaving Holland, not because they dislike it necessarily, but because there are no challenges there. In Holland there is a saying: ‘trimming the tall poppies’. Unfortunately I found this to be so true in the Dutch education system.

    I’m curious if anyone else has similar or different experiences to mine.