Once more into the Fray: The Wonderful World of Dutch Schools

When our family moved here in 2012, we decided for a number of reasons to send our kids to a local dutch school instead of international school. This decision was arrived at easily as private school fees for three children were not really a smart financial option for us and instinctively we knew it would be the wrong decision for our family. We wanted the kids to learn a new language and living in the heart of Europe seemed like a gift so why not grasp the opportunity. Learning dutch offers many benefits; dutch friends, cultural integration, eaves-dropping at every turn, and a broad range of secondary (middelbare) schools to choose from. Our eldest child, T is already in Year 2 of dutch middelbare. So, we have been through the fraught, exciting and downright confusing journey of looking for the right secondary school before. But it doesn’t really feel any easier. Here’s a look at our middelbare story so far.

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T is an academic child, artistic, musical and a bundle of energy-a lot of energy! He is perfectly suited to his school, a Gymnasium in Amsterdam. A Gymnasium is similar to a grammar school, offering the classic languages of Greek and Latin along with modern languages Dutch, English, German and French plus music, art, science subjects, history, geography, computer science. It’s co-educational ( like all Dutch schools ) and is non-religious. To say he loves his school would be an understatement. It has a broad programme of cultural events throughout the year, including trips to Amsterdam cultural institutions, musical and theatre student group performances. The kids there are friendly, confident and proud of their school and there is a strong scholarly work ethic. In later years, the students take a week long trip to Rome or Greece and other short trips each year. An unusual aspect of the dutch education system is that there are precious little private Dutch school options and so everyone from the King’s children to the man in the street can be in the same classroom { The King does in fact send his kids to their local public school! } thus confirming that equality is important to this small country and it’s citizens.

School fees are low and our middelbare school charges 660Eur per year for everything, which includes school trips and supervised homework after school. Books are free in dutch schools. And as there are no uniforms, schooling here is quite a lot cheaper for us compared to our local school back in Ireland. Even when the older students head to Rome for a week, the fees remains the same so that contributes to financial peace of mind for parents. T’s school has a cosy, gezellig atmosphere in a 1920’s Amsterdam architecture red-brick building and he feels safe and welcome there.

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So with such a great school under our belt, it would seem like a foregone conclusion that our second boy would attend too. But no, it’s not necessarily the case in Amsterdam that kids from the same family go to the same secondary school. Many families I know have kids who attend different secondary schools. The emphasis is very much on the child here and this means that the emotional, social and academic development of the child is front and centre. This attitude applies to the consideration of teenagers also. The school that suits one child may not developmentally and socially suit their sibling. 11 and 12 year olds are encouraged in mid-winter to visit various schools and open lessons to help them form their own impressions of the schools. Another salient point that’s very relevant to which school kids attend is the lottery! As there is no sibling priority in Amsterdam middelbare schools anymore, each child just has their lottery number and the famous algorithm to contend with. More of that anon.

Finally, and probably most importantly, the type of secondary school a child attends depends on the advies they receive from their teachers in their final year of primary school. That advies relates to the academic levels of secondary school. And of course the advies depends on the tests results of each child, among other factors. The academic levels range from VMBO through to HAVO to VWO. Middelbare schools may offer two or three programs or only one program, like a Gymnasium. It’s an interesting system that basically streams students aged 12 and has it’s detractors as well as fans.

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So back to Open Days/ Openavonds. We visited T’s school yesterday with D and next week we will be busy with Openavonds for four nights in a row. Then almost the same again the week after. And the week after. Until we re-group and pore over our notes on each school and his thoughts about same. At least, that is how I envisage this scouting operation; note-taking, location photos to trigger memories and reading brochures but the idea that we might just go on gut feeling alone is tantalising-and less time consuming. Last time round, we *just* visited four schools and T was pretty certain early on about his top choice. D is a bright, sociable, easy-going boy with a love for maths, engineering/techy things and sports. I trust him to make the right decision for himself. Of course, his big brother really wants him to go to his school because, ‘Why wouldn’t I? He’s my brother!’. Later, I realised the slogan on the t-shirt D wore was very fitting. ‘Say yes to new adventures’. A new journey in his life beckons!

Of course, picking your number one school doesn’t mean you can relax until September 4th. Choosing your favourite school leads you down into a frantic rabbit hole whereby your child is given a lottery number and they must wait to see what school the computer algorithm will assign them. The term ‘middelbare lottery’ strikes fear and loathing and a good dose of pathos into the hearts of Amsterdam parents who must wait until April to hear the results. The general advice is to put your favourite school at the top of the list and work your way down from there, second favourite and so forth. Of course, there are very popular schools that are always oversubscribed and we will no doubt have some of these close to the top of our list of 15 too. So, let’s see where this particular roll of the dice takes us…

7 Thoughts

  1. Isn’t it fun? I keep going back and forth between thinking that seeing 5 or 7 schools would be enough, and the fear factor of “what if she doesn’t get any of her choices?”. It’s really a question of how many we can physically visit, listing them sight unseen seems pointless.

    The biggest problem is of course the fact that the schools are so oversubscribed, I really hope that issue is being addressed in an urgent manner.

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  2. Great article Margaret! Having been down that road with Benjamin last year, I’m relieved not to be doing it again. We visited 15 schools last year, including three in Amstelveen. I think that gut-feel is the best way to go – we noted down our “good feel” factor with a score of 1 – 10. Good luck with Doire – we’ll be holding thumbs he gets one of his top choices!

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  3. Thanks Andrea. I hope he does too when the time comes. At least there are quite a few good options so one from his top 5 would be nice! And it worked out for Ben- he’s in a great school. Lots of kids in Doire’s class want to go to KKC!

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