Stepping out of the Fray


This is a follow on post about our experience of choosing a Dutch middelbare school. We’ve visited nine schools in a month and it’s not even an understatement to say we’ve run the gamut from exciting to frustrating, touching on slightly torturous through to funny times. Rather like my tween’s personality these days. My son’s reluctance for some school visits is due to his desire to chill and play football after school. He also found the sheer choice and number of visits a little overwhelming. Applications are not limited by post code so a child can apply to any school in the city so long as he has the correct advice from his primary school teacher. D got a VWO advice which means he can choose an Atheneum or Gymnasium program, the latter offering Latin and Greek as compulsory subjects. Even after five Openavonds, enthusiasm was dwindling fast ( for all of us ) so being done with it makes us very relieved indeed.

Openavonds are akin to free for alls where the child and parent wander the packed-to-the-rafters school with children clutching free gifts of pens, sweet drink and glossy brochures that had been thrust into their hands by welcoming 2nd Years. I usually make a beeline for the coffee dock and surreptitiously check the english skills of the young servers. Refreshment in hand then off to find the Engels room to check what kind of English program they will offer my native-speaker. A Cambridge or Fast Lane English program is ideal. We begin by popping in to view classrooms and try have a quick word with a teacher while D takes a 5 min fun Greek or maths test. Checking out the the science or teckniek labs are always interesting whereby experiments are informally presented or kids can try their hand at something a little unknown. I check out the canteen offerings and hope there will be healthy food of sorts available, not just tasty Turkish pizza and bread with chocolate sprinkles. Admittedly, Dutch kids do seem to grow out of this hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles ) malarkey by the teen years but one can’t be too careful.

20170217_153539 Stained glass and brickwork in Amsterdams Lyceum

Our last school visit was to Het Amsterdams Lyceum. D had missed the official Openavond because of flu so I mailed to see if we could take a look- with the suggestion that our babysitter who happens to be a Year 5 student there, would be our guide. A prompt one line response ‘Of course it’s possible!’ had us arrive on Friday to the school for our personal tour by lovely 16 year old E, a super smart girl of Polish/Dutch parents who studies eight languages ( some are extra choices ) at Het Ams Lyceum. Yes, eight! Dutch, English, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Spanish and Ancient Greek. And what an atmospheric place it is.

Below the biology corridor-this part of the school is not unlike a mini natural history museum. Love it.


Het Amsterdams Lyceum is 100 years old and a canal-side building designed in the style of the Amsterdam School. It has gorgeous old brickwork and stained glass windows and visually is one of my favourites. It is a Vwo school and offers an Atheneum stream and a Gymnasium stream. E was a great host and luckily we bumped into a few teachers who were very welcoming and one opened the science labs for us to have a peek. There are theatre and musical clubs to join and the school owns an old country mansion in the NL that hosts every student each year for a week’s activity holiday. There’s a trip to Paris or Berlin in Year 4 and also Rome in Year 5 for the students taking the classic languages. The concierge at the front desk is very helpful according to E and knows many of the students by name. Last year, a modern look canteen was opened in the basement with good food choices and diner seating. Extra languages can be taken also as part of the curriculum and there are after school clubs like rowing, theatre and dance, etching and film-making. This school offers a brugklas ( bridging class ) for first years which means they all take the same subjects in year 1 and then decide if they want to study Latin and Greek once first year is over. So Atheneum and Gymnasium programs are both options at this school. What’s not to love, right? Oh, and it’s 15 mins bike ride from our house. We both agreed it’s definitely going on the list!

Earlier in the week, D attended the Openlessen at Cygnus Gymnasium. An openles is a drop in lesson laid on for the prospective new students. Sometimes you register for one, other times it’s not necessary. He took Latin and maths and came home happy but then declared it too far away to be considered a contender. A bike ride of at least 25 minutes is not within his acceptable criteria. His Dad spent two hours at the information meeting and was particularly pleased that his dutch comprehension skills have increased since he last attended an info session two years ago. Cygnus also has foreign school trips also, a debating club, and a Youth Parliament project in year 4 among lots of other good stuff. An interesting Gymnasium in a 1940’s industrial style building that has official monument status. Unfortunately, it’s too far from our house. Fons Vitae Lyceum, St. Nicolaas Lyceum and Berlage Lyceum were also in our look/see schedule but didn’t make the top 5.


D and his bike as we arrived at Fons Vitae one snowy weekend morning.

Barlaeus Gymnasium in the city centre was impressive in many ways, a gorgeous big old building that has been modernised while keeping the best features, musical and theatre groups, great science labs, a grand looking aula, friendly and dedicated rector for the onderbouw ( years 1-3 ) kids and is located right off busy social Leidseplein, which apparently proves to be a distraction to the students as they get older. For us, it’s a 20 minute bike ride into fairly busy traffic so I’m a little less enthusiastic about that. There’s a Year 1 musical and a school newspaper plus a few days away camp for First Years in the first week of September which seems to be common in Dutch middelbare schools. A nice idea that gets kids acquainted with their new classmates very fast. The vibe is almost ‘too cool for school’ but an appealing school overall. D liked this school quite a lot.


Musical presentation during the Barlaeus Openavond.

Spinoza Lyceum has 3 streams, Havo, Atheneum and Gymnasium although their Gymnasium class is small and at all levels, students use ipads for almost all their work. This is a negative for me, my son isn’t particularly drawn to it either so although he liked the school a lot, it won’t be high on the list for the tech heavy reason alone. It’s only a 6 minutes bike ride from our house so would be a fantastic commute for him though! Also, a very nice building to spend your school days. If he was awarded this school in the lottery, I can’t say I’d be upset as it has an excellent reputation.

Lastly, we went to Ignatius Gymnasium for the Openavond and Openlessen. Great, new bright building in the heart of Oud Zuid. He liked it well enough although the atmosphere didn’t do very much for me and it just goes to show how personal this choosing schools business is. Maybe I’m weird or had school fatigue. It had the usual VWO aspects; foreign trips, homework help and learning support if needed and it’s lessons are unusually of 70 minutes duration. A great gym ( possibly two, I think ), science labs and less than 15 minutes bike ride from our house. Close to his siblings’ schools also not to mention the local ice-cream and bookshops. And a mini football pitch outside. A hit.


My favourite school is Vossius–It’s another 100 year old red- brick building in the style of the Amsterdam School and just east of Beatrixpark. It has a great cultural program including a Cafe Chantant event every Spring where students can show off their comedy, acting and musical talents. There’s also a Christmas concert, school newspaper, vocals group and school orchestra. I like the slightly geeky atmosphere and cozy feeling and fervently hope my son will put it as number 1. My eldest thinks Vossius has a Harry Potterish feel to it. But alas my younger son has his own mind and is not a Harry Potter fan…

So here are D’s school preferences right now based mainly on gut feeling but it’s liable to change over the next two weeks, I suspect.

1. Ignatius Gymnasium

2. Het Amsterdams Lyceum

3. Barlaeus Gymnasium

4. Vossius Gymnasium

5. Spinoza Lyceum

6. Cygnus Gymnasium

7. St. Nicolaas Lyceum

A few tips for anyone facing this in future

  • Be prepared to write off your social life and relaxing evenings for approx a month, mid-January to mid- February.
  • It’s not particularly a stressful month-just exhausting planning your partner’s, kids’ and your own schedules. The really hard part is trying to rank the schools. Too many options!
  • One happy realisation is that Dutch employers are pretty flexible allowing parents of Groep 8 students time off to attend some afternoon open days or lessons. These events are seen as milestones in family life, ie, if you have a Group 8’er, then you will naturally be busy in the months of January and February. And that’s ok. Work is flexible and can wait a day or until later that evening.
  • You will most likely come out of this month-long process with a sense of quiet achievement. You checked out the high schools of Amsterdam with your kid and survived. And you had some fun and bonding moments with your child along the way. See, the hard bits are worth doing-always.
  • Lastly, brush up on your Dutch skills!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Bringhurst Familia says:

    This is great, Margaret! It’s really fun to compare notes, so to speak. I didn’t even think about checking the cafeteria offerings.

    So is he just putting seven on his list? I was paranoid thirteen wasn’t enough!


    1. Margaret says:

      Hi Sarah. Thanks and yes I like reading your updates too! Food is never far from my mind 😉 He has 8 on the list at the moment- but will probably add Hyperion Lyceum and Het4 Gymnasium too although we didn’t visit as they are quite far from us- over 30 mins on the bike. That wouldn’t be popular on winter mornings 😁. Still, better add than not. 10 will be the max.


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