Alternative Education, Opinion

Going Dutch? Reflections on the Secondary School System in the Netherlands

Going Dutch? Reflections on the Secondary School System in the Netherlands

Originally published February 2024

By Aleksandra Trivan Johnstone

If you were to search online for “best education systems in the world,” you will almost always see the Netherlands ranked in the top ten. But what makes an education system “the best?”

Other than its enviably low secondary class sizes (15–18 students, on average) and strict attendance laws (parents are fined €100 for every day their child misses school without official permission), this was a question I was eager to explore when my family recently had the chance to make an 18-month move from Ontario, Canada, to the Netherlands. While there has been much information to sift through, it has been exciting to see how many similarities there are between schools in Canada and those in the Netherlands, as well as how the two systems differ.

In my time here, I have been lucky to meet and speak with current and recently graduated secondary students and their parents about their thoughts and experiences. In sharing what I have learned, I seek not to present recommendations for how the education systems should change, but rather to provide a space for reflecting on the possibilities that exist beyond our boundaries.

Academic Profiles

Upon entering secondary school in the Netherlands, all students are expected to select and enroll in one of four academic profiles:

  • Culture & Society – preparation for artistic or cultural professions
  • Economy & Society – preparation for managerial or business administration professions
  • Nature & Health – preparation for medical professions
  • Nature & Technology – preparation for technological or natural science professions

Similar to the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) programming available in Ontario, these profiles provide tailored programming and training opportunities to help students prepare for their future career or education goals. The key difference, however, is that enrollment in the SHSM program is often voluntary, whereas it’s mandatory in the Netherlands.

Deciding on a post-secondary option is always a stressful process in Ontario, and one that many of my own students struggle with. There is a real sense of finality around choosing your future, and at times this can lead to students feeling like they are stuck on a trajectory they’re no longer interested in. So I was curious to see how Dutch students felt about this requirement, and how schools navigate the potential concerns that may arise.

Students and parents both indicated that this specialized programming helps increase students’ confidence and preparedness for their future. While there is room for some elective choice, most courses are pre-selected for students, thereby reducing both the amount of decision making required and the possibility of course selection errors. This seems to me like an enormous benefit for many students and families who have trouble navigating the intricacies of course selection, particularly among newcomer families for whom this approach to education may already be very different from that of their home country.

While I question whether or not the academic profiles leave room for students to explore subjects they may not otherwise know they have an inclination for, I was interested to hear that the specific programming kept students feeling engaged in their learning by allowing them to focus on subjects they enjoy or feel confident in. The unanimous expression was that this format makes learning much more relevant to students.

Starting Age

One of the most surprising (and depending on who you speak to, contentious) elements of the secondary school system in the Netherlands is the starting age. As of 2008, students begin secondary school at 12 years old.

In my discussions with students, I noticed that some preferred the ability to start focusing on their academic or career goals earlier, while others would have liked being able to choose when they were a bit older and knew enough about their skills or interests. Although some students found the support and guidance of their parents helpful in making this decision, many parents (especially those who did not go through the current Dutch system themselves) also expressed fears around not advising their children well and potentially locking them into the wrong career path.

Academic Pathways

One of the more familiar components of the Dutch secondary system is its use of three academic pathways, abbreviated as VMBO, HAVO, and VWO. While individual schools and regions may differ in how or what they are able to offer in terms of pathway programming, the most common pathway offerings have been summarized below:

VMBO (4 years)
Similar to the “Workplace” pathway in Ontario, this pathway focuses on vocational and on-the-job training for students entering the skilled trades, middle-management positions, or directly into administrative support or workforce positions.

HAVO (5 years)
Similar to the “College” pathway in Ontario, this pathway focuses on preparation for universities of applied sciences or polytechnic institutes.


VWO (6 years)
Similar to the “University” pathway in Ontario, this pathway focuses on preparation for research universities and more theoretical programming. In many cases, the final year of VWO overlaps with university instruction, so most students subsequently require only three years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Historically, pathway selection has been made based on students’ results on standardized testing at the end of their primary school education, while also factoring in advice of their primary school and student/parent input. However, as we have also seen in Ontario, this has had some problematic results, including overrepresentation of low socio-economic status students and those with learning disabilities in the VMBO/Workplace pathways.

We have many students in our own classrooms for whom test taking is an incredibly stressful event, and often does not accurately reflect a student’s learning. I can only imagine how upsetting it must feel when so much of your future is dependent on your ability to memorize facts or perform well in a timed, stressful situation.

As these three pathways further narrow students’ studies and impact their final academic or professional goals, some schools have started offering mixed or combination programming (VMBO/HAVO or HAVO/VWO) for the first year of study to help determine the best pathway for a student. Even more recently, several schools are now experimenting with an “adaptive” learning method—influenced by Scandinavian education systems—which offers generalized programming for the first year or two before students need to select a pathway. The aim is to allow students to get more comfortable with the expectations of secondary learning, and have a better understanding of their goals and needs.

All of the parents and students I spoke with had positive responses to the pathway structure, indicating that it allows students to better prepare for their future while having access to material that is adapted to their learning needs. While still early in its implementation, many parents also felt that the adaptive approach would offer further benefits to students by giving them more maturation time and opportunity to explore their strengths and interests before making their programming and pathway decisions.

This is certainly something I would encourage, as high school is an enormous time of growth and self-learning for students. Many have often not thought about themselves as autonomous beings outside of their family unit, and this new experience of independence can be both exciting and intimidating. Giving students more time to get to know themselves, their skills, and their interests can only benefit them when it is time to make decisions about what their place in the broader community might be.

A Few Personal Thoughts and Questions

Learning about the Dutch system and hearing from students and parents, I found my thoughts frequently returning to those students who fall through the cracks of our current system in Canada. I’ve spent much time wondering how some of the program characteristics in the Netherlands could have impacted them.

I think of many of our students who are labelled “at risk” or “disengaged.” Could more specific and tailored programming have made learning feel more meaningful or relevant to them, keeping some of them in school longer? Or could it have felt too prescriptive, further reducing how much control or input they felt they had in their learning?

I think about the students I had who—whether of their own choice or due to circumstances beyond their control—dropped out to support themselves or their family financially once they turned 16. How many more opportunities could they have been afforded if they were able to leave with a completed VMBO diploma?

I think about our newcomer students, particularly those who arrive at an older age and with little to no proficiency in English. While Ontario schools try to offer as many credits as possible based on students’ prior learning, there are still students for whom “catching up” (either in language or prerequisite content classes) takes too long and they age out of the secondary school system before being able to obtain their diploma. I wonder if the shorter pathway timelines could make it easier for students heading to the workforce to complete their requirements before aging out, while at the same time making it even more challenging for those hoping to pursue university education by adding two more years to their required schooling.

While I may not have clear answers to these questions, learning more about Dutch secondary schools has certainly inspired a lot of reflection on the ways in which education systems may struggle to serve the needs of all students, and what kind of changes could be made to help more students find personal and academic success in school.

One of my favourite times of year in the Netherlands is in the late spring, when students begin to graduate and families proudly display the backpacks of their graduates on flag poles above their doors, the Dutch flag fluttering brightly beneath them. There is so much hope and possibility that a diploma can offer young people entering into the world, and so many more doors that are opened for them. I hope that if we can learn from each other’s systems and find what really works for students, we can see more backpacks displayed and more graduates crossing the stage in both Canada and the Netherlands.

Aleksandra Trivan Johnstone is a secondary school teacher in the Halton District School Board.