Building an Equitable Education System: Insights from the Dutch Approach

Article In The Thread
Mike van Schoonderwalt /
May 16, 2023

Imagine yourself playing outside with your friends without much supervision from your parents, biking to school every morning, and having chocolate sprinkles on toast for breakfast. This is not an imaginary dream world of an average 8-year-old but often real life for kids in the Netherlands. It is not a surprise that Dutch children are among the happiest kids in the world.

A 2020 UN report looked at the factors that contribute to a happy childhood. While the Netherlands came out on top, the U.S. ranked among the bottom out of the 40 high-income countries. How big of an influence is education on child welfare? And, what can the U.S. possibly learn from its Dutch peers?

Equity and Inclusion

In the Dutch education system, there is a strong commitment to equity and inclusion with equal funding for all schools. While private schools may have a specific religious or ideological orientation, public schools do not. Both private and public schools can receive public funding as long as their education philosophies adhere to the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science. Therefore, parents do not pay any school fees, only a small voluntary contribution for extracurricular activities. Parents can choose any primary school they want their children to attend based on their religion, beliefs, and preferences. This contributes to children enjoying equal access to education, regardless of family income or social status.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes the Dutch education system as equitable because a child’s social background has less impact on education outcomes as compared to other OECD countries, while schools produce students with strong literacy and numeracy outcomes and minimizes weak basic skills among teenagers.

Kindergarten can begin for children in the Netherlands at age four. While children are not required to attend primary school until the age of five, 98 percent of children begin school the year before. In kindergarten, they are exposed to what primary school is like, but there is also a big focus on playtime. Primary schools have eight grades and then children advance to secondary school at the age of 12. The Dutch secondary school is divided into three levels. Preparatory secondary vocational education (VMBO) is a four-year program that prepares students for vocational education. Senior general secondary education (HAVO) is a five-year program that provides students with a broad general education that prepares them for higher professional education. Pre-university education (VWO) is a six-year program that provides students with a more extensive and rigorous education that prepares them to attend a research university.

Before students go to one of these levels, they get a recommendation from their primary school teacher that is based on their academic performance, interests, and abilities. However, once students start they can switch levels if they feel that they are not challenged or struggling to keep up. This system emphasizes flexibility and individualized learning pathways, which allows students to pursue different tracks based on their abilities and interests. This shows that the Dutch education system can provide a proper school fit for every child.

There is a strong focus on inclusive education with efforts to ensure that all students, including those with special needs, receive the support and accommodation they need to succeed. This emphasis on inclusive education starts in the earliest ages of childhood education. For example, children who have language challenges get support through play so they make a good start at primary school. These programs have had positive emotional and educational effects and prevent and address potential educational shortcomings.

High-Quality Early Childhood Education

The Netherlands is convinced that early childhood education contributes to a solid education and a productive, happy society and therefore this type of education is widely accessible across the country. Research has shown that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for important development, including emotional control, social skills, language, and numeracy. Therefore high-quality early childhood education that is accessible to every young child is essential for their future development.

During their early years, children can attend either daycare or preschool before reaching the age of four. Daycare is focused on infants from 10 weeks old up to primary school age, while preschool is designed for children between the ages of two and four. Preschool provides a more structured environment that prepares young kids for primary education. Preschool programs aim to stimulate children's social, cognitive, and emotional development through play-based activities focused on Dutch language acquisition, social skills, and motor skills, providing opportunities for peer interaction.

Dutch childcare organizations must meet government-established requirements to guarantee high-quality early childhood education and development. The requirements prioritize safety and health, create a familiar environment, and train and support staff to sustain high-quality childcare.

“The Netherlands is convinced that early childhood education contributes to a solid education and a productive, happy society.”

Parents who meet the requirements can apply for childcare benefits that help them in covering the costs of either daycare or preschool. However, for those who are not eligible, or have a toddler at risk of developmental delays, the municipality may offer financial support by covering a part of the expenses.

Less Pressure

In the U.S., education is seen as an important factor of success in the future. Parents go to great lengths to put their children into elite nurseries, prep schools, and high schools in the hope of securing a spot at a top-ranked university. The intense focus on academic achievement can lead to significant pressure and stress for students. In the Netherlands, education is seen as a route to a child’s well-being and individual development, leading to less pressure to perform. Secondary schools don’t use competitive exams or interviews and most students usually only need to pass their high school exams to graduate. Generally, there is less pressure on students to be at the top of their class to ensure a place at a university. This approach appears to result in happier, more well-adjusted students.

There is also some criticism of the Dutch education system. Certain education organizations believe that the primary school teacher’s recommendations for secondary school are too early in a child’s life. According to the Dutch service broadcaster (NOS) international research shows that delaying determination of school levels could ensure greater equity in students’ educational achievement. In some ways, the Netherlands could stand to learn from the American educational system, as well. Dutch students can benefit from taking courses on different levels which fit the student’s abilities and needs . For example, a student who is on the preparatory secondary vocational education track is their perfect fit but is not being challenged in a course. Or the other way around when a student is on the pre-university track but is having a hard time with a course.

Another aspect of the U.S. education system that the Dutch education system could benefit from is choosing a major in college. In the Netherlands, students choose their profile in high school to determine their future. VMBO students choose their profile at the end of their second year, while HAVO and VWO students choose their profile a year later. Dutch students choose their direction for their future when they are young and causing challenges if they want to switch later in their education. Emphasizing choosing a major in college can be more beneficial to students since they get to experience different tracks first before they make a final decision.

Dutch children and students appear to be the happiest in the world when it comes to well-being. Because no educational system is completely perfect, it is important to keep exchanging ideas, views, philosophies, and systems to improve education so young children can thrive wherever they are.

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