Education in the Netherlands is characterized by division: education is oriented toward the needs and background of the pupil. Education is divided over schools for different age groups, some of which are divided in streams for different educational levels. Schools are furthermore divided in public, special (religious), and general-special (neutral) schools, although there are also a few private schools. The Dutch grading scale runs from 1 (very poor) to 10 (outstanding).
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ranks the education in the Netherlands as the 9th best in the world as of 2008, being significantly higher than the OECD average.
Compulsory education (leerplicht) in the Netherlands starts at the age of five, although in practice, most schools accept children from the age of four. From the age of sixteen there is a partial compulsory education (partiële leerplicht), meaning a pupil must attend some form of education for at least two days a week. Compulsory education ends for pupils aged eighteen and up or when they get a diploma on the VWO, HAVO or MBO level.
Public, special (religious), and general-special (neutral) schools are government-financed, receiving equal financial support from the government if certain criteria are met. Although they are officially free of charge, these schools may ask for a parental contribution (ouderbijdrage). Private schools rely on their own funds, but they are highly uncommon in the Netherlands, to the extent that even the Dutch monarchs have traditionally attended special or public schools. Public schools are controlled by local governments. Special schools are controlled by a school board and are typically based on a particular religion; those that assume equality between religions are known as general-special schools. These differences are present in all levels of education.
As a result, there can be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim elementary schools, high schools, and universities. A special school can reject applications of pupils whose parents or guardians disagree with the school’s educational philosophy, but this is uncommon. In practice, there is little difference between special schools and public schools, except in traditionally religious areas of the Dutch Bible Belt. All school types (public, special and private) are under the jurisdiction of a government body called Inspectie van het Onderwijs (Inspection of Education, also known as Onderwijsinspectie) that can demand a school to change its educational policy and quality at the risk of closure.
In elementary and high schools, pupils are assessed annually by a team of teachers who determine whether they advanced enough to move on to the next grade. Since forcing a pupil to retake the year (blijven zitten; literally, “stay seated”) has a profound impact on the pupil’s life in terms of social contacts and remaining in the educational system longer, this decision is not taken lightly and mechanisms are in place to avert retaking years, such as remedial teaching and other forms of guidance. As a result, retaking a year is uncommon, but it happens more often in elementary schools than in high schools because there are fewer negative consequences at a younger age. Gifted children are sometimes granted the opportunity to skip an entire year, yet this happens rarely and usually happens in elementary schools.