You need to register your child for a school before his or her fifth birthday (see section on "Where to find information about schools" and do pay attention to possible waiting lists). School is obligatory from the age of five, although the vast majority of children start at age four . (see "homeschooling" section for exceptions to this rule). Most crèches/daycares/peuterspeelzaalen (see childcare section) refuse to care for children after the age of four, though most will make an exception for a month or two after the child's fourth birthday, if necessary. For example, our daycare let our son stay for an extra three weeks after his fourth birthday because his birthday is in early December and we didn't see the point of having him try to start school in early December with all the chaos surrounding both Sinterklaas and Christmas. We chose to have him begin school after the Christmas break and the daycare was very accommodating. All this means that if you are a parent who works outside the home, it could be very hard to not have your child start school at age four because your childcare options will begin to shrink.
The school year starts in August. Instead of one long summer break, there is a six week break during July and August and various one or two week holidays scattered throughout the rest of the year, including, of course, Christmas, Easter, and various religious holidays such as Ascension Day, even if your child doesn't go to a religious school. The school week is normally from 08.30/45-15.00/30 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; and from 08.30-12.00/30 on Wednesdays, though this schedule varies from school to school. Also, most schools have a quite liberal number of days on which there is no school for the kids, either in order for teachers to have special training or to give the teachers the free days to which they are entitled by Dutch labor laws. These days also tend to vary from school to school. These free days are usually, but not always, scheduled to fall on Mondays or Fridays.
Unlike in many other school systems in which children begin school in the autumn after their fourth or fifth birthdays, children here are accepted into a class ("kleuterklas") from the moment they turn four. Some schools have a reception class for children entering the school. Other schools just have one "kleuterklas" (kindergarten) for all children from the ages of four until six. Groups 1 and 2 are generally equivalent to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten (USA) and Reception/Foundation and Year 1 (UK). Children will generally stay in these classes until the September after their sixth birthdays when they'll move to Group 3 (1 st grade in the American system, Year 2 in the UK ).
Most schools, at the very least, have wendagen ("weaning" or getting used to school days). In some schools, children come for a few half days of school before they officially begin. In other schools, children go to school for shorter periods for the first couple of weeks and gradually work up to a full day of school. The length of the school day varies from school to school, and most schools are flexible to at least some degree as to how your child builds up to a 'full' week . .
The vast majority of Dutch schools view the "kleuterschool" period (basically 4-6 year olds) as a time to learn by playing. Children spend most of the day doing crafts, building with blocks, and generally playing with each other. Most schools do slowly introduce the alphabet, numbers, basic math, etc. during the kleuterschool period via low-key and playful activities. However, if you're used to a highly academic system (the British approach in particular is in sharp contrast to the Dutch), the kleuterschool may seem like a bit of a waste of time to you. I would urge you, though, to at least be open to the Dutch way of dealing with this age group. For one thing, you don't have much of a choice! If you've chosen to send your child to a Dutch school, this is the way things are done and you'll just end up getting incredibly frustrated if you try to change a very deeply ingrained system, no matter how ready you think your child is to begin learning to read formally or do other kinds of advanced academic work. Secondly, children really do seem to thrive in this environment and do learn letters, numbers, etc., just not in as systematic and "academic" way as many foreigners are used to.
Children begin to learn to read and do math in a more systematic way in Group ou 3 (First Grade in the American system, British Year 2), which begins, in general, the autumn after they turn six. It tends to go quite quickly for most children when they begin to learn to read at a slightly older age, and the majority of children read relatively well by the end of Group ou 3.
As in the UK and US, primary teaching is dominated by women, and it's a rare primary which has more than a handful (if that) of male teachers. Many classes have job sharing teachers, so that your child will have juf (teacher) A on Mondays and Tuesdays, and juf B on Wednesday to Friday. Depending on your school, there may also be a large throughput of stagiaires - trainee teachers doing work experience during their training - who can stay with a class for periods from a few weeks to most of a school year. These trainees do not (at our children's school) have sole charge of a class and are always assisting the incumbent teacher.
Most schools have "10 minute meetings" between the parents and the teachers at least three or four times a year to talk about the child's progress. I've personally found 10 minutes to be incredibly short. However, I've always felt that, if necessary, I could easily schedule more time to talk to the teacher about my child. Expect a more relaxed attitude, in general, toward grades and test scores than you might in other countries' school systems. The teachers I've dealt with over the years have taken a lot of time to emphasize how different kids are and how relatively unimportant grades and scores are! In fact, when my son brought home a report card from a series of standardized tests, the school had tacked on a little poem that stated that grades were just numbers and weren't indicative of the child him/herself. While this attitude can be refreshing and heartening, it can feel a bit hard to get teachers and schools to take concerns about a child's progress, or lack thereof, seriously.
Schools will generally want to "wait and see" for quite a while before intervening with special help and testing for children. This dynamic is exacerbated, in my experience, for foreign/bi-lingual children, especially with language issues. A lot of emphasis may be placed on the child being bilingual and, therefore, slower in some things in the classroom. While this is no doubt true for some kids, this attitude can lead to a rather late diagnosis of very real problems such as dyslexia. (see special needs section). As a parent, you may have to act more proactively than you're used to in order to get your child help sooner rather than later. See the Etiquette section; speak up about your concerns and keep speaking up until somebody listens.
All this being said, it's been my experience that once a child is finally diagnosed with either learning or behavior issues, there is quite a bit of help available within most schools. I believe that all schools have at least one remedial teacher to provide extra help. Also, the schools can and do bring in outside help (psychologists, parenting coaches, etc.) if they deem it necessary.
On the flip side of this, there tends not to be a lot of emphasis placed on "gifted and talented" children in most schools. Of course, some schools do have programs for "advanced" or gifted and talented kids. I've known of some children who have been allowed to skip a grade because they were already academically advanced, and most kids will get extra work within the classroom if they are ahead of the other kids. However, the overall feeling is that skipping grades isn't good for children socially and, perhaps as a legacy of the Netherland's Calvinist heritage, academically advanced children are urged not to "make too much of themselves" and still try to fit in socially.
Somewhat ironically for a school system that presents itself as not particularly concerned with grades and scores, the "end" CITO test (toets), given in the last year of primary school (Group 8), is extremely important. If you enroll your child in Dutch schools, you'll no doubt begin to hear about CITO toets scores pretty quickly. The children's progress at school is monitored by particular school-based tests, but also by the standardized, national CITO toets. Therefore, a child will take this standardized test yearly. However, it is in the last year, group 8 (when kids are 11-12), that the test scores become very important. The results of this test will indicate the level of secondary education that suits the child best. If a child doesn't do well s/he might receive a recommendation to go to lower level of secondary education.
Before you as a parent get too freaked out, it is not *only* CITO-toets scores that make this determination. It is also the child's cumulative history of standardized and school-based scores, teachers' advice and opinions, and the parents' and children's own desires. However, a whole industry has sprung up around preparing children for the "eind CITO-toets" (last Cito test) because the scores do carry a lot of weight, and some popular gymnasia and VWO schools (see below) refuse to take in children whose CITO scores are too low.
One other thing you may notice straight away: pupils do not wear a school uniform in Dutch schools. I'm not sure to what extent this makes life easier or harder, but one gets used to it very quickly!