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 trips 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 ubiquitous 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.


Little brother taking a stroll amongst the book sculpture arrangement in Ignatius Gymnasium.

My favourite school is Vossius where my oldest son is a 2nd year student. 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 and school orchestra. I like the slightly geeky atmosphere and cozy feeling and fervently hope my son will put it as number 1. My oldest boy is very at home there and 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!

Helping your kids integrate into Dutch school

Two years after we moved here, I wrote an article about the early days of my kids’ dutch school experience. There are tips and a few anecdotes and hopefully it might be helpful for new families moving to the Netherlands.

It was published on the website of Amsterdam Mamas, a wonderful international parents’ group based in Amsterdam. I had previously spent about 18 months as a member of the weekend round up team where we each wrote a monthly newsletter about fun family activities in and around Amsterdam. Then I thought an article on education might be a good idea and decided to share my do’s and dont’s. I hope some of you do too! You can read it here via this link.


Once more into the Fray: The Wonderful World of Dutch Schools

When our family moved here in 2012, we decided for a number of reasons to send our kids to a local dutch school instead of international school. This decision was arrived at easily as private school fees for three children were not really a smart financial option for us and instinctively we knew it would be the wrong decision for our family. We wanted the kids to learn a new language and living in the heart of Europe seemed like a gift so why not grasp the opportunity. Learning dutch offers many benefits; dutch friends, cultural integration, eaves-dropping at every turn, and a broad range of secondary (middelbare) schools to choose from. Our eldest child, T is already in Year 2 of dutch middelbare. So, we have been through the fraught, exciting and downright confusing journey of looking for the right secondary school before. But it doesn’t really feel any easier. Here’s a look at our middelbare story so far.

T is an academic child, artistic, musical and a bundle of energy-a lot of energy! He is perfectly suited to his school, a Gymnasium in Amsterdam. A Gymnasium is similar to a grammar school, offering the classic languages of Greek and Latin along with modern languages Dutch, English, German and French plus music, art, science subjects, history, geography, computer science. It’s co-educational ( like all Dutch schools ) and is non-religious. To say he loves his school would be an understatement. It has a broad programme of cultural events throughout the year, including trips to Amsterdam cultural institutions, musical and theatre student group performances. The kids there are friendly, confident and proud of their school and there is a strong scholarly work ethic. In later years, the students take a week long trip to Rome or Greece and other short trips each year. An unusual aspect of the dutch education system is that there are precious little private Dutch school options and so everyone from the King’s children to the man in the street can be in the same classroom { The King does in fact send his kids to their local public school! } thus confirming that equality is important to this small country and it’s citizens.

School fees are low and our middelbare school charges 660Eur per year for everything, which includes school trips and supervised homework after school. Books are free in dutch schools. And as there are no uniforms, schooling here is quite a lot cheaper for us compared to our local school back in Ireland. Even when the older students head to Rome for a week, the fees remains the same so that contributes to financial peace of mind for parents. T’s school has a cosy, gezellig atmosphere in a 1920’s Amsterdam architecture red-brick building and he feels safe and welcome there. Yesterday, at the Open Day his art teacher smiled and said, “Ahh T…I like him very much. I have to tell him to quiet down sometimes but he is great”. She gets him which was really nice to hear. Continue reading