This article was originally published in The XPat Journal Spring 2018 Issue
By Annebeth van Mameren
Last year there was a lot of commotion on the playground of a small town in the south of the Netherlands. What had happened? A family from the school had gone skiing and had posted some photos of their holiday on Facebook. This had upset some dutiful (or maybe jealous) parents who had felt the need to inform the truancy officers. As a result, the family was fined 400 euros.
Only people who are familiar with the Dutch School Attendance (Leerplicht) Law would understand what the issue was here. Children may only miss school under very specific circumstances, and a skiing holiday isn’t one of them. The parents had told the school that their children were sick, while the smiling pictures told another story.
To stop you as an international parent from winding up with a hefty fine, it is important to understand this Leerplicht Law. Written in 1969, the law dictates that children aged 5 to 16 (or 18 if they don’t have a diploma yet) must attend school during term time (unless they are unwell, of course). To be precise, the plicht (obligation) takes effect on the first day of the month following a child’s fifth birthday.
The Dutch summer holiday lasts for six weeks, and children are off for an additional six weeks, spread out over the year. You are only supposed to go away during these official school holidays.
This law is taken seriously; just before and after the main school holidays, truancy officers at Schiphol airport check whether school-aged children have official permission to miss school. If not, the usual fine for the parents is 100 euros per day. In case of multiple offences, the parents might even have to appear in court. After all, they have broken the law.
There are a few exceptions to this strict law: work commitments, family events, religious celebrations, and on the grounds of age (for 4 and 5 year olds). Below you will find a brief description of each of them, and how you can apply for these exceptions.
With seasonal work, work in the tourist sector, farming, and other jobs that peak in high season, you may not be able to go away during the school holidays. In this case, you can ask for maximum of 10 days off every school year. You’ll have to fill out a form called an Aanvraagformulier vakantieverlof (LPW art. 11f). You can request it from your school’s admin department, or it may be available on the school’s website.
Together with this form you need to submit a statement from your employer. Parents who are self-employed must submit a self-written declaration with a plausible explanation as to why they have to work during the school holidays. You have to put in your request with the headteacher at least eight weeks before your planned departure. Also keep in mind that your child may not be absent during the first two weeks of the new school year.
Families with relatives in other countries often miss each other most on special occasions, be they happy or sad ones. Parents want to be part of these occasions, with their children, but how does that work with school? For these situations, the truancy officers have created another form, called an Aanvraagformulier verlof wegens gewichtige omstandigheden (LPW art. 11g). Gewichtige omstandigheden stands for ‘significant circumstances’ and these are tightly specified.
They include moving house, a wedding, a family member’s milestone wedding anniversary, and when a family member is terminally ill or has passed away. Here, ‘family members’ means first-, second- or third-degree relatives (for example, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts). The maximum duration of leave has been set out in the law, for example a maximum of five days for a wedding abroad.
If a relative is seriously ill, the duration of the leave is established together with the school’s headteacher. If this leave exceeds 10 days, the headteacher has to forward your request to the truancy officers, who will take the final decision.
The last valid listed reason on the aforementioned form is ‘other reasons the headteacher deems important’. This is a bit subjective, and sometimes you have some wiggle room here. Try to figure out what the headteacher of your school finds important enough. In any case, it has to be an important family celebration that is taking place on a specific date over which the parents have no influence. For example, a family reunion, or visiting a newborn cousin, is not specific enough. The headteacher would ask why they need to happen on the days specified, and would generally turn the request down.
To give you an idea, our children were allowed five days off when we went to their grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration in the US. We had arranged for him to celebrate his birthday in the week after our children’s May vacation, and we combined it with the 75th birthday of my husband’s uncle who had invited the entire family. So in this case we were allowed to stay a bit longer on the other side of the pond.
For all requests you have to submit proof, for example a wedding invitation. However, you don’t need to prove that you are related to the bride or groom. Take the time to fill out this form correctly, as you only get one shot. Don’t call the event a family reunion first, and then suddenly declare that your father is getting married for the 5th time after your first request has been rejected. It is also very important to choose your words carefully, for instance avoiding using the word ‘holiday’ on the form!
“Truancy officers at Schiphol airport check whether school-aged children have official permission to miss school”
A pupil has the right to take a day off when they have obligations arising from their religion or belief. This is only valid for the day of the celebration. So you may not take off the whole week in order to celebrate Eid with your family in your home country.
On the officially-recognized Christian holidays, all schools, including non-religious ones, and schools of other faiths, are closed.
Most children begin school the day after their 4th birthday, which means that for the first year they are not legally obliged to attend school. However, once your child has started school, s/he is expected to attend every day. If you feel that your child needs to miss a day, you should inform the teacher, so they know where your child is. If your child is going to be absent for multiple days, you should still fill out the above-mentioned forms. In this case it is very likely that your request for an extended absence will be granted.
“It is very important to choose your words carefully, for instance avoiding using the word ‘holiday’ on the form!”
Exceptions for 5-Year-Olds
Not many parents are aware of the exceptions for 5-year-olds. A 5-year-old child may miss a maximum of 5 hours of school per week. You could use this exemption when attending full school days is still too tiring for your child, or, for example, so they can take swimming lessons during the day, when the pool is not crowded. If there is a special reason, you may ask the headteacher to grant your child a maximum of 10 hours off per week.
I’m sorry to tell you that you may not accumulate these hours over multiple weeks. Furthermore, the exceptions all end once your child turns six.
“Why is the law this strict?” I can hear you cry. “In my country, my children can just go on holiday whenever we want,” you might say. Or: “For my child, a few missed days of school is neither here nor there”. Maybe that is all true, but some children would actually miss a lot of vital education if they stayed away for a while. For example, for those pupils whose parents have less formal education and/or don’t speak Dutch, it might be hard for them to catch up.
The law is the same for everyone. The headteacher cannot make an exception for one child, but not for the other. ‘Regels zijn regels’ (‘rules are rules’) is a phrase that you’ll often hear in this context. Furthermore, for continuity for the teacher, and from a social perspective, it is important that the pupils experience all celebrations and events together. They start and end the year together, and the school’s Christmas lunch is a memorable event that they will keep on talking about in the months that follow!
You should also be aware that the school is obliged to report all non-valid absences. If the headteacher gives permission for an invalid reason, the school can get fined. In other words, they don’t have a lot of leeway. If you are frustrated by the Leerplicht Law, this hopefully at least provides you with a bit of context.
In 2011, eleven schools in the country were designated pilot schools, which are allowed to experiment with more flexible holidays. The parents love this initiative, but as for most schools the results have gone down and the pressure on the teachers has increased, the school inspectorate isn’t overly positive. Nevertheless, the pilot has been extended to 2018, and now includes 20 schools. Who knows, maybe it will become easier to take time off in the future – at least a few days here and there. As a parent I would be very grateful to say the least!