By Annebet van Mameren

In general, the Dutch education system works very well, but because of its unique features and many different types of schools, a lot of international parents have a tough job identifying the right school for their children.

This job is made even tougher if your child needs some extra support in school. In this article Annebet van Mameren from New2nl explains how to find your way in this unfamiliar world.

Inclusive Education

The policies around special needs education drastically changed in August 2014, when the current ‘Inclusive Education’ (Passend Onderwijs) Act took effect. This act dictates that all schools are responsible for providing a suitable learning place for every child. Under the ‘Going to school together again’ (Weer Samen naar School) policy, children with and without special needs should be able to go together to the same schools.

In practice, however, this process is much more complicated and less straightforward than it sounds.

Parents first register their preschooler with a mainstream school, which is obliged to investigate whether they can provide the (external) support this child may need. Regional alliances (samenwerkingsverbanden) consisting of both mainstream schools and special needs (SEN) schools receive their own budgets for educational support.

Not all mainstream schools are equally equipped for, or experienced in, teaching non-Dutch children with special needs, so parents should select the school very carefully. You should ask the school in advance about their previous experiences with providing the specific support your child needs, and how they would handle your specific situation. Also ask for their formal support plan (ondersteuningsplan), which describes their procedures for special needs support.

It is also important to know that the classes at many regular schools have 28 to 30 children, and that additional, external support is often limited to a few hours per week.

If your child already attends a mainstream school, and you suspect they need more learning support, your first point of contact in the school is the IB’er, who is the member of staff who performs the role of care coordinator. He or she can carry out some additional tests or ask for help from an external specialist.

Types of Special Needs Education

If the support required turns out to be too specialised or intensive, the child might be referred to a dedicated special needs school. There are three main types of special needs education: Speciaal basisonderwijs (SBO), and speciaal onderwijs at both primary (SO) and secondary (VSO) levels.

At SBO schools, the pupils follow the same programme and have the same government-set core objectives as regular primary schools. However, the classes at these schools are smaller, which ensures that the children receive more personal attention and tailor-made support. They also get more time to complete primary school (till age 14, instead of age 12).

This type of education especially caters for children who have more serious learning difficulties, a low IQ, or behavioural problems.

At the dedicated special needs schools (speciaal onderwijs), there are four cluster schools based on the type of special needs. Also here, the class sizes are smaller than at regular schools, and the children receive more tailor-made and specialised support and therapies focused on their specific needs. The teachers teach at different levels in the class, and most children follow the regular curriculum.

The speciaal onderwijs schools are divided into the following clusters:

  • Cluster 1 schools are meant for children who are visually impaired or blind
  • Cluster 2 is for children who have serious communication problems (deaf, speech disorder, etc.)
  • Cluster 3 schools welcome children who have cognitive or physical disabilities, or a chronic illness that makes going to school difficult
  • Finally, cluster 4 schools are for children with psychiatric or serious behavioural issues (autism, ADHD, PDD-NOS, ODD, CD, etc.).

These cluster schools often work together in order to provide the most suitable support. Some complications could arise, though, if a child doesn’t fit precisely into one of the clusters. Some extra tests, interviews, and meetings with the parents might then be required.

After a SEN Primary School

After a special needs primary school, a child can go to either a regular secondary school (with extra support, if needed), or a special needs school at secondary level (VSO). A special needs school at secondary level needs to make an educational plan with the child and guide them towards a suitable career.

When a pupil makes enough progress at the special needs school, they may transfer to a regular (primary or secondary) school.

The (Lengthy) Process of Applying for a Special Needs School

If your child grows up in the Netherlands, their development will be routinely monitored by the Consultatiebureau (GGD/OKC), a health clinic for babies and toddlers. In case of any irregularities, they may refer you to a specialist. If needed, this specialist can help you apply for additional support at a mainstream school, or for a special needs school.

In order for your child to be accepted into a special needs school, they should first get a referral, which is issued by the regional alliance in your place of residence. This referral is called a toelaatbaarheidsverklaring (tlv) – literarily translated as ‘permissibility statement’.

Your child will have to go through several observations and tests, and – as their parent – you will be interviewed. It is often a long and tiring process.

Support for International Parents of SEN Children

Support for international parents is available at local and national levels.

A specialised educational consultant (onderwijsconsulent) can assist your family in this process. An onderwijsconsulent is an independent educational specialist who has a lot of experience with SEN children. Parents don’t need to pay for the help of this consultant.

At the bottom of this article, there is a list of some more organisations and support groups that can help you through the process.

If you are arriving in the Netherlands with a child who has already had special needs support, you need to register this with the municipality (Gemeente) during the registration process, so that the appropriate steps can be taken to put adequate support in place. You can try and speed up this lengthy process by arranging as many things as possible prior to your arrival.

Leonardo Schools

There is another type of special needs school that I haven’t mentioned yet: the Leonardo schools for gifted children. Usually they are regular schools that have a dedicated department for gifted children who are offered extra cognitive challenges and subjects. These schools have their own admission criteria.

Special Needs Support in International Schools

Most international schools in the Netherlands (both state-funded and private) work with Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers. Usually they can only accommodate a limited number of SEN-children a year. You may have to pay for a teaching assistant. Please make sure you understand how this works beforehand.

In the Netherlands, there is only one international special needs school: Lighthouse Special Education, located in The Hague. They specialise in complex behavioural and/or developmental problems.

To conclude, I would like to say that whatever support your child needs and whichever route you take, don’t forget that you are your child’s advocate. Stay in close contact with your child’s teachers, and talk with other parents who are in a similar situation. Be pro-active and make sure to get all the support you are entitled to. You all need to work together in your child’s best interest.

Good luck finding your way!

Annebet van Mameren is founder of

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