Why has the Netherlands suddenly gone flag-mad? Is it a Dutch tradition to hang sports bags on flagpoles to encourage the national football team? And why now, when the football season is over? Anyone who is scared of fluttering things like birds or moths could be forgiven for not venturing outside for the next few weeks due to the sudden strange appearance of full-size Dutch flags on wall-mounted flagpoles slung with rucksacks and shoulder bags. What’s going on?

If you look more closely, you may see some people have added a string of old exercise books and you might see a special banner saying Geslaagd (passed). What does it all mean?

Geslaagd! Dutch flag with schoolbooks and schoolbag
Geslaagd! Dutch flag with schoolbooks and schoolbag

The Dutch do love any excuse to celebrate and this is just one of the ways they do it. It’s their own quiet way of telling the neighbours that their son or daughter has passed their final school exams (eindexamen) at the end of high school / secondary school. Before the advent of Facebook and email, or even phones, it meant you could cycle around and check if your friends had passed without having to ask, so you could enquire after their results in the appropriate tone of voice. No overly cheerful enquiries about exam results only to find somebody has failed miserably. In fact, it’s still useful if you don’t happen to be Facebook friends with your neighbouring teenager.

What if you’re not Dutch?

Now, as an expat, you might be asking yourself what happens if you’re not Dutch and you want to hang a flag out. There has been some discussion about this as the Netherlands has a highly visible population of Turks, Moroccans, people from Indonesia, Suriname, etc. There are a couple of ways around this. You could say If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and hang up a Dutch flag. Or you could buy a flag with the school’s name on it. Or you do what some people with roots in other countries do, and hang up your own country’s flag like the Irish one I spotted in Nijmegen a couple of years ago.

Irish flag, banner from the Kandinsky College in Nijmegen, bag and some books.
Irish flag, banner from the Kandinsky College in Nijmegen, bag and some books.

Internal testing and centralised exams

The Dutch secondary school system is organised rather like the traditional English system with pupils tested and selected at the age of 11 or so and sent to a school that reflects how academic they are. In some more competitive school districts (Amsterdam, for example), everything hinges on the so-called CITO-test, similar to the old-fashioned 11-plus in the UK, but here in Gelderland (in my experience, at least), the personal advice of the child’s primary school teacher counts just as much, if not more. In any case, the ‘top’ 20% of pupils go to VWO (either gymnasium with Greek & Latin or atheneum, without), next best 20% to havo, with the majority going to vmbo – also known as mavo – (over 60%, though I’ve seen 76% quoted).  To add to the confusion, vmbo is is subdivided into vmbo-t (theoretical), the next level down from havo, then in decreasing order of academic level vmbo-GL, vmbo-KBL and vmbo-BBL. There are also special schools and classes for children who need a higher level of support or who have special educational needs.

How long does secondary education take in the Netherlands?

That’s a good question! In theory, the more academic levels take longer so school leaving age depends on which level you take. I found this very difficult to fathom until I compared it to the British school system in my day, when pupils with GCEs and O-levels could leave school at 16-ish to work or go to college and the more academic students went on to A-levels and left aged 18 or so. In the Netherlands it works in much the same way:

vmbo – 4 years -> MBO / ROC vocational college OR last 2 years of havo
havo – 5 years -> HBO (university of applied science) OR last 2 years of VWO
VWO – 6 years -> university OR HBO

Selective schools

The equivalent of the grammar school  accepts only VWO pupils, but the majority of selective schools have separate streams for different levels, with a cutoff point below vmbo-t. This means some schools  have VWO, havo and vmbo-t pupils, with another school or location catering to the more practical vmbo students. To make the transition less traumatic, most schools have combined vmbo-t/havo and havo/vwo classes (brugklas – bridge class) for the first year (and sometimes 2 years) so they can assess the students themselves before allocating them to the correct level.

Repeating a year and changing levels

It is really common for pupils who are struggling to be forced to either repeat a school year (doubleren or zittenblijven) or drop down a level. Not so common to go up to a higher level until you’ve passed your final exams for the lower level, but it does happen. In any case, there is absolutely no shame in repeating a year and many students seem to spend years pulling themselves up through the levels, although more financial limits are set these days. A consequence of this is that you can’t really say for sure what age students will graduate from secondary school.

The disadvantage of not having all the levels at the same school is that if a pupil changes level, it may mean not only leaving a particular class and group of friends, but moving to a different school altogether. I know one of my sons had a friend who was forced to leave vmbo-t and find another school for vmbo and they never saw each other again. I’m not sure if it’s better to make a clean break if you’re demoted or stay in the same school and have to bump into ex-classmates who think of you as a failure, but as I say, changing level is so common that it’s not considered as such a big deal as it is in more driven societies. The Dutch school system is renowned for its acceptance of average scores, 6 out of 10 being the pass mark, hence the so-called zesjescultuur (literally a culture of sixes, or a culture of Cs). You could see it as a culture of mediocrity, but I don’t think that’s it because there are still people who are perfectionists or extremely competitive at school. In my experience, Dutch schoolchildren very cleverly do the bare minimum of work to get a pass mark because they’d rather spend their time having fun. Later on this translates into a better work-life balance and a more relaxed society as a whole.

Tests, exams and finals at secondary school

Which brings us neatly back to how all those years of secondary education are evaluated. Back in the dim and distant past in the UK, before standardised tests had reared their ugly heads, we only had small tests for maths throughout the year, but the only other exams we had were at the end of the school year, set by the school. Only GCEs, O-levels and A-levels were set centrally. In the Netherlands, coursework is assessed by the school throughout the year with only the final exams set by a national examination board. Once all the papers are marked, the CITO compares all the results and sets a norm for the grades. This means there is no ‘grade inflation’ in the Netherlands; the grades are adjusted to the difficulty of the exam. Unlike the UK, where final year pupils take their exams in June and have to wait until late August to find out their results, Dutch students take their exams in May and find out the results after just a couple of weeks. Once the norm is released, schools can check their pupils’ marks and spread the good (or bad) news. They generally begin by phoning the students who have failed, so if you haven’t had a call by a certain time, you can assume you’ve passed and go to school to pick up your marks. In 2014, one school forgot to phone one of their pupils who of course hung up the flag, only to discover that she had failed after all. Poor girl!

This year, the first results will be known on 11 June, at some time in the early afternoon. Hence the sudden plethora of bags and flags on 11 June this year. And for those who haven’t passed all their subjects, they will have a chance to retake them in the next couple of weeks, the so-called her (pronounced like English ‘hair’), short for herkansing – another chance. As the saying goes, Nieuwe ronde, nieuwe kansen, in other words, a new round and a new chance.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

I’ve added this post to the June 2015 Expat Life link party. Click on the picture above for more great expat blogs.