The Dutch recognize the importance of vocational and professional education, and have established a comprehensive system of qualifications intended to provide highly qualified workers for all sectors of the economy. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to vocational education, in which students have very few options besides picking a specialization, the Dutch system makes multiple education and training pathways and certificates available to its citizens, as well as providing opportunities to change pathways for students at every step along the way. This allows students to find the best education fit for themselves, and leave school with a valid and useful qualification.
Vocational education starts early in the Netherlands; students can choose to begin full-time vocational education around the age of twelve in the VMBO track of secondary school. VMBO is a four-year program leading to vocational qualifications and, for 76% of students, further vocational training at Regional Education Centers (ROC), which are similar to community colleges in the United States. Within the VMBO track, there are three streams. The first is a junior general education stream that leads either to a program (called MBO) in a Regional Education Center at age sixteen, or to one additional year of general education at a HAVO school, which can lead to a professional bachelor’s degree. The second is a theoretical-practical stream that can lead either to an MBO program or to an apprenticeship. The third is a purely practical stream that leads to low- to medium-skilled vocational work. The central differences between these programs are the emphasis placed on work experiences vs. classroom learning, and the emphasis on core subjects vs. technical subjects. Students in all three streams are required to take national examinations following completion of their programs.
About 53% of Dutch students choose the VMBO option. Courses are offered in four sectors: personal/social services and health care; technology; economics and agriculture; and the natural environment. Students may choose to receive one of four qualifications: assistant worker, basic vocational training, professional training or middle management, or specialist training. Each of these qualifications prepare them for different types of jobs, from basic trade work to management. Students who receive specialist or middle management qualifications are allowed to proceed to the last two years of general secondary school and then on to HBO (higher education) institutions for professional training, if they so choose. Most students, however, continue on at the age of 16 to MBO programs at Regional Education Centers. In an MBO program, students can choose either a dual or non-dual track to continue their education. In the dual track, at least 60% of the program is spent in on-the-job training through an apprenticeship. In the non-dual track, at least 20% but no more than 60% of the program is spent in on-the-job training.
In the 1999-2000 school year, some Dutch schools began to introduce pre-vocational secondary education starting in the first year of lower primary school. The hope was that the combination of work and study will appeal to students who may be unmotivated in school, and by providing pre-vocational education early on these students may become engaged with a trade or profession and consider vocational secondary school rather than deciding to leave school altogether. Another recent government initiative is the decision to improve the levels of math and reading skills among vocational students by incorporating those subjects more fully into the curriculum.
The Netherlands Ministry of Education believes that lifelong learning is an integral component in a strong knowledge economy, both because citizens must remain active and engaged in learning and because an overall increase in the average Dutch educational level is required in today’s economy. Adults can pursue general, continuing, or vocational senior secondary education at Regional Education Centers, or complete training in private institutions.
The Ministry is in the process of establishing regional cooperation agreements to create and promote work-based programs that will identify and build upon a person’s previously held competencies. Currently, the providers of upper secondary vocational education and higher professional education have high levels of autonomy in crafting their programs within a set of general statutory regulations created by the government. These regulations define general program aims and objectives and outline the curriculum, examination methods and quality assurance procedures. Representatives from industry sectors help design the qualifications in conjunction with education providers. There are four overarching sectors, each with a number of different occupational areas: green/agriculture; technology and engineering; economics/services, and health/welfare. The qualification structure developed by these sectors includes more than 200 different qualifications and about 650 different pathways and diplomas. The qualifications describe what student outcomes should be at the end of these programs and whether they lead straight into the job market or to further learning.
A Ministry survey indicated that one-third of employed adults between the ages of 25 and 64 took part in a training course over a twelve-month period. In addition to government-directed programs, adults have the opportunity to take part in non-subsidized education. These programs range from private academic courses at the secondary level to software training.