Explore More »

Education in the Netherlands: Segregation in a "Tolerant" Society

While tolerance is a value that is supposed to be intrinsic to Dutch society, the unofficial segregation of ethnic minorities and native Dutch in primary schools suggests that The Netherlands has not yet accepted the reality of their growing multicultural society. Although the topic of education in the so-called “concentration schools” is not entirely new, over the past decade it has come to be one of the most prominent issues in Dutch society.  In this paper we would like to explore the assumptions people make about education in “black” schools and the approaches that characterize the Dutch response to segregation in education. In order to examine the present system of education where many “concentration schools” are the norm, one must consider the terms used for the different schools and the implications these labels have for multiculturalism and accepting diversity in education. 

The terms “black” and “white” schools refer to the high concentrations of either ethnic minorities or native Dutch students in certain schools.  We place these terms in quotation marks to suggest that they are socially constructed definitions used to represent the children in the schools but have no clear meaning on their own.  Black and White have no clear meaning because while white is the term for the native Dutch, black is used to describe children of Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese and Antillian descent among other ethnicities.  Regardless of what ethnic background the children are and from what generation their family immigrated, “black” can only accurately mean not Dutch.  In order to be considered a “black” school the Dutch government requires that the student population is fifty per cent allochtonen—non western immigrants. It seems questionable that all that is needed to have a “black” school is fifty per cent non-western immigrants as opposed to a large majority of ethnic minority students, particularly considering the stigma that is attached to “black” schools. One question that is important to consider is why it is necessary to place this label on a school and what might labeling schools “black” and “white” say about Dutch perceptions and stereotypes regarding non-western immigrants. Also, if the main point to identifying ethnic minorities in the Netherlands as “black” is to indicate that they are not Dutch, then it would seem logical to also refer to the western immigrants as “black.” Ascribing “black” only to non-western immigrants ostracizes these immigrants and suggests that they are “different” or “backward.” With respect to education, the use of limiting language such as “black” to identify all of the students regardless of their ethnic background seems to stifle the ability to understand and acknowledge cultural difference. It also must have an impact on the individual children’s self-awareness as they grow up in certain environments where their families’ cultural heritage and language may play a central role in their lives but attend a school environment where Dutch culture and values are privileged. All of these issues inform our discussion of education and tolerance in Dutch society.  

For several reasons, the separation of native Dutch from ethnic minorities in the education system is a starting point to explore issues of tolerance and multiculturalism in Dutch society. Schools tend to be the first environment for children to interact with one another and explore social and cultural differences.  Educational consultant Edith Hooge explained that sending her four year-old daughter to the ethnically diverse primary school in her neighborhood had an important social impact on her child’s development.  She remarked, “I think about eighty per cent of what my daughter learns she gets from myself and her father. The school provides an important social environment that allows her to interact with many different children instead of being isolated.” However, the existence of “black” and “white” schools clearly inhibits this social process. Also, the education system serves as a clear example of the reproduction of social class—the pattern of children of lower-income, lower-educated parents repeating the cycle and joining their parents at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. This pattern has the potential of creating an “underclass” of individuals. And, when children begin their lives disadvantaged, growing up in homes where their parents are poorly educated and have minimal resources to raise their children in a safe and stimulating environment, drug use, crime and gang related activities become more prevalent (Frank Bovenkerk). As society becomes more polarized by these social conditions, tolerance for difference within the society will inevitably be tested.

The social history of “black” and “white” schools stems from spatial segregation of ethnic minority communities during the waves of immigration that took place in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  While the issue of segregation in education did not initially make the newspaper headlines, Edith Hooge noted that major cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht began to see the first signs of this segregation in the 1980’s when more minority groups moved into these cities. Native Dutch families moved out of their homes as the immigrants arrived, and the immigrants, who tended to be less educated and who held lower paying jobs, took over the lower priced housing. However, Green Left party Parliament member Mohammed Rabbae remarked that discrimination has also played a role in housing assignments of immigrant families. For example, Rabbae recalled some instances in Utrecht when several Moroccan and Turkish teachers attempted to find homes. These particular individuals had the financial means to live in relatively expensive housing, and they did not request to be placed in any particular area. Yet, the woningbouw corporatie (housing corporation) specifically chose to place them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income immigrants.

School choice also plays a central role in the separation of native Dutch and ethnic minority children.  Many Dutch parents value the ability to research schools independently and select the academic and social environment they deem most appropriate for their children. While perceived academic quality certainly plays a role in parents’ school choices, stereotyping and discrimination cannot be ignored. As immigration began to change the face of many neighborhoods, many native Dutch families intentionally began to bring their children to schools outside of their area so that they could be with other native Dutch children. This phenomenon is now referred to as “white flight” in The Netherlands, and it is similar to the reaction in American cities after official desegregation. However, immigrant parents have not benefited as much from school choice because they are not as informed about the differences between schools, nor do they find information about the varying schools accessible. Often, information about schools is publicized on the Internet or in newspapers, but if one is not proficient in Dutch or aware of this system of school “advertising” one cannot take advantage of these opportunities. Thus, immigrant families to a greater degree than the native Dutch, tend to send their children to the closest schools regardless of the academic quality. 

Mohammed Jaater, the policy assistant for the Department of Education, also suggests that discrimination may affect immigrant families' ability to utilize effectively the school choice system. He stated: “Even though a school is not allowed to officially refuse children, it may use many strategies to deter certain families from bringing their child to a school. Schools may emphasize the identity of the school. For example, a school with a particular religious affiliation may place obstacles in the way of Muslim families. Also, many immigrant families are deterred by schools’ requests for high voluntary monetary donations. While giving money is never required, schools may choose not to emphasize this fact when addressing ethnic minorities. Currently, schools are not made accountable for their selection process so there is often no accurate documentation available which one may consult in cases of presumed (instrumental) discrimination.

Parents and educational officials are becoming aware of this problem and they would like to see more clarity in the selection procedure of schools. Jaater added that if the council required schools to disclose their student selection process to the public, it would surely eliminate some of the instrumental discrimination that presently occurs in the system.

Currently there are 500 “black” schools in The Netherlands.  The discussion about “black schools” focuses on two main aspects: the quality of education, and the social consequences of segregation. In response to the greater disadvantages faced by uneducated immigrant families, the government established a system to allocate additional funding to schools based upon the socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds of the students.  The Lokaal Onderwijs Achterstanden (Local Educational Backlog) policy is based on a weighing system where a certain value is assigned to the students according to their social, economic, and ethnic background.  For example, a value of 1.9 refers to students of foreign descent with lower-educated parents, a 1.7 is for children of gypsies and caravan dwellers, 1.25 is for Dutch children of lower educated parents, and a 1.0 is for children either native Dutch or ethnic minority, that do not belong to any category and whose parents are well educated.  The assumption behind the scale is that children with lower educated parents tend to have poorer performance in school. So, schools with larger numbers of 1.9 and 1.7 children receive more additional funding to help improve the quality of the school. At present time 13 % of all children in the Netherlands have been given the 1.9 rating by their council.

While educational specialists and the government acknowledge that minority students are making strides in education, in general the students do not achieve the same level as native Dutch students. The 1999 Report on Minorities from the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau states, “At the end of primary school, the performance of pupils from minority groups is behind that of Dutch-born pupils by one or two school years. Ultimately, they achieve much lower final levels in education than pupils of Dutch origin, and three to four times as many of them drop out of school as do Dutch-origin pupils.”  However, according to Dr Janssens coordinating inspector at the Inspection of Education, minority children in mixed environments attain better results than in groups with mainly children from non-Dutch background. He is therefore concerned with the existence of “black” schools. Nevertheless, he attacks the common-held notion that “black” schools perform by definition poorer than “mixed” or “white” schools. He states: “It is not true that all schools with predominantly minority children perform badly. There are very good “black” schools”.

Schools with large concentrations of children from various ethnic backgrounds are confronted with important questions when dealing with cultural variety and educational quality. To explore the problems that “black schools” are facing in more detail, we have visited an elementary school with a disproportionately high number of minorities. As we acknowledged before, there is a great variety in schools and it is impossible to generalize. Nevertheless, a discussion about this particular school will demonstrate some of the key issues “black” schools are facing.

Public School de Panda

The public school de Panda is situated in Kanaleneiland a neighborhood to the west of Utrecht. With the influx of migrants in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the ethnic make-up of Kanaleneiland drastically changed. Due to the high number of inexpensive flats and other housing in comparison to other neighborhoods, many migrants from Turkey and Morocco and other people from foreign decent, moved in, while native Dutch families fled for other parts of the city. This process has continued until the present day and has created neighborhoods popularly referred to as “black neighborhoods.” Among the most represented minority groups at seventy-five per cent are the Moroccans, Turkish and Surinamese people. The remaining twenty five percent are mainly elderly individuals, so there are few native Dutch children living in the neighborhood. At first glance, Kanaleneiland did not appear to us to be a particularly impoverished environment.  The streets were relatively quiet and clean, and consisted mainly of row houses with small gardens and flower pots lining the roads. In the center of the neighborhoods, there are three elementary schools affiliated with different denominations, clearly demonstrating the traditional structures and pillars of Dutch society.

From the outside, the physical structure and appearance of de Panda resembled a typical Dutch primary school.  There was nothing visible to indicate the fact that unemployment rates are high, vandalism and small-scale criminality is of biggest concern for the police and the vast majority of Kanaleneiland’s inhabitants have a relatively low level of education. As to be expected, the predominance of ethnic minority members in the neighborhood is greatly reflected in the ethnic composition of the primary schools in the neighborhoods. De Panda educates 270 pupils in the age of four to twelve years old. Most of the students are second generation Moroccan and a smaller number Turkish. Only one native Dutch child attends de Panda. Therefore, the school has a very high number of 1.9 children—allochtonen from families with low educational background.

The achievements of the children and the level they attain in the final grade are much lower than at average schools. In the last report of the Inspection for Education, officials expressed concern about this low level of academic achievement. And, even in comparison to schools with comparable pupil populations, the results were significantly poorer. (Schoolontwerp de Panda) The key contributing factors to this low level of academic performance are language difficulties and the lack of reinforcement from the home environment. The children have a very limited vocabulary when they enter the school, which according to school principle Johan Bosma is estimated to be one fourth of the word knowledge of native Dutch children at the same age. While this word deficiency seriously hinders their performance on language-related exercises and tests, it also has a great impact on their potential for high achievement in other subjects. Dutch proficiency is particularly challenging to attain for immigrant children whose parents speak a low level of Dutch and do not speak and practice Dutch with their children at home. Nevertheless, in 1998 the school had a promising new start, with a new manager and a changed team.

Johan Bosma, the principal of the school, explains that the school tries enthusiastically to confront the problems and to raise the level of education. He says, “We try to do it better than we did before. We don’t just want to do our work, but we want to get the best out of the children”. Many projects and programs have therefore been initiated to tackle the educational backlog and social-emotional problems that these children are facing. As schools with many children of socially disadvantaged groups receive more money to confront the problems, the financial support is available. First of all, better programs to teach Dutch as a second language and special classes to help gain proficiency in children’s native language have been added at ‘de Panda’ in hopes of improving the students language skills. As a solid language base is required for good performance, the school aims at giving the children a formidable base at the time when they start learning to read and write. Therefore, the young children receive the most attention. The four-year olds are placed together in a special class where the emphasis is placed on language and speaking. In this way the children are integrated into the system, and are provided with the opportunity to develop their language skill in a safe environment. Moreover, a special class was created this year for six and seven years old children in order to give them the opportunity to do an extra year of Kindergarten. The drawback of this extra year is that a part of the children in this group achieve the cognitive level of first grade children. Femke Arts, a teacher in this class, explains that many children suffer from severe language problems that require extra attention and time. This can be offered to them in the additional year. However, despite the fact that their cognitive and social-emotional level may reach the same level as those of the first graders, they are not allowed to receive the work of the first-graders. It is thus difficult to find the balance between an emphasis on language and on the cognitive level the children can handle.

Despite the improvements de Panda has attempted to put into effect during the school hours, the teachers and administrators recognize that a supportive social environment and continual reinforcement are both necessary in order for children to have the opportunity to develop intellectually and emotionally. In order to achieve these goals, the school is trying to have a broader vision of education that includes the social upbringing of the children. For this purpose the three elementary schools in Kanaleneiland plan to combine and form a “community school.” Within two years de Panda and the other two nearby schools will be placed in a new building together and in addition to education, athletics, music and other social programs, the parents will find a place to be apart of the school. According to written information, the community school aims to be “a safe school in which children between the ages of four to twelve may be challenged to learn and communicate with one another not only during the regular school hours but throughout the entire day.” Additionally the pamphlet notes, “the children should receive optimal opportunities in order to function as good as possible in society (Samenwerkingsplan Forum).” Educational specialists also acknowledge the necessity of these community schools. As Liesbeth Verheggen, member of the Education Union in Utrecht states, “school is not just for education. It is a social community. The emotional climate of the school and home need to be in tune.” Nevertheless, language, the level of education and the well-being of children are not the only immediate concern with which de Panda is confronted.

Edith Hooge argued that one of the greatest factors contributing to lower levels of academic achievement in any child is a lack of sufficient educational reinforcement from the parents. The faculty at de Panda recognizes the need for parental involvement in children’s education and they try to incorporate parents whenever possible. For example, a Moroccan language assistant offers training to mothers in how to assist their children in improving their academic performance. Also, parents are encouraged to form a line of communication with the teachers.  Language assistants often serve as intermediaries in this dialogue. However, Principal Bosma explains that the school experiences many difficulties in motivating parental involvement with the school, remarking, “In especially the Moroccan culture it is not normal for parents to be involved in schools of their children.” Yet, Fatima El Filali, a language-supporting teacher of Moroccan origin, challenges the common notion that Moroccan parents are not concerned with the education of the children. For instance she recalled a recent school event where Moroccan mothers eagerly attended and participated with the school: “At the barbeque we held last week, it could clearly be seen that the mothers love to be involved in the school. The mothers reacted enthusiastically to the demand for food, and prepared salads, pies and several other goods.” However, Fatima acknowledged that many of these same families are absent during parent-teacher conferences. She believes the parents fear to speak Dutch because they are aware that there proficiency is not as strong as the teachers. Also, in Fatima’s opinion, cultural differences play a significant role. According to her perceptions of Dutch conversation style, the Dutch teachers are direct and straightforward with any problems or concerns they wish to address. But, in a similar situation in a Moroccan school, parent and teacher would begin with casual banter and proceed slowly with a cautious description of the problems. 

However, consultant Naima El Khayati believes that it is very dangerous to question or make assumptions about Moroccan values. “There are certain values that are universal. For instance schools must believe that the vast majority of parents care deeply about their child’s education and want the best for their child. In the case of the Moroccan community, many Moroccans came to Holland poorly educated and living in rural agricultural environments. Most of them had never left their small villages in the mountains. Many thought Holland was a temporary stop to make money and did not plan on educating their children here. Schools and teachers must learn that the values of other cultures are not necessarily bad just different.“ Khayati went on to explain that when parents show a lack of interest in meeting with teachers at their child’s school it is often because they feel that they are not respected. “If parents do not feel welcome and respected they will not come. If a parent knows by the tone of a teacher’s words that he or she wants the parent to assimilate not integrate then the parent will not come to the school.” When asked about the notion that Moroccans have a “different sense of justice,” Khayati remarked that these myths lead to stereotypes and prejudices. “All cultures value honesty and integrity. We all teach our children that stealing is wrong. There are reasons why particular communities may experience higher levels or crime or violence, which relate the opportunities and advantages available to individuals. It is dangerous to ascribe social ills such as stealing to a particular ethnic group because it overlooks these factors and leads to vast generalizations.”

Acknowledging and accepting cultural difference while being weary of ignorant stereotyping is essential to teaching in Dutch society.  Both ethnic minority and native Dutch children need to be educated in an environment that values difference without stigmatizing people who are deemed different. Khayati believes that the dearth of ethnic minority teachers in The Netherlands is a serious problem in the education system. Her organization works to recruit ethnic minorities to the education field under the belief that minority teachers are familiar with multiple cultures and are thus distinctly equipped to teach minority children. She believes that teachers from immigrant backgrounds are also necessary in schools with mainly white children. “In order to live in a multicultural society, we must learn to live and work together. Because minority teachers are familiar with both the Dutch and their ethnic background’s cultures they may provide a step forward to thinking differently about each other.” However, it is still a fact that schools like de Panda currently have many more native Dutch than ethnic minority teachers, so the school must find a way to bridge the cultural divide between the communities. Cultural understanding between the Dutch teachers and the Moroccan parents is necessary to optimize parents’ involvement in the school. The school should not only impose its expectations on the parents, but also incorporate the Moroccan and Turkish norms and values in dealing with the problem.

According to the principal and teachers at ‘de Panda’, the children are greatly disadvantaged by the fact that no native Dutch children attend the school.  However, some students that we spoke with at ‘de Panda’ spoke differently about their school environment. Four sixth graders in De Panda are very positive about the high number of Moroccan and Turkish children at their school. The children said they appreciated the possibility to speak their own language and to share similar cultural or religious values. Moreover, Hakima Ahodoud, a Moroccan pupil, argued that with more Dutch children, “we would feel left out.” The school is able to provide a safe haven, where the immigrant children do not belong to the stigmatized group. In their view attending a school with mainly Dutch children would be intimidating and ostracizing. But, these types of fears toward interacting with others are precisely the reason why integration of schools is necessary. Children, who at such a young age already desire to interact only with those similar to them threaten Dutch tolerance and multiculturalism. The students’ teacher, Ida Tabbers, responded to their comments: “the children do not know any better. They would probably feel perfectly safe in an environment with more Dutch children, and it would only do them good in terms of language and integration.” Many young Moroccan boys, who participated in a project to bring Moroccan voices to the forefront of the debate about Moroccan youth and immigrants in general in the Netherlands, also spoke negatively about their experience attending “black” schools.  The boys did not interact with native Dutch students either in the classroom or in the extracurricular activities, and they believed the discrimination they experience now when trying to find employment reflects the stigma attached to “black” schools.  One boy claimed, “when I said that I’m at Nieuwendam College they (his potential employers) didn’t want me anymore. There are too many criminals and obnoxious kids over here (at Nieuwendam College). Too many minorities (quoted in “Peering into the Debate: Dutch Society and Moroccan Youth,”HIA 2000).” Clearly, educational segregation has a detrimental impact on immigrants’ future opportunities and contributes to negative stereotypes about minorities.

Principle Bosma also spoke strongly about the disadvantage to having all “black” schools. “Although the children eventually learn the basics of the Dutch language, they have few opportunities to improve in an environment where everyone’s Dutch is limited.”

Yet, according to Mohammed Jaater, “We do investigate segregation in education and we financially assist the 'black' schools in order to help them improve their performances. However, the council of Utrecht does not have a policy of dispersal and no serious debate on the use of dispersal to fight the existence of 'black' and 'white' schools has taken place." The fact that proposals to diversify the schools have not been discussed suggests that there is a passive indifference that pervades the issue of segregation in primary schools.

As Liesbeth Verheggen, Utrecht education union member also added, “Education is impotent. We cannot influence societal processes such as segregation. It is impossible to hold education responsible for segregation at the schools. The only obligation of schooling is to offer qualitative good education.” However specialists in education like Naima El Khayati argue that it is possible to influence segregation in schools particularly in the smaller Dutch villages where there are not as many immigrant families and existing segregation is minimal. She commented, “Freedom to choose one’s school is highly valued in the Netherlands. And the notion of forced integration is very politically charged. In cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague, where busing or other dispersal plans are no longer possible, but it may be a solution in the smaller villages.” Yet, others in the education field believe that forcing integration is not the solution to the problems within “black” schools and will not necessarily improve the relations between Dutch and ethnic minorities in society. Edith Hooge responded, “I do not believe in forcing people to integrate. School choice is a very good value. When you are dealing with your own child you always want the best. I do not expect the individual citizen to sacrifice their child’s education for an ideal. If you make the concentration schools attractive others will come”

This debate reflects two different opinions on how to respond to the appearance of “black” schools. While some people believe forced integration is the only way to foster a multicultural society and improve the education of ethnic minority children, others argue that mitigating the consequences of segregation by improving the quality of the schools from within is the most promising solution. Based on our visit to de Panda, the most pressing concern seems to be improving the quality of the children’s education at the most basic level—language skills. Developing innovative programs to teach Dutch as a second language while fostering improvement in the student’s native language must be privileged over other changes. Although interaction with more native Dutch children would help the students language skills, it seems that in schools like de Panda with such a high concentration of non-Dutch speaking children forced integration at this time may be too overwhelming. There is no guarantee that integrating schools will create immediate interaction between students and mutual respect for one another. Rather past examples of similar social situations indicate that often the extreme differences in students backgrounds leads to self-segregation. Also many minority students feel marginalized as they are thrown into an environment where they are typically outnumbered and expected to make all of the efforts to integrate and adapt the dominant culture.

However, concerns about the difficulties encountered during integration do not imply that integration in the future is not desirable. As Edith Hooge and Naima El Khayati have both suggested, perhaps improving the quality of “black” schools by recruiting minority teachers, educating teachers about cultural sensitivity and the particular skills required to teach disadvantaged children will lead to more minority students moving on to higher levels of secondary school, thus allowing the integration process to happen more naturally. As Khayati expressed “Right now in cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht, where segregation is already a fact, minority schools must find ways to uplift themselves. In the mean time teachers in white schools must also learn to respect cultural difference, and they must impart these values in their students. Learning to live and work together is not simply a lesson for ethnic minorities, but it is a lesson for all people.”


The basic assumption we had when beginning this project was that “black” schools as a growing phenomenon were detrimental to society, and that they were an example of the selectivity of tolerance in Dutch society.  However, upon speaking with administrators, teachers, and educational consultants we are now in a better position to evaluate the existence of “black” schools and we realize most importantly that “black” schools are not inherently bad. Many progressive individuals who assume that the makeup of a school should reflect the multicultural society begin with the assumption that with integration tolerance will immediately follow. However, as we suggested earlier, this ideal is not always the case. Of course no one said integration was easy. And, no matter what road one takes, challenges to building bridges between various members of society will always exist. Tolerance must not simply mean benign indifference towards cultural and social differences among individuals, but rather an active acceptance of cultural diversity and a willingness to defend this value in society. Forcing integration on schools without a mutual respect for this definition of tolerance will only lead to more segregation and cultural conflicts in the future. Edith Hooge suggests that this type of integration may often be superficial. Khayati agreed with this sentiment arguing, “often when joining an ethnically mixed group I have experienced what people refer to as ‘window dressing’—a form of tokenism where the majority addresses cultural difference in minor ways to suggest that they are tolerant and respectful of difference.” She added, “I do not need someone to provide me with halal food or a special place to pray in my work environment. What I want from my native Dutch colleagues is for them to view and respect me not as a Moroccan first, but as a fellow colleague.” Children and Dutch society at large will certainly benefit from having ethnically mixed schools, but the process of integration must be taken on cautiously in order to promote the true ideals of a tolerant society. In the future, the face of multiculturalism in The Netherlands will be a society that not only appears multicultural in its institutions, but also incorporates multiculturalism into its values. 



Dr. F.J.G. Janssens, coordinating inspector at the Inspection of Education
Mohammed Jaater, policy advisor and assistant for Education in the Utrecht Council
Liesbeth Verheggen, AOB (General Education Union)
Edith Hooge, Educational Consultant
Johan Bosma, principal of public elementary school ‘De Panda’
Mohammed Rabbae, member of parliament for Green Left
Naíma El Khayati, Educational Consultant
Femke Arts, teacher at ‘De Panda’
Ida Tabbers, “Teacher-in-Education” at ‘De Panda’
Fatima El Filali, ‘language supporting assistant’, at ‘De Panda’
Hakima Ahodoud & Bouchra Ajaoud, pupils attending ‘De Panda’

Articles and Websites

1995, 1997, and 1999 Report on Minorities, Social and Cultural Planning Bureau
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science Information Department
“Peering into the Debate: Dutch Society and Moroccan Youth,” Badisha Banerjee, Jelke Boesten, and Miranda Worthen. Humanity in Action Reports of the 2000 Fellows in Denmark and The Netherlands


Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2001


Related Media

Browse all content