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Citizenship Education in the Netherlands | Country Profiles: Citizenship Education Around the World |

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Citizenship Education in the Netherlands

Wiel Veugelers

/ 11 Minuten zu lesen

Learn more about the situation of Citizenship Education in the Netherlands with a focus on the definition and legal environment in the country, the ecosystem of non-formal CE and the role of NGOs, as well as on stakeholders, challenges and the future from the perspective of building an inclusive society.

Netherlands (© bpb)

1. Background Information

Citizenship is nowadays the central concept in policy, theory, and practice concerning the personal and social development of people. In becoming a citizen, education is crucial. All nations make their own citizenship policy, but are influenced by global developments. In the past decades, the concept of citizenship has been broadened and deepened. Broadened means that the concept has extended beyond national borders to regional identities (European citizenship) and to the global level (global citizenship). The deepening of the concept means that citizenship is not only formulated at the political level, but also at the social and cultural level: it is about the kind of person a nation wants to develop.

Each nation has a policy of citizenship and citizenship education. The kind of citizenship a nation tries to develop depends on the dominant political regime. In the Western world a democratic perspective on citizenship is usually stressed, but within this democratic framework different articulations are possible. Cultural differences and political configurations strongly influence the kind of citizenship and citizenship education a nation tries to realize in socializing their citizens.

2. Citizenship Education in the Netherlands

The socialization function of education has always been strong in the Netherlands. But socialization processes are not always the same for different groups of people. In the nineteenth century, the elite educated their children in schools separate from the rest of society and thereby developed their social and cultural capital and corresponding superiority. ‘Normal people’ were the objects of civilisation processes aimed at producing hard-working and obedient citizens. This strong class division, though in a modern way, is still very visible in Dutch society and in Dutch schools with its hierarchy of different and separate levels of secondary education. Even with a strong meritocratic force directed at giving children chances, social reproduction processes are still strong in Dutch education. Citizenship education for lower-class children is in some ways different from citizenship education for elite children. The lower-class children are subjected to more disciplined, the elite children are allowed greater scope to develop their autonomy.

A second important aspect of Dutch education that is relevant for citizenship education is the strong focus on assessment, selection, and tracking. Children are assessed a lot, in particular in languages, mathematics, and science. At the age of 12, they are segregated into six different levels of education (3 vocational, 3 general). It is easier to go down the ladder than to climb up. This early selection and the strong competition support the idea of citizens that are personally responsible for their own success and position in society. This is a strong hidden curriculum in citizenship education.

A third important element affecting Dutch citizenship education is the arrival of many immigrants from non-Western countries in the last half a century. First, most of them came as ‘guest workers’, now the new arrivals are refugees. There is some idea of a multicultural society, but the immigrants have to adapt to Dutch values and norms. Citizenship education is used to promote living together with different cultural groups and to assimilate immigrants into Dutch society.

A fourth relevant element, with a long history, is the role of religion. Religion and differences between religions have always played a significant role in Dutch society. The term ‘pillar’ is well known. Each religion had, and to some extent has, its own institutions. Particularly in education, the pillarization is still very strong. In the Netherlands, there are now more non-religious people than religious people, however, 2/3 of the schools are religious, mostly Christian. The religious schools are fully paid by the government; they have to follow the national curriculum except for the subject Religious Studies and religion-related topics. And here is where the difficulty with the curriculum for citizenship education starts. Religious groups do not want to have a strong curriculum policy for citizenship. They say that it is the religious group itself which has to determine what kind of citizenship in particular is in line with its own social and cultural make-up. According to them, the government should not overly interfere.

Altogether, the hidden curriculum of citizenship education is full of segregation by social class, culture and religion; different social and cultural groups hardly meet, either in schools or in the wider society. They do not really learn to live together or to build a democratic society together. Many politicians, and in particular advisory boards such as the Educational Council and Social-Cultural Plan Office, are aware of this segregation, but they do not always come out and explain what this means for citizenship development. A broad social and political movement to promote social justice and to combat segregation is lacking in contemporary Dutch society. Religious organisations and many parents appreciate the free choice of schools and the homogenous culture of many schools.

The Netherlands in international comparative studies: ICCS and Teaching Common Values

The Netherlands participated in the international comparative study on civic and citizenship education (ICCS) in 2009 and 2016. In both studies, Dutch youngsters scored quite low in citizenship knowledge and in the desire for active participation in politics. They also scored very low in their attitude towards rights for immigrants. There is a growing concern in the political debates and in education about these outcomes and increasing support for paying more attention to citizenship education.

Research done at the request of the European Parliament on the policy and practice of attention to the common values of democracy and tolerance in all 28 EU Member States has shown that in Dutch educational policy attention to these values is quite abstract and that no real operationalization into concrete practice has been made. Also, segregation and inequality is quite widespread and increasing.

3. Definition of Citizenship Education and Legal Environment

Let us see what the overt curriculum says about citizenship education. Since 2006, schools have had to pay attention to citizenship education. The central concepts are ‘active participation’ and ‘social integration’, as well as cultural diversity. There is no real formal curriculum for citizenship education: there are guidelines, and some civic competences are included in the core objectives of primary and secondary education. The National Institute for Curriculum Development in the Netherlands (SLO) provides schools with information and tools to develop a vision statement and a citizenship education programme. All subjects, in particular subjects like History and Geography are urged to pay attention to citizenship education. For History, a ‘canon’ has been developed for Dutch history. Geography should give insight into the place and role of the Netherlands in Europe and the global world. In upper secondary education, there is the subject social studies (maatschappijleer) that deals with social, cultural and political issues. To obtain academic recognition, many teachers of Social Studies emphasize knowledge in their lessons and not so much the development of attitudes (Bildung). Beside academic subjects, the government also encourages service-learning projects, in which students volunteer in society, and activities in which different cultural groups come together.

Researchers, and recently also the school inspectorate, show that many schools do not pay much attention to citizenship education. Reasons for this lack of implementation are the weak regulations in curriculum, weak in particular compared to the strong regulations and assessments of the ‘basics’. Schools are strongly controlled by the inspectorate and parents, based on the results of the basics, not on the activities related to citizenship development.

There is now also the recognition by many scholars and some politicians that the focus of citizenship education on active participation and social integration is too narrow and that the concept of democracy should be more central. The Ministry of Education has taken several initiatives to more strongly define the content of citizenship. However, it has refrained from mandating the creation of an actual subject of citizenship education and from formulating more concrete objectives for the different subjects involved (see for the recent national debates and initiatives Externer Link:

4. Ecosystem of Non-formal Citizenship Education: Role of NGOs

The Netherlands has a long tradition of non-governmental and other kinds of organisations that inform and educate both youth and adults about citizenship-related issues. These develop their own extracurricular materials of citizenship education that schools can but are not obliged to use, for example a school programme on homosexuality or guest lectures about religious differences and tolerance. One of the largest organisations of this kind is the partially state-funded ProDemos (‘House for Democracy and the Rule of Law’). Its main aim is to help explain the political system and the rule of law to a wide audience and to show what (young) citizens themselves can do to exert political influence. Many schools are organizing their own elections at school. However, most schools pay only small attention to informing students about different political parties or to having debates about the elections.

Other examples of programmes schools can make use of are the museum Humanity House and the Castle of Democracy (permanent exhibition for children and adults), Movies that Matter (an initiative by Amnesty International to promote human rights through film), the Anne Frank Foundation on anti-racism, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) rights organisation COC, that advocates the rights of LGBTs among young people and adults. A special programme for primary schools, The Peaceful School (De Vreedzame School), has been developed by an education support organization to promote social competence and democratic citizenship. Compared to other European countries, the Netherlands has a broad spectrum of organisations that support schools in providing citizenship education. There are many interesting examples. However, most schools do not make much use of these recourses.

NGOs and community organisations are often involved in service-learning for students. Starting in 2011, each student of secondary education had to do some service learning. In the beginning, schools were not very enthusiastic because of the extra work load, but when students turned out to be positive about these learning activities and when an improved cooperation with the local community became clear, schools became quite enthusiastic. In 2014, however, a new government reneged on this obligatory service-learning and the concomitant extra resources for the schools. In many schools, service-learning once again became a marginalized activity.

5. Stakeholders

As stated above, school boards and their corresponding religious organisations have a strong influence on citizenship education policy. In addition, many non-governmental organisations provide schools with extracurricular materials on citizenship education. Some organisations receive government funds to develop specific projects and materials, but schools always have a choice to either use the materials or not.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science nevertheless, for example, legally obliges schools to focus explicitly on sexual diversity, a theme that has been mandatory since 2012. Schools may use materials developed by non-governmental organisations or develop lessons themselves.

Another example is community service-learning. In 2011, the law on mandatory community service-learning was introduced at secondary schools nationwide. Eighty-one percent of the parents supported the mandatory community service-learning. Three years later it was abolished as a result of a change in government. Nowadays, many schools continue some community service-learning voluntarily. In both of the above cases – the explicit attention to sexual diversity and the mandatory community service-learning – the abolition of the programmes caused political and public debate with regard to the mandatory character and the level of state interference.

6. Challenges and Future

The minister of education, Arie Slob, recently presented new regulations for citizenship education. The proposal has been discussed with many stakeholders and the parliament. Most people support the idea that there must be a stronger focus on democracy. People differ, however, about the balance between what the government can determine and what is under the control of the particular school board. In particular, Christian schools are opposed to strong governmental influence. The challenge remains of how to let schools really work on a formal curriculum for citizenship education on the one hand and on the other to accommodate governmental policy and ownership of schools. It is necessary to urge teachers to increasingly include citizenship in their teaching.

At the present time, the subject Social Studies is taught only in upper secondary education. In lower secondary education, the focus on citizenship exists particularly in History and Geography and in religious schools in Religious Studies, but the subject Social Studies is missing. The curriculum foundation of citizenship education must be made stronger.

From the perspective of building an inclusive society, segregation in society and in education remains a real problem. The strengthening of an education that takes place together, in groups that include the various diverse strata of society, demands a more integrated school system with less selection or selection at a later age, and a stronger focus on public education where all cultural groups are really welcome.



  1. Veugelers, W. (Ed.). 2019. Education for Democratic Intercultural Citizenship. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill/Sense.

  2. Bevort, A., Veugelers, W. 2016. Active citizenship compared in France and the Netherlands. In: Citizenship Teaching and Learning. 11(3), 315-332.

  3. Veugelers, W. 2007. Creating critical-democratic citizenship education: Empowering humanity and democracy in Dutch education. In: Compare, 37(1), 105–119.

  4. Leenders, H., Veugelers, W., De Kat, E. 2008. Teachers’ views on citizenship in secondary education in the Netherlands. In: Cambridge Journal of Education, 38(2), 155–170.

  5. Sincer, I., Severiens, S., Volman, M. 2020. Teaching diversity in citizenship education: Context-related teacher understandings and practices. In: Teaching and Teacher Education. [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021.

  6. Miedema, S., Bertram‐Troost, G. 2008. Democratic citizenship and religious education: challenges and perspectives for schools in the Netherlands. In: British Journal of Religious Education, 30:2,123-132, DOI: [Externer Link: 10.1080/01416200701830970] Accessed June 4, 2021; Veugelers, W. 2011. Theory and practice of citizenship education: the case of policy, science and education in the Netherlands. In: Revista de Educacion, 209–224.

  7. Onderwijsraad. 2012. Verder met burgerschap in het onderwijs. The Hague.

  8. Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Kerr, D., & Losito, B. 2010. ICCS 2009 international report. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA); Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Losito, B., Agrusti, G., Friedman, T. 2017. Becoming citizens in a changing world. IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study 2016 international report. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

  9. Veugelers, W., De Groot, I., Stolk, V. 2017. Research for Cult Committee – Teaching Common Values in Europe. Brussels, Belgium: European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policy.

  10. Veugelers, W. 2011. Theory and practice of citizenship education: the case of policy, science and education in the Netherlands. In: Revista de Educacion, 209–224; Inspectie van het Onderwijs. 2015. The Dutch educational system. Retrieved from [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021; Coopmans, M., Ten Dam, G., Dijkstra, A.B., & Van der Veen, I. 2020. Towards a Comprehensive School Effectiveness Model of Citizenship Education: An Empirical Analysis of Secondary Schools in The Netherlands. In: Social Sciences, 9, 157.

  11. The sections on NGOs and stakeholders have been copied largely from an earlier text written by Ivo Pertijs.

  12. De Groot, I. 2017. Mock Elections in Civic Education: A Space for Critical Democratic Citizenship Development. In: Journal of Social Science Education. DOI: [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021.

  13. Veugelers, W., De Groot, I., Stolk, V. 2017. Research for Cult Committee – Teaching Common Values in Europe. Brussels, Belgium: European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policy.

  14. Rijksoverheid. 2010. Ouders voorstander van maatschappelijke stage. Rijksoverheid. Retrieved from [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021.

  15. Ministry of Education 2019. Wetsvoorstel aanscherping burgerschapsopdracht onderwijs. [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021.

  16. Leeman, Y., Nieveen, N., De Beer, F., Van der Steen, J. 2020. Teachers as curriculum‐makers: the case of citizenship education in Dutch schools. In: The Curriculum Journal [Externer Link:] Accessed June 4, 2021.


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Wiel Veugelers is Professor of Education at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. He is associate editor of the Journal of Moral Education and member of the Programme Advisory Committee of the ICCS-study.