New to Amsterdam: Public School Protocols

Fairly new Amsterdammer Audrey Coggins shares her experience settling her children into school in Amsterdam - the similarities and the differences between the Netherlands and her home country and some lovely surprises, like 'the handshake'!

When my older child started school in Australia almost 8 years ago, there was a standard dropoff/pickup protocol:

  1. Drop your child off at the school gates
  2. Pick them up 6.5 hours later at the school gates

Reliable sources have assured me that after they slam out of the car, the child runs into the school, join their friends, wait for the bell, cue up in their class groups for a short assembly, then file quietly to the classrooms, and, you know, spend the day at school.

Then came Amsterdam. This time around, our dropoff experience is quite different.

The Personal Greeting of EACH Student

This is new. It is radical, mind-blowing even: it is not just "goedemorgen!" and a wave.

Here, the primary school head knows the name of almost every student. When she is on door duty, she greets nearly every student by name and with a handshake. So every child gets 2-3 seconds of individual attention straightaway! Amazing.

Then the same occurs at the classroom door after students remove their jackets, bags and shoes. The class teacher greets every single child with "Goede Morgen", a handshake and direct eye contact!

The parent is not given much attention unless they greet the school staff first. I find this oddly positive. Usually, when adults meet other adults with children in tow, the adult is welcomed, and the child is left to ... not be welcomed. This Dutch way is child-focused, and the parent is merely the auxiliary bag-and-coat-hanger.

Their Friends Become Your Friends

Especially true for newly arrived international families with children in Group 1-3, where parents personally drop off and pick up their children. This practice affords you the opportunity to make new friends outside of the neighbour-and-work world. You make tentative connections at the school door and, if you're lucky, these bloom into real family friendships. It is lovely at social gatherings with your new friends when your children play well together, often because they are the same age. Although, for my youngest daughter, the gender-gap is tricky. She refuses to play with dinosaurs or trains, and her friends, who are boys, do not want to play My Little Pony or fairies or Num Noms. Luckily, playing outdoors and kitchen roleplay still work!

There are multiple playgrounds at our school, and these are magnets for the children, after school. Here, your children beg for extra playtime with their friends while you wait around. It is not time wasted as it is an opportunity to make new connections or catch up with friends. And arrange playdates. And ice cream dates. And park dates.

Come on In!

In Australia, during drop off and pick up, parents remain in the car, and the child goes into school alone. Here, in the Netherlands, we are invited into the first fifteen minutes of their school day. At first, most children are clingy, unsure of their place in the new world and each other - after all, at the age of four, they have only recently mastered the act of pulling up their underwear.

I thoroughly enjoy this shared experience in their classrooms. Here, I see how my child learns and interacts with her classmates; how she gradually owns the protocols and traditions of the school; how she confidently reaches for new paper and pencils for drawing and for games which stimulate her inquisitiveness. As the children map out their new world, it's rewarding to see them run enthusiastically into the classroom—after that obligatory handshake—rather than slink in.

Then we parents leave secure in the knowledge that, for the next year, they know where they stand in their classrooms. And that is precious.

Yes, the younger one can go to school looking like the aftermath of a fairy-princess themed party. All-year-round! I just make sure we scour the city for warm tights during the winter.

Food for Thought

There are similarities between Australia and Netherlands' snack and lunch breaks. Both have a break between breakfast and lunch for 'crunch and sip', which is a recent initiative for schools in Australia built on the concept of having fresh fruit and a sip of water. (It's great but doesnt compare with Malaysia, where I grew up. There, lucky kids have canteens where they line up with their pocket change and get a variety of freshly cooked noodles, rice with curry, or roti with curry, and a drink.)

Yet here, in the Netherlands, anything sugary in the lunch box is frowned upon, as is frisdrank (fizzy drink). My youngest soon came home questioning my lunches: "Does this have sugar?" So, it's fresh fruit and sandwiches daily for the girls. The fruit varies, of course: in my family, fruit must not be ripe, overripe, or soft—we like it firm (bounce off the floor). So in summer, I cut peaches, nectarines, sweet paprika (capsicum), snacking tomatoes (the honey tomatoes from Albert Heijn is a favourite), grapes and mangoes. Raspberries and berries often go untouched because "they're only nice from the fridge." During winter, apples and oranges are a go-to.

Dressing for Success

Now this is new for me: no-uniform? In Australia and Malaysia, children have uniforms. In Malaysia, it's the one style 365 days of the year. In Australia, they have winter and summer uniforms.

Here, there are no uniforms! With my older girl in middelbare school (secondary school), we have to endure the almost-daily, "I have nothing to wear" complaint. The younger one in basisschool (kindergarten plus primary school) is learning to dictate what she'd like to wear too. For me, it's an exercise in learning to let go. Yes, the older one can wear a staple of jumpers and sweaters and jeans year-round. Yes, the younger one can go to school looking like the aftermath of a fairy-princess themed party. All-year-round! I just make sure we scour the city for warm tights during the winter. 

OKT (pronounced ohh-kah-teh)

One significant aspect of schooling in Amsterdam is that the OKT , short for Ouder-en-Kindteams, (Parent and Child Teams) monitor students in public schools. The OKT is an Amsterdam-based organisation with medical and health professionals who work alongside schools and social services to offer parents support, check-ups and advice. There are 22 team centres in Amsterdam.

I love this. Soon after my children started school, the OKT sent a 'meet and greet' letter concerning the school we chose. After providing previous immunisation schedules from Australia, my girls were immunised accordingly. Along with necessary medical check-ups, the OKT also hooked us up with further tests, physio and resources for my youngest daughter. They even followed up on medical results. Their genuine care for our children's wellbeing was encouraging, especially for a newly arrived foreigner wading an unfamiliar health care system.

BSO (buitenschoolse opvang)

Children with working parents in Amsterdam have access to the BSO. This subsidised service (kinderopvangtoeslag) allows parents to work a full day. The services pick the child up from school, often in a large purpose-made bakfiets, and at around 18.30, parents pick their children up from the BSO.  This after-school-care is generally well-received, as the children are guaranteed structured play. Short trips to parks may also be organised to take advantage of good-weather days.

BSOs are typically external organisations that have relationships with the school. The school usually selects the BSOs, and it is the responsibility of the school to provide these services to its students. Some schools, (like DENISE) have BSOs onsite, and other schools have multiple BSO arrangements.

Do read more about other mamas' experiences, like when Amal Shakeb's little one started voorschool and the two-part series by Tasneem Hatimbhai about the challenges faced by international children transitioning between schools.


Audrey Coggins is the Chief Copyeditor and Content Manager for Amsterdam Mamas (2019). She is a foodie and loves celebrating colours and textures in a maximalist lifestyle.


Photo Credit: Canva & Unsplash

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