The transition from preschool to “real” school is a big milestone for both children and their parents. It can be particularly challenging when navigating an unfamilIar educational system. Fortunately, Clarissa Gosling is here to explain the ins and outs of moving from Group 2 to Group 3.

What Is Group 3?

Within Dutch primary school (basisschool) the biggest change is the transition from Group 2 to Group 3. This is when school becomes more academic, less like preschool. Children start to read, write, do proper maths work, and spend most of their time sitting at their own desk.

In Groups 1 and 2 children learn their letters, but not to read and write (beyond their names). They learn their numbers, but don’t really start doing calculations. There is a lot of play time (inside and out) and art and crafts; the focus is really on learning school routines and preparing them to function in that environment.

When Does Group 3 Start?

In the Netherlands, school is compulsory from age five, but children can attend from age four – literally the day after their fourth birthday – and, indeed, that is when most children do start school (Group 1). Thus, children are starting throughout the school year in the first years of school, but when it is time to begin Group 3, they begin the academic year together as a cohort in September.

Schools organise Group 3 classes based on birthdate as well as the individual child’s progress. In effect, what this means is that children can spend differing amounts of time in school before beginning Group 3, depending on their date-of-birth. Here’s the general guide:

  • Children born between June and September spend two full academic years in Groups 1 and 2, and progress to Group 3 roughly around their sixth birthday.
  • Children born between January and May spend the months between their birthday and the end of the academic year, followed by two full years in Groups 1 and 2, and progress to Group 3 when they are roughly six and a half. 
  • Children born between October and December can go either way depending on how they are doing and which path the school thinks is best.

Exactly how this cut-off is managed for children born in the autumn months varies by school. Some schools move children up to Group 3 based on a hard birthdate deadline that can fall between 1 October and 1 January; others are more flexible and place a lot of emphasis on the individual child and their personal qualities. Thus, a child with an earlier birthday may stay another year in Group 2, and very occasionally a child with a birthday after Christmas will enter Group 3 earlier. But those are the outliers and the school will provide a clear reason for their decision and extra support for these children.

Some of the skills that schools assess when determining whether a child should move up to to Group 3 are:

  • Fine motor skills.
  • Ability to sit still, concentrate, and work independently.
  • Ability to dress and undress themselves (for gym).
  • Understanding of numbers and letters, and vocabulary.
  • Social development.

Each child is individually assessed, and the decision about advancement is based on what suits that particular child best. Talk to your school, and your children’s teacher(s), if you are worried about the transition.

The Primair Onderwijs Raad has a brochure about the decision-making process around when children are ready to go to Group 3 (in Dutch).

A Personal Story

My son has a November birthday, so he was in the group that choose which year to enter Group 3. His school decided that he was ready to go up before his sixth birthday and he is now thriving in Group 4. But last year was very hard for all of us. He was the second youngest in the class and he found it very tiring, which made him incredibly grumpy and uncommunicative, probably more so because Dutch is his second language, and he had to work even harder to keep up both languages every day.

On the other hand, my daughter has a January birthday, and there was no question about when she would move up to Group 3. We know that she will do two and a half years in Groups 1 and 2 and I’m sure that she will appreciate the extra time playing. My only concern is that many of her friends are older than her, and will likely end up a year ahead of her, but that isn’t a good enough reason for me to push her ahead. She loves school and learning new things and I want to encourage that, rather than force her to sit still before she’s ready.

Do Your Own Assessment

If your child in currently in Groups 1 or 2 and has an autumn birthday, the question about when they join Group 3 is an important one. At its most basic, it is a question about whether your child will be the youngest or the oldest in the class and the implications that this has for them.

It is helpful to consider the following:

  • Is your child is likely to get bored if they remain in Group 2 for another year? What provisions does the school offer to continue to keep them engaged and learning?
  • Is your child is finding Group 2 hard? Would an extra year without pressure allow them to develop their social skills and confidence more fully before being moved into more academic learning?
  • Who are their friends and which class will they will be in?

There are no absolute right answers to these questions and it will be different in every case.

An additional issue for international families is managing the expectations of your extended family and friends. The Dutch school system starts reading and writing later than many others, for example the US and the UK. So there may be a sense that children in the Dutch school system are “behind”, which may be a driver to move children up to Group 3 earlier. Be aware that there is a lot of research showing that is beneficial for children to learn to read and write later, especially for boys; other studies indicate there is no difference in reading ability between children who start earlier or later.

Clarissa Gosling

Clarissa Gosling moved from the UK to The Netherlands in 2014 with her husband and two children, who are all enjoying Dutch life. She is the author of Moving Abroad with Children and Raising Bilingual Children: When School Speaks a Different Language.