My husband and I moved our family from Amsterdam to the United States in the summer of 2012. We took the kids out of their Dutch gymnasium - an Old World school where students focus on Latin and Greek. A trip to Rome is the reward at the end of the six years, when they can read all those ancient inscriptions.
The Dutch education system has its flaws, but it is relatively straightforward. When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools. There is an obvious downside to this system: It closes off opportunities early. If you're a late bloomer, it's possible, but not easy, to switch from the trade school to the university track.
But if you're on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. Of course, there are some requirements. To study medicine, you need to have taken biology and physics, which you don't need for law. (In Holland, as in most of Europe, there is no liberal arts curriculum at the university level, and most students declare a major right from the start.) Sometimes, if there are too many kids applying to medicine or a popular field such as psychology, there is a weighted lottery that favors students with the best grades. In the end, however, almost all students end up in the place of their choosing. There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.
Yet my husband and I led our kids off this paved path and instead found ourselves wading through a thicket of baffling vocabulary. Early Decision? Early Action? We weren't prepared for what seemed to be a grim, winner-take-all test of character. We were taken off guard by all the pressure put on kids, and all the anxiety and guilt among parents.