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Islamic primary schools seeking right balance

Islamic primary schools contribute to the integration of Muslims in Dutch society, concludes Marietje Beemsterboer in her PhD dissertation. The schools offer children a sense of belonging and prepare them for Dutch society.

Beemsterboer states that the prejudice that Islamic primary schools impede the integration of children is incorrect. The schools are indeed trying to find a healthy balance between Islam and preparing pupils for an active role in Dutch society. The dominant image of Islamic primary schools in the media is based on the three strict Islamic primary schools that are located in the Netherlands. In total, the Netherlands is home to 52 Islamic schools.

Major differences between schools

Islamic primary schools differ widely. Those differences are expressed in the schools’ choices. The vast majority of schools focus a lot of attention on Dutch society’s requirements of young pupils in their optional lessons, Beemsterboer discovered. The school is continuously asked to consider its options on sensitive themes such as using certain instruments during music lessons (some streams of Islam are against playing of and listening to particular musical instruments) and a topic such as sexual diversity.

Walking a tightrope

For parents, it’s important that their child is well-prepared for Dutch society and still has sufficient contact with Islamic customs. Beemsterboer: ‘Since schools are continuously walking the tightrope between Islam in all its manifestations and the relatively secular Dutch society, Islamic parents now feel heard.’ Provided that the ‘strict’ schools also meet the legal requirements, they can spend their optional lessons on Islamic subjects. For instance, such matters as segregating physical education classes, wearing the headscarf and adhering to Islamic rules.’

The researcher met a lot of staff, teachers and directors with a Dutch background. These are often schools’ deliberate choices, because it is a way for them to integrate Dutch culture in their schools. 

Marietje Beemsterboer

75 discussions at 19 schools

Beemsterboer held 75 conversations at 19 Islamic primary schools. It was not easy to select them. ‘Some schools receive ten or more requests every week to participate in research. I was lucky that, as a master’s student of World Religions at Leiden University, I had already conducted research at an group of Islamic schools.’ Beemsterboer laughs: ‘Other than that, I was also very persistent.’ The researcher took a number of measures to counter the criticism of the research method, and was determined in her selection of schools. She wanted an optimum distribution acaross a range of variables, such as the size of the school, its geographical location (distributed over provinces), the year the school was established (some have existed for over 30 years), and the membership of the school board. ‘I then continued with the  research until saturation point was reached, in other words, when adding another school did not generate any new insights.’

Divided into types

Beemsterboer estimates that, apart from the three strict schools, 20% have an open character and the rest take a praactical approach to how they operate. At all theh schools that wereinvolved in the research, Beemsterboer noticed that the schools are fiinding the Dutch context ever more important. She derived this from conversations with teachers, which showed that their school had become less strict with respect to the Islamic principles.

Link to research on Christian schools

For the research method, Beemsterboer sought advice in research about schools with a Christian identity. She found connections but some aspects were lacking. ‘A particular characteristic of Islamic schools is the great diversity within the them. Islam has so many different streams.’ In the Netherlands, each Protestant movement has, or at least had, its own schools. At Catholic schools, there is a high level of social diversity, but fewer expectations with respect to identity are linked to that. At Islamic schools, the expectations with respect to the identity are indeed very dominant. ‘There are feasts that one stream does celebrate, and the other doesn’t. How do you go about that?’

Continuous mirroring

Another difference is that Islamic primary schools continuously mirror their policy to the social context. Islamic schools are constantly approached; their identity is under pressure. Moreover, after primary school, almost all children go to a non-Islamic secondary school, seeing as the Netherlands only has two Islamic secondary schools. Beemsterboer: ‘Within the schools there are continuous dialogues on a range of different matters. They want to connect to the diverse streams as well as prepare for public or Christian secondary schools.’


Beemsterboer emphasises that her focus on shaping the identity of schools is new, but there are some previous reports that state that the vast majority of Islamic primary schools are moderate. ‘However, that one critical footnote gets all the attention.’ She hopes that her PhD research will bring about a turnaround.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Image: Kelly Schalke
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About Beemsterboer

Marietje Beemsterboer received her doctorate on 12 June at Leiden University. She is primary school teacher and in the last five years, she has researched the identity of Islamic primary schools within a Dutch context with a Doctoral Grant for Teachers.

Her PhD research will also appear as a commercial edition: Islamic primary education in the Netherlands (Islamitisch basisonderwijs in Nederland), ISBN 9789079578931.

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