Educational Challenges in the Caribean Netherlands

Written by Sterre Krunen

Every student counts! In 2011, this slogan was the starting shot of the Caribbean and European Netherlands’ combined efforts to achieve educational equity and raise the quality of education on the islands of Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba. Although quality and equity increased, the Caribbean Netherlands still dealt with significant educational challenges in 2023. This article will explore three main challenges: the care for students with special needs, multilingualism, and the effects of poverty.

This article analyses these three challenges to understand the accessibility and quality of education in the Caribbean Netherlands. But first, we need to go into the governance structure of the islands and their relationship with the European Netherlands to fully understand the barriers to tackling the challenges and efforts to address them. Also, the policy programs addressing education and the Education Agendas will be given special attention to show continuing good practices and to explain the context in which the current challenges continue.

This map shows us the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of the European Netherlands and the Caribbean Netherlands. Both thank their name to their geographical location (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED, Wikimedia Commons: TUBS).

Context-Specific Efforts to Overcome Education Inequity

In 1948, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba became a part of the Dutch Antilles, a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This changed in 2010: the islands became public bodies under the European Netherlands. Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba are now local governments. An executive council, an island council, and the Dutch national government govern each island. Since this change, the islands have been referred to as the Caribbean Netherlands or the BES-islands.[i]

The Dutch Ministry for Education, Culture and Science is responsible for education. The schools on the islands are part of the Dutch education system and are monitored by the Netherlands’ Inspectorate of Education.[ii] The Dutch Ministry of Education, island councils and other stakeholders cooperated over the past twelve years to develop three policy programs, the Education Agendas.

The Education Agendas address educational equity between the two parts of the Netherlands. The idea is that it should not matter whether a child grows up in the European Netherlands or the Caribbean Netherlands; educational opportunities should be the same.[iii] The agendas address the specific context of the islands, as there are apparent differences from the European Netherlands in terms of culture, history, identity, language, scale, and organization.[iv]

The first two agendas address all three islands within one agenda. During the draft of the first Education Agenda (2011-2016), the level of education of many schools on the BES islands did not fulfil European nor Caribbean Dutch standards.[v] By 2016, most schools reached basic quality standards. However, particular areas still required improvement, again addressed in the second Agenda (2017-2020). [vi] The evaluation of this Agenda in 2020 shows that the main challenges are care for students with special needs and multilingualism.[vii]

While the third Education Agenda has not yet been published, it shall address these challenges.[viii] Furthermore, this agenda will address the challenges on each island separately, showing us a further commitment to context-specific policymaking, which hopefully improves the effectiveness of the third Education Agenda.

Educational Challenge I: Care for Students with Special Needs

The first challenge to discuss is the care for students with special needs. The right to education for children with special needs is a human right. It is taken up in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While the last Convention was ratified by the European Netherlands, it does not apply to the Caribbean Netherlands.

A statement by the Expertise Centre Education Care Saba in 2021 summarizes the importance of care for these students:  “Students have the right to feel included in a safe and reliable environment with a structured pedagogical climate that is tolerant and encouraging for the development of all”.[ix] Now, children with special needs still face situations in which education is not tailored to them, meaning they do not profit from education as their peers or eventually drop out. Some children do not have access to education at all. Children with a higher need for care face difficulties.[x]

An example of inadequate care is the case of the ten-year-old Arianny on Bonaire. In 2022, the non-speaking girl was in the news as she could not attend education on Bonaire. Arianny had no access. Members of the Dutch parliament asked the then minister of Education, Dennis Wiersma, questions about her situation and the general situation on Bonaire. The minister reacted that all children should have access to education and are required to attend school, despite specific situations. The situation of Arianny and the research in other reports show us that is not yet the reality.[xi]

Why do these problems continue even after the two Education Agendas?

Student care on the BES islands is not comparable to care in the European Netherlands. While both experience similar problems, the expert centre on Saba notes that the main difference derives from scale and school culture, for example, the lack of awareness about the differing needs of students. This also applies to the other islands: children with special needs continue to follow the same program as their peers even though they need additional care. Moreover, there are relatively more students with special needs in Saba than in the European Netherlands. Possible explanations are a lack of education planning, differentiation in the classroom and special education needs teachers.[xii] Also, non-school-related causes affect children’s learning capabilities, such as poverty and domestic violence.[xiii]

This continuing lack of care for students with special needs thus asks for extra efforts. Renewed attention to this problem and policies need to tackle the problem, ensuring (continuance of) access to education for children like Arianny. Individual needs must be considered to optimize the learning experience of already vulnerable students.

Three kids sitting in the port of Kralendijk, the capital of Bonaire (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED, Flickr: Globewriter).

Educational Challenge II: Multilingualism

Because of the different languages being spoken on each island, the language of education has been a thorny issue. Encountered challenges have been linguistic imperialism, learning challenges, and difficulty accessing tertiary education in Dutch.

On Bonaire, most inhabitants speak Papiamento as their mother tongue. On Saba and St. Eustasius, a local variety of Caribbean English has the upper hand. Despite this, Dutch was the only officially recognized language until the beginning of the century thus, education was in Dutch.[xiv]Nowadays, Papiamento and English can both be used in education. This represents the reality of the islands and a respect for local languages, making it a laudable development and a move away from linguistic imperialism.

However, it also causes new educational challenges, especially for learning results and further education. On Saba and St. Eustatius, the instruction language is English. Dutch is being taught as a foreign language.[xv] St. Eustatius switched to English as an instruction language in secondary education in 2014. Dutch proved to negatively affect learning outcomes and attitudes towards the Dutch language.[xvi] Saba has used English as the instruction language for a more extended period. However, only teaching Dutch as a foreign language hinders access to tertiary education. A low proficiency in Dutch means that students from these islands cannot access (all) tertiary education institutions in the European Netherlands.[xvii] This is especially problematic because the Caribbean Netherlands does not have any universities or universities of applied sciences, meaning inhabitants must move to pursue tertiary education.[xviii]

On Bonaire, education starts in Papiamento  – the native language of most students  – for the first two years of primary school. After these years, the instruction language became Dutch. This causes risks, as the case of St. Eustatius before 2014 showed. Furthermore, it can hinder learning outcomes as children might struggle with Dutch.[xix]

Therefore, multilingualism leads to specific challenges for students regarding access to further education and learning outcomes. It has been difficult to find a balance between Dutch, Papiamento, and Caribbean English that will tackle these challenges. A comprehensive language policy should be developed per island, where native languages and Dutch get a well-balanced place within the education system.

Educational Challenge III: Poverty

This third educational challenge goes beyond the education agendas as it intertwines with the overall situation on the BES islands: life on the islands has become increasingly expensive, and salaries and government support are insufficient to afford this.

This is why children on the BES islands noted poverty as one of the biggest challenges in their lives in 2021. And high poverty levels have continued since then: 11,000 people live below the poverty line in 2023. This is an extremely high number, considering that the islands’ total population is 30,000.[xx] In comparison to the European Netherlands: 800,000 live in poverty on a population of almost 18 million.[xxi]

What do such numbers mean for Caribbean students?

The rapport between the Dutch Ombudsman and the Children’s Ombudsman gives us the distressing example of Shanice, an 11-year-old Bonairean girl. Her mother is a single caretaker, working multiple jobs to stay afloat. She is more often at work than at home. Shanice cares for her younger brothers and sisters, looks after the groceries, and wash dishes instead of having the opportunity to focus on her studies. She goes to school: she likes it there. However, she often feels stressed because of her many responsibilities. Then, she cannot focus or learn. At the same time, Shanice pressures herself to learn: she wants to have a different life than her mom.[xxii]

This example shows how poverty gives children many responsibilities and negatively affects their learning. This example does not comprise all adverse effects. When not having enough money, healthy food is not always a priority, just like schoolbooks or having a good place to study. Extra school costs might not be paid. Parents and kids both experience high-stress levels, which might cause parents to be (emotionally) unavailable and children to have problems focusing. All negatively affect the school outcomes of children.[xxiii]

To tackle this problem of poverty and its effects, there should be governmental support to lift children and their parents from poverty. However, government policies are one of the causes of poverty: the model of living costs for the BES island presents living costs as lower than they are. Policies are developed based on this model. Moreover, this is a recurring argument for not higher social welfare: ensuring social welfare will demotivate people, and they will not work anymore.[xxiv] Hence, policies have contributed to the problem of poverty.

In addition, inhabitants of the BES islands do not always have access to the same resources European Dutch individuals have. These resources are, however, of great importance: European Dutch depend on them, but Caribbean Dutch cannot even access them.[xxv] This is possible because of the special status of the islands. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 2021 that such differences between the European Netherlands and Caribbean Netherlands are deplorable, that discrimination should be fought, and that equality should be pursued.

The Dutch government has been taking steps. A law ensuring the equal treatment of all citizens in the Netherlands will come into effect for the Caribbean Netherlands.[xxvi] The exact date is, however, unclear. Furthermore, the model of living costs will be adjusted in July 2024. From that date onwards, inhabitants of the Caribbean Netherlands will be able to breach the gap between social security and living costs that exists now. In addition, the Dutch government does undertake other efforts to address poverty, but the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights judges them to be insufficient. [xxvii]

The Dutch government seems to increasingly take responsibility for the high poverty levels in the Caribbean Netherlands. A necessary development: despite statements such as ‘Every student counts!’, the Dutch government has discriminated against Caribbean Dutch citizens. The unfavourable treatment they experience puts them behind their fellow citizens in Europe.


Education quality has increased significantly on the Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba islands. Great efforts have been made to tailor policies to the local contexts of the islands, which is essential for education equity between the European and Caribbean Netherlands. This is praiseworthy and will hopefully continue with the third Education Agenda.

However, great educational challenges persist on the islands. Benefits from and access to education are under pressure.  While multilingualism affects all students, poverty and the lack of special care affect some students disproportionately. Furthermore, the problem of poverty and lack of special care show clear signs of discrimination, which should be condemned and stopped. The case of the islands of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba thus indicates the need for policies tackling discrimination and a comprehensive plan to improve education further.


Cover Image: A young girl in costume during a parade on Bonaire (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, Wikimedia Commons: Atsme).

[i] Rijksoverheid. (N.d). Caribisch deel van het Koninkrijk. Rijksoverheid.

[ii] Rijksoverheid. (N.d.). Caribisch deel van het Koninkrijk. Rijksoverheid.

[iii] Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. (N.d). Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap. Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland.

[iv] Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. (N.d). Onderwijsagenda voor Caribisch Nederland: samen werken aan kwaliteit. Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. 1.

[v] Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. (N.d). Onderwijsagenda voor Caribisch Nederland: samen werken aan kwaliteit. 1.

[vi] Inspectie van het Onderwijs. (2017). De Ontwikkeling van het Onderwijs in Caribisch Nederland 2014-2016. Onderwijsinspectie. 39-41.

[vii] Buys, Marga. (2021). Evaluatie Tweede Onderwijsagenda Caribisch Nederland 2017-2020. Eerste Kamer. 20.

[viii] Buys, Marga. (2021). Evaluatie Tweede Onderwijsagenda Caribisch Nederland 2017-2020. Eerste Kamer. 22.

[ix]. Langerak, Lisa. (2021). Inclusive Special Education on Saba. Expertise Center Education Care. 2.

[x] Buys, Marga. (2021). Evaluatie Tweede Onderwijsagenda Caribisch Nederland 2017-2020. Eerste Kamer. 20.

[xi] Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap. (2022). Antwoord op schriftelijke vragen van de leden Van den Berg en Peters (beiden CDA) over het bericht ‘Moeder vraagt om hulp: 10-jarige Arianny kan op Bonaire niet naar school. Open Overheid. 2-3.

[xii] Langerak, Lisa. (2021). Inclusive Special Education on Saba. Expertise Center Education Care. 5.

[xiii] Kinderombudsman. (2021). Als je het ons vraagt: kinderen op de BES-eilanden. Kinderombudsman. 10-11.

[xiv] Mijts, Eric, Ellen-Petra Kester and Nicholas Faraclas. (2014). Multilingualism and education in the Caribbean Netherlands. A community-based approach to a sustainable language education policy. The case study of St. Eustatius. NT2. 2.

[xv] Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. (N.d). Taal in het Onderwijs. Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland.

[xvi] Polak, Anneke. (2014). Engels als instructietaal ‘ingrijpend’. Caribisch Netwerk.

[xvii] Buys, Marga. (2021). Evaluatie Tweede Onderwijsagenda Caribisch Nederland 2017-2020. Eerste Kamer. 20.

[xviii] Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland. (N.d). Higher Education and Science. Rijksdienst Caribisch Nederland.

[xix] Kloosterboer, Karin. (2013). Kind op Bonaire, St. Eustatius en Saba. UNICEF. 15.

[xx] NOS. (2023). Derde van Caribisch Nederland onder armoedegrens, pleidooi voor hoger minimumloon. NOS

[xxi] Den Hartog, Tobias and Laurens Kok. (2023). Op weg naar 1 miljoen armen: bij dit inkomen leef je volgens de overheid in armoede. Het Parool.

[xxii] Kinderombudsman, and Nationale Ombudsman. (2023). Caribische kinderen van de rekening. Kinderombudsman. 4.,zelf%20als%20voor%20hun%20kinderen.

[xxiii] Nederlands Jeugdinstituut. (N.d). De invloed van armoede op schoolprestaties. Nederlands Jeugdinstituut.

[xxiv] Haringsma, Phaedra. (2022). Zo wordt ongelijkheid tussen Europees en Caribisch Nederland al jaren in stand gehouden. De Correspondent.


[xxvi] Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. (2023). Caribisch Nederland krijgt wetgeving gelijke behandeling. College voor de Rechten van de Mens.,2010%20bijzondere%20gemeentes%20van%20Nederland

[xxvii] Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. (2023). Report to UN Committee on economic, social and cultural human rights in the Netherlands. College voor de Rechten van de Mens. 4-6.

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