Published by UNESCO "UNION NACIONAL DE EDUCACION SUPERIOR CONTINUA
"NATIONAL UNION OF
CONTINUOUS ORGANIZED HIGHER EDUCATION"
The Belgian school system can seem complex at first due to the variety of childcare
and education options in Belgium that expat families need to consider.
In keeping with the myriad levels of
national and local bureaucracy in Belgium, the Belgian school system can seem a
minefield to newcomers trying to enrol their children. However, as Belgium is
the capital of the EU, the education system is well developed to serve
international and working families. Additionally, childcare facilities
involving play and homework are sometimes available at schools before or after
classes for working parents, though there is usually a charge.
In Belgium you can choose from state
schools, subsidised or free private schools, bilingual schools, method schools
and private and international schools. Finding a school in Belgium to suit your
needs won't be the issue; instead, the biggest question will be how to choose
the right school for your child's education from all the schools in Belgium?
Choosing a school in Belgium
The first decision is whether to
integrate your child into the local system or take advantage of the many
international schools in the country. This naturally depends on whether you are
on a short-term contract or plan to stay longer in Belgium.
The international option allows your
children to continue in the same education system once they return to their
home country, while local schools help children integrate better into a new
country. Private and international schools also tend to offer more
extra-curricular activities than public schools, although the government
subsides some music and art academies in larger cities for children to join.
Applying to a
school in Belgium
The compulsory school age in Belgium is
six to 18 years, though children may start at age five if deemed ready, and
pupils aged 16 years and older can opt to study part-time while undertaking
practical training. Children can enter pre-primary education from the age of
two-and-a-half on the first school day in February or after any holiday period,
and after age three they can enter any time. Typically, children start primary
school in September of the year they turn six and enter secondary school by
around age 12.
Schools in Belgium don’t always have
strict zoning systems, so parents can potentially choose any school location,
however it may also mean the closest school is full. School enrolment periods
differ between the language communities and the government revises admission
procedures regularly, so parents need to check the admission periods in their
desired school in advance to ensure placement. In some places, this may be
possible up to a year in advance or more.
Children are assessed at every level,
from pre-primary to secondary schooling, to determine if they are ready for the
next stage in education. It is not uncommon to repeat or ‘double’ a year, and
no negative stigma is associated with this.
If you choose a local school,
school-beginners may be required to prove their language proficiency in the
school’s set language, or at least have attended a local nursery part-time for
a set number of days in the previous school year (nurseries are often attached
to schools for easy transition). You can also ask to see if a school provides
language immersion programmes or try a language course for children.
schools in Belgium
While the state sets the laws regarding education, responsibility for schools lies
with the language communities: Dutch (or Flemish) in Flanders, French in
Wallonia, both languages in Brussels and some surrounding communes, and German
in the eastern border areas. Education is free although parents may be expected
to contribute to the cost of school supplies or field trips, plus textbooks
when children reach secondary level. All schools are coeducational.
As well as state schools, there are
privately-run schools that are also subsidised or ‘free’, often run on religious
lines though their curricula, with certification recognised equally within the
Religion plays a part in state education
and students can opt for Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Islamic
studies, or a more general secular approach.
These are the choice for parents who wish their children to remain in a
familiar system, with a language they know, and with the option of continuing
the system back in their home country. With its burgeoning international
community, there is a raft of international schools in Belgium – and Brussels in particular – following British, American,
French and Dutch education systems, among many others. These schools offer the
whole range of education from nursery to school-leaving age. They are typically
private and therefore fee-paying, though many employers offer education support
as part of a relocation benefits package.
The largest American curriculum
international school is the International School of Brussels (ISB), which
teaches students from preschool, aged two and a half, right up to high school
grade 13, for students aged 19. It also offers the International Baccalaureate
The largest British curriculum school is
The British School of Brussels (BSB), set on a large campus in Tervuren with a
swimming pool. BSB can accommodate children from one to 18 years old and offers
A Levels, the IB programme, and BTEC vocational courses in business, sports and
hospitality. French/English bilingual education is also offered for ages four
to 14 years. Both ISB and BSB place great emphasis on sport and the arts, and
run highly successful summer schools open to all.
In Antwerp, the Antwerp British School
offers an international curriculum for children aged 3 to 18 years, leading to
the Cambridge International Examinations (IGCSE) as well as the IB. The Antwerp
International School offers the same accreditation, and can accommodate
children from age two and a half to 18 years. Both schools offer Dutch and
French as part of the standard curriculum.
The European schools traditionally required at least one parent working for an
EU institution, although in recent years certain schools have eased entry
requirements. Education is in the mother tongue, with a second language being
introduced at primary level. A third language is then obligatory from the
second year of secondary school, with optional additional languages on offer in
later years. Courses lead to the European Baccalaureate, which is recognised
for university entrance throughout the EU.
A wide range of schools adopts the methodology of an educational philosophy. In
these, children often learn through discovery and the liberal arts, with
subjects such as grammar, mathematics and science being taught from direct
experience rather than in a formal setting. The Celstin Freinet system follows
this approach, while the Decroly schools separate the academic from the
creative skills in a vertically streamed organisation, with younger children
benefiting from the experience of older pupils. The Steiner schools place
greater emphasis on the arts.
There is a selection of the world-famous Montessori schools in Belgium, which teach children in small,
focused groups according to the relaxed self-developmental Montessori method. Children are encouraged to work at their own pace
and independently. This places a certain amount of responsibility upon children
to develop their own learning, while teachers act as encouraging guides and facilitators
for individuals or small groups. These schools tend to offer a bilingual
French-English education. Extra languages, such as Dutch and German, can be
introduced as the children become older, though these tend to be taught more
education system: pre-school, primary and secondary levels
Pre-school in Belgium
Working parents are facilitated by a large choice of childcare facilities, and
almost all children attend preschools during their formative years. Prior to
formal education, nurseries are available for babies and children up to
two-and-half years, after which kindergartens (kleuteronderwijs/enseignement
provide daycare facilities for children until they reach school age. This can
be free, though mothers in full-time work are given priority where places are
limited. The kindergartens are often attached to local primary schools, which
allows for an easy transition into formal education. Read more about preschool and childcare in Belgium.
Primary school in Belgium
Children stay at primary school (lager onderwijs/enseignement primaire) for six years during which time they study a range of
subjects with an emphasis on languages and mathematics. Learning a foreign language
will likely be part of the curriculum, for example, French in the
Flemish-speaking areas, or Dutch or German in the French community. Homework is
also part of the educational structure from early on. In Belgian schools there
is a strong tradition of parental participation.
The culmination of primary education is
the attainment of a ‘Certificate of basic education’ (CEB) for the French
community, the Getuigschrift basisonderwijs for the Flemish Community and the Abschlusszeugnis
der Grundschule for the
German community. The certificate is important when moving to secondary
Secondary school in Belgium
Secondary school (secundair onderwijs/enseignement secondaire) progresses through three stages, starting off with
general studies in the early years, after which students can specialise in
general, vocational, technical, or artistic streams depending on individual
choice and ability. Assessment is ongoing and rigidly enforced. Several
educational certificates are awarded, including the Certificate of Lower
Secondary Education and the Certificate of Higher Education.
When students begin to specialise, their
courses of study focus on one of four areas:
education: prepares students for the transition to higher education and is
mainly focused on training theory and general knowledge.
education: similar to general education but focuses more on practice and
technical teaching, preparing students for either a profession or further
provides direct access to a profession at the end of the course of study and is
heavily focused on practice. Students also receive one or more additional
years, called fourth degree.
organised in exactly the same way as technical education, but the elective
options are within arts and non-technical subjects. Students can go on to
higher education in either a specialised institution, such as an art college,
or to a university or college, depending on the subjects studied.
All these courses provide access to higher education with the obtainment of the
certificate of secondary education (CESS), except vocational education, which
must be completed to the seventh grade in order to obtain the certificate.
Most schools have a half-day on Wednesday,
though the afternoon is sometimes given over to sporting or cultural
activities. These can also happen on a Saturday morning. Often, your children
can be cared for on Wednesday afternoons.
Information on the system of schooling
in Belgium, from pre-primary to higher education...
As Belgium is divided into distinct
federal regions there are separate education systems that run along very
similar lines for each of the communities.
There are three regional Ministries of
Education with responsibility for implementing government policy:
Within each region there are three types
of educational institution: community education, education run by public
institutions and "free" private (often Catholic) schools.
- Community schools come
under the authority of the relevant ministry of education and must be
neutral, that is respecting the religious, philosophical or ideological
convictions of all parents and pupils
- Publicly run schools are
subsidised and are organised by provinces and municipalities
- Privately run schools which
are also subsidised. These include Catholic schools as well as Jewish,
Protestant, Islamic and Orthodox schools. In Flanders they make up the
largest group both in number of schools and pupils, however, in the French
community they are roughly equal in size to community schools with a
larger share of secondary and tertiary education.
Method schools such as Montessori and
Steiner also form part of this third group of privately run schools and are
subsidised by the state.
- Dutch: kleuteronderwijs
- French: enseignement
- German: Kindergarten
Free pre-primary school facilities are
provided for children who have reached age two and a half. Where places are
limited, priority is given to mothers working full-time. These pre-schools are
often attached to a primary school. Attendance is not compulsory but it is very
popular (it is clearly cheaper than other childcare alternatives, for example)
and more than 90 percent of children in this age bracket attend. By the age of
five, 99 percent of children are in school.
There are few formal lessons. As
children get older there are supervised tasks and specialised lessons in
subjects such as music, a second language and gym, and everything is done with
an emphasis on play.
- Dutch: lager
- French: enseignement
- German: Grundschule
Primary school education begins on the 1
September of the year in which a child reaches the age of six (although some
children are admitted at age five if they are considered ready) and is free to
all. It lasts for six years and a whole range of academic subjects are studied.
There is a strong language emphasis. For example schools in the German
community must teach French from the first or second year and in Brussels Dutch
schools must teach French and French schools must teach Dutch – commune schools
start this during the last year of pre-school.
Primary education consists of 3 cycles:
- First cycle (years 1 and
- Second cycle (years 3 and
- Third cycle (years 5 and
Homework is given from an early age and
a high level of parental involvement is encouraged.
- Dutch: secundair
- French: enseignement
- German: Sekundäre
Secondary education is also free and
begins at around age 12. It lasts for six years and consists of three cycles each
lasting two years. Parents may be expected to make a contribution towards the
cost of text books.
In the first year of secondary education
all pupils follow the same programme. From the second year onwards a range of
options can be chosen according to preference and ability. These will lead to
education of a general nature or with a more technical, artistic or
professional slant. Often schools will specialise in one of these streams or
will have different sections for different streams. Within the streams pupils
continue to choose from further options throughout secondary school resulting
in a broad education weighted towards their preferred subjects or career.
Assessment is ongoing throughout
secondary education and students receive a diploma at the end of their studies.
For those who have followed a general range of subjects the next step is
normally higher education.
Technical students often go to
university or college to study related subjects or may start working straight
after school. Vocational students typically begin working part-time to
complement their studies from age 16 and then move into full-time employment.
Those who have followed the artistic
options usually go on to higher education, for example to art colleges or
specialist music conservatories but may go to university or college, depending
on the options they choose. Some art colleges have a secondary section starting
from the third year of secondary school and pupils study for the first two
years in a general school.
(repeating a year)
Children are tested at the end of each
year of pre-school, primary and secondary school to decide if they are ready
for the next year. The testing takes the form of assessment and supervised
tests for younger children and exams for older children. If they are not ready
to move up, they repeat the year or "double". The system continues in
secondary school. Because "doubling" is common, there is usually very
little stigma attached to it.
- Dutch: hoger
- French: enseignement
Higher education in Belgium is organised
by the Flemish and French communities via state or private institutions (often
linked to religious bodies). German speakers typically enrol in French
institutions or pursue their studies in Germany.
There are six universities in Belgium
which offer a full range of subjects. In most cases students are free to enrol
at any institution as long as they have their qualifying diploma. However,
those wishing to continue their studies in medicine, dentistry, arts and
engineering sciences may face stricter entrance controls including additional
The government sets the registration fee
for each establishment and reviews it annually. There are three fee levels
depending on the student's financial situation and that of their family.
The higher education system in Belgium
follows a Bachelor/Master process with a Bachelor's degree obtained after three
years and a Master's degree after a further one or two years. Both universities
and colleges can award these degrees.
Students from outside Belgium coming to
study in one of these establishments will have to prove that they have the
appropriate entrance qualifications and that they can financially support
themselves during their studies.
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