Education in Belgium




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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.

Types of schools in Belgium

Belgian schools
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 system.

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.

International schools

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 (IB) programme.

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.

European schools

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.

Method schools

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 traditionally.

The Belgian 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 maternelle) 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 education.

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:

·         General education: prepares students for the transition to higher education and is mainly focused on training theory and general knowledge.

·         Technical education: similar to general education but focuses more on practice and technical teaching, preparing students for either a profession or further studies.

·         Vocational: 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.

·         Art education: 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.

Method schools such as Montessori and Steiner also form part of this third group of privately run schools and are subsidised by the state.

Pre-primary education

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.

Primary education

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:

Homework is given from an early age and a high level of parental involvement is encouraged.

Secondary education

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.

Doubling (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.

Higher education

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 examinations.

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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