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Education and Schools

Belgium - Education and Schools

It is compulsory in Belgium for children between the ages of 6 and 18 to receive education. This is one of the few areas of the education system which is laid down by the federal government and applies across each of the three regions; most regulations in respect of the education system were devolved to local communities following reforms in 1988. As an example, there is no national school curriculum.

Education is normally provided at a co-educational school near to the child’s home, with all costs paid by the state, and the constitution allows parents to nominate their choice of school for their child. However, some families choose to pay for private education, and more rarely a family decides to educate their child at home.

The majority of schools in Belgium, with the majority of Belgian pupils, are subsidised free schools. These are schools which receive public funding but are owned, managed and operated by organisations; the Roman Catholic church is a major player in this market, reflecting the 58% of the population who identify themselves as Catholic.

Pre-school is not compulsory, but approximately 90% of children will attend one. It is free to attend, and although they are usually located in the grounds of a local school the education is informal and based on learning through play. Children start pre-school when they reach the age of two years and six months; the intake is continuous throughout the year although the Flemish region restricts the start dates to six specific days a year.

Children are eligible to start primary school on the 1st September in the year they reach the age of six, and to attend that school for six years. The school day normally begins at 8.30am, breaks for lunch around midday (when pupils will eat their packed lunch or go home to eat) and ends at 3.30pm; on Wednesdays most schools end at 1.30pm. Schools will be open Monday to Friday and closed at the weekend.

Morning lessons usually concentrate on reading, writing and maths; the afternoon lessons are used to cover a broad range of creative and scientific topics.

School uniform is usually not worn except in PE lessons. Some schools (especially in the private sector) do have a school uniform policy which is strictly maintained, but these are the exception.

School terms are similar to those in the UK; with a one week break in late October for half term, a two week break in December for Christmas, a one week break in February for half term and a two week break in March and/or April for Easter. The big difference is that there is no May half term because the summer holidays run for almost the whole of July and August.

Flemish schools are required to include French lessons in their curriculum. Usually this starts at secondary school but primary schools in Brussels and near other regional borders start early in the first or second year.

Primary schools in Wallonia are required to teach a second language, which is often Dutch or English according to the school’s choice.

Primary schools in the German area are required to teach French lessons.

At the age of 12, children start secondary school, which they will attend for six years. There are four types of school programmes:

• General Secondary - broad academic curriculum preparing for higher education
• Technical Secondary - general education in core subjects plus more practical courses
• Art Secondary - broad curriculum enhanced by creative skills courses
• Vocational Secondary - Practical and job specific education preparing for work in trades

Special Secondary education courses are available for children with disabilities.

At the age of 15, pupils may choose to undertake part time specialised vocational training or an entrepreneurial course.

Upon successful completion of six years of study, pupils will receive the diploma of secondary education, although those attending the Vocational Secondary programme would require further studies to achieve this.

All schools, with the exception of pre-schools, have subject-related and cross curricular attainment targets set by the three regional administrations. A number of inspection teams visit and assess each educational establishment according to an inspection regime, and a team of educational advisors provide ongoing support and advice.

Higher education is provided by the authorities in Flanders and Wallonia; German speakers frequently attend higher education institutions in Germany. Higher education enrollment for an accredited course is offered to those who hold a qualifying diploma of secondary education, although some courses have more stringent entrance conditions, including:

• Medicine and Dentistry - must pass an entrance exam which is only held in Flanders
• Arts - organised by individual colleges
• Engineering - must pass an entrance exam for study leading to a Master’s Degree in Wallonia
• Management Sciences - must pass admission tests for study leading to Master’s Degree

The tuition costs for universities and colleges across Belgium are fixed by the regional governments, and are reviewed annually. Financial aid is available, under a tiered system, to students from families with lower levels of monthly income.

Most institutions will teach in the language usually used by the community in which they are physically based, although a small but increasing number of courses are being offered in English.

The Belgian higher education qualifications were streamlined in the new millennium to meet European norms, allowing the qualifications awarded there to be used as appropriate certification elsewhere in Europe. Bachelor’s degrees following three years of study and Master’s degrees following a further one or two years of study are now awarded by both Universities and colleges, whilst only Universities can award a PhD following the required completion of high level research.

The Education system in Belgium performs well in terms of OECD output, although the United Nations Education Index undertaken in 2013 ranked Belgium as 21st on a global list in which Norway took the top spot. There are significant regional differences which cause concern; Flemish students outperform German speaking students, and children from the Walloon area have the lowest average educational achievement for the country. Youth unemployment in the country remains worryingly high, and there are criticisms that the education system especially does not meet the additional needs of immigrant children or those from poorer backgrounds.

A number of adult education centres operate across the country to develop the basic literacy and maths skills of adults who either left school without having gained them or who have entered Belgium as adult migrants. Courses at these centres are free of charge to the participants.

Like many countries around the world, over the past few decades Belgium has noted an increase of violence in schools, especially in those serving areas of economic disadvantage or inner city communities. Incidents do regularly occur whereby teachers are physically hurt, though the offenders are usually other adults connected to a pupil rather than the pupil themselves. It should be noted that the French speaking communities use the term “violence” to describe verbal aggression normally described in English as “bullying”. Awareness of bullying, knowledge of its effect on individual development and learning, and action to reduce it in schools has been an important part of research and educational administration work across Belgium. There is little evidence that schools in Belgium are any less safe than in other European countries, and strict gun control laws throughout the country minimise the risk of serious harm to pupils both in and outside of school.

Families moving to Belgium can struggle to find appropriate schooling for their children if English is the only spoken language, since all publicly maintained schools will teach in French or Dutch. Because of this, private international schools are a popular choice with English speaking families and there are more than twenty of them with over 22,000 pupils, despite the high cost of school fees and additional charges. Expat Dawn Gillespie found the choice of international schools for her children difficult in the absence of publicly available external evaluation data or reports; she ultimately set up the International Schools In Brussels website, inviting parents to rate and write a review of schools their children had attended, for the benefit of prospective parents.

Read more about this country

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