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Back to school: The Bulletin's comprehensive guide to the Belgian education system
Primary and secondary
The school system in Belgium is structured on three levels – pre-school, primary and secondary – and includes children from the age of two up to 18. Education is split along language lines, so each of the three communities runs its own system. Education is compulsory in Belgium from the age of six to 18, but children are not obliged to attend classes at school – they can also follow individual or collective home education.
In Dutch-speaking Flanders and Brussels, the term ‘basisonderwijs’ (basic education) refers to pre-school and primary school. In many cases, schools combine the two. It’s obligatory for every child starting in a Dutch-speaking school at the age of six to have spent at least 220 half-days in a pre-school in the system, to ensure they have the required language proficiency. There is a shortage of places at Dutch-speaking primary schools in Brussels, due to a population increase and the growing desire of non-Dutch-speaking families to send their children to Dutch-speaking schools. The Flemish government encourages school boards to set up telephone and online systems allowing parents to sign up for a number of schools in order of preference.
In French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels, schools are also divided into those run by public authorities and those described as free. Among the free group, schools may be confessional or non-confessional. The latter includes alternative schools that follow the principles of Montessori, Steiner or Freinet, for example. Confessional schools include Catholic, Protestant and Jewish schools. The primary schools of the French-speaking community in Brussels are also experiencing an increasing demand for places.
In German-speaking Wallonia, East Belgium (formerly known as the German-speaking Community) is responsible for the education provided in nine German-speaking municipalities in Liège province, near the eastern border of the country. While the teaching language in the school system is German, pupils are familiarised with French from an early age and are often introduced to it in pre-school.
Traditional Belgian schools can be strict, busy and demanding for certain children and extensive individual guidance is not always possible. Alternative teaching methods are practised in the following schools located around Brussels: Ecoles Decroly, Hamaïde, En Couleurs, Singelijn and L’Autre Ecole as well as the country’s Montessori, Steiner and Sudbury schools. The majority of these establishments do not require children to repeat their year should they not pass – at least not until the third or fourth year of secondary education.
Except for the more expensive Montessori and Sudbury schools, most alternative schools in Belgium are subsidised and therefore free or democratically priced. As most limit themselves to pre-school and primary education, the overwhelming majority of children have to make the transition into the mainstream system at some point. Children can also follow individual or collective home education. Any school that’s not recognised by the government is considered collective home education, except European schools and those with an international curriculum accepted by the government. Home education is becoming increasingly popular throughout Belgium.
If children have special educational needs, they receive extra attention in the Belgian education system. These needs may be the result of blindness, deafness or another physical handicap, or because of intellectual deficiencies, psychological disorders or learning difficulties. Most of these children attend special, segregated schools where they benefit from smaller class sizes and individual guidance from specially trained teachers and educational therapists. In Dutch-speaking education, the M decree consists of measures that enable more students with special educational needs to register and remain in regular education.
There are dozens of dedicated special needs schools in Belgium, specialising in various forms of disabilities, and free shuttle buses are organised between children’s homes and the nearest suitable school. At one end of the spectrum, some schools concentrate on occupational and wellness activities where there is no prospect of the child ever acquiring the autonomy required to live independently. At the other end, schools guide children through the same stages as mainstream education, using different methods and at their own speed, with a view to joining the mainstream system at a later stage. For those in between, various schools offer professional training in fields such as construction, catering or horticulture.
But Belgium is behind the UK and US in providing specialist education for autistic children. Some specialist schools apply behavioural therapies and there are therapeutic centres that welcome autistic children on a full-board basis. While these are subsidised, places are limited. For children at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, or those with Asperger’s syndrome, there are virtually no places in specialist schools. Many such children are integrated within the normal school system and if they are unable to follow the curriculum, they are home-schooled. There are more systems in place in Flanders than Wallonia, resulting in a growth in the number of private schools for high-functioning or Asperger’s teenagers in the French-speaking community. Some of the international schools offer provision for children requiring assistance.
As with primary and secondary education, higher education in Belgium is divided according to language. The Dutch-speaking side has six universities offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as doctorates. They are the universities of Antwerp (UAntwerp), Ghent (UGent), Hasselt (UHasselt), the Free University of Brussels (VUB), the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and the Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel (HUB).
In addition, the sector includes 22 university colleges, which offer tertiary education but don’t have university status. They include colleges dedicated to the arts, architecture, shipping and technology. There are also recognised schools teaching specialised curricula or working in foreign languages, among them the College of Europe in Bruges (EU administration), Vlerick Gent Leuven Management School (business studies) and the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. The Transnational University Limburg, in Hasselt, is a joint venture between UHasselt and the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.
Dutch is the language of instruction at Flemish institutions but English is commonly used, for example on courses with foreign guest speakers and teachers, internationally orientated courses, courses in the framework of international development co-operation, courses with international exchange programmes and those for groups of foreign students. A complete list of accredited non Dutch-language courses can be found at www.studyinflanders.be
In French-speaking Belgium there are also six universities. In Brussels, there are the Free University of Brussels (ULB) and Saint-Louis (FUSL). Elsewhere, students can go to the universities of Mons (UMons), Namur (UNamur), Liège (ULg) and the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL). UCL has campuses in Mons, Brussels and Louvain-la-Neuve. There are also 21 colleges and 17 arts academies. The higher education landscape is divided into five geographical poles: the Brussels-Capital Region, Walloon Brabant, Namur, Hainaut and Liège-Luxembourg. All the institutions in a particular area are represented in a pole and encouraged to share infrastructure and services. Three academic zones are organised on an interregional level, known as interpoles: Liège -Namur-Luxembourg, Hainaut, and Brussels-Walloon Brabant. The aim of the interpoles is to ensure there is sufficient collaboration between institutions from different regions to help students succeed. Bachelor’s courses in French-speaking institutions are almost exclusively in French, but language lessons are available. One exception is Saint-Louis, which offers courses in English. At master’s level, most offer programmes that partly taught in English. formations. See www.studyinbelgium.be
East Belgium also offers higher education options. Students wishing to become pre-school or primary school teachers or those who wish to enter the nursing profession can study there. For all other studies, students must secure a place at a Belgian institution in another region or study abroad.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2017