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League of Families study highlights difficulties caused by secondary school fees
Families are still paying too much to send their children to school in Belgium, according to the League of Families which has denounced the cost of primary and secondary education in a recently published study.
In the study, the organisation states that the cost of education – some €1,200 for a year in primary and €1,500 in secondary, rising in some cases to €2,000 – is putting a strain on some families.
"We see that the difficulties are enormous for some parents,” explained Maxime Michiels, author of the League of Families study on school costs. “Politicians must act to reduce the cost.
"All the families we interviewed are experiencing difficulties. Whether they work, or not. Large families or single-parent families. There is really a diversity of profile. For me, that's probably what's the most challenging thing. This difficulty in paying tuition fees affects many more people than we imagine.
"Free school supplies have been introduced gradually in nursery education: initially in the first year of nursery school in 2019, then in the second year in 2020 and finally in the third year at the start of the 2021 school year. What's next then? To date, nothing is planned, let alone considered for primary and secondary education."
The government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation says it intends to “continue and strengthen the measures adopted in terms of free education and set a progressive timetable for the implementation of free education" but the League of Families is concerned that currently, nothing is yet planned for the start of the 2022 school year in regard to primary and secondary education. "The strengthening of free education must be considered sequentially,” Maxime Michiels added.
In the study, the League of Families reveals that schools sometimes demand payments beyond the legal requirements related to education costs. The League says that many parents are not aware of the legislation and are not aware of what is and what is not allowed to be charged by the school. In most cases, even if the parents were aware, many would not dare to oppose the school for fear of repercussions towards their children.
That is why the League of Families has requested that an investigation into costs be carried out; a request that has been heard by the governing bodies. "It will be implemented in September and will control schools randomly on this subject,” said Michiels. “The objective is to control how schools comply or not with the law, and to take the appropriate actions."
The League of Families shows in the study that some parents have to juggle their finances to pay for the significant fees that occur at the start of the school year or when an educational trip is proposed. For some, it is a constant mental struggle to anticipate costs and to find the resources to pay for them.
According to one parent interviewed for the study: "Sometimes the school forces us to buy certain brands, more expensive than white labels,” they stated. “So, I print the list in June, and I put it in my wallet. When I go shopping and see a promo, I get the item. That way, little by little, I get there. I always have that in mind. Even when the school is closed, in July or August, I keep thinking about it."
"I have a notebook where I write down the things I have to pay,” another mother said. “I first put down the priority bills like my rent, then the school-related expenses, and then, after that, that's when I know how much I'm going to eat that month."
Another mother admitted that she had postponed the purchase of new glasses so that she could continue to pay the school fees.
All the families interviewed seem to share this order of priority. Children's school fees come before many other necessary payments.
Yet, despite these difficulties, most families manage to pay the fees, which makes the extent of the hardship among families less noticeable.
"Thanks to the support of public social services or the help received from relatives, parents manage to bear these burdens,” said Michiels. “However, applying for aid or asking for help is not easy. The parents concerned suffer from their inability to pay and experience humiliation from this dependence on help. Then, for those who do not manage to pay or get help, we sometimes see embarrassing situations where the children are not allowed to participate in a swimming lesson for example, or worse, when unpaid bills lead to their exclusion from school."
"The relationship between parent and school is an important issue. However, the testimonies of parents who are struggling show how difficult achieving such a relationship is made by the existence of school fees."
One of the families interviewed explains: "Money is a pollutant in relations with the school. We are forced to expose our private life and tell everyone that we are in difficulty. We don’t particularly want to say it. We want to hide it to keep a certain dignity. Of course, if there was no more financial pressure, it would be a huge psychological burden off our shoulders and the communication with the school would be totally different."
In some cases, the study also shows that the relationship between parent and child is also undermined because of school costs. Especially when it is the children who bring the bills home from school and are themselves exposed to adult concerns. "I hope that the cost of school will change,” said one mother interviewed for the study. “Already for me it's hard, but I see some parents for whom it's very hard. And we don't want to show it in front of our children, but they feel that. For example, my daughter once did not dare to give me the bill for a trip. That’s proof that they feel it too."