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Mixed reactions to new calendar for French-speaking schools

Pupils with parents seen prior to enter their classes,as school starts after summer holidays in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO?
07:38 17/05/2021

A change to the structure of the school year in French-speaking schools has been a topic of discussion in Belgium for over 30 years. Now, however, a reform of the annual schedule will begin in earnest after the main points were agreed upon by politicians at the end of last week.

Caroline Désir, the Francophone education minister, and the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, has signed off on the changes which can now be applied as early as the 2022-2023 school year.

From the beginning of 2022, the summer holidays from kindergarten to the end of secondary school in the French-speaking system will be shortened as the start of the school year will take place on 29 August 2022. The Carnival and All Saints' Day half-term holidays will be two weeks instead of one.

"Sometimes,” explained Caroline Désir, “we have a 10-week period of classes before a leave of absence. Both children and teachers get very tired. And then, it's followed by a short period of five to six weeks of classes where we could have gone further. The goal is to have seven-week periods followed by two weeks of leave."

"The long summer vacation period was originally intended for children to help their parents with agricultural tasks," continued Désir. “Does such a long period still make sense knowing that for children who are experiencing difficulties, after two months without school, they have lost a lot in terms of learning?"

At the moment, Flanders and the German-speaking community do not want to change the school calendar. Caroline Désir regrets their decision, but for her, it doesn't change anything. "I have had contacts with my Flemish and German-speaking counterparts but for now, it is not in their plans. But since education is a competence of the communities, this should not prevent us from implementing a reform deemed relevant. In France, depending on the area, neighbouring departments do not have the same holiday dates. Nothing is impossible in terms of organisation."

However, the minister advocates consultation with the other two communities to compare school calendars. "In neighbouring regions or in the Brussels region, children from the same family sometimes find themselves in different school systems. And that must also be considered."

The changes in holidays will of course have an impact on all types of families, some of whom will be better equipped to deal with it than others.  Those who have flexible work arrangements, grandparents around and willing to help, and those with adequate income enough to arrange out-of-school activities and clubs will experience at most a scheduling headache. Others, such as divorced parents who will have to address not only the scheduling implications but also legal ones in terms of access, low-income families and those whose jobs offer little in terms of flexibility will suffer more.

Teachers, overall, have welcomed the reforms. “When a period of lessons without leave is too long, students start to lack concentration,” explained one secondary school teacher. “They are tired, angrier, the material is less well assimilated and we, the teachers, are also tired. It is not a favourable environment. Changing the pace would probably make things better."

Joseph Thonon, the president of the CGSP Education union, said that changes in holidays were "acceptable" and " balanced" especially the dates planned for July to August.

Natacha Duroisin, a professor at the School of Teacher Training at the University of Mons, agreed that the reform would be a good thing. "But we could go further,” she said, suggesting that not only the school year, but the structure of school day should be changed. “For teenagers, more formal teachings that require more understanding, more attention, more concentration should be begin at 9.30 in the morning until 11.30 or noon. We also know that the early afternoon is also not the best time for concentration. Resuming the more formal teachings around 15.00 would also be a good idea."

In terms of the holidays themselves, travel industry experts forecast that prices may increase for summer vacations on the back of the new school year with a shorter holiday meaning less time for accommodation and service providers to recoup costs.

However, the extra week for the All-Saints and Carnival holidays could lead to lower prices for people wishing to leave during those breaks. "At Easter, in general, the cost of travel is already a little cheaper than for the Carnival holidays because at Easter, the holiday is over two weeks,” said Pascal Noel, boss of a travel agency in La Louvière. “Over two weeks, there are more possible dates to leave. And so, there are more passengers, and we can better allocate the costs. This will probably lead to a small drop in price."

The change in the Carnival holiday break, however, may prove problematic for the events that traditionally take place during that time. With holidays shifting throughout the year, traditional Carnival dates will now fall beyond the school holidays, at least from 2023 to 2027 – based on the calculation that Carnival time in Belgium starts 47 days before Easter.

For carnival organisers in places such as Binche, where the traditional celebration accounts for a huge portion of its income every year through the associated tourism, the shifting of school holidays could signal an economic disaster. Some estimates put the loss of staging carnival festivities beyond the school holidays at between 30 to 50% of usual turnover.

Written by Nick Amies