Belgium is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy and is fairly densely populated (nearly 11 million inhabitants in a territory of 30,527.9 square kilometres). It has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. Today it is a federal state, composed of entities defined either on a geographical basis (the Brussels-Capital Region, the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region) or on a linguistic basis (the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community). In Belgium, education is organised by the three Communities (Flemish, French and German). The federal state is only responsible for:
the determination of the beginning and end of compulsory education,
- the determination of the minimum requirements for the conferral of diplomas,
- the regulation of the pension system for employees in the educational system.
Central to Belgian education legislation is the Belgian Constitution, which guarantees 'freedom of education' (art. 24). This is a two-sided freedom:
- the active freedom for every natural person or legal person to organise education and to set up institutions to that end;
- the freedom of choice of school for pupils and their parents.
In addition, throughout compulsory education access to education is free of charge; no school fees may be demanded. Truly private schools hardly exist in Flanders. Only non-EU nationals who come to Belgium on their own to study are required to pay a special registration fee. The Communities bear part of the cost for traditional school supplies. Contributions for travel expenses are provided for pupils attending compulsory education who do not find the school of their choice within a reasonable distance from their home.
In 1989, education in Belgium was handed over to the Communities. Ever since then, education has been financed by the Flemish-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking Communities. To this end they receive contributions from the federal state, based upon the number of pupils aged 6 to 17 who are registered as regular pupils in primary and secondary education, in an educational institution organised or supported by the one of the Communities.
Organisation of the educational system
Comparative research has shown that educational mobility in Belgium is among the lowest in Europe (Pfeffer, 2008), with social mobility also hardly increasing over time (Groenez, 2010). Social inequality in educational outcomes in Belgium primarily results from the early (first choice at age 12) and strong tracking in secondary education (Boone & Van Houtte, 2013). Research has illustrated that the education system continues to reproduce inequalities in the wider society. For example, there is a persistent problem regarding the academic performance of pupils from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and from immigrant families in technical and vocational education.
The figures below illustrate the educational structure for the three Communities in Belgium:
Elementary education includes nursery education (2.5 - 6 years) and primary education (6 - 12 years). Parents can choose whether the transition from nursery to primary education takes place at the age of five, six or seven, subject to non-binding advice from the school.
Pupils who have fallen behind in their learning or are less well-suited to predominantly theoretical education start secondary education in 1st grade B. They can also enter this grade on the basis of age (after up to eight years of elementary education) without having completed elementary education. After 1st grade B, pupils can enter 1st grade A or pre-vocational 2nd grade.
Although the first stage of secondary education is general, pupils can further choose between several branches of education: general secondary education (GSE), vocational secondary education (VSE), arts secondary education (ASE) and technical secondary education (TSE). The GSE, ASE and some tracks of TSE prepare students as much as possible for post-secondary education. The VSE and most tracks of the TSE prepare students as much as possible for entering professional jobs.
After the two grades of the first stage or from the age of 16, pupils can opt for part-time compulsory education but with a full-time commitment. They are then screened for the alternative training system and have a choice within this between part-time vocational secondary education, an apprenticeship (for an independent occupation) or part-time training with systematic learning pathway guidance.
At the elementary and secondary educational levels, in addition to mainstream education there is also special education for children who temporarily or permanently need special assistance. This may be because of a physical or mental disability, because of serious behavioural or emotional problems or because of severe learning difficulties. Integrated education is a form of collaboration between mainstream and special education.
The start and end of compulsory education are set by the federal government. Elementary education, principally from the age of 2.5 to 12, encompasses kindergarten and primary education. The act of 29 June 1983 on compulsory education specifies that minors, Belgians and foreigners alike, are subject to compulsory education for a period of 12 years. It starts in the school year during which the child turns 6 and ends when the child reaches 18 years of age. The circular letter SO 68 of 1/3/2000 clarifies that the period of compulsory education comes to an end at the pupil's 18th birthday, i.e. when the pupil comes of age and can no longer be compelled to attend school until the end of the school year. However, the circular letter asks schools to do their utmost to convince pupils to finish the year in progress. For pupils who turn 18 years of age after 30 June and who have already attended 12 years of primary and secondary education by the calendar year in which they turn 18, compulsory education comes to an end on 30 June, i.e. at the end of the school year. Minors who have successfully completed full-time secondary education are no longer compelled to attend compulsory education.
Compulsory education is full time or part time. There is a transition from a full-time to a part-time compulsory education requirement:
- either when the age of 16 is reached;
- or when the age of 15 is reached provided the pupil has already completed - whether successfully or not - the first two grades of full-time secondary education - (1st grade A and 1st grade B are regarded in this context as a single grade; the reception year is disregarded):
- further full-time education;
- part-time vocational secondary education at a Centre for Part-time Vocational Education (CPE);
- an apprenticeship;
- a training programme recognised as qualifying as compulsory education
- home education.
These systems are relatively similar across the different Communities. It is worth noting that the creation of a national qualifications framework is particularly complex in Belgium, given that responsibility for education for the Communities and training lies with various different political bodies, which also exercise their powers in different territories.
- Boone, S. & Van Houtte, S. "Why are teacher recommendations at the transition from primary to secondary education socially biased? A mixed-methods research". British Journal of Sociology of Education 34(1) (2013): 20–38.
- Eurydice. “Countries: Description of national education systems”. Available at: https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/fpfis/mwikis/eurydice/index.php.
- Groenez, S. "Onderwijsexpansie en -democratisering in Vlaanderen". Tijdschrift Voor Sociologie 31(3-4) (2010): 199–238.
- Pfeffer, F. T. "Persistent Inequality in Educational Attainment and its Institutional Context". European Sociological Review 24(5) (2008): 543–565.
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