Education and Schools in Belgium
Education in Belgium, like many aspects of this kingdom and its government, can seem incredibly complex, and yet, the school system works well. With so many choices available, expat parents are bound to find an educational setting that fits their expectations and desires.
There are three different national education systems in Belgium: the French, the Flemish and the small population of German-language schools largely located near that particular border. Each school system corresponds to the national languages: French, Dutch and German, respectively.
Education is both formal and free in Belgium, and begins in pre-primary school at two and a half years old but is only compulsory from six to 18 years of age.
An expatriate family wanting to immerse their child in a language has several options available, and Belgium’s regionalism in no way limits the choices. In fact, some French-speaking families send their children to Dutch schools and vice versa to ease the language acquisition.
Furthermore, Dutch immersion schools now exist in certain towns of Wallonia, a French-speaking region. Nonetheless, French schools are required to teach Dutch and vice versa. The German schools will also offer French.
If staying in Belgium for a short-term assignment, most expats send their children to a local public school or to an international school which offers English as a language of instruction. In both cases, French or Dutch classes will be offered.
Public schools in Belgium
There are some worthwhile advantages to sending students to public schools in Belgium, such as:
Expat students can learn the regional language by immersion
Students get to know the other students who live nearby, so it’s also a good way to meet the neighbours
Extra costs associated with school supplies and school outings are kept at a minimum in public schools
Some privately run schools are also subsidised by the government, including religious schools – Jewish, Protestant, Islamic and Orthodox – as well as Montessori and Steiner
The teaching philosophies vary within and between all these institutions. With no geographical restriction, parents can visit any schools and make an informed decision for their children.
Public schools tend not to offer as many extra-curricular activities as private and international schools in Belgium. However, each community (Commune in French, Gemeentehuis in Dutch, and Gemeinschaft in German) can provide a list of places offering sports, dance, art, music lessons and other leisure-based activities. In fact, bigger towns have art and music academies subsidised by the government which cost close to nothing for the year.
The Belgian secondary education system (ages 13 to 18) is highly regarded. That being said, the government changes the admissions procedures almost every year. It is not easy to know what each year's procedure of admission will be – it can vary from camping out overnight at the school of choice, to non-stop phoning, to electronic systems. Expat families need to be prepared and take the steps necessary to securing their children’s place at the secondary school of their choice.
In their second year, students choose particular course options, which can be general, technical, artistic or professional in nature. Exams are given each year (starting in pre-primary) to assess the readiness of students for the next academic year. Consequently, repeating a year in Belgium is relatively common and less stigmatised.
International schools in Belgium
The main allure of international schools in Belgium is that an expat family will most likely find others who speak their home language. This commonality makes the transition to a new country that much easier for the whole family. Students also have a better opportunity to continue with a familiar curriculum.
Considering the complexity of public high school inscriptions and assessments, expat families with secondary students may find it easier entering their children into an international or private school of some sort.
These schools can also administer non-Belgian exams such as the SAT and International Baccalaureate, for instance. Students will also find more on-site extra-curricular activities than in traditional Belgian public schools.
Homeschooling in Belgium
Homeschooling in Belgium is another option. Before making this commitment, however, the expat family needs to be aware that the Belgian government has put strict guidelines and inspections in place. Parents who do not comply with these standards can be sanctioned.
School calendar in Belgium
With small discrepancies between Belgian and international schools, the academic year begins in September and ends in June. Students are required to be present each day that is not an official school holiday. From the compulsory age of six years old (primary), students are required to present a doctor's certificate for any sickness-related absence. Nonetheless, plenty of occasions exist on the school calendar for vacations: the first week of November, two weeks for end-of-year holidays, a week in February, two weeks in the spring, as well as national holidays throughout the year.