Belgium (Flemish)

Frank Verstraelen
Department of Education, Ministry of the Flemish Community
Kim Bellens and Jan Van Damme
Centre for Educational Effectiveness and Evaluation, KU Leuven

Overview of Education System1,a

Belgium is a federated country with three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. Flanders (the Flemish region) is a Dutch speaking community with 6.5 million inhabitants in the northern part of Belgium. In the region of Brussels, French and Dutch are the official languages. Wallonia is a French speaking community situated in the southern part of Belgium. There also is a small German speaking community in the eastern part of the country. The Flemish government and the Flemish parliament govern the Flemish region and the Dutch speaking community, including the Dutch speaking population of the Brussels capital region. The Flemish Community is responsible for civic issues, including providing services in education, welfare, public health, and culture closely related to the language in which they should be carried out.2

The Minister of Education heads the Flemish Ministry’s Department of Education, and the Flemish government supervises education policy from preprimary through university and adult education. Although education is a community matter, federal Belgian authorities retain certain responsibilities, such as determining the duration of compulsory education, minimum requirements for obtaining a diploma, and pensions for education staff.

Quality control and quality promotion in Flemish Community education are based on three pillars:

  • The attainment of targets, which provide a clear frame of reference regarding quality, embedded in society
  • The Flemish Inspectorate, which acts as an independent professional system of external supervision
  • The Educational Guidance Services, a group of advisors in charge of the professional support of schools and centers who work within an educational network

The Flemish government defines criteria for monitoring the quality of curricula for each organizing authority or school board, and approves curricula against established attainment targets and minimum objectives. The government inspectorate evaluates whether schools are making sufficient effort to reach these attainment targets. In addition, the government examines whether schools reach curriculum-based objectives, and whether they sufficiently pursue developmental objectives and cross-curricular attainment targets.

Governing bodies (i.e., school boards) are the backbone of the organization of education in Flanders, and may be responsible for one or several schools. These bodies are free to choose teaching methods based on their own philosophy and educational vision. They also are free to determine their own curriculum and timetables and appoint their own staff.

Most schools in Flanders are part of an educational network, an organization that supports a number of schools in terms of logistics, administration, and pedagogy (e.g., the network of Catholic schools and the network of public schools organized by local councils). In many cases, educational networks assume the responsibilities of the governing bodies. They write their own curricula and schedules, taking into account the developmental objectives and attainment targets established by the government.

The Belgian Constitution guarantees all children the right to education.3 Education is compulsory and starts on September 1 of the year in which a child turns 6. There are 12 years of compulsory schooling. Full time education is compulsory until students turn 15 or 16. After this, students are required to continue their education on a part time basis at least (a full time combination of part time study and part time work is allowed at this stage), but most young people continue with full time secondary education. Compulsory education ends in June of the year in which students turn 18.

The same education requirements apply to all children who reside in Belgium, including children of foreign nationality. However, compulsory education does not necessarily require attendance of a school. Home education is an alternative recognized by the government. Children who are unable to attend school, primarily due to serious disabilities, may be exempted from compulsory education (including home schooling).

Education is free of charge. Primary and secondary schools that are funded or subsidized by the government are not allowed to charge any fees to students. Nursery education (preprimary school) is free of charge, although it is not compulsory. Freedom of education also is a constitutional right. Every natural or legal citizen has the right to organize education and to establish educational institutions, parents have the right to choose a fitting school for their child, and authorities are not allowed to prohibit the establishment of private schools. In addition, authorities are obliged constitutionally to provide equal access for all children to ideologically neutral education; children are guaranteed access by public transportation to a public school that supports their (parents’) religious or philosophical beliefs. Unfortunately, due to increasing enrollment and a shortage of school places in recent years, parents have found school registration to be problematic, and as a result freedom of education often has been jeopardized.

In Flanders, nursery and primary education are offered in two forms: mainstream and special. Mainstream nursery education is available for children ages 2½ to 6, and is not compulsory. Mainstream primary education is provided for children ages 6 to 12 (in six consecutive years of study), the start of which normally coincides with the start of compulsory education. The occurrence of children repeating a grade, especially the last grade of preprimary education or the first grade of primary education, is declining. Special nursery and primary education are provided for children who require special help, on a temporary or permanent basis. Integrated nursery and primary education, in which children with special needs and children in mainstream education are taught in the same classroom, also is provided.

Nearly all children in Flanders receive nursery education. The main purpose of nursery education is to stimulate children’s personalities and help them develop cognitive, emotional, and social skills in preparation for primary school. Nursery education is multifaceted: preschoolers develop language skills, motor skills, and social skills, as well as an initial way of exploring the world, which lay a foundation for primary education. Wherever possible, teachers attempt to connect the various learning areas. While preprimary schools have no official curriculum, they have developmental objectives, which they aim to achieve through play. Many school governing boards have developed instructional methods and curricula to meet the developmental objectives, formulated by decree, in five learning domains: Physical Education, Music Education, Dutch, Introduction to the World (e.g., people, society, technology, and space), and Introduction to Mathematics.

The five learning domains for primary school are comparable to those for preprimary school. At the primary level, French language is added, and attainment targets are formulated in three additional domains: Learning to Learn, Social Skills, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT). In Flanders, primary education may be organized thematically instead of in learning domains.

Students may obtain a Primary Education Certificate after evaluation at the school level, either at the end of their sixth year of primary school or at the end of their first year of secondary school. Students who require additional assistance because of poor performance are admitted to an alternative track in secondary school that provides extra support, and they may earn a certificate equivalent to the Primary Education Certificate.

In 2013, the rate of young adults (ages 25 to 34) in the Flemish Community holding a certificate of secondary education, or higher, was 85 percent. Nevertheless, the rate of young people who finish compulsory education without a certificate or diploma still is considered to be high. Attempts are being made to change this situation. A modularization project allows students attending vocational school the opportunity to complete their education in a well-defined module (i.e., area of specialization). In 2015, an action plan, Together Against School Dropout, was launched by the Flemish government,4 with formal advice from educational and social partners that highlighted the strengths and critical drawbacks of the plan. The Socio-Economic Advisory Council also helps find a suitable offer of employment for young people with no health problems who are leaving full-time secondary education and entering the labor market with marketable skills, but still cannot find a job.5

Languages of Instruction

The official language in Flanders is Dutch. The language of instruction in the Flemish Community and in Dutch speaking schools in the region of Brussels is Dutch. In Brussels and in the region that borders Brussels or the Walloon provinces, many children from French speaking homes attend Dutch speaking primary schools. The percentage of students with a home language other than Dutch varies. The larger cities in Flanders tend to have significant immigrant populations with different languages spoken at home. Because classroom instruction is carried out exclusively in Dutch, the problem of non-Dutch speaking students presents an enormous challenge for teachers.

  • a Part of this chapter’s content is drawn from De Bent, J. (2007).1