Key features of the Education System
In Belgium the Communities are responsible for education, with the exception of three competences which remained a federal matter:
- the determination of the beginning and the end of compulsory education,
- the minimum requirements for the issuing of diplomas,
- the regulation of retirement for employees in the educational system.
Instruction in each community is provided in the language of the community in question.
In Flanders the Ministry of Education and Training is responsible for all stages of education and training starting from pre-primary education. Childcare is a competence of the Flemish Ministry of Wellbeing, Public Health and Family.
Education in Belgium is compulsory from 6 until 18. Compulsory education however does not equal the duty to attend school. Parents may choose home schooling for their children.
Home schooling in Flanders can be organised in two ways:
- Individual home teaching: As a parent you can teach your children yourself or you appoint a private tutor.
- Collective home teaching: You send your children to a private school or you organise home teaching for your children together with a number of other parents.
Home education is financed by the persons who exercise parental authority or who have legal or factual custody of the underage pupils. The person(s) responsible must submit a declaration of home education to the unit Supervision of Compulsory Education of the Agency for Educational Services.
When you choose for home education, you are obliged to let you child participate in the exams organised by the Examination Board of the Flemish Community at certain points in time. In case a child is not registered in time or does not succeed in the exams of the examination board after a maximum of two attempts (s)he must be enrolled in a recognised school.
Freedom of education and school choice
In Belgium freedom of education is a constitutional right. Every (legal) person may organise education and establish schools to that aim. The government has the duty to organise undenominational education.
The constitution also guarantees a freedom of school choice for the parents. Parents and children must have access to a school of their choice within reasonable distance of their residence.
In Flanders school governing boards hold the responsibility over one or more schools. They have a wide autonomy and can decide freely on their
- teaching methods
- philosophy of life
- staff appointments
The government sets conditions only for the recognition of a school and granting financing.
Education is organised in various networks.
Education and training organised by the government is called official education (officieel onderwijs) – education and training organised by a private person or organisation is known as free education (vrij onderwijs) (Government-aided private education).
A small number of schools are not recognised by the government. These private schools do not receive funding from the government.
In Flanders there are three educational networks:
- GO! Education is the official education organised by the Flemish Community. The constitution prescribes a duty of neutrality for GO! Education.
- Government-aided public education comprises schools run by the municipal or provincial authorities.
- Government-aided private education is organised by a private person or organisation. The network consists primarily of catholic schools. Next to denominational schools it includes schools not linked to a religion, e.g. alternative schools (on the basis of the ideas of Freinet, Montessori or Steiner) which apply specific teaching methods.
The school boards of an educational network may join an umbrella organization. This association represents the school boards in government consultations and offers services to their schools such as drafting the curricula and timetables.
Pupil guidance centres
Pupils, parents, teachers and school boards may address a pupil guidance centre for guidance, information or advice. The services of these centres are free and can be primarily situated within the following four domains:
- Learning and studying
- School career
- Preventive health care
- Socio-emotional development
Flemish pupil guidance centres are financed by the government in case the centre belongs to either GO! Education of the Flemish Community, grant-aided public education or grant-aided private education. In Flanders there are 72 centres which belong to one of these three educational networks. A pupil guidance centre may work across networks and support schools which belong to different educational networks.
Stages of the Education System
In order to guarantee the constitutional right to education, compulsory education has been introduced for all children residing in Belgium. Education is compulsory from 6 until 18.
A pupil must attend fulltime compulsory education until the age of 15. From 15 onwards students may engage in part-time schooling and opt for a structured learning path which combines part-time vocational education in an educational institution with part-time employment.
Elementary education (basisonderwijs) comprises both pre-school education (kleuteronderwijs) and primary education (lager onderwijs).
Pre-school education is accessible for children from 2,5 to 6. Although it is not obligatory, almost all children participate in pre-primary education. Pre-school education supports the versatile formation of children and stimulates their cognitive, motor and affective development.
Primary education is targeted at children from 6 to 12 years old and comprises six subsequent school years. A child usually starts primary education when it is six years old and thus obliged to engage in education.
When successfully completing primary education children are granted a certificate.
Secondary education (secundair onderwijs) is organised for youngsters from 12 to 18. Fulltime secondary education contains three stages and various types of education.
Each stage consists of two grades. In the third stage of vocational secondary education the successful completion of a third grade is necessary in order to obtain the certificate of secondary education. In the first stage of secondary education a common curriculum is offered. Pupils make a choice of study only at the start of the second stage.
From the second stage onwards four different types of education are offered. In Flanders a pupil chooses a course of study within one of the following types of education:
- General secondary education (gse), which focuses on broad general education. It does not prepare pupils for a specific profession, but rather lays a firm foundation for higher education.
- In technical secondary education (tse) attention goes in particular to general and technical-theoretical subjects. After tse a youngster may practice a profession or transfer to higher education. This type of education also contains practical training.
- Secondary education in the arts combines a broad general education with an active practice of art. After secondary education in the arts a youngster may practice a profession or transfer to higher education.
- Vocational secondary education (vse) is a practically-oriented type of education in which the youngster receives general education but where the focus primarily lies on learning a specific profession.
In Belgium, a certificate of upper secondary education grants unrestricted access to higher education.
In technical secondary education and secondary education in the arts labour market oriented programmes can be organised after the second grade of the third stage. Since 2009-2010 these programmes are grouped under the heading of Secondary-after-Secondary (Secundair-na-secundair, Se-n-Se). Se-n-Se programmes last one to three semesters and are organised by schools of secondary education. After successfully completing a Se-n-Se programme a pupil is granted a certificate.
Special needs education
Besides mainstream education there also exits special needs (pre-)primary and secondary education. Special needs education (buitengewoon onderwijs) is organized for children who need temporary or permanent specific support because of a physical or mental disability, serious behavioural or emotional problems or severe learning disabilities.
On 12 March 2014 the Flemish Parliament approved a parliamentary act on measures for pupils with specific needs (M-decreet) with the aim to make education more inclusive. The act contains measures which allow pupils with specific educational needs to participate fully, effectively and an equal terms in regular schools and classrooms.
System of alternating learning and working
When a pupil is 15 or 16 years old (s)he may enter a system of alternating learning and working. All youngsters in part-time education are obliged to take part in learning and working for at least 28 hours a week. Part-time learning and working is organized in:
- a centre for part-time education
- a centre for apprenticeships
In a Centre for Part-time Education (Centrum voor Deeltijds Onderwijs) pupils take classes for 15 hours a week. These classes are supplemented with a working experience which matches the programme. Pupils who are not yet ready to work in the regular economic circuit may fill the remaining 13 hours with a preparatory pathway or a bridging project with a recognized promoter or with a personal development pathway in a Centre for Part-time Training (Centrum voor Deeltijdse Vorming).
In Flanders apprenticeships are organised in a SYNTRA training centre (SYNTRA opleidingscentrum). SYNTRA is the Flemish Agency for Entrepreneurial Training. In the case of an apprenticeship pupils enter in a learning agreement which provides
- four days of practical training in a small to medium-sized enterprise or with a self-employed person, and
- one day of theoretical training a week in a SYNTRA training centre.
Higher education contains programmes which result in the degree of bachelor, master and doctor.
Also higher vocational education is part of the level of higher education.
Higher vocational education
On 1 September 2009 higher vocational education (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs – HBO5) was introduced in the Flemish educational system. HBO5 programmes are professionally oriented programmes situated in between secondary education and professionally oriented bachelor programmes.
Bachelor programmes in Flanders may be both professionally oriented and academically oriented. Professionally oriented bachelor programmes are primarily aimed at practicing a profession and offer a direct access to the labour market. Academically oriented bachelor programmes focus on a broad academic education or an education in the arts. They aim at offering access to a master programme or to the labour market.
Both professionally and academically oriented bachelor programmes comprise at least 180 credits. In theory a student takes 60 credits a year, but variations are possible.
Master programmes focus on advanced scientific or artistic knowledge or competences which are needed for the independent practice of science or arts, or for practicing a profession. They are rounded off by a master thesis.
A master programme comprises at least 180 credits. An institution of higher education can, in addition to a general master, also offer a research master, which comprises 120 credits.
Part-time education in the arts
Part-time education in the arts (Deeltijds Kunstonderwijs – DKO) is additional education and is targeted at both children, youngsters and adults. Participants may register on a voluntary base and pay enrolment fees. DKO aims at the artistic formation of children and adults and so contributes to their development of their personality.
Adult education is unrelated to the initial educational career. Course participants may obtain a recognized diploma, qualification or certificate in adult education. Adults of at least 18 years old and youngsters which have completed compulsory education may enrol in adult education.
Schematic Structure of the National Education System