The School System

Information on the system of schooling in Belgium, from pre-primary to higher education...

As Belgium is divided into distinct federal regions there are separate education systems that run along very similar lines for each of the communities.

There are three regional Ministries of Education with responsibility for implementing government policy:

Within each region there are three types of educational institution: community education, education run by public institutions and "free" private (often Catholic) schools.

  • Community schools come under the authority of the relevant ministry of education and must be neutral, that is respecting the religious, philosophical or ideological convictions of all parents and pupils
  • Publicly run schools are subsidised and are organised by provinces and municipalities
  • Privately run schools which are also subsidised. These include Catholic schools as well as Jewish, Protestant, Islamic and Orthodox schools. In Flanders they make up the largest group both in number of schools and pupils, however, in the French community they are roughly equal in size to community schools with a larger share of secondary and tertiary education.

Method schools such as Montessori and Steiner also form part of this third group of privately run schools and are subsidised by the state.

Pre-primary education

  • Dutch: kleuteronderwijs
  • French: enseignement maternelle
  • German: Kindergarten

Free pre-primary school facilities are provided for children who have reached age two and a half. Where places are limited, priority is given to mothers working full-time. These pre-schools are often attached to a primary school. Attendance is not compulsory but it is very popular (it is clearly cheaper than other childcare alternatives, for example) and more than 90 percent of children in this age bracket attend. By the age of five, 99 percent of children are in school.

There are few formal lessons. As children get older there are supervised tasks and specialised lessons in subjects such as music, a second language and gym, and everything is done with an emphasis on play.

Primary education

  • Dutch: lager onderwijs
  • French: enseignement primaire
  • German: Grundschule

Primary school education begins on the 1 September of the year in which a child reaches the age of six (although some children are admitted at age five if they are considered ready) and is free to all. It lasts for six years and a whole range of academic subjects are studied. There is a strong language emphasis. For example schools in the German community must teach French from the first or second year and in Brussels Dutch schools must teach French and French schools must teach Dutch – commune schools start this during the last year of pre-school.

Primary education consists of 3 cycles:

  • First cycle (years 1 and 2)
  • Second cycle (years 3 and 4)
  • Third cycle (years 5 and 6)

Homework is given from an early age and a high level of parental involvement is encouraged.

Secondary education

  • Dutch: secundair onderwijs
  • French: enseignement secondaire
  • German: Sekundäre Erziehung

Secondary education is also free and begins at around age 12. It lasts for six years and consists of three cycles each lasting two years. Parents may be expected to make a contribution towards the cost of text books.

In the first year of secondary education all pupils follow the same programme. From the second year onwards a range of options can be chosen according to preference and ability. These will lead to education of a general nature or with a more technical, artistic or professional slant. Often schools will specialise in one of these streams or will have different sections for different streams. Within the streams pupils continue to choose from further options throughout secondary school resulting in a broad education weighted towards their preferred subjects or career.

Assessment is ongoing throughout secondary education and students receive a diploma at the end of their studies. For those who have followed a general range of subjects the next step is normally higher education.

Technical students often go to university or college to study related subjects or may start working straight after school. Vocational students typically begin working part-time to complement their studies from age 16 and then move into full-time employment.

Those who have followed the artistic options usually go on to higher education, for example to art colleges or specialist music conservatories but may go to university or college, depending on the options they choose. Some art colleges have a secondary section starting from the third year of secondary school and pupils study for the first two years in a general school.

Doubling (repeating a year)

Children are tested at the end of each year of pre-school, primary and secondary school to decide if they are ready for the next year. The testing takes the form of assessment and supervised tests for younger children and exams for older children. If they are not ready to move up, they repeat the year or "double". The system continues in secondary school. Because "doubling" is common, there is usually very little stigma attached to it.

Higher education

  • Dutch: hoger onderwijs
  • French: enseignement superieure

Higher education in Belgium is organised by the Flemish and French communities via state or private institutions (often linked to religious bodies). German speakers typically enrol in French institutions or pursue their studies in Germany.

There are six universities in Belgium which offer a full range of subjects. In most cases students are free to enrol at any institution as long as they have their qualifying diploma. However, those wishing to continue their studies in medicine, dentistry, arts and engineering sciences may face stricter entrance controls including additional examinations.

The government sets the registration fee for each establishment and reviews it annually. There are three fee levels depending on the student's financial situation and that of their family.

The higher education system in Belgium follows a Bachelor/Master process with a Bachelor's degree obtained after three years and a Master's degree after a further one or two years. Both universities and colleges can award these degrees.

Students from outside Belgium coming to study in one of these establishments will have to prove that they have the appropriate entrance qualifications and that they can financially support themselves during their studies.