Special Needs Education

Understand what assistance is available for children with special needs in specialist schools in Belgium, as well as in the mainstream public and private school systems...

Belgium's approach to special needs education is one of inclusion and equality. There is a strong commitment to giving every child the right to an education which maximises their potential.

Because Belgium has passed responsibility for implementing government policy to the individual language communities and their respective Ministries of Education, the exact approach used depends on where the child is resident.

For detailed information on all aspects of educational policy, consult Eurydice, the EU education database.

The information below aims to give an overview of the methods employed and details of financial and other support provided for families of children with special needs.

Full-time education is compulsory from six to sixteen years, and at least part-time education is compulsory until the year that the child reaches the age of eighteen. Inclusion of a child with special needs in mainstream education is not always possible and in extreme cases a child may be given exemption from compulsory schooling. Alternatively, perhaps due to illness or repeated periods of hospitalisation, a child may be taught at home. However, in many cases education is provided by a specialist school.

Specialist Schools

  • French: l'enseignement specialisé
  • Dutch: buitengewoon onderwijs
  • German: Vorschul

Specialist schools are classified in eight categories. Some schools will combine more than one category. There are schools especially for the physically disabled as well as schools for the visually impaired. Other schools cater for those with learning or behavioural difficulties. In some cases they operate as specialist units attached to mainstream schools. Most of the special needs categories are catered for with schools at pre-primary, primary and secondary level. Special education is available to children from two and a half to twenty-one years of age.

Town halls (Maison communale/Stadhuis) have details of special schools in an area. The individual Ministries of Education also publish lists of special schools on their websites.

Ministry of Education websites:

Be aware that in some areas of the country there are few special schools and children may be offered places in a school outside their own community.

Enrolment requirements

Enrolment in a special school is at the request of the family. Before a place is given there is a multi-disciplinary examination. In the French and German speaking communities this is handled by the Psychological-Medical-Social-Centre (centre psycho-medico-social, PMS). A similar body, the Centre for Guidance (Centrum voor Leerlingenbegeleiding, VCLB) operates in the Dutch community. The findings of the examination committee will determine the school judged to be most appropriate.

Assessment tests can be done in English at the Children's Department of the Community Help Centre.

  • At: Rue St Georges 102, Brussels
    Tel: 02 647 67 80

Enrolment into a special school can take place at any point in the school year. Parents with children likely to require specialist education should provide as much documentary evidence regarding their child's condition as possible. In some areas of the country children with learning difficulties or behavioural problems (as opposed to physical handicaps) are required to spend an initial period in a mainstream school before being considered for a place at a special school.

The standard documentation (identity card or passport) is also required prior to enrolment.

Educational approach

The school day and school term in special schools follows that of mainstream schools very closely.

Within the French speaking community, education is organised not by age and cycles as in mainstream schools, but by four levels of maturity/competence. A child moves from one level to another when certain skills have been acquired and this may happen at any point in the academic year.

Within the Dutch and German community the approach is much closer to the cycles adopted by mainstream schools.

In all cases children are taught by qualified teaching staff at all stages and have personalised study plans. Where required, teaching staff are supported by medical professionals, social workers and psychologists. Children may follow an adapted programme of secondary education if they are capable of doing so, culminating in the same diplomas as pupils in mainstream schools. The aim is always to help them achieve their potential at school and in the workplace. Pupils are observed and evaluated continuously and children may return to mainstream education at any time if this is thought to be in their best interests. Parents may request or oppose such a move.

In certain cases children may divide their time between a special school and a normal school. Funding is provided to allow specialist staff to accompany them to the mainstream school if necessary.

School transport

Special schools by their very nature may require some additional travelling. Transport to the nearest appropriate school is almost always provided free of charge either by school bus (in which case there is always someone to accompany the child) or by private vehicle, specially adapted if necessary.

Special Needs Education in Mainstream Schools

Many children with special needs can be catered for in mainstream schools. Some schools have a permanent member of staff who is a special needs expert. Schools can apply for funding to pay for additional staff, special equipment or teaching materials which will allow them to accommodate children with special needs. This may also extend to providing additional help for children who do not speak the main teaching language.

For children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the usual approach is for them to be educated in a mainstream school with additional support. As each school is different, there are various organisations that may be able to recommend schools.

All schools remain in close contact with parents via a system of notes, assessments and parent/teacher consultations. Children with special needs are assessed even more closely. Parents have the right to ask for reviews or assessments if they have concerns for their child. The class teacher will normally undertake initial assessments but more detailed tests to assess speech and language development may be necessary. These are again the responsibility of the VCLB or PMS centres.

Parents are normally asked to take their child to their own doctor for a medical check-up as well and this includes hearing and sight tests.

Just as children may move back into mainstream education from a specialist school, other children may move out of ordinary school and into a specialist establishment if this is thought to be necessary.

International and private schools

Some of these have special needs expertise – particularly where there is a learning difficulty such as dyslexia. Parents may prefer their children to attend a school where teaching can continue in the mother tongue and/or follows the same curriculum as their country of origin. Details of schools offering this facility can be found by consulting the European Council for International Schools (ECIS).

Further Information