The Belgian school system can seem complex at first, due to the variety of childcare and education options in Belgium that expat families can choose from.
In keeping with the myriad levels of national and local bureaucracy in Belgium, the Belgian school system can seem a minefield to newcomers trying to enrol their children. However, as Belgium is the capital of the EU, the education system is well developed to serve international and working families. Additionally, childcare facilities involving play and homework are sometimes available at schools before or after classes for working parents, though there is usually a charge.
In Belgium you can choose from state schools, subsidised or free private schools, bilingual schools, method schools and private and international schools. Finding a school in Belgium to suit your needs won’t be the issue; instead, the biggest question will be how to choose the right school for your child’s education.
In this guide, St. John’s International School covers the key topics in choosing what’s the best school for you.
St. John’s International School
St. John's International School has been educating children from the expat community in the Brussels area for more than 50 years. They offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and provide a complete curriculum that supports students from early learning to high school.
Choosing a school in Belgium
The first decision you must make as a parent is whether to integrate your child into the local system or take advantage of the many international schools in Belgium. Naturally, this can depend on whether you are on a short-term contract or plan to stay in Belgium for the long term.
The international option allows your children to continue in the same education system once they return to their home country, while local schools help children integrate better into a new country. Private and international schools also tend to offer more extra-curricular activities than public schools, although the government subsides some music and art academies in larger cities for children to join.
The Belgian schooling system
The compulsory school age in Belgium is six to 18 years, though children may start at age five if deemed ready, and pupils aged 16 years and older can opt to study part-time while undertaking practical training.
Children can enter pre-primary education from the age of two-and-a-half on the first school day in February or after any holiday period, and after age three they can enter any time. Typically, children start primary school in September of the year they turn six and enter secondary school by around age 12.
Applying to a school in Belgium
Schools in Belgium don’t always have strict zoning systems, so parents can potentially choose any school location, however it may also mean the closest school is full.
School enrolment periods differ between the language communities and the government revises admission procedures regularly, so parents need to check the admission periods in their desired school in advance to ensure placement. In some places, this may be possible up to a year in advance or more.
Children are assessed at every level, from pre-primary to secondary schooling, to determine if they are ready for the next stage in education. It is not uncommon to repeat or ‘double’ a year, and no negative stigma is associated with this.
If you choose a local school, school-beginners may be required to prove their language proficiency in the school’s set language, or at least have attended a local nursery part-time for a set number of days in the previous school year (nurseries are often attached to schools for easy transition). You can also ask to see if a school provides language immersion programmes or try a language course for children.
Types of schools in Belgium
Belgian state schools
While the state sets the laws regarding education, responsibility for schools lies with the language communities: Dutch (or Flemish) in Flanders, French in Wallonia, both languages in Brussels and some surrounding communes, and German in the eastern border areas. Education is free although parents may be expected to contribute to the cost of school supplies or field trips, plus textbooks when children reach secondary level. All schools are coeducational.
As well as state schools, there are privately-run schools that are also subsidised or ‘free’, often run on religious lines though their curricula, with certification recognised equally within the system.
Religion plays a part in state education and students can opt for Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Islamic studies, or a more general secular approach.
These are the choice for parents who wish their children to remain in a familiar system, with a language they know, and with the option of continuing the system back in their home country.
With its burgeoning international community, there is a raft of international schools in Belgium – and Brussels in particular – following British, American, French and Dutch education systems, among many others. These schools offer the whole range of education from nursery to school-leaving age. They are typically private and therefore fee-paying, though many employers offer education support as part of a relocation benefits package.
The largest American curriculum international school is the International School of Brussels (ISB), which teaches students from preschool, aged two and a half, right up to high school grade 13, for students aged 19. It also offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme.
The largest British curriculum school is The British School of Brussels (BSB), set on a large campus in Tervuren with a swimming pool. BSB can accommodate children from one to 18 years old and offers A Levels, the IB programme, and BTEC vocational courses in business, sports and hospitality. French/English bilingual education is also offered for ages four to 14 years. Both ISB and BSB place great emphasis on sport and the arts, and run highly successful summer schools open to all.
In Antwerp, the Antwerp British School offers an international curriculum for children aged 3 to 18 years, leading to the Cambridge International Examinations (IGCSE) as well as the IB. The Antwerp International School offers the same accreditation, and can accommodate children from age two and a half to 18 years. Both schools offer Dutch and French as part of the standard curriculum.
The European schools traditionally required at least one parent working for an EU institution, although in recent years certain schools have eased entry requirements. Education is in the mother tongue, with a second language being introduced at primary level.
A third language is then obligatory from the second year of secondary school, with optional additional languages on offer in later years. Courses lead to the European Baccalaureate, which is recognised for university entrance throughout the EU.
A wide range of schools adopts the methodology of an educational philosophy. In these, children often learn through discovery and the liberal arts, with subjects such as grammar, mathematics and science being taught from direct experience rather than in a formal setting.
The Celstin Freinet system follows this approach, while the Decroly schools separate the academic from the creative skills in a vertically streamed organisation, with younger children benefiting from the experience of older pupils. The Steiner schools place greater emphasis on the arts.
There is a selection of the world-famous Montessori schools in Belgium, which teach children in small, focused groups according to the relaxed self-developmental Montessori method. Children are encouraged to work at their own pace and independently. This places a certain amount of responsibility upon children to develop their own learning, while teachers act as encouraging guides and facilitators for individuals or small groups.
These schools tend to offer a bilingual French-English education. Extra languages, such as Dutch and German, can be introduced as the children become older, though these tend to be taught more traditionally.
The Belgian education system: pre-school, primary and secondary levels
Pre-school in Belgium
Working parents are facilitated by a large choice of childcare facilities, and almost all children attend preschools during their formative years. Prior to formal education, nurseries are available for babies and children up to two-and-half years, after which kindergartens (kleuteronderwijs/enseignement maternelle) provide daycare facilities for children until they reach school age.
This can be free, though mothers in full-time work are given priority where places are limited. The kindergartens are often attached to local primary schools, which allows for an easy transition into formal education. Read more about preschool and childcare in Belgium.
Primary school in Belgium
Children stay at primary school (lager onderwijs/enseignement primaire) for six years during which time they study a range of subjects with an emphasis on languages and mathematics. Learning a foreign language will likely be part of the curriculum, for example, French in the Flemish-speaking areas, or Dutch or German in the French community. Homework is also part of the educational structure from early on. In Belgian schools there is a strong tradition of parental participation.
The culmination of primary education is the attainment of a ‘Certificate of basic education’ (CEB) for the French community, the Getuigschrift basisonderwijs for the Flemish Community and the Abschlusszeugnis der Grundschule for the German community. The certificate is important when moving to secondary education.
Secondary school in Belgium
Secondary school (secundair onderwijs/enseignement secondaire) progresses through three stages, starting off with general studies in the early years, after which students can specialise in general, vocational, technical, or artistic streams depending on individual choice and ability. Assessment is ongoing and rigidly enforced. Several educational certificates are awarded, including the Certificate of Lower Secondary Education and the Certificate of Higher Education.
When students begin to specialise, their courses of study focus on one of four areas:
- General education: prepares students for the transition to higher education and is mainly focused on training theory and general knowledge.
- Technical education: similar to general education but focuses more on practice and technical teaching, preparing students for either a profession or further studies.
- Vocational: provides direct access to a profession at the end of the course of study and is heavily focused on practice. Students also receive one or more additional years, called fourth degree.
- Art education: organised in exactly the same way as technical education, but the elective options are within arts and non-technical subjects. Students can go on to higher education in either a specialised institution, such as an art college, or to a university or college, depending on the subjects studied.
All these courses provide access to higher education with the obtainment of the certificate of secondary education (CESS), except vocational education, which must be completed to the seventh grade in order to obtain the certificate.
Most schools have a half-day on Wednesday, though the afternoon is sometimes given over to sporting or cultural activities. These can also happen on a Saturday morning. Often, your children can be cared for on Wednesday afternoons.
Read more about studying higher education and universities in Belgium.