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 schools in Belgium can seem a minefield to newcomers trying to enrol their children.
However, the education system in Belgium 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.
In Belgium you can choose from state schools, subsidized 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 the best school for your child.
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. Founded in 1964, St. John’s has built a reputation for exceptional academic programs, athletics, and the visual and performing arts. The school is known for its welcoming community. It offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) from kindergarten to grade 12.
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 you are planning to stay in Belgium for the long term.
An international school 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 subsidizes some music and art academies in larger cities.
Elaine Purves, head of school at St. John’s International School says that “finding the right school is often the key to a successful family move, particularly if one or more children are less than thrilled at the prospect of relocating.
“Parents may be impressed by fancy facilities, but, for children, a friendly atmosphere, after-school clubs, and the quality of lunches will be much more beguiling. Parents also want to get a sense of the school’s community, which can be of tremendous value when settling into a new environment.”
Applying to schools in Belgium
Schools in Belgium don’t always have strict catchment areas, so parents can potentially choose any school location. However, this may also mean the closest school is full.
School enrolment periods differ between the two language communities in Brussels (i.e., the Flemish Community and the French Community; there is also a German-speaking Community located in the border regions of Liège) 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 a year, and there is no negative stigma associated with this.
If you choose a local school, new students 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 programs or try a language course for children.
“When looking to join a Belgian school, ask about their support for learning the language. Is it a sink-or-swim approach or do they provide additional language acquisition support?” suggests Elaine.
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 (the Flemish Community) in Flanders, French in Wallonia, both Dutch and French in Brussels and some surrounding communes, and German in nine municipalities in the province of Liège (Lüttich in German).
Education is free, though parents may be expected to contribute to the cost of school supplies or field trips, plus textbooks when children reach the secondary level. All schools are coeducational.
As well as state schools, there are privately-run schools that are also subsidized. Religion often plays a part in state education and students can opt for Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Islamic studies. Others offer a more secular approach.
These are the top 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 curriculum back in their home country, or when they make their next international relocation.
Elaine believes that “an international school is often the optimal choice for expat families: it provides the softest landing for the children, minimizes any disruption to their learning, and puts them in a strong position educationally for any future move.”
With its burgeoning international community, there is a wealth of international schools in Belgium – and Brussels in particular – following British, American, French, German, and Dutch education systems, among many others.
These establishments offer the whole range of education from nursery to school-leaving age, and some are among the 4,000 schools around the world to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.
“The IB is arguably the premier curriculum worldwide. It is designed to nurture highly desirable learner attributes alongside excellent levels of content, knowledge, and understanding. The IB curriculum is highly portable – which is ideal for mobile families – and graduating students gain access to the top universities around the world,” says Elaine.
International schools are typically private and therefore fee-paying, though many employers offer education support as part of a relocation benefits package.
Some of the most eminent international schools in Belgium include the following:
- St. John’s International School
- The International School of Brussels (ISB)
- The British School of Brussels (BSB)
- The Antwerp International School (AIS)
- BEPS International School
- Da Vinci International School
- ACE of Brussels International School
You can also find more international schools in Expatica’s directory.
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 European Union.
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 organization, with younger children benefiting from the experience of older pupils. The Steiner schools place greater emphasis on the arts.
There is a selection of 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 schooling system
The compulsory school age in Belgium is six to 18 years. Children may start at age five if they are deemed ready. Pupils aged 16 years and older can also opt to study part-time while undertaking practical training.
Children can enter pre-primary education from the age of 30 months 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 at around age 12.
Pre-school in Belgium
Prior to formal education, nurseries are available for babies and children up to two-and-half years, after which kindergartens (kleuteronderwijs in Dutch, enseignement maternelle in French) 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. Expatica’s guides on preschool and childcare in Belgium will help parents navigate these systems.
Primary school in Belgium
Children stay at primary school (lager onderwijs in Dutch, enseignement primaire in French) for six years, during which 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 is often taught in the Dutch-speaking areas, while Dutch or German are offered in the French Community. Homework is also part of the educational structure from early on.
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-speaking Community. This certificate is important when moving to secondary education.
Secondary school in Belgium
Secondary school (secundair onderwijs in Dutch, enseignement secondaire in French) 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 specialize, 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 education: 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 specialized 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. Choosing between these four specializations is important for students aiming to pursue higher education in Belgium.
Most schools have a half-day on Wednesdays, though afternoons are sometimes dedicated to sporting or cultural activities. These can also happen on a Saturday morning.