Home Education Children's Education International Baccalaureate (IB) in Belgium
Last update on September 20, 2019

More than one million students are currently enrolled in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs globally, and the curriculum is popular among expat students in Belgium. What is the IB program, who can benefit from it, and which Belgian schools offer it?

Being a ‘career’ expat family certainly has its perks: there’s adventure, incredible life experiences, cultural immersion and new language skills.

For young expats, it can also be a unique educational journey which need not be daunting or disruptive when they relocate to Belgium with their family.

Pascale Hertay, director of BEPS International School in Brussels, and Andrew Mitchell, the secondary school’s curriculum coordinator, explain how the IB curriculum ensures an educational continuum for expat students moving to Belgium.

“Each school in the 5,000-strong global IB community subscribes to a common philosophy and learning approach. So for expat students moving to an IB school in Belgium it is a smooth transition,” Pascale explains.

BEPS International School

BEPS International School provides high quality education in the region of Brussels for children aged two and half to 15 years old. Located in the beautiful greenery of Bois de La Cambre, the experienced teachers follow the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC), the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and The International Baccalaureate® (IB) Middle Years Program (MYP).

The IB: an organic approach for expat students in Belgium

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2018, billionaire Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma said: “How can we teach kids to be more creative and do things that machines cannot do? Machines have chips, but human beings have hearts … education should move in this direction.”

IB has been moving in this direction since launching 50 years ago. The International Baccalaureate says its four programs (Primary Years Program (PYP), Middle Years Program (MYP), Diploma Program (DP) and the recently-introduced Career Related Program) ‘encourage both personal and academic achievement.’

For the DP, the IB assesses student work as direct evidence of achievement against the stated goals of the program’s courses – and in addition to academic skills assessment will encourage and international outlook and intercultural skills – perfect for expat IB students in Belgium. Examinations form the basis of the external assessment for most courses.

It’s a far cry from rote learning which was once the educational staple.

“IB emphasizes concepts rather than content,” Andrew explains. “Students seek to understand why they learn something, and how it may apply in real life. For example, through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we investigate the concept of relationships. We equip students with ‘21st century’ skills such as self-management and organization, which can be transferred into the real world.”

The IB curriculum also addresses students’ intellectual, social, emotional and physical well-being, Pascale  adds.

“This develops attributes beyond subject-based skills, creating well rounded, balanced individuals better prepared for higher education, working life and life in general,” she says.

Advantages of IB for expat students in Belgium

In addition to imparting useful life skills and improving wellbeing, IB offers many other advantages for expat students in Belgium. For a start, unlike some other curricula, IB requires the study of at least two languages – putting students at a competitive advantage in the hyper-connected global economy.

Even more vital for expat students relocating to Belgium is the shared philosophy among the 5,000-plus schools in the global IB network. Whether programs are delivered in Brussels, Beijing or Bogota, the learning approach is familiar to the student.

Pascale , a mother of three who returned to her native Belgium after years working on the international schools circuit, has first-hand experience of the almost seamless transition for IB expats moving to Belgium.

“IB lays excellent foundations for higher education pathways,” she says. “In my family’s case, for example, the IB Diploma Program provides a clear academic route into a Belgian or other European university.”

The international baccalaureate: a passport to the world’s best universities

Gone are the days when knowledge-based learning was the only route into the world’s best universities. IB’s broad, holistic approach – which breaks away from strictly delineated subjects – is ideally suited to a higher education system which has itself evolved over the years. Indeed, increasing numbers of IB Diploma Program graduates are gaining places at the world’s top-ranked universities. And as an IB graduate, you’ll join an impressive alumni network which includes the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Willem Alexander, the King of the Netherlands.

“The type of undergraduate degrees available locally and internationally are changing. Students no longer enter narrowly defined subject areas which were once common,” says Andrew.

And what about for students which are less academically-inclined?

“The Career Related Program was designed as an alternative pathway to higher education” says Pascale.

The flexible education methods and curriculum of the IB

If consistency in philosophy and curriculum framework among the world’s 5,000-or-so IB schools is invaluable for expat students relocating to Belgium, the tailored methodology adopted by each school is also highly supportive.

“You can visit ten [IB] schools and each will have a different approach to implement IB learning,” says Pascale.

“At BEPS, the focus is on ensuring the students are engaged. We encourage them to take ownership of the learning process and develop their passions. We want them to have real life experiences. And as a school we must keep up to date with teaching trends, which we do by developing partnerships and sharing ideas with international schools around the world.”

Andrew adds that all schools, regardless of the curriculum they offer, face unique challenges in equipping students with the skills to flourish in a volatile, uncertain world.

“There is unprecedented uncertainty in career pathways for young people today,” he notes. “For educators, that’s both a challenge and an exciting prospect. With IB, we have the latitude to develop and deliver programs which will be relevant to learners not only now, but in 15 years’ time.

“Engaging with the world around us is vital. A school cannot hide behind high walls. Any learning opportunity – whether internal or in the community – is a valuable opportunity.”

Because it is so holistic and supportive in approach, many IB schools don’t have a ‘model profile’ pupil. Although some schools have admission tests , the prime stipulation is that the child must have the potential to benefit from the IB environment – the onus being on the school to develop (or modify) a program that does that.

“When schools apply the fundamental IB vision and Mission and if they are flexible enough, they can create an environment where all students can have a measure of academic success,” says Pascale, “this is our secondary school mission.”

IB schools in Belgium

Expat families relocating (or returning) to Belgium currently have ten schools offering one or more IB Programs to choose from:

Some are classed as ‘candidate’ schools which are going through the rigorous process of IB authorization.

Pascale explains that to become authorized for any particular IB program a school moves from consideration to consultancy and finally authorisation which can take 2 or more years. Once authorised each school must then undergo a continual five-year cycle of evaluation which ensures that the IB philosophy becomes part of the school’s DNA.

“It’s not just simple certification. As a ‘candidate’ school, you have to have a clear vision and mission, and ascribe to the IB philosophy and approach to learning,” she points out.

Having successfully run International Primary Curriculum (IPC) for many years, BEPS launched its MYP at the beginning of this academic year.

“We had a choice which curriculum to offer. Many schools in Belgium offer the DP, but not the MYP. Given our experience with the skills-based IPC (a curriculum with similar origins to the PYP , it made sense to pursue a skills-based curriculum,” says Pascale.

While there are an estimated one million students globally enrolled on IB programs internationally, Pascale admits that not all parents are immediately convinced of the advantages of taking the IB path.

“The school must demonstrate that the move is based on years of research. As the creators of educational programs, we don’t know what the future holds. Some jobs won’t exist in five or 10 years.

“Our job is to develop today the skills and attributes that young people will need tomorrow, and IB is the best vehicle to enable us to achieve that.”