Religious and spiritual education in Belgium

Religious and spiritual education in Belgium

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Religious schools in Belgium are a popular academic and spiritual choice for expat parents with young children.

One of the first things which strikes expats recently arrived in Brussels is its ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. For parents of young children, there is also a thriving community of schools, catering to religious and spiritual needs, to choose from.

Bérengère Delescluse, the deputy administrator of Agnes School, a ‘Catholic-ethos’ independent bilingual school for children aged two to 11 in Brussels, says modern faith-based education eschews strict religious teaching in favour of character-building and the instillation of values and ethics in young people, regardless of background.

“Our model of religious education, for example, has Catholic identity as a starting point, but we welcome other life stances. Our student body includes children from other faiths, such as Islam for example. Also, while we expose students to Catholic morals and values which will benefit them throughout their lives, this is complementary to the pursuit of academic, cultural and sporting excellence,” Bérengère explains.

The diversity of Belgium’s religious education

Belgium has a long tradition of religious (predominantly Catholic)-based education, but as the country’s demographics have changed over time, so has the provision of schools which cater to different faiths or worldviews.

A 2014 study on religious education at schools in Western Europe noted that in Brussels private schools, Catholic religious education remained dominant (92.7% to 99.6%). In the city’s public school system, meanwhile, most (43%) primary students now attend Islamic religious education, followed by moral education (27.9%) and Catholic religious education (23.3%).

There is also a growing demand for the teaching of other world faiths in Belgian schools. For example, the Hindu Forum of Belgium has a stated aim of “developing a curriculum for teaching Hinduism in Belgian schools” in consultation with Hindu academics in India, the UK, the USA, France and elsewhere.

“Belgium’s religiosity is a patchwork tapestry woven together out of traditional Catholic church-related elements, new religious experiences introduced by immigrant communities and an undefinable complex set of late modern world views of younger generations,” the report stated.

“As a private school in Belgium, we offer students an education with a Catholic ethos”, says Bérengère. “In other words helping parents raise outstanding young children who are guided by Christian principles but who are free-thinking, tolerant and value social harmony,” she adds.

Religious education in Belgium embraces other views

A patchwork tapestry it may be, but religious education in Belgium has also moved on from the pure catechesis – or instruction – of old. Today, many religious schools in Brussels, whether private or public and regardless of denomination, reference other religions or philosophical worldviews. Belgium’s national curriculum, furthermore, requires every student to spend at least two hours per week, for 12 years, studying ‘morals’ – either non-confessional or religious.

“Modern, forward-thinking religious schools in Belgium create a link between faith in the community and the daily life experiences and needs of young people,” says Bérengère. “They are inclusive places which draw in elements of non-confessional moral education for pupils in a pluralistic society. For example, the success of Agnes School is partly due to the coexistence of the students from the French-Dutch section and the students from the French-English section. Its rich and diverse community is also very united. ”

The advantages of attending a Catholic school in Belgium

One of the most important choices a parent will ever make is that of schooling for their children. For expat parents, considerations will range from location to language medium, curriculum, academic and spiritual environment.

Bérengère suggests that private Catholic schools in Belgium can offer not only an excellent academic grounding, but also establish good habits and virtues as well as a sense of individuality in young people – elements she says are “integral to a child’s future happiness”.

“For example, we tailor tutorials for each child, and also seek to establish a collaborative relationship with parents. Ultimately we have a shared goal with them to develop the child’s character while enabling them to reach their academic potential.”

She explains that in a Catholic school such as Agnes School a child’s character development is based on a vision of what young children can and should become. 

“For example, our teachers, as well as being highly qualified and competent educators, are humane and empathetic. We seek for our pupils a freedom which enables them to live a more complete life. It is not simply about acquiring technical skills or knowledge.” She adds that “we encourage students to open their minds – to see and appreciate all the good in the world, and to discover God in ordinary, everyday things and situations. Embracing other ideologies and philosophies is part of that.”

One of these philosophies taught at some religious schools in Brussels is so-called ‘liberal arts education’ which, for example, teaches students to respect and use words responsibly, and recognise and appreciate everything that is good, true and beautiful.

“A liberal arts education offers a broad understanding of reality, clarity of thought, excellence in writing, and effective speaking skills, which are valued in many professions and management roles,” Bérengère explains.

Muslim, Jewish and Protestant schools in Brussels

As a federal state, Belgium guarantees freedom of education, which allows other religions and worldviews to organise their own schools. In Antwerp, for example, there are 30 Jewish schools catering to the city’s large Orthodox community. The Protestant community runs seven schools in Flanders, the so-called “Schools with the Bible” (scholen met de bijbel), while there are a number of Islamic primary schools in Brussels.

There are also many non-confessional schools in Belgium. Fourteen schools are led by free-thinkers (vrij onderwijsplatform) and most schools that offer alternative education are non-confessional as well.

“While our school is founded on Christian values, we offer a caring and stimulating environment for children of many different faiths in a spirit of tolerance and respect. Our aim is to create outstanding young men and women equipped with the skills for success,” Bérengère concludes.


Bérengère Delescluse, deputy head at Agnès School

 

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