There are three different national education systems in Belgium. The French, Flemish and German regions each have their own government-run education system which corresponds with the regional language.
Education in Belgium begins in pre-primary school at age two-and-a-half but is only compulsory from six to 18 years of age. The academic year usually begins in September and ends in June. Vacations are usually in the first week of November, two weeks for end-of-year holidays, a week in February, two weeks in the spring, as well as national holidays throughout the year. Students are required to be present each day that is not an official school holiday and must present a doctor's certificate for any sickness-related absence.
An expat family wanting to immerse their children in the local language has several options, and Belgium’s regionalism will in no way limit their choices. If staying in Belgium for a short-term assignment, most expats send their children to a local public school or an international school offering English as a language of instruction. In both cases, French or Dutch classes will be offered.
Public schools in Belgium
Public schools in Belgium offer expat families an excellent opportunity to learn the regional language and culture by immersion. Extra costs associated with school supplies and school outings are kept to a minimum in public schools. However, these schools tend to offer far fewer extra-curricular activities than private and international schools.
The Belgian secondary education system is highly regarded. Admissions procedures change frequently, and often without warning. Expat families need to be prepared and take the steps necessary to secure their children’s place at the secondary school of their choice.
In their second year, students choose particular course options, which can be general, technical, artistic or professional in nature. Exams are given each year to assess the readiness of students for the next academic year. Consequently, repeating a year in Belgium is relatively common and less stigmatised than it may be in other countries.
Private schools in Belgium
Expats will also have the option of sending their children to private schools in Belgium. The teaching philosophies vary within and between all these institutions. Some of these privately-run schools are also subsidised by the government.
Many private schools are religious institutions, and most offer a curriculum that differs from the regional government curriculum, such as the Montessori and Waldorf curricula.
International schools in Belgium
The main allure of international schools in Belgium is that an expat family will most likely find others who speak their home language. This commonality makes the transition to a new country that much easier for the whole family. It also allows students to continue with a familiar curriculum, assuming there is an international school that offers it.
Considering the complexity of public high school inscriptions and assessments, expat families with secondary-school-age students may find it easier to enter their children into an international or private school of some sort.
These schools can also administer non-Belgian exams such as the SATs and International Baccalaureate. Students are also likely to find a wider range of extra-curricular activities than what is offered in traditional Belgian public schools.
Homeschooling in Belgium
Homeschooling in Belgium is another option for expats. Before making this commitment, however, the expat family needs to be aware that the Belgian government has put strict guidelines and inspections in place. Parents who do not comply with these standards can be sanctioned. Therefore, proper procedures must be taken to ensure compliance with local laws.
Special needs education in Belgium
Special needs education in Belgium focuses on inclusion and equality. Therefore, the government is committed to ensuring each child exercises their right to education. Each language community has a respective Ministry of Education. Each ministry will first attempt to immerse a child into a mainstream school. However, each ministry will also follow its own approach, so the process followed will depend on where the child lives.
Inclusion of children with special needs into a mainstream school isn’t always possible. In extreme cases (for example when extended hospitalisation is required) children may be taught at home. However, in most cases, children would be enrolled in a specialist school. There are various categories of specialist schools in Belgium. Some schools are focused on physical disabilities and others will focus on learning or behavioural difficulties.
Enrollment into a special school can happen at any time in the school year. Parents should provide as much documentary evidence showing their child’s condition. In some areas of Belgium children with learning or behavioural difficulties are required to spend an initial period in a mainstream school before they can be considered for a place at a specialist school.