Education in Belgium is regulated and for the most part financed by one of the three communities: Flemish, French and German-speaking. Each community has its own school system, with small differences among them. The federal government plays a very small role: it decides directly the age for mandatory schooling and indirectly the financing of the communities.
The schools can be divided in three groups (Dutch: netten; French: réseaux):
Schools owned by the communities (GO! Onderwijs van de Vlaamse gemeenschap; réseau de la Communauté française)
Subsidized public schools (officieel gesubsidieerd onderwijs; réseau officiel subventionné), organized by provinces and municipalities
Subsidized free schools (vrij gesubsidieerd onderwijs; réseau libre subventionné), mainly organized by an organization affiliated to the Catholic church
The latter is the largest group, both in number of schools and in number of pupils.
Education in Belgium is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 18 or until one graduates from secondary school.
In the past there were conflicts between state schools and Catholic schools, and disputes regarding whether the latter should be funded by the government (see first and second School Wars). The 1958 School Pact was an agreement by the three large political parties to end these conflicts.
Free pre-primary schooling (Dutch: kleuterschool; French: enseignement maternel; German: Kindergarten) is provided to every child from the age of 2 years 6 months. In most schools the child can start in school as soon as they reach this age, so class size for the youngest children grows during the year. In the Flemish region, start dates are limited to 6 per year, after a school holiday period and the first school day in February.
The aim of pre-school is to develop, in a playful way, children's cognitive skills, their capacity to express themselves and communicate, their creativity and independence. There are no formal lessons or assessments, and everything is taught through a framework of play.
Although it is not compulsory, more than 90% of all children in the age category attend pre-school.
Most pre-schools are attached to a particular primary school. Preschools and primary schools often share buildings and other facilities. Some schools offer special pre-primary education for children with disabilities or other special needs.
Primary school (Dutch: lager onderwijs; French: enseignement primaire; German: Grundschule) consists of six years and the subjects taught are generally the same at all schools. Primary schooling is free and age is the only entrance requirement.
Primary education is divided into three cycles (Dutch: graden; French: degrés):
First cycle (year 1 and 2)
Second cycle (year 3 and 4)
Third cycle (year 5 and 6)
Education in primary schools is rather traditional: it concentrates on reading, writing and basic mathematics, but also touches already a very broad range of topics (biology, music, religion, history, etc.). School usually starts about 8:30 and finishes around 15:30. A lunch time break is usually provided from 12:00 to 13:30. Wednesday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday are free. While morning lessons often concentrate on reading, writing and basic mathematics, lessons in the afternoon are usually about other topics like biology, music, religion, history or "do it yourself" activities.
Flemish schools in Brussels and some municipalities near the language border, must offer French lessons starting from the first or the second year. Most other Flemish schools offer French education in the third cycle. Some of the latter schools offer non-mandatory French lessons already in the second cycle. Primary schools in the French Community must teach another language, which is generally Dutch or English, depending on the school. Primary schools in the German Community have obligatory French lessons.
There are also some private schools set up to serve various international communities in Belgium (e.g. children of seafarers or European diplomats), mainly around the larger cities. Some schools offer special primary education for children with disabilities or other special needs.
When graduating from primary school around the age of 12, students enter secondary education. Here they have to choose a course that they want to follow, depending on their skill level and interests.
Secondary education consists of three cycles (Dutch: graden; French: degrés; German: Grad):
First cycle (year 1 and 2)
Second cycle (year 3 and 4)
Third cycle (year 5 and 6)
The Belgian secondary education grants the pupils more choice as they enter a higher cycle. The first cycle provides a broad general basis, with only a few options to choose from (such as Latin, additional mathematics and technology). This should enable students to orient themselves in the most suitable way towards the many different courses available in the second and third stages. The second and third cycle are much more specific in each of the possible directions. While the youngest pupils may choose at the most two or four hours per week, the oldest pupils have the opportunity to choose between different "menus": like Mathematics and Science, Economics and Languages or Latin and Greek. They are then able to shape the largest part of the time they spend at school. However, some core lessons are compulsory like the first language and sport, etc. This mix between compulsory and optional lessons grouped in menus, makes it possible to keep class structures even for the oldest students.
Secondary school is divided into four general types. Each type consists of a set of different directions that may vary from school to school. The general types are as follows:
General Secondary Education (Dutch: Algemeen Secundair Onderwijs; ASO; French: Enseignement Secondaire général): A very broad, general education, preparing for higher education. Once students have completed all six years, it is expected that they will continue studying (e.g.: university or college). Possible directions include (combinations of): ancient Greek and Latin, Modern Languages (stressing French and Dutch, English, German, and sometimes optional Spanish), Sciences (chemistry, physics, biology and geography), Mathematics, Economics, and Human Sciences (psychology, sociology, media).
Technical Secondary Education (Dutch: Technisch Secundair Onderwijs; TSO; French: Enseignement Secondaire technique): The TSO is divided into two groups of education again: TTK and STK. The TTK courses focus more on technical aspects, the STK courses focus more on practical matters. Both offer a general education in mathematics, languages, history, science, and geography, but mostly not on the same level as ASO courses. Lessons have a less theoretical, but more technical and practical approach. Once students have completed all six years they are either ready for the job market (STK courses mostly) or continue to study (TTK courses mostly). The continued studies could be a seventh specialization year (mostly STK students take this as an option), or studying for a bachelor's or master's degree. Possible directions include several office management-like directions, practical ICT, tourism, health, teaching, trade, practical engineering or communications.
Vocational Secondary Education (Dutch: Beroepssecundair Onderwijs; BSO; French: Enseignement Secondaire professionnel): Very practical and very job specific education. Afterwards, several directions offer seventh, sometimes eighth, specialisation years. Possible directions include carpentry, car mechanics, jewellery or masonry. BSO is the only type of secondary education that does not qualify students to pursue higher education. If the student chooses to follow the optional 7th (and sometimes 8th) year, he/she will receive a diploma of the same level as a TSO diploma, which does allow him/her to pursue higher education.
Art Secondary Education (Dutch: Kunstsecundair onderwijs; KSO; French: Enseignement Secondaire artistique): These schools link general and broad secondary education development with active art practice, ranging from performance arts to visual arts. Depending on the direction, several subjects might be purely theoretical, preparing for higher education. Directions include dancing (Ballet school), acting, and several graphical and musical arts. Many students graduating from these schools go to music conservatories, higher ballet or acting schools or art colleges to further develop their art.
Students with disabilities can follow Special Secondary Education (Dutch: Buitengewoon Secundair Onderwijs; BuSO; French: Enseignement Secondaire spécial), of different types.
Flanders' higher education in separated between Universities (5 universities, universiteiten) and University Colleges (hogescholen). The French Community organises higher education in Universities (6 universities), but makes a difference between the two types of schools that make up University Colleges : Hautes écoles and Écoles supérieures des Arts (a limited number of artistic institutions allowed to process selection of incoming students).
Admission to universities and colleges
In Belgium anybody with a qualifying diploma of secondary education is free to enroll at any institute of higher education of their choosing. The 4 major exceptions to this rule are those wanting to pursue a degree in:
prospective medicine or dentistry students must take an entrance exam organized by the government. This exam was introduced in the 1990s for the Flemish Community and in 2017 for the French Community of Belgium (where citizens of the German-speaking community can take their test in German), to control the influx of students. The exam assesses the student's knowledge of science, their ability to think in abstract terms (IQ test) and their psychological aptitude to become a physician.
Leading to a master's after master's degree (Flanders), specialisation master's degree (French Community) or a Master in Business Administration degree, these management schools organise admission tests that focus on individual motivation and pre-knowledge of a specialised domain. E.g. A Master in Financial Management programme requires prior knowledge on corporate finance and management control topics.
Cost of higher education
The registration fee for any university or college is fixed by the government of the French-speaking or the Dutch-speaking community, and indexed yearly. Depending on whether the student is eligible and applies for financial aid, there are 3 prices:
A student who is receiving financial aid. In French-speaking institutions, their tuition is free; in Dutch-speaking institutions, their tuition fee is between €80 and €100.
A student who is not eligible for financial aid but has a family income below €1286.09 per month. In Dutch-speaking institutions, their tuition fee is between €333.60 and €378.60. and in French-speaking instutions, the fee must not exceed half of the full tuition fee.
Anyone not eligible for financial aid with an income above €1286.09 per month. In Dutch-speaking institutions their tuition fee is between €890,00 and €910,00. and in French-speaking institutions, around €830.
The financial aid awarded by the community governments depends on the income of the student's family, and other familial circumstances, but is never more than approximately €5,000 per year. The aid is not at all based on the student's results, however, students who fail too many classes can lose their financial aid.
Prior to the adoption of the Bologna process, the Belgian higher education system had the following degrees:
Graduate degree (Dutch: gegradueerde, French: gradué): typically a 3-year-long programme at a college, with a vocational character, also called short type or one cycle higher education.
Candidate degree (Dutch: kandidaat, French: candidat): the first 2 years at a University (3 years for medicine studies) or at some colleges offering long type or two cycle programs. This diploma had no finality than to give access to the licentiate studies.
Licentiate diploma (Dutch: licentiaat, French: licencié): The second cycle, leading to a degree after typically 2 years (3 years for civil engineers or lawyers, 4 years for medicine).
DEA (French:diplôme d'études approfondies) this is a 2 years postgraduate degree exists in the French speaker universities, the admission to this degree requires a Licentiate. the DEA is equivalent to the Master's degree in the American-English systems. [Note: The latter description is inaccurate. A DEA is a French (France) diploma and is not a recognized Belgian diploma. A Licentiate degree is customarily considered to be the equivalent of the French (France) maîtrise. Pre-Bologna Licenciate diplomas are also considered to be a close equivalent to an American-English master's degree: they require 2 to 3 years of advanced coursework in the study area and they may require the production of a final, substantial written thesis based on original research in the area of study (Dutch: eindscriptie, French:mémoire de licence)].
A University education was not considered finished until the licentiate diploma is obtained. Occasionally it was possible to switch specializations after obtaining the candidate diploma. For example, a student with a mathematics candidate diploma was often allowed to start in the third year of computer science class. Sometimes a graduate diploma was also accepted as an equivalent to a candidate diploma (with additional courses if necessary), allowing for 2 or 3 more years of education at a University.
Since the adoption of the Bologna process in most European countries, the higher education system in Belgium follows the Bachelor/Master system:
delivered after 3 years (180 ECTS) of Bachelor's studies (French: baccalauréat; Dutch: bacheloropleiding). Distinction is to be made between:
the professional bachelor, (French: bachelier professionnel delivered after a formation de type court; Dutch: professionele bachelor) issued only by University Colleges, which replaces the former graduate degree and which has a finality.
the academic bachelor, (French: bachelier académique; Dutch: academische bachelor) issued by Universities and some University Colleges, which replaces the candidate degree and gives access to Master's studies.
So-called Banaba (Flemish Community) or Bachelier de spécialisation (French Community), specialisation degrees offered after a professional bachelor's degree.
delivered after 1 or 2 years (60 or 120 ECTS) of Master's studies. Manama's (Flemish Community) or Masters de spécialisation (French Community) exist in Universities and are specialisation degrees offered after a Master's degree.
After obtaining a Master's degree, talented students can pursue research projects leading to a doctorate degree. PhDs are only awarded by Universities, but theses can be written at University Colleges or Art Schools, in collaboration with and published by a University.
The United Nations Education Index, which is measured by the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio, ranks Belgium on the 18th place in the world as of 2011. A 2007 study found that violence experienced by teachers in francophone Belgium was a significant factor in decisions to leave the teaching profession.