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Education in Belgium

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Education in Belgium

The different levels of education in Flanders

Education in Belgium is regulated and for the larger part financed by one of the three communities: Flemish, French and German-speaking. All three communities have a unified school system with small differences from one community to another. 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):

  1. Schools owned by the communities (GO! Onderwijs van de Vlaamse gemeenschap; réseau de la Communauté française)
  2. Subsidized public schools (officieel gesubsidieerd onderwijs; réseau officiel subventionné), organized by provinces and municipalities
  3. 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.[1]


  • History 1
  • Stages of education 2
  • Pre-school 3
  • Primary school 4
  • Secondary education 5
    • Structure 5.1
  • Higher education 6
    • Admission to universities and colleges 6.1
    • Cost of higher education 6.2
    • Bologna changes 6.3
  • Quality 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


In the past there were conflicts between state schools and Catholic schools, and disputes whether the latter should be funded by the government (see first and second School Wars). The 1958 School Pact was an agreement of the three large political parties to end these conflicts.

The 1981 state reform transferred some matters from the federal Belgian level to the communities. In 1988, the majority of educational matters was transferred. Nowadays, very few general matters are regulated on a national level. The current ministries for education are the Flemish Government, the Government of the French Community and the Government of the German-speaking Community for each community respectively. Brussels, being bilingual French-Dutch, has both schools provided by the Flemish and French-speaking community. Municipalities with language facilities often have schools of two communities (Dutch-French or German-French) as well.

Stages of education

The different stages of education are the same in all communities:


Free pre-primary schooling (Dutch: kleuteronderwijs; 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 done in a playful way.

Although it is not compulsory, more than 90% of all children in the age category attend pre-school.[2]

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

Primary school (Dutch: lager onderwijs; French: enseignement primaire; German: Grundschule) consists of six years and the subjects given 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.

Secondary education

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):

  • 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, 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 Math-Science, Economy-Languages or Latin-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 make 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, Economy, 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 math, 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), bachelor studies or even master studies. Possible directions include several Office management-like directions, practical ICT, Tourism, Health, Teaching, Trade, Practical Engineering, 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, Jewelry, 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 display 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.

Higher education

Higher education in Belgium is organized by the two main communities, the Flemish Community and the French Community. German speakers typically enroll in institutions in the French Community or in Germany.

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 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. This exam is now held only in Flanders.
entrance exams to arts programs, which are mainly of a practical nature, are organized by the colleges individually.
Engineering Sciences
leading to the degree of French Community.
Management Sciences
Leading to a master's after master's degree 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 Dutch-speaking institutions, their tuition fee is between €80 and €100.
Almost-bursary student
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[3]).
Non-bursary student
Anyone not eligible for financial aid with an income above €1286.09 per month. In Dutch-speaking institutions their tutition fee is between €500.40 and €567.80.[3] 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.

Bologna changes

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 program 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:

Bachelor's degree
3 years. Distinction is to be made between the professional bachelor, which replaces the former graduate degree and which has a finality, and the academic bachelor which replaces the candidate degree and which gives access to master's studies.
Master's degree
1 or 2 years.

In Belgium, both Universities and Colleges are allowed to teach Bachelor and Master classes, either professional or academical.

After obtaining a Master's degree, talented students can pursue research projects leading to a doctorate degree. PhD's are only awarded by Universities.


In the 2003 PISA-study[4] of secondary school students by the OECD, the Belgian students scored relatively highly. The results of the Dutch-speaking students were significantly higher than the scores of the German-speaking students which were in turn significantly higher than the French-speaking students.[5]

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.

See also


  1. ^ (Dutch) Leerplicht
  2. ^ Structures of education, vocational training and adult education systems in Europe (– Scholar search), National Foundation for Educational Research, 2003 
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Learning for Tomorrows World – First Results from PISA 2003,  
  5. ^ Learning for Tomorrows World – First Results from PISA 2003, Universiteit Gent, 2005 

External links

  • (Dutch) Vlaams Ministerie van Onderwijs (English information) - Flemish Ministry of Education
  • Higher Education Register: recognised programmes and institutions in Flanders
  • (French) L'enseignement en Communauté Française - Education in the French Community
  • (German) Unterrichtswesen - Ministry of Education of the German Community in Belgium
  • Studying in Belgium at Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs
  • The information network on education in Europa - Contains documents with much information on education systems in Belgium
  • Information on education in Belgium, OECD - Contains indicators and information about Belgium and how it compares to other OECD and non-OECD countries
  • Diagram of Belgian education systems, OECD - Using 1997 ISCED classification of programmes and typical ages. Also in French and Dutch
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