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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Population: demographic situation, languages and religions

Belgium - Flemish Community

1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.3Population: demographic situation, languages and religions

Last update: 27 November 2023

Demographic situation

Population growth and composition

Between 2000 and 2018, the Belgian population grew by slightly more than one million people (10.24 million vs. 11.36 million). The following section shows developments in the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region for which Dutch-speaking education is organized.

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The increase in both the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region is due to a large extent to international migration (see 3.1.2). The natural population growth is positive but limited.

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The age pyramid for the Flemish Region is as follows (comparison between 2000 and 2017):

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The intensity of ageing increased considerably between 2000 and 2015. The ageing indicator (ratio of those aged 67+ to those between the ages of 0-17) was 71.1% in 2000 and rose to 88% in 2015. The dependency ratio (the ratio of those aged between 0-17 and 67+ compared to the working age population (18-66)) increased from 54% in 2000 and to 57% in 2015. Projections indicate that both will continue to increase as a result of the ageing of the population of Flanders.


The number of migrants into the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region has risen systematically. Migrants are persons who do not currently hold Belgian nationality. In Belgium as a whole, 1 in 10 inhabitants do not have Belgian nationality. The primary countries from which migrants come are France, Italy, the Netherlands, Morocco and Romania. Citizens from those countries make up almost half of the foreign population in Belgium (48.1%).

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A different, more comprehensive way of mapping migration is to look at the number of persons of foreign origin. Four criteria are used for this: the current nationality of the person, the nationality at birth of the person, the nationality at birth of the father and the nationality at birth of the mother. If one of these four criteria gives a non-Belgian nationality, the person is considered a person with a migrant background. This therefore includes all migrants who have acquired Belgian nationality.

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The breakdown by origin is as follows:

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Composition of the school population

In the 2017-2018 school year, the following number of pupils were in pre-school, primary and secondary education.

Based on a number of socio-economic characteristics (SES characteristics), pupils can generate additional funding for a school or educational institution (equal opportunities policy). These characteristics provide a relevant picture of the social condition of children and pupils in Flemish education. These are:

  • educational level of the mother: A pupil ticks this characteristic if the mother has completed at most lower secondary education. If the level of education is unknown, the pupil does not tick it.
  • family language: The family language is risky if the family language does not match the educational language (Dutch). The language that the pupil speaks is not the education language if the pupil speaks to nobody in the family or, in a family with three family members (not including the pupil) with at most one member of the family in the education language. Brothers and sisters are always considered to be one family member.
  • school allowance: The pupil ticks this characteristic if he/she has received a school allowance (see section 3).

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With regard to nationality:

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Of the 110,771 pupils with foreign nationality, nearly 60% (66,371) are from an EU Member State and half of these come from the Netherlands (33,539 pupils).

In the 2017-2018 academic year, 239,608 pupils were enrolled in higher education: 119,957 attend university colleges and 115,641 attend universities.

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In 2017-2018, 33,164 course participants were in adult education. There were 79,667 course participants in adult basic education. In 2017-2018, there were 6,706 participants in the HB05 nursing course.


Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German.

The only official language of the Flemish Community is Dutch. This is therefore the tutorial language in the Flemish Region and the Dutch-speaking schools of Brussels-Capital Region. All official, recognized or publicly-funded schools fall under the law of 30 July 1963 on the arrangement of language in education (abbreviated to: the Education Language Act) and the Administrative Language Act. The Education Language Act stipulates in which languages lessons are given and the Administrative Language Act specifies the use of language of the education institutions for administrative matters (e.g. communication with parents). All communication between the school/teachers and the parents within the school context, all activities that take place in connection with school, in addition to giving lessons (for example, reports, correspondence with parents, posters that are placed, the use of language during contact with parents or at the school secretariat) are subject to the Administrative Language Act.

School in nursery and primary education must perform a mandatory screening at the level of the (Dutch) education language. This screening maps out the initial situation of the pupil and is possibly monitored by a language course adapted to the pupil. For pupils who master the language insufficiently to allow them to follow the lessons, there is the possibility of a language immersion for at most one year. (circular BaO/2014/01).

In nursery and primary education, there is optional language initiation in French, English and German for the first year of ordinary nursery education. Language initiation is one of the “language activities” that precede formal language education. Formal language teaching, by means of systematic language learning is mandatory for French in the fifth and sixth years of primary education. Schools are free to offer German or English alongside French or to provide an addition to the mandatory French language tuition (Circular BaO/2017/01).

In secondary education, various modern languages can be learned (French, English, German, Spanish and Italian) as well as classical languages (Greek and Latin). For each of these languages final targets are set by the Government.

Schools can also submit an application for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). This form of multilingual education allows teaching in a non-language subject to be given in French, English or German. If the application is approved, a school can offer up to a maximum of 20% of the tuition time in one of these languages in ordinary secondary education, in part-time vocational secondary education and during the apprenticeship. Schools undertake to set up a parallel Dutch-language course. In the 2018-2019 school year, 101 schools offer CLIL for 3,100 pupils.

The languages spoken by migrants are not legally recognized as minority languages. In education, additional resources are made available for the reception of non-Dutch speaking newcomers (OKAN) and for pupils from ethnic minorities.

Only French-speaking schools in the municipalities with linguistic facilities fall under the competence of the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training; in 2017-2018, this covered a total of 3,014 pupils in nursery, primary and secondary education. There are also several French-speaking departments in Dutch-speaking schools. These have a total of 299 pupils in the 2017-2018 school year (source: Statistics Yearbook 2017-2018.

Dutch is also the tuition language in higher education. The use of an education language other than Dutch is subject to strict legislation, the so-called language regulations. A maximum of 6% of the bachelor programmes and 35% of the master programmes in the whole of Flanders may be offered in a language other than Dutch.

Within Dutch-speaking courses, the Flemish higher education institutions can teach a maximum of 18.33% of the course units of the model course in an initial bachelor programme and a maximum of 50% in an initial master programme in a language other than Dutch. If the institute wishes to offer an initial bachelor or master programme in a language other than Dutch, it must submit an application to the Higher Education Committee. This checks whether cross-compliance is achieved (Higher Education Code Article II.261, paragraph 3).

Ideological beliefs


The Belgian Constitution guarantees the separation of Church and State. There is freedom of religion (articles 19 to 21 of the Constitution). The salaries and pensions of ministers of recognized religions and organizations providing moral services based on a non-denominational ideology are charged to the State (article 181 of the Constitution). Recognized religions are the Catholic (1830), Protestant (1830), Jewish (1831), Anglican (1835), Islam (1974) and Orthodox religions (1985). In addition, non-denominational communities are recognized (1993). Representative bodies of the Catholic and Islamic religions and organized liberalism receive operating grants. The recognized religions also receive public support for the build and upkeep of religious infrastructure (cult buildings, housing for ministers).

Ideological beliefs in education

The Constitution guarantees (art. 24) that all children in primary and secondary education are entitled to two lessons per week on ideological belief education as part of the basic curriculum. Both the nursery and primary education decree and the secondary education code state that the registration a child of compulsory education age in official education implies that a choice can be made for a course in one of the recognized religions or non-denominational ethics. Official education must, in other words, respect the ideological choice of all parents and the choice between religion-based education and non-denominational ethics. Religious education is understood to mean education in the Anglican, Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant evangelical religion and in the ethics based on that religion. Education in ethics is understood to mean education in non-denominational ethics. There is no governmental control on the subject matter for lessons on ideological beliefs (as long as they do not compromise the democratic principles of society).

Parents or pupils can request exemption from these subjects in the event of religious or moral objections to following one of the courses on offer. (article 25 of the Primary Education Decree and Article 98 of the Secondary Education Code). The public education providers are obliged to look for a meaningful alternative for those pupils with an exemption.

In the funded free education system, such a choice does not exist. These schools design the moral or religious education according to their own pedagogical project.

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