Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is organised in two distinct phases in the French Community of Belgium. Childcare services are available for children under 3 years old. From the age of 2.5 years, children are legally entitled to pre-primary education (International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level 020) free of charge.
Childcare for young children is available in various types of centre-based settings or through a system of regulated home-based provision (i.e. childminders) as soon as maternity leave is over (usually 3–4 months after birth). Childcare services are the responsibility of the Birth and Childhood Office (Office de la Naissance et de l’Enfance (ONE)) of the French Community.
In Belgium, young children may attend different types of centre-based childcare settings (milieux d’accueil collectif). The categorisation of childcare settings changed as a result of legislation that came into force in 2019. The two categories are :
- crèches without entitlement to subsidy or with entitlement to basic subsidy (available from the end of maternity leave to school entry) ;
- independent childminders (accueillant.e.s d’enfants indépendant.e.s) or childcare services (service d’accueil d’enfants) (available from the end of maternity leave to school entry).
Childcare settings in the French Community of Belgium are being transformed. The 2019 legislation specifies that one childminder can care for a maximum of seven children simultaneously.
Home-based care is regulated by the 2019 legislative texts. Childminders work under an agreement with or as an employee of a childcare service or work independently and act as their own organising authority. The standard of care requires one childminder for a maximum of four full-time-equivalent children, with the presence of five children permissible in specific circumstances.
Preschool (prégardiennat) is also available for children aged 18–36 months.
Centre-based childcare settings account for 73.7 % of the childcare provision, while home-based care accounts for 26.3 % (ONE, ONE en chiffres – Rapport d’activités, ONE, Brussels, 2019, p. 31).
From the age of 2.5 years, children are legally entitled to pre-primary education (ISCED level 020) in pre-primary school (école maternelle). This area is the responsibility of the Minister of Education. Primary education starts at the age of 6 years. Since September 2020, children aged 5 years and above are subject to compulsory education: the final year of pre-primary education is now compulsory.
Educational guidelines from top-level authorities apply to all types of ECEC provision, but differ for each age group.