The legal bases and their implications
Under the Constitution of 1831 (coordinated version of February, 17, 1994), education is free, and the organisation of schools may not be subject to any restrictive measures. Following two ‘school wars’ or conflicts between supporters of secular public schools and supporters of private – mainly Catholic – grant-aided schools, a broad-based compromise agreement between the three major Belgian political camps - socialists, Christian democrats, and liberals - introduced the ‘school peace’. Signed into law of 29 May 1959, the ‘Schools Pact’ applies to all levels from pre-primary to non-university higher education and ‘social advancement schools’ (adult education); it organises and standardises the relationships between the different networks, and guarantees the exercise in practice of families’ freedom of choice.
When competence for education was transferred to the Communities in 1989, and in order to safeguard the fundamental principles of organisation, funding and recognition of education ordained by the Schools Pact, those principles were incorporated directly into Article 24 of the Constitution, as follows:
- 'Education is free, and all restrictive measures are prohibited; offences are redressed solely by law or decree. The Community guarantees parental free choice. The Community and the controlling authorities of grant-aided public schools and non-denominational independent grant-aided schools who wish to do so, administer neutral education. Neutrality implies, in particular, respect for parents' and students' philosophical, ideological, or religious views. Schools run by the public authorities offer, until the end of compulsory education, the choice of instruction in a recognised religion or in non-denominational ethics.
- If a Community, acting in its capacity as a controlling authority, wishes to delegate responsibilities to one or more independent bodies, it shall only be able to do so by a decree adopted by a two-thirds majority.
- Everyone has the right to education in a manner consistent with fundamental rights and liberties. Access to education is free of charge until the end of compulsory education. All students attending compulsory education have the right to ethics or religious instruction at Community expense.
- All pupils or students, parents, staff members, and educational establishments are equal under law or decree. Laws and decrees shall address the objective differences, in particular, the characteristics specific to each controlling authority, which justify adapted treatment.
- The organisation, recognition, or subsidisation of education by the Community is regulated by law or decree.'
Freedom of education
The principle of freedom of education is applied in practice in Belgium through the existence of school institutions which fall under the responsibility of different authorities. As a result, it is possible to organise schools without any links to the public authorities. However, the vast majority of schools are either organised or grant-aided by the Community.
The Community has the right to create schools at all levels wherever the need for them is identified (without any limitation on numbers). In public schools, a religion course must be organised alongside the ethics course. The same rules and regulations apply to studies in all networks. Responsibility for a school lies with the natural person or legal entity known as the ‘controlling authority’.
The Communities may also subsidise education institutions organised by the provinces, municipalities, other public bodies or private bodies. To be authorised to issue recognised qualifications and to benefit from Community subsidies, a school or section of an institution of pre-primary, primary, secondary, social advancement, specialised or arts education is required to comply with the general provisions concerning the organisation of studies and the application of the language laws. It must:
- adopt a structure approved by the Minister;
- adhere to a curriculum that complies with the requirements set out in applicable decrees (in particular, in the case of compulsory education, with respect to the Core Skills and final achievement targets) and is approved by the Minister;
- submit to the checks by the Inspectorate organised by the government of the French Community. This inspection specifically covers the subjects that are taught, the level of studies and the application of the language laws, but excludes teaching methods;
- be administered by a natural or legal person that assumes full responsibility for it;
- have the minimum number of pupils per class, section, stage or other subdivision, as required by Community government decree, unless waived by the Minister under special and exceptional circumstances;
- be established in premises that meet certain hygiene and health standards;
- have the educational equipment and school facilities required to meet educational needs;
- form an educational entity located in the same complex of buildings or, in any case, in the same municipality or town, unless waived by the government of the French Community in exceptional cases;
- have staff who are not liable to endanger the pupils’ health;
- observe the holiday scheme as prescribed by law;
- comply with the provisions set out in the Decree on the Missions of School of 24 July 1997. It should be noted that, in compulsory education, the check on the level of studies (point 3 above) includes checking:
- the suitability of the proposed activities in light of the pupils and the competency guidelines;
- adherence to the priorities set out in the competency guidelines;
- the equivalence of level of the assessment tests given to pupils with that of the tests issued by a committee created for the purpose.
Article 6 of the Schools Pact stipulates: 'Provided that a curriculum and schedule meet the legally established minimum requirements, each controlling authority shall be free to arrange its timetables for its school system and even for each educational institution and, subject to ministerial approval in order to ensure the level of studies, to set its curricula. Each controlling authority is free to choose its own teaching methods.'
Free of charge compulsory education
Throughout compulsory education, access to education is free of charge; no school fees may be demanded. Only non-EU nationals who come to Belgium on their own to study are required to pay a special registration fee. The Communities bear part of the cost for traditional school supplies. Contributions to travel expenses are provided for pupils attending compulsory education who do not find the school of their choice within a reasonable distance from their home. Material and financial support is offered under certain conditions from secondary level onwards.
The reimbursement of certain expenses defined by the Decree on the Missions (24 July 1997) of Schools can nevertheless be requested from parents. When charging expenses, the controlling authorities must make sure that the schools consider students' social and cultural origins in order to guarantee equal social, vocational, and cultural insertion opportunities for all. Non-payment of costs may not under any circumstances constitute grounds for refusing an enrolment or for exclusion.
A fee can sometimes be charged for child-minding services before and after class periods in pre-secondary and secondary schools. Certain schools provide hot meals for a fee to children who eat at school during lunch break.
After having specified the meaning of 'orientation' and 'vocational training', parliament took steps to ensure that all schools accommodate boys and girls without discrimination. However, the educational practice of non-co-educational groups is a matter of educational autonomy.
The Decree on the Missions of Schools assigns four general objectives to compulsory education:
- to promote self-confidence and the development of each student as an individual;
- to enable all students to assimilate knowledge and acquire the skills that enable them to learn throughout their lives and play an active role in economic, social, and cultural life;
- to prepare all students to be responsible citizens who are capable of contributing to the development of a society that is democratic, cohesive, pluralist, and open to other cultures;
- to ensure equal opportunities to all students as regards their social emancipation.
To attain these general objectives, the knowledge and skills that must be developed by the students themselves or that are conveyed, are approached in terms of the acquisition of competencies. They are acquired both in classes and during other educational activities, and, in a general manner, from the organisation of daily life at school.
Under the decree of 31 March 2004, higher education organised or grant-aided by the French Community pursues the following general objectives, simultaneously and in no particular order of priority:
- to support students in assuming their role as responsible citizens, able to contribute to the development of a democratic, pluralist and united society;
- to promote students’ autonomy and development, in particular by fostering their scientific and artistic curiosity, their critical sense and their awareness of individual and collective duties and responsibilities;
- to convey, through both the content of instruction and the other activities organised by the institution, the humanist values, creative and innovative traditions, and artistic, scientific, philosophical and political cultural heritage which constitute the historical foundations of this form of education, while upholding individual diversity;
- to ensure the provision of education – both general and specialised, both fundamental/ conceptual and practical – at the highest level in order to enable students to play an active role in professional, social, economic and cultural life, and to open up equal opportunities for social emancipation;
- to develop high-level skills constantly, by imparting to students the capacity to maintain their relevance, either autonomously or within the framework of lifelong continuing education;
- to set the initial and complementary programmes of higher education in a context of scientific, artistic, professional and cultural openness, encouraging teachers, students and graduates to engage in European/ international mobility and cooperation.
Higher education uses adapted methods and resources, according to the specific discipline, with a view to attaining the indicated general objectives and to making higher education accessible to all, in accordance with their aptitudes, without discrimination. The French Community makes its recognition of studies and its grants to the institutions that organise them conditional on compliance with these objectives and the other provisions of the Decree.