Given the high population density in Belgium, geographical accessibility of schools during compulsory education poses little problem.
If a school that corresponds to the parents’ choice does not exist within a reasonable distance, one must be created or transport provided.
A school transportation service, controlled by the Walloon and Brussels Regions since 1991, is responsible for picking up pupils once per day going to and from the school of their choice – for all networks – that is closest to their residence. Transportation charges are calculated based on the fares in effect for public transportation services. Children less than six years old and those enrolled in specialised education are exempt from transportation fees. Families with three or more children benefit from a 50% reduction.
Admission requirements and choice of school
Admission to primary education
A child is admitted to primary education after the summer holidays of the calendar year in which he or she reaches age 6. Until June 2020, it was this date that marked the beginning of compulsory education. Since 1st September 2020, school is compulsory from 5 years.
However, if the child’s parents or guardians have a certificate issued by the school’s headmaster and the Centre for Psychological, Medical and Social Services, they may opt to have the child attend the first year of primary education once he or she has turned five, or postpone entry to primary school by one year whilst continuing to send the child to a nursery school.
Registration is taken no later than the first working day of September, but the headmaster must accept registrations until 30 September if the delay is due to exceptional circumstances.
Parents’ freedom of choice
Parents’ free choice of the type of education they wish to their children receive is upheld by the Schools Accord (‘Pacte scolaire, law of 29 May 1959’). From this standpoint, the law distinguishes between denominational, non-denominational, and pluralist schools. If there is no school that matches the parents’ choice within a reasonable distance, one must be set up or transport must be provided.
Grant-aided pre-secondary education and secondary education schools cannot refuse to enrol a student based on social, sexual, or racial discrimination, as long as the student agrees to subscribe to their educational plan. French Community schools are required to enrol all pupils who apply no later than 30 September of the school year in progress, provided they meet the conditions required to be a regular pupil. When a school organised by the French Community must limit the number of pupils it accommodates due to lack of available space, the school’s headmaster immediately informs the Administration.
Pre-secondary education schools organised by towns and municipalities are required to enrol all pupils residing in the municipality’s territory, provided they meet the conditions required to be regular pupils.
A school headmaster who is unable to register a pupil who applied must issue the pupil with an enrolment application attestation. This attestation includes the reasons for refusal, and indicates the administration agency where the pupil and his or her parents can obtain assistance in enrolling in another school.
Age levels and grouping of pupils
Education is subdivided into cycles: the cycle is regarded as the basic teaching unit, and ensures continuity of learning and the practice of differentiated teaching methods.
The organization is part of a pedagogical continuum structured in 3 stages, divided into cycles. These terms evoke a pedagogical system grouping together several years of study.
The organisation in stages and in cycles
From entry into pre-primary school until 5 years of age
from the age of 5 to the end of the 2nd primary year
3rd and 4th primary years
5th and 6th primary years
1st and 2nd secondary years
Although the use of cycles is compulsory, the way pupils are grouped together is specific to each school and is a matter of the structural organisation defined by the school in order to achieve these objectives.
Groupings of pupils
Various forms of organisation may be observed :
- children of the same age accompanied by a class teacher for more than one year ;
- children of different ages looked after by one or more teachers either simultaneously or in an alternating pattern ;
- children of the same age looked after by a different class teacher every year, in which case close consultation between the teachers concerned is required in order to ensure continuity ;
- and so on.
The third of the above arrangements is the one most commonly adopted: primary education is usually structured in six classes (or grades). Children of different ages may be grouped together in the same class, especially in rural areas, where small schools lack sufficient numbers of pupils to form six groups. Thus schools may have classes combining two, three or even all the years of primary education.
Generally, the same teacher is responsible for all subjects, with the exception of special courses (philosophy courses, physical education, and modern language). However, it can happen (very rarely) that some teachers specialise and share subjects (relaxation of tenure). When this particular organisation is adopted, it is usually at the end of primary education.
Within the framework of the organisation in cycles, the teacher sometimes follows his or her group/class for the duration of the cycle. Directives recommend that teaching teams be set up to co-manage lessons, work under co-responsibility for children in the same cycle, and draw up a consistent pedagogical plan within each cycle (shared tenure).
Number of pupils per class
The number of teachers subsidised in each school is defined on the basis of the number of pupils registered on 15th January of the previous year. Since the decree of 3 may 2012 the average number of pupils per class is regulated as follows :
- in the first two grades of primary school, the average number of pupils is 20 ;
- from the third to the sixth grade, the average number of pupils is 24.
Organisation of the school year
The school calendar is fixed for each school year by a Law of the Government of the French Community.
The government of the French Community decides the start and end of the school year, as well as statutory holidays.
In 2021, the Government of the French Community decided on new annual school rhythms, from the start of the 2022-2023 school year. The philosophy of the reform is to follow the "7+2" model, alternating 7 weeks of classes followed by 2 weeks of holidays. The consequences are the lengthening of the All Saints' and Carnival holidays (two weeks instead of one for each of these holidays) and the shortening of the summer holidays. The school year therefore starts on the last Monday of August and ends on the first Friday of July of the next year. In addition to the 7-week summer holidays, children have two weeks of autumn holidays (early November), 2 weeks of winter holidays (Christmas), two weeks of carnival holidays (February) and 2 weeks of spring holidays (Easter).
In addition, a certain number of days off are granted at regular intervals during the school year: 1st May, Ascension Thursday, Whit Monday, French Community Day (27th September), and 11th November.
In a usual school curriculum, a school year consists of 182 days of classes spread over 37 weeks. The government may define the number of school days between 180 and 184.
To organise assessment tests, classes may be suspended for a maximum of 10 days per year in the 5th and 6th primary years; and for a maximum of 5 days per year in the 2nd and 4th primary years. On these days, pupils are expected to attend school normally. Classes can be suspended for a maximum of 6 half-days in pre-secondary education to enable teaching staff members to attend trainings.
Organisation of the school day and week
The weekly timetable
The time at which the school begins and ends is determined by the Organizing Authority. Likewise, any controlling authority may authorise its schools to adapt the weekly timetable, in line with their plan, in order to implement activities that enable them to attain their general objectives. (The school project defines all of the pedagogical choices and concrete actions that the educational team intends to implement in order to carry out the educational and pedagogical projects of the organizing authority.) Generally, education takes place from 8.30 a.m. to 12 a.m. in the morning and from 1.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. in the afternoon (except for Wednesday afternoon, when there are no classes), with 8.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. representing the school day’s earliest starting and latest ending times. Each full day includes a break of at least 15 minutes in the morning and a break of at least one hour between morning classes and afternoon classes.
Example of a weekly timetable
Out-of-school care - before classes
Out of school care - after classes
In primary education, pupils attend school for 28 periods of 50 minutes per week (1,400 minutes per week). The weekly timetable can include a maximum of 31 periods, in particular when the course schedule includes the study of a modern language for more than three periods per week.
Pupils spend on average 5 hours per day in school on learning activities, but some are present for close to 9 hours. In many schools, out-of-hours provision is available from 7 a.m. until classes start and from the end of classes until 6 p.m. In cities, most pupils remain in school during the lunch break, under the supervision of teaching staff or other persons subsidised by the French Community for one hour of midday break monitoring.
The coordination of care during pupils’ free time (Wednesday afternoons, weekends, and school holidays) and support of out-of-school care (before and after classes, but not during the lunch break) have been put in place. The interventions target specific geographical areas, based on appraisals of the situation of childcare drawn up at the initiative of municipalities. They relate to children of nursery school age, those attending primary education or those up to the age of 12. The childminding offer is presented in a programme called CLE – Coordination Locale pour l’Enfance (Local Coordination for Children), presented as a childminding programme coordinated and agreed by the concerned parties and applicable in a given territory. The consultation of local players allows structuring of the childcare provision. It favours the pooling of resources and creation of synergies aiming at greater efficiency. Under certain conditions, operators can benefit from support. Three general aims are pursued: the global development of children, social cohesion through intermingling, facilitation and consolidation of family life.