Free state education

  • Pre-school education
  • Primary school
  • Secondary school
  • Frequently asked questions

Pre-school education

Belgium offers free state pre-school (‘kleuteronderwijs’ / ‘enseignement maternelle’) to all children from the age of 2.5 to 6 years of age (when they must start primary education).

Children can start pre-school:

  • from the age of 30 months (i.e. 2.5 years) on the first school day in February or on the first school day after a holiday period;
  • at any time once they have turned 3. Typically, children start primary school in September of the year they turn six and enter secondary school at around age 12.

Most pre-schools are attached to a primary school, so children may stay in the same institution from when they start pre-school at 2.5 until the start secondary school at age 12.

State pre-school is often an obvious alternative to paid daycare, and the standard of care and infrastructure is typically high.

According to the latest figures (2016-2017), in the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, around 95% of children already attend pre-school by the age of 3.


Primary school

Primary education is obligatory for children aged 6 to 12 years old – as of September 2019, education will become compulsory as of age 5.

Primary school comprises six years of study and focuses mainly on maths and reading.

At the end of primary school, students in the French Community take the ‘Certificat d’études de Base’ (CEB, Certificate of basic studies)’ and students in the Flemish Community take the ‘Getuigschrift-basisonderwijs’ (Certificate of basic education).

These certificates are needed to be able to move on to secondary school.


Immersion learning in a foreign language

Some pre-school and primary schools offer a language-immersion programme, whereby some subjects are taught entirely in another language, usually Dutch or English, and usually by a native speaker of that language.

Children typically start learning through immersion:

  • in the third year of pre-school or the first year of primary education; or
  • in the third year of primary school.

For a list of The list of schools offering language-immersion learning (FR) in the French Community is available from www.enseignement.be.

Secondary education

Secondary education is part of compulsory education. All children must attend school until they reach eighteen years of age. Following a part-time course from 16 years of age is also an option (15 years of age if the student has followed a second full year of secondary education). This is what is called an apprenticeship – alternating education.

Secondary Education in Belgium unfolds through 3 stages and lasts for 6 years. 

  • First cycle: Consists of year 1 and 2
  • Second cycle: Consists of year 3 and 4
  • Third cycle: Consists of year 5 and 6

The first cycle lays down the foundation by providing general education, while the second and third cycles increase in specificity. 

Secondary education is split into four tiers, with four orientations:

  • general education
  • technical education
  • vocational education
  • art education

All these orientations provide access to higher education, except vocational education, for which a seventh year must be completed to obtain the Certificate of Higher Secondary Education).

More detailed information on these secondary education orientations (FR/NL) and the apprenticeships combined with work placement (FR/NL) is available at www.belgium.be.

Special needs education

Special needs education offers specialised schooling, based on the needs and abilities of pupils and students. The Brussels-Capital Region runs a comprehensive special needs education network for children in primary and secondary education.

Special needs education is split into various types, tailored to the general and specialised educational needs of the children. These needs are established on the basis of the primary disability, enabling children to be brought together in group courses corresponding to the shared needs.

Like other types of education, special needs education in Brussels is the remit of the French and Flemish Communities.

Four levels of education
The education system is divided into four levels:

  • 2,5 to 6 years> nursery school
    Education in Belgium begins at the age of 2½ (or 3 years) with three years of nursery school education. This is not compulsory, although Belgian education experts strongly advise it. The system is designed to prepare young children for primary education rather than to provide a childminding service.
  • 6 to 12 years > primary school
    Primary school is compulsory. It involves a six-year cycle from 6 to 12 years. Children are admitted into primary education on 1 September of the calendar year in which they turn six. The main subjects are reading, writing and elementary mathematics. Starting third year, the study of the country’s second official language (either Dutch or French) is obligatory.
  • 12 to 18 years > secondary school
    Secondary school is also compulsory and the choice offered at this level is very wide. It is impossible to list all the possibilities, but the four main options are as follows:

General secondary education: it is intended for young people planning to continue their education beyond the age of 18, whether at a university or at a non-university higher education institute. It does not prepare directly for a profession.

Technical secondary education: the orientation here is more practical and enables students to practice a profession at the end of their cycle. However, they can choose to continue studying with links to the university or non-university higher education, as general subjects are sufficiently developed.

Art studies: this is geared towards the plastic arts, theatre and music. It prepares students for higher education in institutions such as the Conservatoire (music academy).

Secondary professional education: it is intended for young people who do not wish to continue their education beyond the age of 18 but wishing to take up a particular trade or learn a craft. There is less emphasis on general culture and more focus on practical training in firms.

Frequently asked questions

Are schools typically mixed or single sex?

Nearly all schools are mixed.

What is the typical school day?

School typically starts between 8:00 and 8:30, and ends between 15:30 and 16:00. Most children eat lunch at school, though this is not mandatory.

Is there supervision before and after school?

Most schools open from around 7:30 (some as early as 7:00) to welcome children whose parents work.

There is almost always some kind of after-school supervision between the end of school and around 18:00 to 18:30 – in some schools this may be mostly unstructured play, while other schools may offer homework support or other (often paying) activities such as drama, sport etc.

There is usually a small fee for supervision of children who arrive before e.g. 7:30 and stay later than e.g. 16:30.

Do schools typically offer hot lunches?

Most schools provide cooked meals.

What is the typical school year?

For Belgian schools, the school year for pre-school, primary and secondary education:

  • starts on 1 September, or on the first working day after; and
  • ends on 30 June, or the last working day before.

This means that, depending on how the dates fall, school can start on Friday 1 September, and end on Monday 30 June.

What are the main school holidays periods in Belgium?

Halloween holidays – 1 week around the end of October
Christmas holidays – 2 weeks
Carnaval holidays – 1 week typically mid-February
Easter holidays – 2 weeks

Do schools have school uniforms?

School uniforms are uncommon in Belgium, and it is typically only some private schools that have a school uniform.

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