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Constitutional & Legal Foundations

Education in Belgium is regulated by the first Constitution of 1831, by the constitutional reform establishing cultural and linguistic communities (completed in 1993), and by several school laws. Article 17 of the Constitution of 1831 set "freedom of education," prohibiting efforts to hinder said freedom, and that the state would legislate publicly funded education. Article 17 has been consistently interpreted as meaning that the state must fund education but could not hold a monopoly in it, and that free institutions—in particular the Catholic Church—may provide public education parallel to the state. Accordingly, Belgium has several education systems, and the understandably numerous disputes between these systems have been settled primarily by means of supplemental legislation.

Legislative action of May 1914 instituted compulsory education, to begin in the fall of the year during which the child reached age six. Initially, education was compulsory for eight years. The legislative action also stated that a Belgian could become a primary school teacher having completed only two years of education beyond primary school. In 1983, however, Belgium initiated 12 years of compulsory education, from age 6 to age 18. However, children as young as two and a half years old can attend preprimary education. Of the 12 required years, 9 must be full-time, and the last 3 years (ages 15 through 18) may be spent going to school part-time.

The School Pact of 1958 (made into law in 1959) recognized two basic types of schools in the provision of primary and secondary education, official schools organized by state bodies, and free schools, most of which are Catholic. Parents were given complete freedom to select the type of school attended by their children. Moreover, the state was required to provide sufficient numbers of schools of both types within commuting distance, by direct provision of official schools, subsidies to free schools, or provision of school buses. Free schools that receive a state subsidy could not charge tuition or require fees for textbooks. The 1959 law also required official primary and secondary schools to provide two hours of instruction per week in religion or morals. While almost uniquely Catholic in 1959, religious instruction gradually came to be offered in other faiths, as well. Regardless of their religious beliefs, many parents elect to enroll their children in nondenominational moral instruction.

An immediate political problem generated by independence and affecting education policy was the selection of French as the national language, thereby essentially requiring bilingualism on the part of the Flemish population without parallel imposition on francophones. Throughout Belgium, all administrative offices, courts, hospitals, and other institutions functioned using French as their language. In the Flemish provinces, secondary and university education could only be obtained in French, while primary education was available in Flemish, taught in one of the dialects of the region. By the mid-nineteenth century, a Flemish political movement had developed under the leadership of Flemish intellectuals, who adopted the Dutch language spoken by their northern neighbor as a unifying language for the Flemish people, pushing the diverse multitude of local dialects into the background (a move that has come to be criticized by scholars who see in it the deepening marginalization and even disappearance of local culture and folklore). Legislation passed in 1898 recognized Dutch alongside French as an official language. However, the Flemish population continued to be treated as second best. While a 1932 law required that the language of instruction in primary and secondary education be that of the region (Dutch in Flanders, French in Wallonia and German in the municipalities of the eastern part of Belgium), the law also provided too many loopholes for the Flemish to give up demands for cultural equality.

After the Second World War, relations between the language and cultural communities of Belgium became increasingly strained, as the Flemish northern part of the country realized more rapid economic growth and had a larger population than the French speaking southern part. By the beginning of the 1960s several radical political parties gained popular power, notably the Volksunie and the Front des Francophones. A number of new laws, passed in 1962 and 1963, attempted to settle the language wars by establishing a linguistic frontier that ran horizontally through the middle of the country and requiring the language of instruction for primary and secondary schools to be that of the region. In the bilingual area of Brussels, children were to receive instruction in their "mother tongue," which was determined on the basis of a written declaration by the head of the family. The 1963 law further allowed teaching of a second language to be initiated in third grade, in primary schools that were located in the Brussels region, while primary schools located in Flanders and Wallonia were required to do so only in fifth grade. As a result, "frenchification" of the Brussels capital region, geographically located to the north of the language border continued, fueling the frustration of the Flemish population.

Continued demands for cultural self-determination led to a revision of the constitution and Belgium was transformed into a federal state through four stages of constitutional reforms, which were effected in 1970, 1980, 1988-89, and 1993. Belgian education policies are intertwined with its political progress towards federalism. An important step towards constitutional reform was the passage of language laws from 1873 to 1963, which ultimately recognized French, Dutch, and German as the three official languages of the Belgian state. In response to continuing Flemish demands for cultural autonomy, constitutional reforms of 1970 and 1980 established three geographic regions: the Flemish Region (Vlaams Gewest), the Walloon Region (Région Wallonne) and the bilingual capital region of Brussels (Région Capitale/Hoofstedelijk Gewest), as well as three cultural/linguistic communities (Dutch, French, and German). Each cultural/linguistic community obtained its own parliamentary government. While the Flemish and Walloon geographic regions would also have their own government, the government of the Flemish region coincides with that of the Flemish community. The French language community does not coincide easily with the French region (Wallonia), since the French speaking population of the capital region of Brussels is large in comparison with that of Wallonia, while the Dutch speaking population of Brussels is small compared with that of the Flemish region. Complicating matters even more, the German cultural/linguistic community comprises the population living in the eastern portion of the Walloon geographic region.

The third phase of constitutional reform, initiated in 1989, operationalized the previously established Brussels capital region (Région Capitale/Hoofstedelijk Gewest). It, too, was endowed its own parliamentary government. On July 14, 1993, the new Constitution was voted into law, with as its first sentence "Belgium is a federal state, constituted of several cultural/linguistic communities and geographic regions." Approximately 58 percent of the population lives in the Flemish region, 33 percent in Wallonia, and 9 percent in Brussels. Of those living in Wallonia, 70,000, or 2.1 percent are German and constitute the German community. Article 24 of the new Constitution decentralized educational authority and transferred it to the communities. Three types of schools coexist within each of the three communities: secular schools administered directly by the communities, grant-aided schools administered by provinces and local communes, and grant-aided free schools with or without religious denomination.

Education policy also is becoming more and more influenced by the needs imposed by Belgium's membership in the European Union (EU). The influence of the EU is especially evident in the teaching and utilization of technology in schools, provision of equal opportunity to children of immigrants, the equivalency ratings of diplomas obtained in other EU member countries, and access to educational exchange programs such as ERASMUS, LINGUA, and SOCRATES.

The linguistic configuration of Belgium is more intricate than evidenced by the three language communities, each of which oversees its own unilingual cultural institutions, since in each of these communities there are significant groups of "foreign" people whose mother tongue is different from that of the language community. These groups, constituting 11.3 percent of Wallonia, 4.2 percent of Flanders, and 27.2 percent of Brussels (Swing 1991/92), comprise educated European Community members as well as second and third generation immigrant workers whose origins are from Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and other countries. While direct immigration to Belgium has virtually come to a standstill, children and grandchildren of migrant workers continue to crowd Belgian schools and will comprise increasing percentages of the school age population. While close to 15 percent of the Belgian population is age 15 or younger, the percentages are the same, or are much higher among Belgians whose ethnicity is Italian (15 percent), Spanish (22 percent), Turkish (43 percent) or Moroccan (48 percent). While Dutch-language schools tend to attract relatively fewer "foreign" children, because children have been socialized in the French language, Belgian francophone children are increasing their participation in these schools owing to favorable student-teacher ratios, the recognition of the need for fluency in the Dutch language for economic advancement, and because of racist sentiments on the part of some parents. To deal with these realities of trilingualism, the European Community funded the experimental Foyer Project in 1981. The program recruited immigrant children into Dutch-language schools, where speaking and writing of both the native language and Dutch are stressed, and French is taught as a second language, even though many children are familiar with a street language version of French. The Dutch language is introduced gradually, for a few hours each week, until the child is literate in the home community language. Stressing the importance of the mother tongue is rooted in the belief that it provides the cognitive base for learning, together with Dutch, which eventually becomes the language of instruction for children enrolled in the program.

The approximately 850 square kilometer German-speaking area of eastern Belgium (Eupen-Malmédy) has seen substantial progress towards autonomy in the Belgian federal state. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the two German regions became part of Prussia, remaining so until the end of World War I when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles granted it to the Belgian state. Education policy relating to the language of instruction has varied substantially in the schools of this region, including a period of German unilingualism during the annexation of the region by Germany, followed by a period of imposition of the French language in education and government between 1945 and 1963. The year 1963 was a turning point, marking a move toward decentralization and regionalization and emergence of a new generation of German-speaking intellectuals. The nation's constitutional changes, leading to the four-stage reform of Belgium into a federal state, provided important additional stepping stones in the region's move towards educational autonomy.

Linguistic legislation of 1963 provided that German would be the language of instruction in all classes. A survey of parents, teachers and school principals, conducted in 1976, showed that extreme positions relative to the use of French (no teaching in French or all teaching in French) were those of a minority. Schools in the region range from those in which all classes are taught in German to those where German and French languages exist side by side to schools in which all classes are taught in French. The third stage of the completion of the Belgian federal state, completed in 1989, gave near complete independence in education matters to the three language communities from the central government, including the small German-speaking language community. Today, the people of this region are no longer Walloons or even Germans-they have evolved into German-speaking Belgians.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceBelgium - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education