6.1 General context
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Social inequality in education
One of the main challenges for education in Flanders is to reduce the social gap in educational outcomes. Several studies, e.g. the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that in Flanders socioeconomic status has a large impact on school performance. Unlike other regions, Flanders does not succeed in reducing this gap; also in the most recent PISA study (2018, summary in Dutch) Flanders combines a high average performance with large social differences compared to other European countries. And PISA 2018 shows that differences are even growing. While the proportion of top performers remains relatively high (but also decreases), the proportion of pupils who do not reach the basic level for reading, science and / or mathematics increases (e.g. reading: PISA 2009: 13%, PISA 2018: 19%).
These differences are related, among other things, to differences in education and socio-economic composition of the pupil population. Research also shows that not only the socio-economic background of pupils themselves, but also those of their fellow students at school can impact their performance. The teacher and the school leadership also strongly influence school results.
The gap not only occurs in terms of performance and skills, but also regarding other school career indicators (such as the probability of early school leaving). International Comparative Research (PISA) also shows that Flanders in comparison with most other countries counts a relatively large number of repeaters. Moreover, Flanders is also at the top in terms of the proportion of pupils with special needs taught in separate schools (special education). This primarily relates to pupils with a foreign or/and disadvantaged background. Repeating, reorientation (B certificate, cascade system) and referrals to special education are characteristics of the Flemish education to deal with pupils with deficits. From the 1st of September 2023 onwards the Decree Support for Learning (Decreet Leersteun) groups the measures to provide more inclusive education for pupils with special needs and replaced the M Decree (effective since 2014). The policy measures enable pupils with special needs to enrol and remain in regular education (see 6.6 Social inclusion through education and training for more information).
For more information see also:
- OECD, How did countries perform in PISA, 2018 (last accessed 15/11/2023)
- Vlaams Ministerie van Onderwijs en Vorming, Programme for international student assessment (PISA) (last accessed 15/11/2023)
Early leaving from education and training (ELET)
Flanders has a relatively high number of high-performing pupils in compulsory education, of whom many attain higher education degrees. Nonetheless, many pupils, especially those from a lower socio-economic and/or immigration background, experience problems of grade retention and streaming down the hierarchically organized tracking system and finally leave education unqualified.
Flanders uses two indicators on ELET, a European measure that is used to make comparisons with European countries and a Flemish indicator which is based on Flemish educational statistics and that is more reliable for the Flemish situation. The European indicator for early leavers from education and training is based on the labour force survey, which is a population survey. Based on this European indicator, Flanders is doing quite well. Numbers for early school leaving have dropped from 10% in 2006 to 4.9% in 2022, while the EU28 percentages were respectively 15.3% in 2006 and 9.6% in 2022. A percentage of 4.9% ELET is below the EU2020 goal of 10% but still above the Flemish PACT2020 goal of 4.25%. According to the Flemish indicator (in Dutch), an early school leaver is a young person who is no longer subject to compulsory education and who leaves a regular qualifying programme of Flemish secondary education without qualification. In recent years Flanders did not make progress in decreasing the number of early school levers. In 2016/2017 the percentage equalled 11.0% (in 2011-2012 it was 10.9%) and by 2020/2021 this had risen to 12.0% (Source: Dataloep).
Social differences in ELET are considerable. Until 2015/2016 a decline of ELET could be noticed by most social groups. However, since 2016/2017 most social differences increase again. For instance, the probability of early school leaving in 2020/2021 was significantly higher (based on the Flemish indicator; numbers derived from Dataloep) for
- pupils who don’t have the Belgian nationality (31.2% versus 10.1% for pupils with the Belgian nationality),
- pupils enrolled in vocational education (19.3% compared to 2.8% in general education) and more specifically in part-time vocational education (57.1%),
- with school delay (and increases with every year of school delay),
- and for boys (15.1% versus 8.7% for girls).
It is important to note, however, that a part of the pupils who leave education early later enrol in ‘second chance education’. For example, 34% of the students who left education early in 2019-2020 were in 2021-2022 enrolled second chance educational trajectory.
For more information see:
- Report on early school leaving in Flemish secondary education 2016/2017 (Rapport vroegtijdig schoolverlaten in het Vlaams secundair onderwijs 2016-2017)
- Report that signals tendencies for the period 2024-2029 and that includes the most recent numbers on early school leaving in Flanders (Omgevingsanalyse van het Beleidsdomein Onderwijs en Vorming 2024-2029).
- In recent years no report was written, but data can be consulted via Dataloep.
In 2020/2021, 7.335 Flemish students in tertiary education followed - by means of the Erasmus exchange programme - a part of their studies or internship in another European country. The international mobility of students in Flanders continues to increase year after year. Since the start of the Erasmus exchange programme, mobility increases annually: more than a doubling over the last 12 years (2008/2009: 3.243). On average, a student goes abroad for 3.8 months in the context of studies as part of an internship. In higher education the five most popular countries in 2018/2019 were (in descending order: France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom).
Pupils in secondary technical and vocational education can also follow an internship or training abroad by means of the Erasmus+ programme. During the school year 2018/2019 1.810 pupils from technical and vocational education went abroad (data from 2020 are not yet complete).
On average, each year 4.000 students (2020-2021: 4.229) from abroad arrive on Erasmus exchange in Flanders.
For more information:
- Yearbook 2021 Erasmus+ - EPOS (Jaarboek 2021)
Regular national surveys on young people’s participation in education and training
The Department of Education and Training has a long tradition in (international) research and knowledge policy (Onderwijsonderzoek Departement Onderwijs en Vorming). On the one hand, it involves coordinating, setting up and financing research (see studies above). In addition, the Department of Education and Training also focuses on the disclosure, analysis and interpretation of available administrative data.
Since 2016 policy-oriented education research of the Department of Education and Training identifies four pillars:
- Support Centre for Educational Research (Steunpunt Onderwijs Onderzoek – SONO). SONO is an interuniversity and interdisciplinary consortium of Flemish researchers. During their 1st cycle (2016-2020) SONO focused on 3 thematic research lines, namely (1) the learner, (2) the teacher and the school as an organization, and (3) the organisation of education. In 2020 SONO was not prolonged and replaced by the old OBPWO system. This implies that rather than funding a centre, individual research projects are funded.
- In 2021 a Support Centre for Central Tests was installed (2021-2025). This interuniversity and interdisciplinary consortium will develop the Central Tests voor Mathematics and Dutch. In school year 2023-2024 all pupils enrolled in the 4th grade of primary education and the second grade of secondary education will take these tests. The Support Center has five core tasks:
- (1) the development of the tests Mathematics and Dutch,
- (2) support schools in gathering the test results,
- (3) process and analyze the test results,
- (4) provide feedback to the educational field about the results of the tests,
- and (5) to develop expertise in terms of sustainable educational effectiveness.
- Leerpunt was installed in 2022. Leerpunt is an independent knowledge center that translates and disseminates valuable insights from science and effective teaching methods to the classroom (see also section 6.10). Leerpunt is funded by the Flemish government and was given the following tasks:
- Identification of knowledge needs in the Flemish educational system
- Creating knowledge by unlocking and synthesizing relevant existing (inter)national scientifically based knowledge and materials for educational practice, and contextualizing them to Flemish education.
- Communication and dissemination: development of a communication and mobilization strategy through which Leerpunt effectively reaches the intended target groups.
- Scientific support for the use of research in classroom and school practice, in cooperation with the existing pedagogical guidance services, teacher training courses and centers of expertise.
- International comparative studies (e.g. PISA, ICCS, PIRLS, …). In recent years Flanders did not participate in ICCS and it is unclear whether they will participate in TALIS.
- Construction and monitoring of indicators (Onderwijsindicatoren en monitoring). Flanders has put much effort and work in providing tools that enable citizens and researchers to have access to data on education (see Dataloep).
Based on administrative data, the Department on Education and Training publishes on a yearly basis:
- A statistical yearbook of Flemish education (Statistisch Jaarboek van het Vlaams Onderwijs): number of students in all educational levels, number of teachers, …
- Statistics on the student characteristics used in the context of equal opportunities policy: home language, mother's level of education, neighbourhood indicator, school allowance (Cijfermateriaal - Leerlingenkenmerken)
Competence for education in Belgium has been transferred to the communities. Only the determination of the starting and finishing ages for compulsory education, minimum requirements for diploma conferrals and the pension system are remaining federal matters.
In Flanders, education is compulsory from 6 until 18 years old. Compulsory education ends at the eighteenth birthday or on June 30 of the calendar year in which one reaches the age of 18. If a pupil stops going to school on his 18th anniversary and does not finish the current school year, he does not have the right to a certificate or diploma which is awarded upon completing the course. For young people who obtain a diploma of secondary education before the age of 18, compulsory education stops at that moment.
A pupil has to comply with full-time compulsory education until the age of fifteen or sixteen. Afterwards only part-time compulsory education is applicable (which is a combination of part-time learning and working). However, most young people continue to attend full-time secondary education. In the last schoolyear for which data are available, 2020-2021, 9.058 students (less than 2% of the population in secondary education) were enrolled in part-time education.
Main organisation of formal education for young people
ISCED 3 – upper secondary education
In September 2019 Flanders started to modernize secondary education. This is a gradual process that started in the first two grades of secondary education. Each year a new grade will be modernized so that the modernization process ends in school year 2025-2026.
Fulltime secondary education contains three stages in Flanders. ISCED 3 refers to stages 2 and 3. Each stage consists of two grades. The first stage is organised in an A- and B-stream. Since the modernization, in principle, all pupils who reached the final attainment goals of primary education will be enrolled in the A-stream (in the past the boundary between the A- and B-stream was less strict). After 2 comprehensive years, pupils make a choice of study at the start of the second stage. From the second stage onwards four different types of education are offered. In Flanders a pupil chooses a course of study within one of the following types of education (situation pre-modernization):
- General secondary education (gse), which focuses on broad general education. It does not prepare pupils for a specific profession, but rather lays a firm foundation for higher education.
- In technical secondary education (tse) attention goes in particular to general and technical-theoretical subjects. After tse a young person may practice a profession or transfer to higher education. This type of education also contains practical training.
- Secondary education in the arts combines a broad general education with an active practice of art. After secondary education in the arts one may practice a profession or transfer to higher education.
- Vocational secondary education (vse) is a practically-oriented type of education in which the pupil receives general education but where the focus primarily lies on learning a specific profession.
After the modernization the different studies will be reorganised based on their final goal and a distinction will be made between three tracks: (1) doorstroom (i.e., orientation towards higher education), (2) arbeidsmarkt (i.e., orientation towards entry to the labour market), and (3) dubbele finaliteit (i.e., both higher education and labour market orientation).
Besides mainstream education, special needs secondary education is available. Special needs education (buitengewoon onderwijs) is organized for pupils who need temporary or permanent specific support because of a physical or mental disability, serious behavioural or emotional problems or severe learning disabilities. These pupils are not enrolled in regular education. In addition to this separate form of education, since the 1st of September 2023 The Decree Support for Learning (Decreet Leersteun) groups the measures to provide more inclusive education for pupils with special needs. These measures focus on students with special needs that are enrolled in regular education (see section 6.6 for more information)
When a pupil is 16 years old or (s)he is 15 and has completed the first 2 years of full-time education (passed or not) (s)he may enter a system of alternating learning and working (Systeem van deeltijds leren en deeltijds werken). Also this system is currently being reformed (start 2019, end 2025/2026) in the context of the modernization of secondary education.
Currently, there exist 2 pathways of combining:
- Part-time vocational secondary education: pupils follow courses during two days a week in a Centre for Part-time Education (Centrum voor Deeltijds Onderwijs). Based on a screening, the workplace learning section can be a real work experience or for those who are not yet ready to work in a regular economic circuit a preparatory pathway or a bridging project with a recognized promotor or with a personal development pathway in a Centre for Part-time Training.
- a centre for apprenticeships (in Flanders organised in Syntra training centre): pupils follow one day a week a theoretical training in a Syntra training centre and four days of practical training in a company or with a self-employed person.
The systems of learning and working will be reformed to a system of dual learning. Dual learning can be considered a pathway that stands alongside full-time education. Both pathways are equivalent to each other and result after successful completion in a secondary education degree. How many hours a week pupils will work in the workplace will depend on their field of study and the type of agreement. A workplace is guaranted for every pupil that wants to do dual learning. Actors in both policy areas of education and training and employment have committed themselves to fulfilling the workplace guarantee. Furthermore, sectoral partnerships are created with the educational providers, the sectoral social partners, Syntra Flanders and the public employment services. Through this new system, young people will be able to obtain their qualifications on the work floor in more fields of study. Dual learning is also be possible in special needs secondary education. More information can be found on the portal website on dual learning (duaal leren).
ISCED 4 – post secondary non-tertiary education
In technical secondary education and secondary education in the arts, labour market oriented programmes can be organised after the second grade of the third stage. Since 2009/2010 these programmes are grouped under the heading of Secondary-after-Secondary (Secundair-na-secundair, Se-n-Se). Se-n-Se programmes last one to three semesters and are organised by schools of secondary education. After successfully completing a Se-n-Se programme a pupil is granted a certificate.
Entrepreneurship education organized by a Syntra training centre is also considered ISCED 4.
People of at least 18 years old and pupils which have completed compulsory education may enrol in adult education and may obtain a recognized diploma, qualification or certificate in adult education. Participants may choose between a generic training on the level of gse (formerly known as second chance education) and a diploma specific training.
ISCED 5 – Short-cycle tertiary education
On 1 September 2009 higher vocational education (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs) was introduced in the Flemish educational system. Graduate programmes of higher vocational education (until the school year 2018-2019 they were called HBO5) are professionally oriented programmes situated in between secondary education and professionally oriented bachelor programmes. Participants follow this education in institutions for higher education, except for nursing which is followed in full-time secondary education.
ISCED 6: Bachelor’s or equivalent level
Bachelor programmes in Flanders may both be professionally as academically oriented. Professionally oriented bachelor programmes are primarily aimed at practicing a profession and offer a direct access to the labour market. Academically oriented bachelor programmes focus on a broad academic education or an education in the arts. They aim at offering access to a master programme or to the labour market.
ISCED 7: Master’s or equivalent level
Master programmes focus on advanced scientific or artistic knowledge or competences which are needed for the independent practice of science or arts, or for practicing a profession.
ISCED 8: Doctoral or equivalent level
A doctorate may be obtained after original scientific research and the public presentation and defence of the doctoral thesis. Only the universities may award the degree of doctorate in Flanders.
Doctoral schools stimulate and support doctoral studies. They organise courses tailored to the requirements of doctoral students, train researchers in general skills and monitor the employment market.
More information on the different stages of education can be found on Eurydice.
Adult education is unrelated to the initial educational career. Course participants may obtain a recognized diploma, qualification or certificate in adult education. Adults of at least 18 years old and young people who have completed compulsory education may enrol in adult education.
For further information, please consult the pages of Eurydice.
Early Leaving from education and training (ELET)
At EU level, early leavers from education and training are defined as 18-24 year-olds with only lower secondary education or less who are no longer in education or training.
The Flemish Community of Belgium has also developed a Flemish ELET-indicator (in Dutch) which is based on administrative data that includes all pupils from Flemish education. In this indicator early leavers from education and training are defined as pupils who are no longer subject to compulsory education and who leave a regular qualifying program of Flemish secondary education without qualification with a professional finality or a finality of higher education. Early leaving defined in terms of the Flemish ELET-indicator is considerable higher when compared by the EU-indicator (2022: 12.0% versus 4.9% respectively).
Pupil Guidance Centres
The Pupil Guidance Centre (Centrum voor Leerlingbegeleiding – CLB) is a service which is financed or subsidised by the Flemish government. Pupils, parents, teachers and school boards may turn to a Pupil Guidance Centre with a question for guidance, information or advice.
A Pupil Guidance Centre is a multidisciplinary organisation cooperating with other external services within their network such as welfare and health institutions. The services of the CLB are free and can be situated within the following four domains:
- Learning and studying
- School career
- Preventive health care
- Socio-emotional development