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; as seen in the most recent PISA study of 2018. Flanders combines a high average performance with large social differences compared to other European countries. PISA 2018 shows that differences are even growing. While the proportion of top performers remains relatively high, 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. In 2014 the “M-decree”, a measure to provide inclusive education for pupils with special needs by enabling them to enrol and remain in regular education, was approved by the Flemish Parliament (see 6.6 Social inclusion through education and training for more information). In 2019, however, the Flemish coalition agreement 2019-2024 stated that the M-decree will be replaced by a new guidance decree, which will enter into force on 1 September 2022 at the earliest.
For more information see also:
- OECD, PISA 2015 key findings for Belgium, 2015 (last accessed 26/12/2019)
- Vlaams Ministerie van Onderwijs en Vorming, Programme for international student assessment (PISA) (last accessed 16/07/2021)
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 7.3% in 2018, while the EU28 percentages were respectively 15.3% in 2006 and 10.2% in 2019. A percentage of 7.3% 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. This Flemish indicator indicates only a small decline from 12% in the school year 2009/2010 to 9.5% in the school year 2014/2015. Since then, the share of early school leavers has slowly risen back to 12.1% in 2018/2019. This increase was the strongest among pupils in (part-time) vocational studies.
Social differences in ELET are huge. Until 2014/2015 a decline of ELET could be noticed by most social groups. However, since 2015/2016 most social differences increase again. For instance, the probability of early school leaving is significantly higher (based on the Flemish indicator) for young people:
- living in the Brussels Capital Region (14.1% in 2014/2015 and 17.9% in 2018/2019),
- living in metropolitan areas (e.g. Antwerp: 20% 2014/2015 and 22.8% in 2018/2019),
- in vocational education and more specifically in part-time vocational education (e.g. in 2014/2015: the percentage of early school leavers in general secondary education was only 2.3%, while this was respectively 14.3% and 52.2% in vocational education and part-time vocational education; and in 2018/2019 differences are even larger: 3.2% in general secondary education versus 17.8% in vocational education and 59.4% in part-time vocational education),
- scoring high on the Education Poverty Indicator (Onderwijs Kansarmoede-Indicator or OKI). The OKI is calculated as the number of the following poverty characteristics that apply to the pupil: 1) family language is not Dutch; 2) mother has not achieved a diploma of secondary education; 3) lives in a neighbourhood with a high degree of school delay; 4) receives a school allowance (e.g. in 2014/2015: among the pupils with an OKI-score of 0 the percentage of ELET was 4.1%, among the pupils with an OKI-score of 3 or 4 this was 21.5%. In 2018/2019: among the pupils with an OKI-score of 0 the percentage of ELET was 4.8%, among the pupils with an OKI-score of 3 or 4 this was 26.5%),
- with a school delay (and increases with every year of school delay) (e.g. in 2014/2015: 1% for youngsters without a school delay, 10% for youngsters with a 1-year delay, 29% for youngsters with a 2-year delay and 44% of those with more than two years delay. In 2018/2019: 1% for youngsters without a school delay, 15% for youngsters with a 1-year delay, 37% for youngsters with a 2-year delay and 54% of those with more than two years delay),
- that are boys (in 2014/2015: 7.3% for girls and 11.9% for boys; in 2018/2019: 9.1% for girls and 15% for boys).
For more information see:
- Report on early school leaving in Flemish secondary education 2015/2016 (Rapport vroegtijdig schoolverlaten in het Vlaams secundair onderwijs 2015-2016)
- Report on early school leaving in Flemish secondary education 2016/2017 (Rapport vroegtijdig schoolverlaten in het Vlaams secundair onderwijs 2016-2017)
- Smarter, greener, more inclusive? — Indicators to support the Europe 2020 strategy — 2018 edition
In 2018/2019, 6.008 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: almost a doubling over the last 10 years (2008/2009: 3.243). On average, a student goes abroad for 4.6 months in the context of studies or 3.4 months as part of an internship. In higher education the five most popular countries in 2018/2019 were (in descending order: Spain, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany).
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.
On average, each year 4.000 students from abroad arrive on Erasmus exchange in Flanders.
For more information:
- Yearbook 2019 Erasmus+ - EPOS (Jaarboek 2019)
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 July 1, 2016, policy-oriented education research of the Department of Education and Training identifies 4 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 focuses on 3 thematic research lines:
- The learner: With an emphasis on optimal pathways for each student in an increasingly diverse society. A database is being built that maps out the actual study paths of pupils in secondary education. The finalities of compulsory education (a starting qualification for every young person and an optimal connection to the labour market) are examined. Other research lines in this section are the GOK-policy, the M-decree, language policy, dual learning and dealing with diversity.
- The teacher and the school as an organisation: It looks at the role of teachers and educational professionals in the future and explores new directions for continuous professionalisation of teams of teachers and other professionals. The career policy with regard to these professionals is also considered from the perspective of school policy priorities.
- The organisation of education: Attention is paid to the financial conditions and incentives, both for schools and for learners. It also addresses the problem of (de)segregation and the evaluation of the envisaged adjustment of the enrolment decree.
- Policy research centre for test development and assessments (Steunpunt voor Peilingen en Toetsontwikkeling). Primary goal of these assessments is to determine to what extent Flemish pupils reach final objectives or developmental aims at the end of particular educational levels.
- Construction and monitoring of indicators (Onderwijsindicatoren en monitoring). Since September 2016, the Flemish government's Education and Training policy domain has been building an overview of the education indicators and indicator sets being monitored in Flanders. Indicators make comparisons between education systems possible.
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)
- A report on early school leaving (Vroegtijdig schoolverlaten in het Vlaams secundair onderwijs)
- Statistics on problematic absences and disciplinary measures (Cijfermateriaal - Problematische afwezigheden en tucht)
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.
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.
Main organisation of formal education for young people
ISCED 3 – upper secondary education
Fulltime secondary education contains three stages in Flanders. ISCED 3 refers to stages 2 and 3. Each stage consists of two grades. 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:
- 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.
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. On 12 March 2014 the Flemish Parliament approved a parliamentary act on measures for pupils with specific needs (M-decree, see section 6.6 for more information) which aims to make education more inclusive. The decree contains measures which allow pupils with specific educational needs to participate fully, effectively and on equal terms in regular schools and classrooms. In 2019, however, the Flemish coalition agreement 2019-2024 stated that the M-decree will be replaced by a new guidance decree, which will enter into force on 1 September 2022 at the earliest.
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). All pupils in part-time education are obliged to combine learning and working for at least 28 hours a week. There exist 2 pathways of combining:
- Part-time vocational secondary education: pupils follow courses for 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 a theoretical training in a Syntra training centre one day a week and a practical training in a company or with a self-employed person for four days a week.
The systems of learning and working have recently been reformed to a system of dual learning. Dual learning is fully implemented from 1 September 2019. In the coalition agreement of 2014, the Flemish Government raised the ambition to reform the system of learning and working into 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 a pupil 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 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 (see also chapter 3).
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 professional 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 which have completed compulsory education may enrol in adult education.
For further information, please consult the following pages of Eurydice:
- introduction articles of Organisation and Governance
- and of each educational level: Secondary Education and Post-Secondary Non Tertiary Education, Higher Education and Adult Education and Training.
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.
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