The good news is that there is a wide choice of schools in Belgium. But making the right choice for your children requires careful analysis. Ginny Suter asked some mothers for their comments.
Ginny wrote numerous articles for Plug-In Belgium and Internationals in Belgium in the late 1990s early 2000's and presented a weekly radio programme for a local radio station in the Brussels Waterloo area.
The choice of schools here - state, private, local or international - is vast and can be confusing. There are advantages and disadvantages with each, which can make your decision a difficult one. The biggest educationally related problem for internationals being transferred around the world is finding continuity of curriculum for their children and, apart from putting them in a boarding school back home, only two schools appear to offer a world-wide constancy: the French Lycée and the Italian inspired Montessori systems..
Among the international schools here, there are a number of possibilities. They are quite expensive (almost equivalent to fees paid at boarding school) and, if they are not included in a corporate package, can seem prohibitive. There is, however, the possibility sometimes of negotiating an 'assisted' fee with some schools in cases where your company is not offering a package which includes schooling. The fees at the three European Schools are lower than at the 'international' schools but EU personnel get first choice for places, so access is not always possible. At Le Verseau, a private French language school where English is a major part of the curriculum, fees are also lower but here, too, there is a long waiting list.
The choice of Belgian schools is numerous. There are some private establishments but most Belgians send their children to state owned schools, which have a high academic standard and stricter discipline than found in some other schools here.
Amanda Brown, who is English, could be moved anywhere as the company her husband works for has operations throughout the globe. They arrived here when their two sons were very young: 2 years and 8 months. She weighed up the pros and cons of international schools which she visited but found that "they had nice nurseries, good facilities but little or no emphasis on French or contact with the local community." Wanting to take advantage of being here and integrating locally, she enrolled them in a local pre-school, the Van Hoegaerden in Lasne. That was three years ago and now they handle French without difficulty.
"Jack, the elder, began understanding the language quite quickly within the first few months," says Amanda. "I found the school friendly and informal. The teachers were affectionate and warm towards the children, yet at the same time discipline in the classroom was good. And," she continues, "the kids are very happy, there is a structure to the day with a concentration on social skills. Both Jack and Guy come home with wonderful, almost professional handicrafts."
The outdoor activities are well organised, with nature oriented expeditions including visits to nearby farms and forests. Lessons for the 24 children per class start at 9.0 am and finish at 3.30 pm.
The Montessori way
A German couple who moved here in 1996 chose the Montessori system because "firstly, it's not easy to find one school to suit the different needs of all your children, especially when you're moving around the world. Secondly, the schools in each country differ, even so called international schools. Because of this, we didn't choose a specific school but decided on a certain kind of school - ones that apply the method and rules of Maria Montessori."
"This method of education centres on the needs of each child and respects their individual rhythm. It means," she explains, "enormous support during the disturbances of a move. The child finds the same learning material, the same daily curriculum, the same learning approach in every Montessori school."
Another factor which the family like is that "teachers support the child according to his or her individual learning progress. And as every child is different, this takes care of the problem for a family with several children." A good Montessori teacher, they add, will give all the time to the children that is needed. So classes are small; about 1 teacher for 9 children.
"The first thing the children learn is how to show respect to their classmates and to the environment." From this follow qualities like fairness, self-confidence, caring and independence. "And," they conclude, "both our children are developing and blossoming wonderfully in their school. We want to keep them in the system as long as possible."
Beating the queue
Di Soames, who is British and likely to be here for several years, chose Le Verseau because she wanted son Freddie to "take full advantage of the local culture through the school whilst retaining his English through the lessons. The maternelle," she states, is strong on creativity and social skills; children are taking to the theatre and on exciting nature walks, such a mushroom picking or flower observation."
She plans to keep him there until the age of eleven, when he will be transferred to a total English education either here or in a boarding school in England. Di registered Freddie for the school when he was just 3 months old as there is a long waiting list.
Catholic in discipline
Sule Ural, who is Turkish, has an international background, having studied and lived in the USA, then in The Netherlands, before moving to Belgium fifteen years ago. She chose St John's International School in Waterloo because of its International Baccalaureate programme and "because it was a catholic school - not so much in the religious sense but in discipline. Kids," she explains, "are educated in all religions - it's liberal and well rounded - and we even got to know more about Moslems!"
"We liked the personal attention to the kids and the involvement of parents and, consequently, the family atmosphere," she enthuses, "and academically it has strong background. If children are strong in an area, they're encouraged to go forward and if they have problems in another, the teachers concentrate on that weakness and held that individual."
"I told our kids: succeed. And they did," she affirms. They did, for both went onto Northwestern, Chicago. Their son then successfully completed a postgraduate course in Cambridge, England before being selected for management training by the prestigious Financial Times.
Wendy Humphreys has been living here for 20 years and chose the British School of Brussels for their three sons "because it's the only school in the area which offers GCSEs and A-levels." It has, she adds," a friendly and relaxed atmosphere." The Humphreys liked, in addition to a good education, a "wealth of extra-curricular activities, such as sports and drama."
"Our two eldest continued their A-level education at a boarding school in England before going to English universities," says Wendy, "but our youngest has decided to stay at BSB for his A-levels as there are very good maths teachers there."
....Sports and Scouts
Tonny Bakker, a Dutch woman, had previously lived in England where her youngest child started school. When the family arrived, he was placed in the European section of the European School. "This didn't work our as had not studied in his mother tongue before and felt intimidated at being behind the other students," says Tonny. "We then placed him at ISB, which he discovered through the ISB Scouts. He found that the school had a lot to offer him, came out with great grades, went onto university in Holland and now has a promising career in an international company. Sports and scouting," she remembers, " were also important to Marnix' development."
The French Connection
Several parents we spoke to chose the Lycée Français because it gives continuity, with schools all over the world. Englishwoman Gillian Flochelle and married to a Frenchman, now live in Paris, but chose the Lycée in Brussels because "it offers a bilingual system with English, including preparing students for exams to Oxford & Cambridge." The Lycée also gives students a head-start if they wish to progress to France's 'grandes écoles' from which many top professional and business people graduate.
"There's no doubt that the French curriculum is very hard," comments Gillian, "but the children who can make it through to the end can apply for admittance to any university in the world. And I suppose the French expect their children to come out of the schooling system, even before higher education, with more than a smattering of culture and academically the Lycée is of a very high standard." But she warns: "I would not recommend the Lycée to anyone whose children are not on top. Sports facilities are meagre and, anyway, the accent is so much on academia that the children have little time for anything else."
So which suits you?
Your choice will, no doubt, be influenced by the age of your children when you arrive here - it's easier for a 5-year old to adapt to a new language and culture than for a 13-year old. If you take the 'Belgian school' route, remember that emotional and practical support from the family is very important. And beware of the temptation to indulge in 'franglais' or half-Dutch - such as "do you want to take tartine today?" or "don't forget your cartable." Be careful when you choose to place one child in one system and one in another - state and international, for example - as dates of school holidays differ and that can make holiday planning difficult. The CHS calendar gives dates of various schools' term starts and finishes.
Consider all the options but whichever route you do decide to take should take into consideration short, medium and long term plans for your child's education. And their happiness.
See also: Choosing Schools in Belgium
©Ginny Suter - 1998
Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.
Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives