Country information for Belgium (Flemish community) - Legislation and policy
1. A historical review
Special education in Belgium has a long history, but the need to organise a special school system became obvious as a result of compulsory school acts.
The Compulsory Education Act of 1914 stated that ‘where the school population is sufficiently large, local authorities must provide classrooms for poorly gifted or abnormal children’. However, this requirement was generally not met. In 1924, the Ministry of Education highlighted the issue of pupils who fell behind in basic subject acquisition. In 1931, new provisions were made to extend compulsory education to all learners with intellectual and physical disabilities. While some pioneers established special classes close to mainstream settings, the main initiatives in this field occurred after 1950. In 1959, the ‘School Pact Act’ required that a special education system be developed for all learners with ‘learning difficulties’.
1.1. The Act on Special Education – 1970
The Act on Special Education was adopted on 6 July 1970. Under this Act, schools were established for learners whose educational needs and possibilities could not be met in mainstream education.
The 1970 Act had two basic principles:
- Learners should attend mainstream classrooms: attendance at special schools should be an exception and must be justified by a comprehensive examination, independent of the school.
- Special education would be organised into eight types or pedagogical settings, designed to provide the most appropriate responses to learners’ particular needs.
For the first time, the law focused on learners’ needs rather than on their disabilities, and emphasised an educational rather than a therapeutic approach.
1.2. Integrated (GON) and inclusive education (ION) in mainstream schools
The 1970 Act allowed learners enrolled in special schools to attend mainstream schools full- or part-time. In the Flemish community, integrated education (GON) was introduced in 1980 for learners with physical, visual or hearing impairments. In 1983, it was extended to all learners with physical or sensory disabilities at all school levels. This led, in 1986, to the amendment of the 1970 Act on Special Education (then called the 6 July 1970 Act on Special and Integrated Education). Learners with disabilities could attend mainstream education under the guidance of a special school. In principle, no type or level of special education was excluded. However, in practice, during the 1988/1989 school year only 750 pupils with a physical, visual or hearing impairment were integrated into mainstream schools. The total number of pupils in special schools was almost 35,000.
In 1994, integrated education was extended to all types of special education. New forms and strategies of integration were introduced. In integrated education, staff from special schools supported learners and mainstream teachers. In this way, experience and special expertise from special education was integrated in the mainstream class. It created the opportunity to gradually build elements of special education into mainstream education. However, integration was still seen as extra support for learners who could meet the normal expectations of a mainstream school.
Over a period of 10 years, the number of learners in GON increased, but their percentage share in the number of learners in nursery, primary and secondary education remained restricted. The inclusive education project (ION) studied a limited group of 100 pupils with moderate or severe intellectual impairments. It explored the possibilities of working with an individual curriculum within the mainstream education curriculum. Both GON and ION were the subject of scientific evaluation research in 2013 (Onderwijsonderzoeken).
1.3. The Decree on Basic Education – 1997
The Decree on Basic Education (1997) harmonised the existing acts concerning basic education (pre-primary and primary, mainstream and special). All the legislation on special education since 1970 was fully integrated into the Decree. The same legislative integration took place for secondary education in 2010.
The Decree defines special education as:
… education, based on a pedagogical project, that provides adapted schooling, care and therapy for learners whose general personal development cannot be or can insufficiently be guaranteed, temporarily or permanently, in a mainstream school.
This definition is based on a social concept of special needs: a learner’s disability no longer justified referral to special education, rather the balance between the mainstream school’s capacity and the individual learner’s educational needs. The Decree clearly states that every mainstream school must enable the optimal education and development of every learner.
The Decree allowed also for a more flexible staffing pattern in special schools. The resources provided to a school, based on the number of learners, can be used to employ pedagogical, psychological and social staff. In the past, these resources could only be used in speech therapy, physiotherapy or nursery facilities.
The Decree also provided a formal, legal basis for the integrated education projects which had been running since 1980. Integrated education was defined as a form of co-operation between mainstream and special education, intended for learners with a disability and/or learning or behavioural problems. It allowed these learners to attend mainstream schools with additional support from special education staff. The special schools received extra teaching staff or paramedical staff and working facilities to support integration.
1.4 Policy on equal opportunities in education (2002) and the Flemish equal opportunities and equal treatment policy (2008)
The Flemish Parliament Act of 28 June 2002 on equal opportunities in education gave all learners with a statement of special educational needs the right in principle to enrol in a school of their choice.
Mainstream nursery, primary and secondary school boards may enrol learners with a statement of special educational needs, provided that sufficient support is available in the school to meet the learner’s needs in the fields of education, therapy and care. The school board can refuse the learner after consultation with their parents and the Pupil Guidance Centres (Centra voor Leerlingenbegeleiding – CLB) supporting the school.
The 2002 Act also contained a legal protection procedure, entrusted to local consultative bodies that represent local stakeholders in and outside education. One task was to mediate regarding refusals on the grounds of the school’s lack of capacity. If mediation does not lead to a solution, parents can lodge an appeal against the decision with the Commission on Pupils’ Rights (Commissie inzake leerlingenrechten), created by the Ministry of Education and Training. The Commission can present a proposal of sanction to the Flemish Government. This legislation has been integrated into the legislation of primary and secondary education.
The Flemish Parliament Act of 10 July 2008, providing a framework for the Flemish equal opportunities and equal treatment policy, ensures equal treatment during the school career.
Within the scope of the 2008 policy, in 2011 the Flemish Government created a framework of objectives for people with disabilities and related action plans. Each of the ministers is responsible for implementing these objectives in their own policy area. In this way, each of the 13 Flemish policy areas, including education, adopted an equal opportunities approach to people with disabilities. Indicators were developed to monitor societal progress in the field of equal opportunities. At the start of each new legislature, a set of equal opportunities objectives is agreed by the Flemish Government.
Education policy also focuses on promoting the accessibility of school buildings. A new Flemish urban development regulation on accessibility (Gewestelijke Stedenbouwkundige Verordening inzake toegankelijkheid) was introduced in March 2010. It makes public infrastructure more accessible for works requiring a building permit. The School Buildings Monitor 2008 (Schoolgebouwenmonitor) showed that 49% of school sites were inaccessible or only partially accessible to people with disabilities. Education stakeholders helped to implement the framework of objectives for the 2010–2014 Flemish equal opportunities policy which, among other things, aimed at full accessibility of school infrastructure, with a specific focus on new infrastructure.
1.5. Special educational resources
The Flemish Ministry of Education and Training supports learners in mainstream education by making special educational resources available (technical equipment, Flemish sign language interpreters and writing interpreters, digitisation of manuals, conversions to Braille and large character printing, software, adapted furniture, etc.).
2. Recent developments
Continued development of special education and the availability of additional support from special schools in mainstream schools through integrated education (GON) and support for learners with a moderate or severe intellectual disability (ION) has ensured the right to education for learners with disabilities in Flanders. Only a very limited number of learners do not attend education because of very complex problems. Data from the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities (Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap – VAPH) showed that in 2007 only 0.07% of school-aged learners were ‘not attending school’ and not enrolled in a school environment. These learners had access to residential or day-care centres, organised or supported by the Welfare and Health Department.
In 2008, a Flemish Education Council (Vlaamse Onderwijsraad – VLOR) working group discussed the situation of learners with serious multiple impairments. The outcomes and policy recommendations inspired future developments and resulted in scientific research on the criteria for exemption from compulsory education (2015).
2.1. Ratification of the United Nations (UN) Convention and legal advice on Article 24
The Flemish Parliament ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol by signing the Flemish Parliament Act of 8 May 2009. The Department of Education and Training received an advisory opinion from the Law and Education Support Centre (Steunpunt Recht en Onderwijs) about the legal effects and the impact of Article 24 of the Convention. It evaluated the impact of Article 24 on the right to enrolment in mainstream education and on capacity weighting, as formulated in the Flemish Parliament Act of 28 June 2002 on equal opportunities in education. The advisory opinion served as inspiration for further debate and the shaping of a legislative framework on the right to enrol in mainstream education and necessary support.
In the context of the Flemish government’s contribution to the new coalition agreement 2019–2024, the University of Leuven was asked for advice on the implications of the UN Treaty and General Comment No. 4 for Flemish educational policy for learners with special educational needs.
2.2. Inclusive legislation: M-decree (2014)
The Decree regarding measures for learners with special educational needs (known as the ‘M-decree’) of 2014 aims to implement the principles of the UN Convention and to gradually evolve towards more inclusive education in the Flemish Community. The M‑decree was introduced in education on 1 September 2015.
The main aims of the M-decree are:
- First mainstream then special education: First, learners’ needs should be met in mainstream education. Each mainstream school must develop a far-reaching care policy and must try to find reasonable accommodation. If this is not sufficient, the learner moves to special education.
- Right to reasonable accommodation: Mainstream schools must try to find reasonable accommodation for learners with special educational needs, together with the parents and the CLB. Examples of reasonable accommodation include allowing more time to sit exams, introducing rest periods during the day, providing technical tools (e.g. reading software or adapted chairs). The school may replace components of the curriculum by equivalent courses, or provide additional individualised teaching.
- Right to enrol in a mainstream school: Learners with individual adapted curriculum (IAC) are entitled to enrol in mainstream schools. If a school refuses to enrol a learner and parents disagree with the motivation of the school, the learner’s parents have the right to refer the case to the Commission on Pupils’ Rights.
- New categorisation in special education: In the 2015–2016 school year, a new ‘basic provision’ category for special education was introduced for learners with special educational needs for whom no reasonable accommodation can be provided in mainstream education.
- New admission requirements for special education: New reports from the CLB are required for learners with special educational needs to receive additional support or be entitled to an IAC in mainstream schools or to access a special school. The key focus is no longer on the medical label but on educational and support needs.
- Support for mainstream education: In September 2017 a new support model was introduced to assist mainstream schools to deal with learners with special educational needs. Support can be child-, teacher- or school-centred. Support needs are formulated by mainstream schools together with parents and the pupil guidance centre. The support model consists of:
- support for mainstream schools with learners with mental, physical, visual or auditory impairment or with speech and language development problems. Schools choose one or more special schools to co-operate with, together with parents and the pupil guidance centre;
- support for mainstream schools with learners with severe learning problems, behavioural or emotional problems or with autism. Mainstream and special schools work together in support networks.
As a result of the development of special education during the past decades, learners with disabilities are mainly educated in a non-inclusive education system of segregated special schools. During the 2019–2020 school year, 48,987 learners were enrolled in special schools.
2.3. Future developments – Guidance Decree
In order to offer the appropriate support to pupils in the right place, in October 2019 the new Flemish government decided to replace the M-decree with a ‘Guidance Decree’ for learners with special educational needs and their teachers. This new Decree will also include a final support model. This will be a pragmatic and realistic implementation of support for learners with special educational needs: special education if needed, inclusive education if possible. Special attention will be given to upgrading the care in mainstream schools, taking into account the carrying capacity of teachers and the achieved learning progress of learners.
Learners with special educational needs can follow mainstream education with support, but the Flemish government is convinced that special education is the best educational environment to offer the right support for many learners with special educational needs. Therefore, the quality of special education will be strengthened.
Mainstream schools can decide not to enrol learners with severe support needs who cannot follow the mainstream curriculum, unless the school and the parents agree on an individual adapted curriculum. In case of disagreement, the school and the teachers make a decision based on the unreasonable character of accommodations and an objective diagnostic process.
The results of the 2017 support model evaluation will be used to adjust the support mechanism and bring support quickly and efficiently to learners and teachers. Support must be visible in the classroom and beneficial for learners and teachers.
Special policy measures will target the specific needs of gifted learners. Gifted learners will be challenged and teachers will get the necessary training to recognise them. Teachers must also receive the necessary support and tools to adapt their teaching to the needs of these learners.
Last updated 13/04/2021