Country information for Belgium (Flemish community) - Systems of support and specialist provision

Role of special schools

Special education derives from the 1970 Act on Special Education, which allowed a well‑adapted teaching structure for all learners with special needs. However, the right to special education is only granted after an extensive examination of the learner’s educational needs.

Since the 1970 Act, special education has been offered to learners aged 2.5 to 21 (and even beyond 21 in the case of inadequate social provisions for those with severe disabilities). Compulsory schooling from the age of 5 applies to pupils in both mainstream and special schools. In special schools, however, there is more flexibility in transition between school levels.

The 1970 Act provided free pupil transport to special schools. As some types of special education schools are not well distributed, parents’ choice is often limited and learners have to endure long bus rides and travel times. A structural reform of pupil transport, in co-operation with the Flemish Minister for Mobility, was included in the Flemish framework of objectives for people with disabilities and translated into concrete action plans. A number of pilot projects are currently running to better differentiate and customise transport for learners with special educational needs.

Special education aims to promote inclusion in a normal life setting. Learners can obtain a qualification, allowing them to enter the labour market. Other learners are prepared for work and/or living in a protected environment. Furthermore, special schools allow learners with more severe disabilities to be taught in a school environment. However, because of the relative isolation of the structure of special education, aspects of socialisation have probably been neglected. Moreover, despite the development of a system of special education, the incidence of learning problems in mainstream schools remains constant; school failure is no less serious than before.

Following the 1970 Act on Special Education, the total number of learners in special schools remained fairly constant for 20 years, fluctuating by around 3%. Since 1990, however, there has been a remarkable increase every year. This growth occurred mainly in primary schools (6 to 11 years, but the number of pupils in special secondary education was rising, too.

Policies created by the Department of Education and Training to provide extra facilities in mainstream schools aimed to prevent referral to special schools. However, they did not have the expected effect and, after a short period of implementation, the extra resources seemed to stimulate an even greater outflow of learners from mainstream schools. Thus, there was growing evidence that more fundamental changes were needed.

Issues with integration/inclusion

As in many other countries, there is a debate in Belgium about the legitimacy of a separate special education system. Mainstreaming is not seen as an end in itself, but rather as a means to improve learners’ socialisation or to complement their curriculum – special schools have an obvious difficulty in organising the full range of activities that some learners need. On the other hand, learners who join primary school at the appropriate point may later find the pace of learning in the mainstream class difficult.

Some of the more important points about the integration/inclusion issue at present are:

  • In practice, mainstream schools cannot cope with all learning difficulties.
  • Special schools are not an ‘automatic’ answer to learning difficulties, but the structure has a number of advantages, such as a favourable pupil-teacher ratio, and can therefore be better for learners with special needs.
  • Integration/inclusion cannot be viewed as an issue for schools alone. The ultimate aim is social inclusion of the learner as an adult. As such, it is important to provide people with special needs with ample opportunities to be part of the social environment.
  • Inclusion has to be considered case by case.

Experiments on co-operation between mainstream and special schools demonstrate that there are significant attitudes, practices and barriers inherent in the organisation of mainstream education that still need to be addressed.

Inclusive education

The ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stimulated the inclusion debate and the role and responsibilities of mainstream and special schools in educating learners with special educational needs (SEN). However, even if the concept of inclusive education is adopted at the political level, there is still a long way to go.

Many people in special education centres are willing to support the move towards inclusion. A growing number of parents want their children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools and for mainstream schools to receive the necessary support. Early support systems and private therapists help parents and teachers to meet the learners’ special needs in these settings, but parents must still fight to have their children accepted in mainstream schools. For learners with moderate or severe disabilities – particularly learners with intellectual disabilities – inclusion is still very difficult in practice. Some educational authorities and mainstream school staff are still opposed to these learners participating in mainstream schools. They see learners with SEN as an unnecessary burden that can be avoided by using special schools. This resistance means that even pioneering developments at local level are not supported by policy. Thus, inclusion remains a major challenge.

Some structures are in place to support learners with special needs other than disabilities in mainstream schools. Learners who are ill or in poor health can receive temporary or permanent home schooling. Newly-arrived learners with a foreign mother tongue can attend reception classes and receive extra support in a follow-up year. Disadvantaged learners, migrant learners and learners from ethnic cultural minorities may be prioritised at registration. Schools that welcome a minimum number of learners from these groups receive extra support within the framework of the equal educational opportunities policy.

Special facilities and support are available to help Dutch-speaking schools operating in Brussels and in the peripheral and language-boundary municipalities to cope with the heterogeneous knowledge of Dutch in their pupil populations.

2017 Support model

The 2014 M-decree stresses the importance of strong support for schools and teachers to include learners with SEN in the mainstream system and aims to implement the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (for more information see Legislation and policy). The subsequent support model, introduced on 1 September 2017, stresses the importance of ‘networks supporting teachers, school teams and pupils’. In the 2020–2021 school year, around 3,100 additional full-time staff from special education supported learners with SEN in mainstream schools.

The support model gives special schools an important role in supporting mainstream schools to guide learners with SEN. A basic principle of the support model is co-creation. Mainstream teachers and specialist ‘supporters’ work together to guide learners with SEN in mainstream schools. The focus is on collaboration and strengthening mainstream teachers and schools in their work with learners with special needs. The support provided is based on the needs of teachers, learners and school teams.

Support staff from the previous systems of ‘integrated education’ (GON) and ‘inclusive education’ (ION) and staff from special schools could choose to become supporters in the new support model. Due to the extra budget invested in the support model, new staff also entered and continue to enter the support model.

An evaluation of the support model (evaluation report of October 2019) and an exploratory research by the education inspection (report of June 2020) highlighted successes and challenges that remain:

  • basic care and increased care (the two first phases of the ‘continuum of care’) must be strengthened in mainstream education. Mainstream teachers feel they are not well equipped enough to provide quality support to learners with special needs, so issues are often escalated up the support network. This feeds the belief that only ‘experts’ can solve the problems, which reduces the confidence of mainstream teachers;
  • mainstream teachers are expected to provide individual pupil-centred support instead of receiving co‑operation and support themselves. Support staff are not always authorised to work in a teacher- or team-oriented way, especially in secondary education;
  • better collaboration between actors (pupil guidance centre, pedagogical guidance services, support model staff) is needed to strengthen and support schools efficiently and effectively;
  • mainstream school teachers lack time for consultation and meetings with support staff;
  • the current (up to this point, temporary) support model lacks a clear legal framework and statute for support staff. This impacts the stability and continuity of collaboration and relations between support staff and mainstream teachers/schools.

Based on the results of the evaluation, in October 2019 the new Flemish Government decided to replace the M-decree with a ‘Guidance Decree’ for learners with SEN and their teachers (see Legislation and policy).

Quality indicators

The monitoring and evaluation of the quality of support systems is part of the more general quality assessment of schools by the inspectorate. The Flemish legislation does not have vast assessment procedures or state-regulated assessments. School administrators have concrete assessment procedures for their school based on the school’s pedagogical project. This means that the school administrators and the teaching team autonomously decide how teachers work with and assess educational content. Each school’s work plan explains how the pupils will be assessed and how the school will report the results.

The government provides the content of primary education in the form of attainment targets (for mainstream education) and developmental objectives (for special education). In these documents, the government defines uniform minimum goals for all schools providing primary education. This legislation clarifies the expectations to the schools and guarantees a basic quality. Class teachers have a clear overview of what their pupils should achieve. The school administrators use criteria to decide whether pupils can receive their mainstream education certificate.

The governmental inspection uses the developmental objectives and attainment targets as criteria to assess school quality. Inspectors assess the efforts that schools make to ensure that their pupils reach the attainment targets and developmental goals. The inspection is based on the CIPO model (context, input, process and output indicators). Inspectors analyse data to see whether the school offers inclusive quality in a responsible way and according to their visions of education.

Tailor-made education must be supported by the school’s special needs policy, co‑ordinated by a counsellor and with the responsibility of the whole school team. The special needs policy has three levels:

  • Co-ordinate care initiatives at the school level
  • Support the actions of the individual teacher
  • Counsel the learners.

There is a certain amount of room to provide tailor-made education in mainstream schools. The expertise has not come that far yet and inclusive education is not on a large scale, especially not at the level of curriculum differentiation and adequate assessment.

Schools are free to describe their own vision of education, assessment, care and tailor‑made education in their pedagogical project. This autonomy means assessment is very mixed in Flanders. Schools choose the weight of pupil orientation and inclusive ideas in the curricula, which allows schools a large amount of freedom in their choice of differentiated education. How learners are assessed and how goals and assessment procedures are differentiated from the standardised curricula and school work plan for individual learners depends on the goodwill and expertise in the school. Clearly, it is necessary to strive towards mainstream education that can offer differentiated learning targets and the implementation of dispensation/compensation or facilitated learning routes. This requires the development of attitudes and skills in all teachers.


Last updated 13/04/2021

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