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All I wished to know as a new parent moving to Belgium


schools in Brussels
A nightmarish AI rendition of happy families in Brussels

So you've moved to Belgium with your Dear Little One, or whatever we're calling them these days. Congratulations are in order! Have a beer! You've come to a very confusing place, but on the plus side, it's also an incredibly great country to have a kid in, because they've really thought out the amenities here. From free childcare to lots of great playgrounds and parks, Belgium is, in general, a great place to raise a kid. There's a reason for those high taxes, after all.


When I first moved to Brussels, it was overwhelming. Not least because we were two full-time working parents. Then on top of that, the commune insisted on you doing a whole bunch of other stuff to "make your time in Brussels easier". Which is Brusselaar for "make it more complicated". But with this handy guide, hopefully you can ease in better than I did.


Which Brussels school system to choose?

This is only the beginning of the confusion that is the Belgian school system, as both Flanders and Wallonia have their own, non-integrated systems, and Brussels is just a mismatched free-for-all.


We chose the French system, so I can only provide personal advice based on our experience with that system.


Whichever school system you choose is up to you. From what I understand, the French schools are more focused on out-dated educational systems and also have a lot more diversity since immigrants to Belgium are usually from French-speaking areas of the world, while the Flemish ones have more modern styles and theories in place, and since nobody speaks Dutch outside of people in Belgium, the Netherlands, and South Afrikaa, it's pretty white.


That said, with the French ones, they speak French, and the Flemish ones, your kids will grow up speaking Dutch. Whichever is better is up to you. If your career goals involve staying in Belgium, moving to Holland, or you want your kid to grow up and work in import/export, or related fields, then choosing the NL system would be beneficial. If maybe you think a French future in finance or manufacturing is for them, then maybe French. If your plan isn't to stick around Benelux or even this part of Europe, then probably French is more international.


That all is to say, there are pros and cons to each… We chose French because we're not going to be sticking around, so we want our kid to have the more international language. But I personally have nothing against Dutch other than it sounds like how Willy Wonka oompa loompas might speak if they were real, or perhaps like a drunk German trying to speak English with a Scottish accent.


I kid, I love Dutch.


But in all seriousness, this is a question that you'll have to answer at the very beginning of your childcare journey and your kid's education, since it literally impacts them for the rest of their years in Belgium.


Beginning with the crèche

The beginning of your little one's journey begins at a "creche", or nursery. They are all over the place. The state run creches are free for Belgian citizens for babies from 6-months of age, and I think there is a nominal fee for non-citizens. We chose a private crèche ourselves because reasons.


 
Brussels tour and audio tour

Take my voice tour of the Upper Town in Brussels and learn all the ins and outs of the history, architecture, and beer gardens of one of the prettiest historical old town parts of the city.


With the Voicemap app, take a GPS-guided tour with my voice in your ear telling you all the notes you can handle. And even if you're not in Brussels, you can enjoy!


Check it our here.


 

How to find a crèche? We used Google maps and typed it in. Then dove into all the reviews. When we found one nearby with better reviews, we brought our little bossman there. He wreaked havoc, hating every minute. At 2, he was completely not prepared to be abandoned by mom and dad, especially after all the pampering during covidtimes he got.


The creche's policy was to have the parent there for an hour in the morning for a week, and then wean the kid off. First just staying for an hour and taking the kid home, transitioning to staying for an hour and leaving the kid, and then gradually building up to leaving the kid for longer periods of time. But since he was screeching every time I left, and they'd call me an hour later telling me to pick him up, that wasn't working. It got so bad that he'd just start shrieking when we got there. So obviously we had to change the place.


I found another crèche, Nos Bulbes, whose head madame, Grace, is absolutely brilliant with kids. Which is good because she has several of her own. But our guy immediately fit in with almost no trouble at all. Completely night and day. And she can handle a bit of crying, not resorting to calling the parents immediately. So, if you need a crèche in Etterbeek, there you go.


The crèche systems are pretty much year-round, with limited breaks. So you don't need to worry about figuring out what to do with your kids.


The Belgian school calendar

If you're an American coming to Belgium, be prepared for a world of confusion. But at least if you're a working parent, it isn't so bad.


There are two systems of schools in Belgium, one in Wallonia and one in Flanders. And in Brussels, the city gets both, depending on which system the school is in (the Dutch, often labeled "NL" or the French system). Just to be annoying, there was no attempt to line up the vacation days between the systems.


I've had a family where they have one set of kids going to a French school, and their cousins going to a Dutch school, and they never got to vacation together. But whatever, not like the kids could talk to each other.


Also at work, keep in mind scheduling: some parents need off some days, others on other days. And when you're working here, employers are even legally required to give a nod to parents first in regards to vacation time. So if your vacation time is holy and you prefer to vacation when it's popular for kids to go (also known in resort parlance as "peak season"), then get a kid. That'll make your life easier, believe me. But if you're single, then enjoy all the huge discounts at vacation resorts across the world and just take your leave off during peak season.


Flemish (NL) system:

Starts on September 1.

1 week off at the end of October/beginning of November

2 weeks off for Christmas/New Year

1 week off for Carnival (usually mid-February)

2 weeks off for Easter (April)

2 months off for Summer

Repeat


French system:

Starts on the last Monday of August

2 weeks holiday at the end of October

2 weeks holiday for Christmas/New Year

2 weeks off for Carnival (end of February)

2 weeks off for Spring (beginning of May)

Almost two months off for Summer

Repeat


And there's a German system on top of that, but you'll likely not live in that area unless you're commuting to work in Germany and want to pay higher taxes for whatever reason.

But do you see how those don't really line up at all?


And, of course, yet again on top of all that, the various international schools maintain their own schedules.


To find the up-to-date schedules, go here.


Beginning "real" school

The "real" school system starts with the maternelle at 3 years old. This is absolutely free for everyone, though if you want your kid to partake in after school activities, it'll cost a nominal fee for snacks.


Our kid loved his maternelle. He made friends, learned to count, and even started to write his name. I loved picking him up and seeing him chat away in French with his friends, despite me knowing very little of the language. Not because I hadn't tried, but because I'm an idiot. And also, that working full-time thing I mentioned.


At this age, your kid isn't yet required to go to school, and if you want to take them on off-season vacations, you're free to do so. But this changes at 3rd Maternelle, as attendance becomes mandatory, and parents need to submit doctor's notes for any absences. After 3rd Maternelle they graduate to "ecole primaire" (which is the American equivalent of elementary school).


Signing them up for maternelle

There are two ways about this. Most maternelles have an open period that typically begins in the February of the year. You can call them directly, or come in and talk to them (assuming your French/Dutch is good enough).


Otherwise, you need to sign up on https://irisbox.irisnet.be/, which is really what you should do first to get your kid into the system. The easiest way to be able to sign into Iris Box is to get an Itsme account, which you can only do if you have a Belgian bank account (which you can only get if you have a job based here (with a few exceptions).


If you don't have a Belgian bank account, there's still a couple of other ways to do it. All those options are through CSAM here. You'll want to create a security code either by email or app, but to do either you'll first need a login which you get at the commune. Write everything down legibly on cards because nobody speaks English there and it will be easy to have little cards to just show them what you want after your initial "Bonjour" and complete language brerakdown a la Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds.


Breaks

As I said, as a parent, you don't have to fear breaks. Except for the summer break, that one's a doozy.


For all the other breaks, each neighborhood and town has on offer "stages" and "pleines" (and the Dutch have their equivalent as well), and if your kid is in the system, it's super cheap. Then there are private places sprinkled throughout the quartiers that also offer stages and pleines to the general public, but usually cost between 100 and 200 euro.



A boy at a Brussels playground
Vato climbing at a playground in Brussels


The signups for these are generally one month before the actual break. Your child's school will send home a pamphlet with information about available activities and registration deadlines. If your kid doesn't show up with one, ask the school about it. For those in the city of Brussels proper, you can stay up-to-date here.


Stages

"Stages" are what we would call "camps". They are usually more activity/learning-oriented, and can range from teaching your kid about music, maths, sports, or even going on a ski trip. These may or may not cover all day, so for those with younger kids, that's especially important to keep in mind.


Pleines

"Pleine de jeux" is Belgian French for "playground". So a "pleine" can be understood as "play day". It's more about just keeping the kids active throughout the day. Something akin to an all day long "garderie".


After school care

If your kid is going to maternelle, and you work all day during the week, then likely all you need is to arrange the "garderie" with their school. That is merely a form of unstructured free time for your child to play with other kids while under the supervision of school staff until you can pick them up.


As they get older, especially after 6 years of age, you'll find more and more options opening up (this goes for stages as well as extracurricular activities). But unlike with American schools, where everything happens all at once right at their school, you might have to do some digging throughout your neighborhood or town to find the different activities that might interest your kid. So in some ways, I miss that one-shop-stop for your kids that our US schools are, but on the other hand, there aren't any active shooter drills here in Belgium, and they aren't remotely necessary. So it's like a trade off.




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