Belgians express a level of satisfaction with their family life that is well above the European average, with 92% saying that they are ‘very or quite satisfied’. This may be linked to a number of family and equality-friendly policies of which pre-school education is the most prominent. Pre-school education is free from the age of three and 98% of children are enrolled in formal childcare or pre-school. However, the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion has increased slightly to 21.9% in 2013. It is likely that new governments formed at the regional and national level will induce major reforms that will have an impact on elements such as career breaks and social benefits from 2015 onwards.
Parental leave can be taken in one of the following ways: four months full-time leave from work, 8 months working half time or 20 months of work at 80% of normal working hours. These different modalities, available to both parents can also be combined in a flexible manner. For instance, one month off work could then be followed by six months working half time. Following parental leave, almost half of women (49%) go back to work at the same number of hours per week as before taking parental leave. Only 2% do not go back to work at all (well below the EU average of 10%).
Building on a career-breaks scheme first launched in 1985, the Belgian government introduced a new ‘Time Credit’ scheme in 2002 to facilitate work-life balance for private sector employees. They receive compensation for their reduced income based on their age and the number of years that they have spent working for their current employer. For employees in the various levels of the public sector, the career break system is continued.
In 2012, the system has been reformed due to budget constraints.
The system permits employees in the private sector to:
- take up to three year’s leave from work, or significantly reduce their working hours, without breaking their employment contract or endangering social security rights for the education of children, assistance to sick relatives and schooling, and to reduce working hours, usually from a 5-day to a 4-day week, for up to 5 years, among other things.
Women have the right to paid maternity leave ( 15 calendar weeks), which is low if compared to other European countries. Eight weeks of this maternity leave need to be taken after childbirth and at least one week has to be taken before the baby’s due date.
A maternity leave benefit is paid at 82% of salary for the first 30 days of leave, dropping to 75% for the remainder. Fathers are entitled to a paternity leave of 10 working days. Seven of these days are paid by social security at 82% of the father’s salary, subject to a ceiling.
In 2012 government spending on social benefits for families accounted for 2.1% of GDP, compared to the EU average of 2.2%. For the first-born child a one-off ‘birth grant’ of €1,199.10 is paid, with €902.18 paid for each following child. ‘Ordinary family benefit’ is paid monthly, based on a scale that relates both to the number and age of children and the parents’ employment status. Further social supplements, including for disabled children and single-parent families, also exist.
In 2013, 42.7% of women worked part-time, more than the EU average of 32.7% and the overall employment rate for women was 57.2%, compared to the European average of 58.8%. in 2013, the employment rate of mothers of children under six was 66.8%, which was above the EU average of 59%. At 86%, the employment rate of fathers was also higher than the EU average (85.2%).
63% of Belgians are ‘very satisfied’ with their family life, significantly above the EU average of 52%, according to the 2008 Eurobarometer survey on family life . Yet 47% of respondents said they found it very or fairly difficult to combine work and family life. Furthermore, over 80% called for more flexible childcare arrangements and greater tax advantages for families with children.
In 2012, 48% of children under three and 100% of children between three and compulsory school age were enrolled in formal childcare. These figures are above the EU Barcelona targets for childcare provision and the EU averages of 30% and 83% respectively.
In 2007 the parenting support programme in the Flanders region was formally adopted as government policy through a government decree. The decree describes parenting support as ‘easily accessible, basic parenting support to parents and persons with childcare responsibilities’. This new development means that parenting support is now offered to anyone who cares for children and young people. Most services under the programme are available to all who are covered by the scheme but some are specifically targeted at vulnerable families. The decree sets out the policy framework for parenting support in Flanders and specifies multiple levels of parenting support, such as local- and regional-level support, the provision of services through parenting ‘workshops’, the organisation of Flemish parenting support coordinators, provincial parenting support centres and the centre for obtaining expert advice in parenting matters, Expertisecentrum opvoedingsondersteuning (EXPOO). In the near future the parenting support program, will be integrated, together with health and psycho-social prevention in local meeting places, ‘Huizen van het kind’.
Through its “What Do You Think?” project, UNICEF Belgium has promoted the active participation of the most vulnerable children (foreign minors, disabled children, children in poverty, in psychiatric care, among others) so that they can express their views and can be taken seriously in matters that affect them. Young people experiencing poverty do not think of themselves as poor; they feel excluded, due to negative images society has. They are not the source of the problems, but are part of the resources needed to resolve them.
Based on these real-life experiences, UNICEF Belgium has formulated several practical recommendations on different levels. Also a manual to conduct participation projects with children experiencing poverty has been published.
UNICEF Belgium recently warned about rising child poverty levels in Belgium; other alarming signs are rising infant mortality, declining literacy rates, and difficult access to the housing market.
A major challenge on the institutional level will be the sixth Belgium State reform. Competencies worth € 17 billion will be transferred from the federal level to the communities and regions. Regions will receive economy and employment matters, communities will be responsible for family policy.
The primary objective of PIEO is to maximize the learning performance, learning gains and wellbeing of all students in a limited number of schools that are labeled as ‘concentration schools’. An important objective is the transfer of the accumulated expertise and insights to the entire Flemish education.
PIEO will realize innovations at three levels: the environment of each child, the level of the learning environment (classroom), and school level (policy).
There is a close cooperation with education providers (schools, teachers and pedagogical counseling services) and existing initiatives in local contexts. The local authorities and other local players are involved with the project. The project is scientifically supported and monitored.
A team of innovation coaches and a process manager will supervise the project, in close consultation with local platforms. A team of experts from the educational research community and innovation management will assist the schools and coaches throughout the process. A task force with representatives from all stakeholders will lead the project.