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Belgium: leader in pre-school education

Belgium not only has a high percentage of children in formal childcare prior to starting compulsory education Belgium, but also has a smaller percentage of children under 18 being at risk of poverty and social exclusion compared to the EU-28 average (23.2% compared to 27.7% in 2014). Belgium therefore has a positive track-record in terms of children and their provision. However employment rates in Belgium are lower than the European average, and the gender gap in pay in 2013 was of 9.8%, although still lower than the EU average of 16.3%.

Access to adequate resources

Parental leave

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. In 2014, 68.1% of women (15-64 years) with a child under 6 were employed (higher than the EU-28 average of 60.7%), compared to 86.1% of Belgian men in the same circumstances.

Career-breaks

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 and 2015, the system has been reformed due to budget constraints.
The system permits employees in the private sector to:
- take up to four years 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 8 years, among other things.

Maternity leave

Women have the right to paid maternity leave (15 calendar weeks), which is lower than the average maternity leave duration of 23 weeks in the EU as a whole. Nine 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.

Family benefits

For the first-born child a one-off ‘birth grant’ of €1,223.11 is paid, with €920.25 paid for each following child (2014). ‘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 2012 government spending on social benefits for families accounted for 2.2% of GDP compared to the EU average of 2.2%.

Gender equality

In 2014, 41.4% of women worked part-time, more than the EU average of 32.8%, and the overall employment rate for women was just under 60%, but higher than the European average of 59.6%. In total, the employment rate in 2014 in Belgium was lower than the EU-28 average (61.9% compared to 64.9%).

Access to affordable quality services

Early childhood education and care

In 2013, 46% of children under three and 98% of children between three and compulsory school age were enrolled in formal childcare. These figures are above the EU averages of 27% and 82% respectively.

Integral prevention

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 2014, the parenting support programme is integrated, together with health and psycho-social prevention in local meeting places, ‘Huizen van het kind’.

Children’s right to participate

Participation of vulnerable children

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.

Conclusion

UNICEF Belgium recently warned about the current challenge of non-accompanied migrant children, who can be as young as 12 or under and the lack of adequate structures in place to welcome and host them.

A major challenge on the institutional level will be to coordinate political effort and create the necessary structures, which can range from being going in centres dedicated to children or being placed in families.

The information in the country profile was last updated in February 2016.

Innovation and Excellence in Education (PIEO)

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 labelled 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 counselling 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 supervises the project, in close consultation with local platforms. A team of experts from the educational research community and innovation management assists the schools and coaches throughout the process. A task force with representatives from all stakeholders leads the project.

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