New school year has started for 1.2 million Flemish pupils

For more than 1.2 million Flemish pupils, the school gates reopen on Thursday. Last school year, at the start of September, masks were still mandatory in secondary education, unless the pupils were seated in a classroom. This year, the school year starts without COVID-19 restrictions.

CO2 meters have been rolled out in the classroom. According to Flemish Education minister Ben Weyts, the schools now have enough experience to switch to distance or hybrid education in case of a new outbreak.

The amount of new Ukrainian pupils is lower than expected. Provisional figures show that about 5,600 Ukrainian children are currently enrolled. But Weyts points out that more enrolments are expected in the future.

Teacher shortage remains

Flemish schools still struggle with a teacher shortage. Figures from Flemish public employment office VDAB showed that two weeks before the start of the school year, there were still 2,400 vacancies in education. Because not all schools submit their vacancies to VDAB and drop-outs due to illness are not yet factored in, the real figure is likely higher.

Weyts already took measures to attract more people into the field, such as a bonus for teachers without a pedagogic certificate of competence, and quicker permanent positions for starting teachers. But for education providers, those are insufficient. 

GO!, the Flemish public institution for education, has proposed several new measures. For example, it calls for secondary education to be organised differently. Teachers should be able to teach classes of fourty or sixty pupils, like in Flemish colleges and universities.

Doing double the work should be avoided, according to GO!. Teacher design teams should be able to develop teaching materials and exams that all teachers can use. Tasks such as supervising the playground or correcting tests and exams could also be outsourced, so that teachers have more time to focus on their core tasks.

Concern about declining quality of education

Another worry for the minister of Education is the declining quality of education in Flanders. Weyts has implemented two big measures, in an attempt to reverse this decline. 

From 2024 onwards, Flemish pupils will have to take standardized tests four times in their school career in order to pass: during their fourth and sixth years of primary school, and their second and sixth years of secondary school. In addition, pre-schoolers are required to take a language test before they can start their first year in primary school.

Concerns remain about the efficacy of these measures. In June, the Belgian Constitutional Court annulled the new attainment targets for the second and third grades of secondary education, and talks about new attainment targets have stalled since then. This means that the standardized tests will have to be developed without knowing what the goals are.

Lieven Boeve, Director-General of Catholic Education Flanders, is critical of the concept itself. "It is not because there are central tests that there is better quality, " he said. "The tests are based on attainment targets, while schools work with curricula. So those tests don't adequately match what's actually happening in a classroom."

Weyts is aware of the criticism. "We will only reap the benefits of our efforts later. That is frustrating," he acknowledged. "We will only be able to determine later whether these measures have achieved the intended results."




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