From An Claidheamh Soluis, October 28, 1905.
The administration of the educational system of Belgium is entrusted to the Minister for Home Affairs, whose official title is “Ministère de l’Intérieur et de l’Instruction publique.” The Ministère occupies the greater part of one wing of the Palais de la Nation in Brussels, where are housed the Senate, the Chamber of Representatives, and the various Ministries. Each of the three grades of education – higher, secondary, and primary – is in charge of a Directeur responsible to the Minister, who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament. The cabinets of these three Directeurs, who may be called the working heads of the Belgian educational system, are within a few yards of one another, so that consultations are easy. This fact, together with the fact that the three grades of education are under the supreme control of one responsible Minister, secures almost as a matter of course that necessary “co-ordination” and unity of purpose throughout the educational scheme of which in this country we hear so much and know so little.
Apart from the University system, which does not concern us here, the State schools of Belgium may be divided into two classes – primary and secondary. The primary schools are in the hands of the Communes or municipal bodies; the secondary schools are under the direct control of the State. The central Government, however, exercises a certain amount of supervision even over the primary schools. It publishes “specimen programmes” (programmes types), and takes other steps necessary to secure uniformity of standard throughout the kingdom; it inspects all schools, including even the écoles privées conducted by religious bodies; and it issues from time to time official returns, reports, suggestions, etc, for the information and guidance of teachers. In other words, the Directeur-Général of Primary Schools controls (under the Minister responsible to Parliament) the general policy of elementary education: the details of administration are entrusted to the local civic bodies. The system of intermediate education, on the other hand, is administered direct from Brussels by the Directeur-Général of Secondary Schools.
The elementary schools are of three types: we have the Ecole Freubel or Kindergarten, the École primaire, and the Ecole primaire supérieure. The names of the Kindergarten and the ordinary Ecole primaire explain themselves. The Ecole primaire supérieure, examples of which exist in many of the large towns, is an institution designed to give an education somewhat higher and more literary in type than they would otherwise receive to the more distinguished and deserving pupils of the ordinary primary schools whose circumstances do not permit of their taking a secondary school course.
Primary education in Belgium, whilst free, is not compulsory. This rather surprising fat goes part way to explain the circumstance that the percentage of illiterates in Belgium is still large.* But the non-recognition up to a comparatively recent date of the Flemish language as a medium of education is probably the real cause of much of Belgium’s illiteracy, so far at least as Flanders is concerned. We in Ireland know that there are such things as illiterates who have spent six years at school.
The secondary schools of Belgium are of two types: the Ecole Moyenne or Middle School, and the Athénée. The Ecole Moyenne aims at giving a thorough commercial education; the Athénée, which corresponds to the German Gymnasium, gives an education of the type known as “liberal.” Attached to the Ecole Moyenne there is generally a preparatory school. Both the Ecole Moyenne and the Athénée are “écoles payantes,” – that is, they charge fees. The amount of these varies in different districts, the average for an Ecole Moyenne being as low as £3 per annum.
It will thus be seen that the Ecole primaire and the Ecole primaire supérieure supply between them a free course of education for the children of the less wealthy section of the community; whilst the children of the more well-to-do can choose between the Ecole Moyenne offering a “commercial” and the Athénée offering a “liberal” education. Of course, there are many well-to-do and even wealthy parents who prefer to send their children to the Ecole primaire; and, on the other hand, poor parents occasionally send their children to the “écoles payantes.” The main consideration with the practical parent is naturally “What type of education will best prepare my child for the career which he is likely to adopt?” If he is to be a farmer or an artisan, the Ecole primaire will suit him; if he is destined for commercial life, the Ecole Moyenne is the thing; if for a learned profession, he ought to go to the Athénée.
Naturally the Athénée is the usual stepping-stone to the University.
* In the Belgian army there were recently 130 illiterates per 1,000 soldiers, as against 8 per 1,000 in the Swiss, and 2 per 1,000 in the Danish army.