Flanders’ Exams Commission offers dropouts a second chance


The Exams Commission offers a second chance to students in Flanders who didn’t get a secondary school diploma via the traditional route

Much-needed support

On the first of this month, children and teens in Flanders went back to school. Or rather, most of them did. About one in seven young people leave school in Flanders without a diploma of secondary education.

The main reason is what is known as “school fatigue”: A student gets behind in lessons, finds it impossible to catch up and eventually stops going altogether. The problem is exacerbated by peer pressure from others in the same situation. Truants might get mixed up in drugs or drink, which also make things worse.

Others drop out because they have been forced to repeat years, have other problems at school, such as illness or pregnancy, or are simply unmotivated.

But there is hope. For anyone who doesn’t earn a secondary school diploma in Flanders, there’s a second chance at the Exams Commission. The Flemish government agecy has the power to administer diplomas to anyone who completes a course of study and passes the exams.

Last year nearly 3,200 former students signed up with the Exams Commission. They come from all age groups, but the average age of a new graduate is 20.

This suggests that the decision to go back and earn a diploma happens quickly, as those without diplomas realise what a disadvantage it can be.

Of those who sign up, 6% choose to go through a preparatory school, which guides students through the process. The schools offering these second-chance education programmes are expensive, but their graduates appreciate the support. 

“Dreamy and lazy”

“The classes are small, so the teachers can really pay attention to everyone,” says Tim, 21. “If you have a problem, they keep on explaining until you’ve got it. I got the feeling they want as many people as possible to get a diploma, so that’s pretty positive. They want everyone to pass.”

The Exams Commission’s website has testimonials from people like Tim who have come through the system. Another example is Roos, 20, who fell through the secondary school net when she was repeatedly absent for psychiatric care. Roos went on to complete her schooling with second-chance education in the humanities. 

I’ve completely changed. I’m much more results-oriented

- Second-chance student Mohammed

“Going back to school is difficult if you haven’t been for a long time,” she says. “Not having to go back appealed to me. But I need structure and discipline, otherwise I won’t get out of bed, so the Exams Commission alone wasn’t an option for me.” 

Mohammed, of Turkish origin, is 25 and also earned his diploma with the Exams Commission. “It might seem like nothing, but I’m a Pisces, which I read somewhere means I’m dreamy and lazy. That describes me perfectly at school,” he says. “I absolutely had to change. And I have, completely. I’m much more results-oriented. A friend told me to ‘go for 100%’, so I went for 100% and scored 80% in three languages. That’s how much I’ve opened up. I thought to myself: ‘This is it’.”

Maarten, meanwhile, obtained his diploma at the age of 18, but he didn’t get it from a local school. “I chose the Exams Commission because school went much too slowly for me,” says Maarten, who is now at university. “I got fed up having nothing to do. I needed an intellectual challenge. The Exams Commission offered one serious advantage: It’s pure self-study. And so is university, so it was certainly a good preparation. And that was what I needed.” 

Majority passes

The Exams Commission offers regular info sessions, where students can obtain a log-in for the online platform. From there, they can choose which studies to follow – general humanities, technical or professional. The site provides information on textbooks, lessons, study tips, model exam questions and information on how the exams will be carried out. 

The question is, what happens to the others?

- Politician Elisabeth Meuleman

When the current system was set up in 1991, there were two exam periods. Now the exams are spread out more or less throughout the year. Following one course of study costs only €30, though students have to pay the cost of books.

The pass rate for Exams Commission students is 61%, though for the general humanities stream alone, the success rate is less than half. Those who fail remain an intractable problem for society, Groen education spokesperson Elisabeth Meuleman recently told De Tijd. “The question is, what happens to the others?” she asked. “A growing group of young people is experiencing problems or no longer finding what they need in regular education.”

It’s a concern, Meuleman continued, “that there remains a large group of young people who are being released into the job market without any sort of qualification.” The government of Flanders, she said, needs to reform secondary education “and to invest in a well-developed system of second-chance education with sufficient support”.

The Exams Commission offers a second chance to students in Flanders who didn’t get a secondary school diploma via the traditional route.

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Educational system

The Flemish educational system is divided into two levels: primary (age six to 12) and secondary school (12 to 18). Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 18.
Types - There are three educational networks in Flanders: the Flemish Community’s GO! network, and publicly funded education – either publicly or privately run.
Not enough space - In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of school spaces.
No tuition fees - Nursery, primary and secondary school are free in Flanders.

million school-going children in 2013


million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013


percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma