Non-traditional schools could hold key to future of education


Alternative schools are becoming more popular in Flanders, and some educators think they are more effective at preparing students for higher education and the requirements of the job market

Focus on the individual

“I visited a regular school with my daughter, but I immediately felt this was not for her,” says Elke Stievenart from De Haacht in Flemish Brabant. “There wasn’t any room for us to say anything, and I found it very unfortunate that all the tables were oriented towards the chalkboard. I could see it in my daughter, too, who had the definite ‘mommy don’t leave me’ eyes.”

Stievenart, whose daughter attends De Muze Freinet school in De Haacht, is one of many parents who have turned to non-traditional schools. Known as “method schools” in Flanders, they offer a freer style of education, led by the child’s interests rather than a strict curriculum.

They do away with grades in favour of evaluations and leave plenty of time, parents say, for outdoor activities, instead of forcing children to be stuck behind their desks.

Thirty years ago, Steiner schools, which focus on creativity, were almost unheard of in Flanders. Now the region boasts some 30 of them. Add to that schools following other methodologies, like Freinet, Jenaplan, Decroly, Dalton, and Montessori, and the list grows to about 100.

There are even at least two schools that cater specifically to gifted children. One, the Ingenium School in Tervuren, crams the traditional curriculum into the mornings, leaving afternoons free for yoga and music.

As educational reforms continue apace in the region, the question of why more and more parents are opting for these schools becomes pertinent. Could they offer the key to meeting educational targets by preparing students for higher education and the job market?

Times are changing

Where once the choice in Flanders was simple – either a Catholic or a non-Catholic school – parents now have a lot more leverage in where to send their kids. This choice has arisen, says Hans Annoot, co-ordinator of Steiner Schools in Flanders, because parents are more conscious of what kind of education they want for their children.

“Society is changing very rapidly, and the old ideas about education are changing,” he says. “Diversity is growing, and that is mirrored in the variety of schools. Parents increasingly feel that the traditional ways of educating are driven by economic motives – to feed the labour market – and that this is too narrow for their needs.”

Children who come to us often struggle socially in their schools. They blossom here and find their social identity

- Olivier Somers of Jenaplan school

The focus on the child’s individual needs and the typically smaller classroom sizes in the non-traditional schools offer a much welcome solution to parents whose children cannot settle in regular schools, because of shyness or issues such as bullying. Parents say that smaller classrooms are especially important, given that children start school as early as two-and-a-half.

Jenaplan school in Mortsel, near Antwerp, focuses on learning by doing and on community-engagement. “Children who come to us often struggle socially in their schools,” says director Olivier Somers. “They blossom here and find their social identity. That’s the result of the many ways in which we organise the school and think about education.”

On the rise

Although most of them are free and get funding from public grants, they have nevertheless typically attracted white, middle-class families. Annoot says that’s slowly changing.

“Most of the parents have completed higher education and are in a better socio-economic situation,” he says. “But as Steiner schools grow, we start seeing people from more diverse backgrounds.”

The same is true for ethnicity. Seven years ago, the Steiner foundation opened a school in Antwerp’s Borgerhout district, which has a high concentration of people with immigrant backgrounds. “We saw that we could also attract these people to our schools.”

Education experts say the non-traditional approaches are being increasingly adopted in regular schools. Although this is happening primarily in pre-school and primary education, there are discussions about how the creative and entrepreneurial learning styles could be employed in secondary schools.

Annoot attributes some of the rise to the pressure of educational targets that parents say are off-putting because of the seemingly endless examinations their children must endure to prove their worth. 

Into the mainstream

There is also pressure at the supra-national level, notably from the European Commission, which has been pushing for schools to pursue more creative approaches. Last week, when it announced its new action plan to improve teaching practices and boost employability, the Commission underlined the need for better literacy and numeracy and said that training of skills such as entrepreneurship should become part of general education.

With some 70 million Europeans lacking sufficient reading, writing and numeracy skills, the Commission has provided member states and educators with guidance on how to provide adequate skill-training in all types of education. In essence, there is a need to balance the scale.

Elin McCallum thinks non-traditional schools have come into the spotlight because they put a lot more focus on these broader skills and on personal development. “Should schools develop employability? I would say yes,” says the education expert at the Brussels-based start-up Bantani. “Young people eventually have to get out there and look for a job; having those skills helps.”

Through policy design and network-building, Bantani works on projects that focus on entrepreneurial learning policy and practice. “Should schools develop active citizens?” says McCallum. “Absolutely. We need people who support their community, share ethical values and are aware of the responsibilities and rights they have as citizens.”

Photo courtesy De Weide

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