Okan schools help youngsters feel at home in Flanders


Foreign-speaking adolescents who move to Flanders can’t register in the secondary education system until they’ve joined a special reception class. As the classes are made up of youngsters from different cultural backgrounds, staff have to come up with innovative ways to introduce them to learning in Flanders. A new report should help improve the system

A safe haven

When foreign-speaking children and teens arrive in Flanders, they and their parents can find all the information they need about the education system at their local integration reception bureau. Consultants at these bureaus create a profile of the youngsters on the basis of their cultural background, experiences and academic level, and can then find the most appropriate school for them.

In primary education, newly arrived children are assigned a place in the regular school system. They are then either integrated into this class through extra support and flexible programmes or provided with an additional reception programme in separate classes.

The situation is different for secondary education. “Schools normally don’t accept the students because of their lack of Dutch,” explains consultant Katja Van Raemdonck of the City of Antwerp’s reception bureau. These pupils must first take part in reception classes, known in Dutch as onthaalklas voor anderstalige nieuwkomers, or Okan.

“We help to find them a place in an Okan, where a personalised study programme will mainstream them as soon as possible,” Van Raemdonck says. This programme is only available to youngsters who have been in Flanders for less than a year and generally lasts one academic year, though extensions are possible.

Traumatic past

According to the Flemish Agency for Education Services, the number of Okan students doubled from 1,592 to 3,120 in the years between 2007 and 2012. Antwerp province received the most students: 1,250 in the 2011-12 school year, or 40% of the total number that year.

One of the Okans in Antwerp, Stedelijk Lyceum Offerande in the Kiel neighbourhood, recently attracted media attention with a special project that combats the issue of unauthorised absences while also helping students who live in poverty. 

Paying in the shop with the coins they’ve earned gives pupils a sense of pride

- Joris Verlinden

If students attend every class and arrive on time, they earn a Marco coin – named because this Okan was previously called Marco Polo. With these coins, students can pay for school materials or clothing at a little second-hand shop in the school.

“A considerable number of our students, especially asylum-seekers, miss classes when they have an appointment with a social aid agency or lawyer, and they are unexcused absences when they forget to bring the legal certificate,” explains co-ordinator Joris Verlinden. “Refugees also sometimes suffer from psychosocial problems because of traumatic experiences, which makes it difficult for them to come to school on a regular basis.”

Students also sometimes have to help family members who don’t speak any Dutch with administrative matters.

The initiative also helps students in poverty by providing cheap school materials and clothing – especially important in winter. “Paying for stuff in the shop with the coins they’ve earned also gives them a sense of pride,” says Verlinden.

He notes that the school sometimes offers something for free “in urgent cases”. The shop is run by students on a transition programme that prepares Okan students for further studies related to the retail sector.

The Marco coin initiative is one example of the innovation required by Okan teachers to deal with their complex groups of students. Pupils cannot just be put in classes according to their age; they are mostly assembled in groups with similar academic abilities.

While some are unable to read or write in their own languages, others have received high-quality education in their home countries. Stedelijk Lyceum Offerande is home to 12 classes of on average 10 students. Those who cannot read receive lessons in smaller groups.

Adapting to society

The teachers don’t work towards concrete requirements for pupils to move on to the next level, as they do in the regular education system. Their aim is to achieve ontwikkelingsdoelen, or development goals, which are primarily related to the Dutch language but also concern ICT, mathematics and social skills. These goals are meant to not only help pupils communicate in Dutch but also to adapt to Flemish society.

To reach these goals, the Okan teams often set up special projects. The Stedelijk Lyceum Offerande, for example, organises plays and a social project in which the pupils help youngsters with a disability.

In the Sint-Guido-Instituut Okan in the Brussels district of Anderlecht, which has about 80 students, the staff have set up cooking workshops, fashion shows, city walks, visits to museums and mock political elections.

“We always devote attention to youngsters’ specific talents,” says Els Delaere, continuation co-ordinator at the Sint-Guido-Instituut. She mainly helps pupils with their choice of a future school career in the regular system and follows up their situation for six years – but most intensively during the first year after they leave the Okan.

To get a concrete idea of the study disciplines in regular education, Okan students do regular snuffelstages, or exploration internships. This means they follow lessons in a regular class for a week, to examine whether this would be the right option for them after Okan.

After one academic year, the continuation co-ordinator suggests a certain study discipline in regular secondary education or adult education, employment training or a prolonged stay at Okan.

Time to adapt

Integration into regular classes does not always go smoothly. Part of the problem, according to Delaere, is that pupils don’t always get enough time to adapt to the new environment.

“In schools where teachers have little experience with students who speak a foreign language, the students don’t always manage to overcome their shyness at speaking Dutch in class,” she explains. “Unlike experienced Okan staff, other teachers are often not familiar with the emotional problems of students who risk losing the roof over their head or being sent back to their country of origin.” 

Students are often sad when they leave because they feel lonely outside our environment

- Els Delaere

Delaere also points out that Okan offers the youngsters a secure place among peers, while they are often considered “different” in regular schools. “Students are often sad when they leave Okan, even if only for a holiday, because they feel lonely outside our environment,” she says.

To give Okan pupils more confidence in their futures and to improve the reputation of the Okan system, Delaere has set up a poster project using role models. The posters feature former students who have achieved a diploma in subjects such as pharmacy, civil engineering and interpreting.

She also involves former students in improving the communication with parents of current students by providing translations of essential information. “For example, former students translate the students’ school reports into about 30 languages,” she says.

Despite all the work done at Okan schools, there is still a considerable number of students who cannot find their place in Flemish society. In particular, the older group of 16- to 18-year-old newcomers have difficulties building a future in Flanders, which is why the government of Flanders has asked the Centre for Language and Education (CTO) to look for ways to improve the Okan programme for this target group.

Their research was recently published. “One of our major findings is that too many Okan students are referred to professional secondary education only on the basis of their language skills,” says CTO researcher Liesbeth De Bruyne.

According to the report, there is not enough attention paid to students’ other competences, which may make them more suited to other study tracks. The researchers suggest introducing a portfolio that lists students’ skills, sort of like a CV.

Diversity in class

To further answer the needs of newcomers , the report suggests adjusting teacher training in higher education. “Teaching studies could be extended, with courses in how to teach Okan students specifically or in how to deal with diversity in the classroom in general,” explains De Bruyne. “The current system relies too much on the willingness of teachers to take extra training voluntarily.”

According to the report, one negative consequence of the flexible regulation concerning the development goals is that many newly qualified teachers lack a clear foundation and have to find out too much for themselves. More extensive education and training could help improve this situation, as could more exchange of knowledge between Okan staff.

The researchers also ascertained a lack of contact between the different groups who come into contact with Okan students – like social aid agencies, pupil support agencies and Okan staff – so they organised regular meetings where experiences could be exchanged.

To make sure that students are not confused by the various advice and demands of several organisations, the CTO report recommends linking them with a single contact person who follows up their situation during their entire education – preferably someone from integration services.

Another recommendation is to improve the collaboration of Okan with the Flemish public employment agency VDAB, to streamline the future integration of students on the labour market. “VDAB could, for example, organise a series of workshops on bottleneck professions,” says De Bruyne.

There should also be more co-operation with organisations that provide leisure activities, as well, notes De Bruyne, since such activities bring Okan students out of their usual environment. “Schools that have a close relationship with the local community, known as broad schools, are an ideal way to reduce the social isolation of Okan students,” she says.

In recent months, the CTO has started a large-scale, three-year research project at the request of the government of Flanders. Researchers are working with experts from the universities of Antwerp, Ghent and Leuven to map the entire reception education system – analysing the structural organisation, teaching methods and financial means of Okans in both primary and secondary education.

The researchers will also follow up the situation of certain Okan students over three years to examine how successfully they are able to integrate into the regular school system and into society in general.

Photo: Pupils from the Sint-Guido Instituut in Anderlecht visit the Flemish coast

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