Ready for pre-school: Flanders promotes benefits of early education

Summary

The Flemish education department is launching a new action plan to make pre-school more accessible to children from disadvantaged backgrounds

Off to a good start

Flanders is among the best performing regions in the world when it comes to the number of children attending pre-school, but some parents still have reservations about the quality of care. A new action plan spearheaded by education minister Hilde Crevits aims to change that.

About 1.3% of all five-year-olds in Flanders – some 850 children – were not registered at a pre-school last school year. Of those who were, 2,326 – or around 3% – were absent too often, according to the government’s attendance threshold of 220 half days.

Although pre-school participation in Flanders is among the highest in the world, the government sees room for improvement. Crevits points to the results of a recent OECD study – known as the Pisa study – as the reason for the new action plan and the increase in investment.

The study shows that 15-year-olds who attended more than a year of pre-school perform significantly better at school than those who didn’t. “At pre-school, toddlers learn essential skills, like perseverance, curiosity, self-control and group behaviour,” explains professor Michel Vandenbroeck of the department of social welfare studies at Ghent University. “They also get used to the structure of the school day.”

Putting parents at ease

Statistics show that children of foreign origin – often those of Central and Eastern European background – and children from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in larger cities are less likely to attend pre-school. The new action plan, called Elke dag kleuteronderwijs telt (Each Day at Pre-school Matters), focuses on reaching those parents.

“Studies show that almost all parents understand the importance of pre-school, but some of them are worried about the care their children will receive,” says Vandenbroeck.

Some parents, for example, worry that their child will be bullied or punished because they are not fluent in Dutch, he continues. “Since we also have a tradition of dropping children off at the school gate, parents often find it difficult to discuss their concerns with school staff.”

Studies show that almost all parents understand the importance of pre-school, but some are worried about the care their children will receive

- Michel Vandenbroeck of Ghent University

To put parents at ease, last year the government launched a pre-school starter kit, together with the education platform Klasse. It contains information in 13 languages and acts as an easy-to-read manual for parents.

The starters kit, which is distributed free at primary schools and social aid organisations and can also be ordered through the mail or downloaded online, focuses on the barriers experienced by poorer families and by parents of foreign origin. The kit is intended to help parents engage with their children, by providing tips on how to talk to them about their experiences at school.

The government has also been investing heavily in the next generation of teachers by reorganising college and universities’ education studies to better cater to the challenges ahead. Crevits has, for example, provided support to Kleine Kinderen Grote Kansen (Small Children, Big Opportunities), a project by the King Baudouin Foundation that aims to help future pre-school teachers deal with poverty and diversity.

Tackling barriers

At the start of this year, Flanders also appointed an official pre-school co-ordinator, who will identify problem areas and provide best practices on improving pre-school participation.

Initially, the co-ordinator will focus on larger metropolitan areas like Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. To gain a better understanding of the specific problems faced by each municipality, the government is also mapping out the number of toddlers who are not attending pre-school in the given area.

The minister is also working on a strategic plan for primary schools, which will encompass pre-school education. The plan is intended to improve funding of pre-school education, which is currently lower than that of primary education.

Experts like Vandenbroeck are optimistic about the plans put forth by the education ministry. But the professor warns that it’s naïve to think that this will eradicate inequality in the education system. “Children from a disadvantaged background face many barriers throughout their school years,” he says. “And we have to deal with them all.”

Photo: OC Brussel/Twitter

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.
1

million school-going children in 2013

30

million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013

11

percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma