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Belgians still divided over plans to change school holidays
Just over half of parents want the Belgian school summer holidays to be shortened, according to the results of a survey organised by the Flemish Confederation of Parents and Parents' Associations (VCOV) and published by the Flemish newspaper De Zondag at the weekend. Some of the more than 14,000 parents who took part believe that two months of holiday cause their children to forget some of what they have learned during the school year as well as missing their classmates.
"Opinions vary widely," says Karolien Bouchet, director of education at VCOV. "A narrow majority of 51.5% want to shorten the summer holidays. Among parents who prefer to keep the two months of summer holidays (43.1%), an often-heard argument is that the family, society and the work situation are geared to two months of holiday."
The VCOV also asked parents which adjustments they would prefer if the distribution of the school holidays were to be tinkered with. Just under half of the parents (44.5%) prefer to shorten the summer holidays by two weeks, coupled with extending the autumn and spring half-term breaks from one to two weeks each. For 20.5% of the respondents, the summer holidays should be shortened without extending the autumn and spring break. Other proposals include extending the Christmas holidays and introducing a full week's holiday in May instead of the extended weekend.
In French-speaking Belgium, the summer holidays will be shortened by two weeks from the 2022-2023 school year. This is compensated with an extra week in the autumn and spring breaks. In Flanders, too, there is a question of whether the two-month summer holidays should be overhauled.
Experts have been in agreement on the usefulness of rearranging the school calendar for years. They agree that a summer holiday of nine weeks is too long for some children while the autumn and spring holidays are too short for students to refuel sufficiently. When sociologist Ignace Glorieux from Brussels’ VUB university argued for the change in 1997, there was already broad political support for it, but it was not introduced. French-speaking education minister Caroline Désir is the first to take concrete steps but doubts remain whether her Flemish counterparts will follow.
The Flemish education minister Ben Weyts says he is not against the reshuffle in principle but did not want to hold the debate again during the last school year, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. For him, the debate cannot be limited to the field of education either. Weyts therefore asked for advice from the Flemish Education Council (VLOR) and the consultative body of the social partners (SERV). Those recommendations are not expected until next year.
"In Brussels, we will have to see how many people experience problems from rearranged holidays," said a spokesperson for Ben Weyts. "But this is a consequence of the autonomy of the two communities. It would be strange if a Flemish nationalist minister, who is pre-eminently in favour of that autonomy, would suddenly complain about it."
Both ministers make decisions for their own communities, but do not take into account the people who have to deal with both school networks across the partitions. This happens everywhere along the language border, but especially in Brussels, where Dutch- and French-speaking education often literally share school buildings.
And what of the teachers? The socialist education union FGTB has already questioned its members in the context of Weyts' broad consultation round. "Some 57% were against a reform of the school holidays, 43% in favour," said general secretary Nancy Libert.
"What did stand out was that, with our members in Brussels, it was exactly the other way around. 56% were pro, and 44% preferred to keep the current arrangement. This probably plays a role in the fact that teachers in Brussels more often have children in a different or both language networks."
Whether Flanders agrees is something no one is sure of but according to Kalvin Soiresse Njall a member of the Brussels parliament and vice-chairman of the education committee in the parliament of the French Community, opinions are shifting.
"Something is moving in Flanders," he said. "Minister Weyts said that he did not want to talk about it, in the meantime he has asked advisory councils for their opinion and the debate is also alive in the media. The French community government has asked minister Désir to continue the dialogue. It may also postpone the introduction for a year if the other communities sign an agreement under that condition."
Stib is also looking at the consequences for its operation during school holidays. "It is of course no secret that the focus of transport in Brussels is on the French-speaking schools (220,000 pupils versus 50,000 in Dutch-language education)," said a spokesperson for Stib. "At times when the Dutch speakers still have lessons and the French speakers do not, we will switch to a kind of light holiday mode and in the places where there is a need, the frequency will not decrease."