Parental Participation in Flanders (Belgium)

Seen through the eyes of Pauline Coppens, a school adviser connected with the umbrella organisation "The Educational Secretariat of the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities" (OVSG).

1.1 For a Good Comparison

Although Flanders is only the half - and Dutch speaking - part of Belgium, it has no less than three major educational networks,

(a) The "Subsidised Private Education" of Roman Catholic origin;

(b) The "Municipal Education"

(c) The "Public Authority Education"

The last two are both ideologically neutral.

Apart from the above, there are other minor networks such as the "Provincial Education", the "Alternative Education" and real "Independent Private Schools". Variety and freedom of choice in education has always been very important in Flanders. Each network and even each school has its particular way in parental participation strategy. Only in the last few years has the government been enacting some standardisation in parental participation.

2.1 Once Upon A Time

About 25 years ago, when I was a young teacher in a municipal school near Ghent, there was no real parental participation in Flanders. Parents were supposed not to interfere with school educational problems. "The teacher is master in his/her class and mothers in their kitchen!" seemed to be the slogan. The educational role of the father was not even mentioned.

In the seventies, the situation started to change. Mothers, as well as fathers, wanted to be involved in the educational process of their children and organised themselves into a "parents’ committee", small groups of motivated parents who mainly helped to solve materialistic problems in schools and raised funds for better teaching aids.

3.1 The Real Work

Gradually the committees interfered more and more in the real school situation. They organised debating sessions and workshops on educational subjects and sometimes helped in practical teaching situations: so-called "reading matters" helped the teacher in reading training in class and "swimming-fathers" assisted the sports teacher in swimming pools.

In that way parents’ committees got more and more say in local school policy and up to now, these groups function well in many schools.

4.1 Regulated by Law

From the early eighties, parental participation was part of my daily advisory work in primary schools as the participation got more and more structure became regulated by law. In my (municipal) school network, "KOOGO" was established, that is, a non-profit organisation that co-ordinates the activities of the many local initiatives and keeps in touch with the central administration of the school network and government.

New for the school year 1998-99 was the right of KOOGO to introduce some subsidised projects in the schools such as "Another view on traffic education", "Coaching parental participation" and "School readiness for infants".

KOOGO is represented in the Flemish Educational Council (VLOR), a central advisory body that is permanently in contact with the Minister of Education, VLOR is a platform where all regional or ideological ideas are confronted with each other and where suggestions are distilled to be sent to the Minister.

A recent law states that the Flemish Minister of Education is obliged to consult with the VLOR for advice before he launches an educational bill and before the material is discussed in the Flemish Parliament prior to implementation.

5.1 Participation Councils/Local Council

The Flemish Education Law of 1991 provides for the participation of school personnel, parents, representatives of the social economical and cultural sector in subsidised education. Such co-operating advisory units in school management are called "Participation Councils". The power of these councils is restricted to advice being given to the competent authorities (i.e. community councils, the Flemish Secretariat for Catholic Education, etc.).

In Public Authority Education, the power of these councils (here called "Local Councils") is even stronger. The Local Council represents the competent school authority itself, under supervision of a central governmental administration.

It has to be said that the system of participation in school management is in constant evolution in Flanders. Almost every year new decrees are worked out. One of the newer projects is the so-called "catering for a wider range of educational works" which means that the school gets extra facilities (extra payment for additional teaching sessions) to help less talented pupils. A basic condition for this support is the involvement of parents.

Pauline Coppens