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Brussels education and international schools

The vision of Brussels, in the modern world, can be as the home to pontificating politicians and loquacious lawmakers, but don’t despair, it is also the birthplace of Tintin, Simenon and moules et frites as well as the home to a small number of good international schools.

Tintin has played an Important role in education, beckoning children from around the world into the magical world of Captain Haddock, Snowy and Bianca Castafiore, and thus inspiring a lifelong love of literature (although, no pictures can be a drawback). Simenon’s prose is enviably lyrical and his ability to communicate atmosphere through words is up there with the best of them. If you then add in the delights of mussel soup, crunchy fries and chocolate, Brussels certainly can claim its place at the centre of the European enterprise.

Given the number of nationalities, with flags outside the European Union headquarters, it is somewhat surprising that there are so few international schools in Brussels. However, this is not a permanent place of work, rather, somewhere that politicians and their civil servants, drop in and out of, in the hopes of sealing a deal or, at least, forging useful alliances. Hopping on a plane or train, holding a meeting and then getting back to your own country for dinner, tends to be the rule, rather than relocating the whole family operation to this small capital.

International schools

Due to the lack of buyers, the choices available, if you do move here and want an international education for your children, are fairly limited. The matriarch of the foreign schools is the Lycée Francais Jean-Monnet, opened before World War I and twice the size of any other international school and there is also, a second, brand-new (2019) French primary school, French International School of Brussels. There is one all-through British School teaching the English curriculum but also offering the International Baccalaureate Diploma, the British School of Brussels and one elementary British school (British Junior Academy of Brussels), which finishes at 13.

An American curriculum is supplied by the International School of Brussels, which also offers the IB Diploma and St John’s International (in Waterloo) teaches three out of four of the IB programmes (only missing the Careers option), taking in pupils from two to 18. The final, two obvious, international contenders, for younger children, are BEPS International School (started as a primary but expanding upwards) and the tiny ISF Tervuren International, formerly St Paul’s British Primary School.

Almost all the international schools lie in a ragged arc outside Brussels and roughly 20 to 30 minutes’ drive from the centre but the communes, that expats usually choose as home, are all closer to the schools. Ixelles, with its chic town houses and its neighbour, Watermael- Boitsfort, with its more countrified atmosphere, on the edge of the Sonian forest. Both have the advantage of being within walking distance of either the International School of Brussels or St John’s International School.

The impossible to pronounce (at least, for a non-Belgian) river Woluwe runs through Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, which was once an agricultural district but is now completely urbanised and home to diplomats and embassy staff. It is a quick hop from the European institutions, as well as being fairly close to the international schools. Etterbeck, marginally closer to the centre is probably the other likely choice but still close enough to the schools to avoid a dawn start, when it comes to making it to school on time.

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Brussels considered by expats'.

European schools

One of the reasons why there are not more international schools here, could be the existence of the four European schools in Brussels (with ongoing discussions about a fifth school). They were originally founded to teach the children of EU staff and officials and have expanded as successive waves of bureaucrats arrive in Brussels.

The schools are divided into language sections, teaching the same curriculum to students, mainly in their mother-tongues, but with a rule that they choose either English, French or German as their second language. The choice is wide with Danish, Hungarian, Italian, Polish and Spanish sections and if their mother-tongue is not covered, they can still enrol in the English, French and German departments.

State schools

The private schools being in short supply, it would be natural for expats to investigate the possibilities of the local schools but, be warned, this is a minefield. First off, you are dealing with three separate school systems; Flemish, French and German speaking. Then, to further complicate the issue, there are two types of schools in each community; community owned, subsidised public schools (run by the provinces and municipalities) and subsidised free schools (mainly run by bodies affiliated to the Catholic church). Almost all of these schools are co-ed and, usefully, for the double-income, often stuck at work family, provide a cooked lunch and after-school supervision.

Nursery starts at two and a half, primary runs from six to 12 and secondary from 12 to 18. Secondary education has four sectors; general - for those heading to higher education; technical - which can lead straight into a profession or non-university higher education; art studies -  leading to further education in an art institute; professional - with a more practical emphasis, for those going straight into the workplace.

And finally…

One of the European schools may well  be your choice if you are in Brussels for the EU, as they allow your child to continue being taught in their native tongue but the selection of international schools, whilst small, has a good reputation, in particular the British School of Brussels.

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