While pupils in Flanders will not return to school until Thursday 1 September, French-speaking schools in Belgium have shortened the summer holidays and are already opening their gates today.
From this school year, the school calendar for schools in Wallonia and Francophone Brussels has been reformed, with a shorter summer holiday: school starts on the last Monday in August and ends on the first Friday in July.
In practice, this means that the first day of school of the 2022-2023 academic year is today (Monday 29 August) while the last will be on Friday 7 July. In exchange, the autumn and carnival holidays will both be extended to two weeks. That way, the school year is rearranged into blocks of seven weeks each, alternating with two weeks' holiday.
However, it is not certain that lessons will actually start today, as the unions in French-speaking schools in Belgium already pointed out that the decree implementing the calendar change stipulates that teachers may not be asked to perform before that first school day.
"It is therefore quite possible that teachers will discover the teaching material together with the pupils on the first day, opening the boxes together, as it were, as a pedagogical activity," Roland Lahaye of the French-speaking Christian Education Union told VRT.
The new arrangement of the school year is now part of a broader reform to raise the quality of education in French-speaking Belgium for every pupil, the so-called "Pacte pour un Enseignement d'excellence" (Pact for Excellence in Education).
"That pact puts maximum effort into eliminating inequalities in our system," French-speaking Education Minister Caroline Désir said. "It has already been proven that the long summer holidays have a negative impact on equality in educational opportunities."
According to her, a shorter summer holiday should ensure that fewer pupils drop out during the summer break. OECD education expert Dirk Van Damme agreed, saying that there are only "very few things in education on which experts are so unanimous: the summer learning loss."
By not being in school for two months, some pupils lose too much knowledge and skills because the link with school and education has been cut off for too long.
"Additionally, that learning loss is not evenly distributed," he explained on VRT's 'De Zevende Dag' television programme on Sunday. "Some children get through it reasonably well, but vulnerable children do not have the support at home and experience a severe setback in their cognitive development because of those very long summer holidays."
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Still, Van Damme stressed that the summer holidays are not wasted weeks. "You learn many other things like social and emotional skills, sports, relaxation, but it is much better that this is mixed with cognitive development. And a break that lasts so long is not good."
Many teachers, however, are less enthusiastic about a shortened summer holiday, showed a survey conducted earlier this year by the Christian Education Centre among 5,000 of their members.
Four in five teachers indicated that they were not in favour of such a shortening, out of fear of a higher workload. In educational circles, it is also pointed out that school personnel are often still working in the first and last weeks of the summer holidays anyway.
What about Flanders?
Earlier this year, the Flemish Pupils' umbrella organisation also voiced its opposition: "seeing family and friends, travelling and being outside in nice weather: these are all things that cannot be done during the other school holidays."
Youth movements, on the other hand, fear a shortage of good campsites if the summer holidays are shortened by two weeks. For the time being, however, nothing will change in Dutch-speaking schools in Belgium: the school year will still start on 1 September and run until the end of June.
Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts requested advice from the Social and Economic Council of Flanders (SERV) and the Flemish Education Council (VLOR) several months ago, and the final advice was that there was "no support for dividing the school year differently."
In any case, a rearrangement of the school holidays also affects other sectors than education and Weyts already indicated several times that the system should currently focus on other issues, such as quality of education and the teacher shortage.