'Ship is sinking': School performance levels of Belgian pupils slipping dramatically

'Ship is sinking': School performance levels of Belgian pupils slipping dramatically
Credit: Belga/ Nicolas Maeterlinck

An international assessment of students has highlighted an unprecedented drop in pupils' performance, including in Belgium. Pupils scored particularly poorly in reading and maths.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most important comparative survey between countries in terms of education. Overall, on average, the PISA 2022 assessment saw an unprecedented drop in performance across OECD countries.

The assessment is the first large-scale study to show how the Covid-19 pandemic affected student performance, and it found that the health crisis negatively impacted education in all developed countries. However, Covid-19 was only partly to blame, as falling scores in literacy, science and maths were visible even before 2018.

No scores were released for Belgium as a whole, as education is a competence of the communities. Instead, two reports were published: one for Dutch-language education and another for French-language schools. Both recorded a decline in performance among pupils, but the extent of it varied significantly.

Historic drop

In Dutch-language education, traditionally at the top of the league, the decline was particularly pronounced, mirroring the results of other recent studies.

Performance levels fell much faster than in almost all other countries, with no such drop recorded since the first survey in 2003. The reading skills of young people in Dutch-language education fell by 19 points, compared with an average drop of only ten points in OECD countries.

There are only four countries – the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland and Greece – where long-term levels for reading and science fell faster than they did in these schools in Brussels and Flanders. For maths, only two countries performed worse.

Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts was stoic in his response to the survey's findings, stating that they "should not discourage us, but encourage us to persevere with the arsenal of reforms we have been rolling out since 2019." He recognised that the recent reforms came too late for the pupils in this survey, but added that they were "necessary for the future."

However, other politicians were not quite so forgiving. The results immediately generated a salvo of criticism from the opposition parties. "Minister Weyts was going to put the ship back on course. But instead of taking a turn, the ship is sinking," Groen co-president Nadia Naji said. Hannelore Goeman of the socialist Vooruit party also declared that the Flemish Government had no strategy or specific idea for improving education.

Still behind Flanders

However, these pupils nevertheless performed better than most of the other countries surveyed, including their counterparts in Belgium's French-speaking schools.

The French-speaking part of the country achieved a score of 474 points in maths, down from its 2018 score of 495. While this is still above the OECD average (472 points), it falls well behind Flanders (501).

While these schools have a very high rate of underachievement, there has however been an increase in the number of pupils who are on schedule or ahead of the schedule for their age since 2015. Reading and science also seems to have suffered less as the drop in levels here is far less pronounced than in maths.

Related News

Education Minister Caroline Désir labelled the results as evidence that French-speaking Belgium has withstood the effects of the crisis well in terms of learning, and even better than several countries or entities that usually perform very well. However, she did agree that she could not be satisfied with this observation.

"The objective for the future is to achieve a real improvement in these results," she said, pointing to the gradual implementation of various reforms currently underway as part of the Pact for Excellence in Education.

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.