With the return of the nation’s children to school only two weekends away, parents have been complaining about the charges demanded by schools for what is supposed to be a free education.
The French-speaking Family League (Ligue des familles) has drawn up a list of complaints from parents on the matters of difficulty in paying school charges, additional charges not authorised by law, and the cost of obligatory school books which are rarely if ever used.
In some schools in Brussels and Wallonia, the League found, children whose families are having difficulty paying the statutory charges are being humiliated in front of their classmates as a result.
In one school in Brussels, children whose parents have not paid for lunchtime supervision – known as droit de chaise – have been forced to eat their lunch seated on the ground. In other schools, children in default are named in front of the class or have their names posted on the classroom wall. In a school in Mons, names are also posted, while in a school in Hainaut children are openly questioned on the reason for late payment.
Then there is the question of schools demanding payment for expenses which are not statutory, such as some expensive field trips. According to the League, some schools announce these expensive trips at the start of term, in order to establish a social divide from the outset among students whose families can afford it, and those who cannot. In one school, parents were told – quite unlawfully – that if they could not afford such expenses, they ought to find a new school.
The League is now using the testimony gathered to push its demand for a ceiling on the expenses a school can demand its students pay – such as already exists in Flemish schools – as well as reduced rates for lunchtime supervision for families on low-income or with many school-age children.
Over in Flanders, meanwhile, the Family Union (Gezinsbond) has joined with the education authorities to complain about secondary school students being forced to buy expensive textbooks which in some cases are barely if ever used. One parent, a professor at the university of Leuven, said his son was asked to provide three textbooks costing 53 euros, which lay unopened for the rest of the school year.
“The teachers concerned said right away that they worked according to a different method, and that they would not be using the books purchased for maths and physics,” Tim Smits, professor of marketing communication told De Standaard. “The three books together cost 53 euros, but I’m not only annoyed about the financial aspect. Environmentally, it’s no longer acceptable in these times for books to be produced and transported, only to end up in a bookcase never being used.”
According to the coordinator for one welfare union, the bill for set textbooks can mount up as high in some cases as 400 euros. “Such prices are not realistic for every parent, which means that in some classes there are students who have to try to get by without the necessary books,” said Colette Victor of Welzijnszorg.
The organisations are now calling on schools to make an annual survey of how books are used, and which books are proving an unnecessary purchase, bearing in mind that school attendance is obligatory by law until the age of 18, and that some parents simply cannot afford to spend money on books that are not required. Schools should also learn to resist the pressure from publishers to always use the most recent edition of a book, which may differ from the previous edition in only minor ways – thus wiping out the possibility of a second-hand market in school-books, which would ease matters for previous owners and new owners alike.