Passive Freedom of Education: Educational Choice in Flanders and The Netherlands
[n]o person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
2. Pillarisation in Belgium and in the Netherlands: History and Legal Framework
2.1. Freedom of Education in Belgium: Legal Framework
2.2. Freedom of Education in the Netherlands: Legal Framework
- Education shall be the constant concern of the Government.
- All persons shall be free to provide education, without prejudice to the authorities’ right of supervision and, with regard to forms of education designated by law, their right to examine the competence and moral integrity of teachers, to be regulated by Act of Parliament.
- Education provided by public authorities shall be regulated by Act of Parliament, paying due respect to everyone’s religion or belief.
- The authorities shall ensure that primary education is provided in a sufficient number of public-authority schools in every municipality. Deviations from this provision may be permitted under rules to be established by Act of Parliament on condition that there is opportunity to receive the said form of education, whether in a public-authority school or otherwise.
- The standards required of schools financed either in part or in full from public funds shall be regulated by Act of Parliament, with due regard, in the case of private schools6, to the freedom to provide education according to religious or other belief.
- The requirements for primary education shall be such that the standards both of private schools fully financed from public funds and of public-authority schools are fully guaranteed. The relevant provisions shall respect in particular the freedom of private schools to choose their teaching aids and to appoint teachers as they see fit.
- Private primary schools that satisfy the conditions laid down by Act of Parliament shall be financed from public funds according to the same standards as public-authority schools. The conditions under which private secondary education and pre-university education shall receive contributions from public funds shall be laid down by Act of Parliament.
- The Government shall submit annual reports on the state of education to the States General.
3. Religious Diversity in a Pillarised Education Context
Until today, the “pillars of the building of education”, are still there as an institutionalised structured pluralism. (…), due to processes of secularisation and multiculturalism, the formal identity of schools in the pillarised educational system is not representing the religious identity of teachers anymore, nor of pupils and their parents
Over the past decades, principals, school boards and school networks have responded in different ways to these changes, depending (among other things) on what they see as key aims for (religious) education. After an elaboration of the increasing religious diversity in Flemish and Dutch schools, we will delve further into their responses to secularisation and increasing religious diversity.
3.1. Flemish Community: Catholic Schools for an Increasing Number of Non-Catholic Students
3.2. The Netherlands: Christian Schools for an Increasing Number of Non-Christian Students
4. Diversity between Schools as a Response to Secularisation and Religious Diversity
4.1. Diversity between Flemish Schools
4.2. Diversity between Dutch Schools
5. Diversity within Schools: School Identity in Non-Governmental Schools
5.1. The Identity of Flemish Catholic and Protestant Schools
5.2. The Identity of Dutch Catholic and Protestant Schools
6. Diversity within Schools: Religious/Worldview Education in Non-Governmental Schools
6.1. Religious/Worldview Education in Flemish Non-Governmental Schools
6.2. Religious/Worldview Education in Dutch Non-Governmental Schools
Personal development is very important at our school. A very important aspect of this development is religious education. We find it important to bring our pupils in touch with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our school also thinks that it is important that pupils get knowledge of the bible and of Christianity. Practically every day there is attention for religious education. When we deal with themes related to religious diversity, we will pay attention to the unique position of Christianity. (p. 211)
We want to prepare pupils for a life in a multicultural society. Religious education as such is not one of the main educational goals of our school. We do think, however, that it is important that our pupils get into touch with Christianity, mainly because the values which are important in our society are based on Christianity. […] Our school pays attention to religious education mainly in separated lessons, which are given at least a few times a week. In the lessons we pay a lot of attention to world religions and societal questions. (p. 212)
We think it is important to stimulate development and cooperation, to learn children to think for themselves and to be open towards others. “Meaning making” is an important topic that gets a lot of attention at religious education. We teach our pupils to relate to different world views from their own (Christian) background.
At our school, teachers pay attention to religious education, in a separate subject, nearly every day. Sometimes there is also attention for religious education in other subjects.
In the religious activities, mainly Christian values are central. However, the character of the activities can also be more biblical. (p. 212)
7. Religious Education in Governmental Schools
7.1. Religious Education in Flemish Governmental Schools
7.2. Religious Education in Dutch Governmental Schools
8. Passive Freedom of Education: Better Realised in the Netherlands?
Institutional Review Board Statement
Conflicts of Interest
Like Maussen and Bader (2015, p. 3), we will use the term ‘governmental schools’ for schools “to be owed, run, and financed by (a flexible combination of) governmental (federal, state, municipal) authorities”. Non-governmental schools, on the other hand, “are owned and run by (central or local) organizations or associations whether (partly or fully) publicly financed or not”.
For infrastructure and working costs, there are some financial differences between the different communities.
As we will see below (Section 8), these standards are, at present, largely contested in the Flemish Community.
The pedagogical project (pedagogisch project) is a term used in the Flemish education system and refers to the school’s specific view on education, which is generally (but not exclusively) based on a religious and/or pedagogical ideology. The pedagogical project has, amongst others, repercussions for the school’s overall organization, its educational accents, its way of assessing and dividing students, and the general school regulations.
In the official English translation of the Belgian Constitution, article 24, §1, Section 3 mentions the obligation for the Communities to organise ‘non-denominational education’. This is somehow misleading. We believe ‘neutral education’ to be a more correct translation, which is better in line with the Dutch (neutraal), French (neutre), and German (neutral) versions of the text.
From time to time there are societal and political debates on this issue. Over the years, a couple of motions to change article 23 at this point have been submitted in order to realize ‘acceptance obligation’ (‘acceptatieplicht’). Last time (November 2020), this motion, submitted by the Socialist Party (SP), could count on a majority in the Dutch second chamber. A decision by the first chamber still has to be made (du Pré 2020), but it is still insecure what will happen, not the least because a new government needs to be formed in The Netherlands. In addition, there are also legal questions about the necessity and proportionality of the proposed measure (Van Schoonhoven 2021).
Available from: https://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0003420/2021-08-01 (accessed on 6 August 2021).
Within this group, we can find atheists and agnostics, but also people who are looking for spirituality rather than for (institutionalized) religion (cf. Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Hence the concepts of ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie 1990), ‘belonging without believing’ (Mountford 2011), bricolage (Hervieu-Léger 2001), and multiple religious identity (Schmidt-Leukel and Bernhardt 2008) can also be applied to many Dutch and Belgian citizens.
Source: European Social Survey (ESS), Round 1 and Round 8. An accessible overview of the data can be found at Modood, Tariq and Frank Bovenkerk, Multiculturalism: How can Society deal with it? A thinking Exercise in Flanders, p.32. Available online: https://www.kvab.be/sites/default/rest/blobs/1401/mw_multiculturalism.pdf (accessed on 29 November 2021).
Source: (CBS 2020).
These numbers may be underestimated. According to the PEW research centre for instance, 782,000 citizens or 7.6% of the Belgian population are Muslims, while this is for The Netherlands estimated at respectively 7.1% of the Dutch population or 1,210,000 citizens (Hackett 2017). The SMRE database, on the other hand, mentions 5% Muslims for Belgium and 4% for The Netherlands, while the Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, 2016 mentions respectively 6.5 and 4.9%.
In the French Community, there are 39% primary and 60% secondary non-governmental (mainly Catholic) schools, attended by a similar percentage of students.
In the last two years of secondary education (16–18 year old) in Catholic schools, 86% of the students is still baptized, but this number decreases among younger students: in primary Catholic schools: only 68.5% of the students is baptized https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-scholen (accessed on 29 April 2021).
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-scholen/ (accessed on 29 April 2021).
The numbers are available from: https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-scholen (accessed 6 August 2021).
This number is significantly higher in primary schools (65.7%) than in secondary schools (46%).
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-scholen/ (accessed on 29 April 2021).
Aantal scholen in het primair onderwijs | Kengetallen | Onderwijs in cijfers 2020. https://www.primaironderwijsincijfers.nl/ (accessed on 17 June 2021).
Vo in cijfers: Scholen—VO-raad. https://www.vo-raad.nl/vo-in-cijfers-scholen (accessed on 17 June 2021).
These merges are legally possible as of 2006. By then article 23 of the Dutch Constitution was slightly changed. Cooperation schools are considered to be exemptions. A cooperation school can only be established through a merger, not through a foundation, and only if the continuity of the education on offer is at stake.
An important fact is that RE is hardly taught in governmental schools. As a result, only 1.8 percent of the research population are teachers working in governmental schools.
At present, there are only four recognized and thus state-supported Islamic schools, all located in the region of Brussels and supported by the French Community. While the first Islamic school was opened in 1989, it was only recently (2016) that a secondary school was opened. A fifth Islamic school in Brussels and a first in the region of Wallonia (in Charleroi) are currently at the planning stage.
Information available from: https://www.hln.be/mechelen/islamitische-school-krijgt-njet-van-stad~adafd925/ (accessed on 4 August 2021).
Islamitische school in Genk krijgt geen tijdelijke erkenning, leerlingen melden zich bij andere school, De redactie 31 August 2019. Available from: https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2019/08/30/minister-hilde-crevits-cd-v-geeft-islamitische-school-in-genk/ (accessed on 12 May 2020).
For the criterions for establishing primary schools, see: https://data-onderwijs.vlaanderen.be/edulex/document.aspx?docid=9304 and https://data-onderwijs.vlaanderen.be/edulex/document.aspx?docid=9304; for secondary schools, see: https://data-onderwijs.vlaanderen.be/edulex/document.aspx?docid=14289#301974 and https://data-onderwijs.vlaanderen.be/edulex/document.aspx?docid=12999 (accessed on 6 August 2021).
Https://www.tijd.be/Dossier/Krant/Lucerna-Een-School-Met-Een-Plan/9804782.html (accessed on 15 October 2021)
Given the historical background and the fact that Protestants are a minority in Belgium, it is not a surprise that there are much more Protestant schools in The Netherlands than in Belgium.
https://deisbo.nl/ (accessed on 15 October 2021).
There are several explanations for this perceived difference between Flanders and The Netherlands regarding Islamic schools. We plan to elaborate on them elsewhere.
See (Boeddhistisch Dagblad 2016).
Regeling van de Minister voor Basis- en Voortgezet Onderwijs en Media van 28 August 2020, nr. PO/17898051, houdende regels voor de voorzieningenplanning bij scholen in het primair onderwijs. Online available from: https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/stcrt-2020-46176.html (accessed on 30 April 2021).
See: Meer mogelijkheden oprichting nieuwe school | Vrijheid van onderwijs | Rijksoverheid.nl. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/vrijheid-van-onderwijs/oprichten-nieuwe-school (accessed on 15 October 2021).
Unlike in Belgium, no (pre)financing is needed for establishing a new school.
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-scholen/ (accessed on 15 October 2021).
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/onderzoek-katholieke-identiteit-directie/ (accessed on 15 October 2021).
https://pro.katholiekonderwijs.vlaanderen/katholieke-dialoogschool/visietekst (accessed on 15 October 2021).
Engagementsverklaring Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen. Online available from: https://pro.katholiekonderwijs.vlaanderen/katholieke-dialoogschool/engagementsverklaring (accessed on 15 October 2021).
Most members of the Catholic umbrella organization are laymen, but there are also bishops and vicars in the board and even on the top of management.
Online available from: https://www.ipco.be/over-ons/pedagogisch-project (accessed on 29 April 2021).
Website: www.verus.nl (accessed on 6 August 2021).
Similarly, there are a couple of much smaller organizations which support Islamic schools, and Strict religious Christian schools or Evangelical schools.
The school subject Roman-Catholicism is the same in Catholic schools and in Governmental schools, where it is an optional subject (cf. §7). Hence the information in the subsequent paragraph also applies to Roman-Catholic RE in governmental schools.
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/vak-godsdienst-kruispunt-samenleving-onderwijs-kerkgemeenschap/ (accessed on 15 October 2021).
The new curriculum is online available from: https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/leerplan-secundair/ (accessed on 6 August 2021).
See for instance the media discussions in 2015–2016, at https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/discussie-levensbeschouwelijke-vakken/ (accessed on 14 October 2021).
Cf. https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/secundair-onderwijs-leermiddelen/ (accessed on 14 October 2021).
https://www.kuleuven.be/thomas/page/ (accessed on 15 October 2021).
Recently, the Federal Government announced that Buddhism will be recognized as a non-confessional worldview. Accordingly, Buddhism will, in the future, be organized as a second non-confessional RE subject in Belgian governmental schools.
In the Flemish Community, non-confessional ethics is since 1993 organized by the recognized humanists. This is different in the French and German Communities, where the respective Community is responsible for this school subject.
In the French Community, non-governmental schools organize, since 2017, one hour of RE in the recognized religions or in non-confessional ethics. In addition, one hour of ‘philosophy and citizenship’ is organized.
https://onderwijs.vlaanderen.be/nl/statistisch-jaarboek-van-het-vlaams-onderwijs-2019-2020 (accessed on 15 October 2021).
Basically, this curriculum focuses on the ‘big five’ world religions and on secular humanism and represents Ninian Smart’s different dimensions of religion.
Cf. core aim (kerndoel) 43 of the Dutch secondary schools at https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/besluiten/2010/09/17/kerndoelen-onderbouw-voortgezet-onderwijs (accessed on 24 September 2020).
See supra, footnote 9.
Available from: https://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0002399/2020-11-01 (accessed on 6 January 2021).
https://www.const-court.be/public/n/2021/2021-113n-info.pdf (accessed on 15 October 2021).
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|Belgium10—Flanders (2016)||Netherlands (2019)11|
(Dutch Protestant Church)
|“other” christian||0.3 (orthodox)||1.2|
|Muslim (soenni and shi’a)12||4.1||4.3|
|Eastern traditions||0.7||0.8 (Buddhist)||0.7 (Hindu)|
|Flemish Community (2019–2020)||The Netherlands (2019–2020)|
|Primary Education||Secondary Education||Primary Education||Secondary Education|
|Roman-Catholic||Other Christian||Islam||Other Non-Christian||Secular||Indifferent|
|Mean Percentage Pupils||(Protestant)|
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Franken, L.; Bertram-Troost, G. Passive Freedom of Education: Educational Choice in Flanders and The Netherlands. Religions 2022, 13, 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010012
Franken L, Bertram-Troost G. Passive Freedom of Education: Educational Choice in Flanders and The Netherlands. Religions. 2022; 13(1):12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010012Chicago/Turabian Style
Franken, Leni, and Gerdien Bertram-Troost. 2022. "Passive Freedom of Education: Educational Choice in Flanders and The Netherlands" Religions 13, no. 1: 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010012