Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Junior racing in Belgium: schools and holidays

Belgium is one of the few countries where school is mandatory up until age 18. Homeschooling is virtually non-existent in Belgium. That means every youth racer goes to school and youth racing is dependent on school schedules and vacation times. Fortunately there are a lot of holidays and vacation periods.

Although promising young racers can occasionally get time off from school to compete, in general this is not the case, and Belgian kids need to wait for school holidays to race. As the majority of racers in any local race are Belgian, foreigners too have to live by the school schedule.
It reads: on the bike to school

The Belgian school system up until age 18 is divided into six years of elementary school and six years of middle school (middelbaar or secundair onderwijs), starting at age 7. The older distinction of low-middle (laag middelbaar) and high-middle (hoog middelbaar) is no longer apparent and both grade groups are part of the same school. In the early part of the previous century students would sometimes leave school after lower middle (at age 15) to go to work in a factory or farm but that is no longer allowed.

Belgian schools count up in elementary school and down in middle school. So you go to grade 1-6 first and then down from 6 to 1.

Elementary schools tend to be small and local and keep restricted hours. Most close at 3PM. Middle schools are larger and located in cities. Middle school is typically divided into two tiers of difficulty: an upper level (humaniora) and a lower (technical/art) level. The higher level prepares children for further study and is required to enter University while the second tier is either terminal or followed by a few years at a Hoge School (literally High School). At the end of humaniora students take a maturiteitsexamen similar to the French baccalaureate- although it is more of a formality in Belgium. Nevertheless, passing that exam is required for higher education so everyone from a technical/art school is precluded from entering a University.

Belgian schools are more demanding than the US equivalent and students leaving the humaniora at age 18 are nearly on par with US undergraduate B.S. or B.A. degrees. About 1/3 to 1/2 have a classical education and study Latin and Greek. The others follow a "modern" curriculum, which is seen as less demanding. In the 1940's through 80's many students would leave a humaniora at age 18 to get a white collar job. That is no longer the case, and higher education is now the rule for everyone aspiring to make a decent living.

Transfers between tiers are rare in Belgium and nearly always are downgrades. If a student cannot do well in classical studies, they get downgraded to "modern" and if that fails they get sent to a technical, art or trade school.

Middle school hours usually run from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Classes often stop at 4 but students are required to attend study hall until 5:30 or 6:30. The upper tier nearly always enforces the study time so students do not get out until dinner time. Wednesdays are short days but most schools have a mandatory sports program that lasts until 3:30 or 4:00. Although students manage to come home with their "home" work done during study hall, the long hours leave little time for training. During much of the year students go to school when it is dark out and return home at dusk. Winter day time hours range from 9AM to 4PM.

The majority of middle school students walk or bike to school and middle schools have large bike parking areas. Students typically use cheap commuter bicycles to go to school and get around in general. You rarely see even moderately priced bikes in a school bike rack.
Fietsenstalling at school

Belgium has private, mostly religious, schools and public, agnostic, schools. There is some distinction but it is not nearly as prominent as in the US. All schools are subsidized and although attending a private school is more expensive and more prestigious, no schools charge tuition and the differences are marginal.

Belgian school life, like so much else is dominated by its Catholic heritage, especially in Flanders. Nearly every private school is a catholic school here. Although religious signs are everywhere, the country is largely agnostic and definitely a few orders of magnitude less religious than the US. Although most Belgians are baptized and go through religious ceremonies (first communion, communion, marriage and funeral in church), church attendance is low in Belgium except in small villages, and for holidays and festivities (baptism, marriage, funerals).

Upper tier schools de-emphasize sports (and anything "manual") and so it is not surprising that most aspiring Belgian racers (or other sport practitioners) do not attend an upper tier school. Racing in Belgium has a distinct blue collar connection. Youth racers are typically introduced to the sport through camps. When they are good they flock to sports-oriented middle schools where a lot of time is spent on physical education. They also join a team early on and go on retreats and camps with their team. In Belgium, cycling is a team activity from its very inception. There are no 15 year old independent or unaffiliated racers here.

There are also no school teams and no school team competitions of note. Certainly nothing that comes even close to American high school or college sports. The latter is especially different since higher education in Belgium totally shies away from sports. A high school (middelbaar) may have a soccer team but no college (university in Belgium) has a team of any kind.
Miniemen Team (8-11)

More on schools, holidays, and vacation times tomorrow.

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