Belgium: forthcoming elections threaten the future of the Pact for Excellence in Wallonia and Brussels

published 31 August 2018 updated 5 September 2018

With the beginning of the school year in Belgium, and the approach of the elections, the teaching unions have entered into a race against time to give substance to the Pact for Excellence, which aims to guarantee quality education for all.

The Wallonia-Brussels Federation's 900,000 students are returning to school, just like their 100 000 or so teachers. This return to school is the last one governed by the   legislature that decided on the 'Pact for Excellence in Education'. For more than three years, the various stakeholders in education, i.e. the organising powers, the teaching unions and parent associations, have worked very hard to develop the school of tomorrow, with the aim of making it more efficient and less unequal.

Teaching unions: “As the stakeholders of the Pact, we've done our job!”

While some measures have already taken shape, especially the hiring of extra teachers and better administrative support for the leaders of basic education, the bulk of the legislative texts necessary for this reform still hasn't been approved.

“The ball is clearly in the political court today. It's up to them to take action!” stresses Eugène Ernst from the teachers' union CSC-Enseignement. “As the stakeholders of the Pact, we've done our job!”

If the work on the Pact has taken far longer than planned, it's because we had to hold many consultations in order to ensure everyone was on board. Subsequently, taking into account the upcoming local elections, which will take up all the political leaders time and energy until mid-October 2018, followed by the campaign for the legislative/regional/European elections on 26 May 2019, we have six months at most to come to an agreement and vote on as many texts as possible, so it's a 'real race against the clock'."

An impressive to-do list

Time is also short because of the remaining items on the Pact's “to-do” list: the decree on guiding schools that are still in difficulty, the inspection reform to be established, or the school heads’ hiring decree that still needs to be validated.

In May 2018, the programmed redefinition of the teacher workload within the framework of the Pact created opposition in the unions, with the threat of strikes. Here too, an agreement has yet to be reached. As for the reform of initial teacher training, which is supposed to be increased from three to four years, it hasn't been properly validated yet either.

As for the reform of initial teacher training, which is supposed to be increased from three to four years, it hasn't been properly validated yet. The benchmarks for the future for core curriculum (aimed at ensuring an educational continuum from nursery to the third year of secondary school) are still being elaborated, even though this reform should, theoretically, begin in nursery schools at the start of school in 2019.

Furthermore, there still needs to be a split in education between the organising powers and the regulator of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation with the additional difficulty that the Socialist Party (PS) and the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) have to gain the support of the opposition, the Reformist Movement (MR), as the reform requires a two-thirds majority.

The concerns of education stakeholders

As a result, even though the Pact's process is well underway, we are very far from having achieved any sort of point of no return, and there is nothing to guarantee that the next coalition in power in the Federation will pursue the task in the same spirit, and with exactly the same plans.

“If the texts and decrees haven't been passed before the end of the legislature, I think that will be the end of the Pact!” Joseph Thonon, community chairman of the Centrale générale des services publics(CSGP)-Enseignement, categorically predicts.

And yet, since the CDH publicly repudiated the PS last year, everyone is expecting a change in the majority after 2019, with the MR ready to lead.

Indeed, the MR has repeated many times that it absolutely doesn't want to extend the core curriculum up until the age of 15, a measure that is nevertheless part of the delicate balance negotiated by the authors of the Pact, who have always presented the edifice as an indissociable whole.

“Many questions therefore remain concerning the future of the Pact,” Ernst notes. “We're really uncertain what's going to happen and we're curious to see how things will pan out. But it's clear that we're not going to let just anything happen.”

That is why the unions hope that despite their political stances, the different parties have made a tacit agreement in the wings for the successful outcome of the Pact, regardless of the electoral uncertainties.

Politicians ready to accelerate the legislative pace

Clearly very aware of the stakes and the urgency, politicians could go up a gear very quickly.

Hence, there is currently an idea circulating within the parliament of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation to arrange a meeting with the Education Commission to approve the decree on steering schools before the official reopening of parliament on 6 September 2018. In that case, it would be possible to set the legislative wheels in motion, to work on the many decrees relating to the Pact between now and next spring.