*The data cited in this article come mainly from the following sources: research by the Observatoire de la Santé et du Social de Bruxelles; the Observatoire des loyers; the monitoring of neighborhoods; the CFWB’s education indicators

In the classes of the first degree(1), Lamya, Soumeya, Kamal, Hajar, Youssef, Najwa … rub shoulders with Erna, Rababe, Kawthar, Mounir, Maryam, Ahmed… Their parents are workers, toolmakers, housewives, 

switchboard operators, surface technicians, cooks, bakers, mechanics, have a shop, work at the STIB, … the others are unemployed, at the CPAS or have no profession. A minority has reached higher education, many have left school in primary school without ever reaching the 6th grade, or have left school during secondary school. Finally, as with the profession, many say « no » when asked about their level of education. « Without »… expresses « absence, lack, deprivation or… exclusion(2) « .

Browsing the class lists inevitably leaves the same impression. School clusters in certain schools in certain neighborhoods demonstrate an invariable pattern: foreign students or students of foreign origin make up the majority of the class, if not the entire class. But far from the illusions that could create a naive perception of a certain diversity of origins: Moroccan, Turkish, Algerian, Iraqi… the reality reflects above all an almost perfect socio-economic homogeneity. Because the social history of these people, and therefore also their personal history, as well as the places in which they live, draw similarities that form a « typical profile ». 


We are in Molenbeek, northwest of Brussels. In the municipality, which has 16,000 inhabitants per km2, the average monthly rent for housing is 573 euros, close to those of Anderlecht, Saint-Gilles and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (567, 572, 535), four municipalities where the lowest rents in Brussels are recorded. A few blocks away, in Uccle, Watermael-Boitsfort or Auderghem, the average rents are respectively 877, 723 and 780 euros. Most often, there is a correlation between communes and neighbourhoods, which rejects the logic of enclave(3) rich in a poor commune, or poor in a rich commune: « the highest rents are thus recorded in the outer neighborhoods of the eastern second ring municipalities (Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, Woluwé-Saint-Pierre, Auderghem, Watermael-Boitsfort and Uccle) while the lowest rents are recorded in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Pentagon, in the north (North Station, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode and Tour-et-Taxis) and in the southwest (Anderlecht Cureghem, Gare du Midi in SaintGilles) ». The comparison by district reveals even greater differences: while in Anneessens, CureghemBara, historical Molenbeek, chaussée de Haecht, they are respectively 483, 509, 505, 481 euros, they reach 1175 euros in the Etangs d’Ixelles (area colonized by French people fleeing the wealth tax in France), 852 euros in Churchill or 780 in Brugmann-Lepoutre. Ironically, or logically due to the free rental market and economically determined demographic distribution, the most disadvantaged neighborhoods are among those that have seen an average rent increase in recent years ranging from 13 to 52% (from 2004 to 2012). In summary, and obviously, « the location of the accommodation will therefore have an impact on the amount of rent for it ». 

In terms of average house size, the lowest values are found in Sint-Joost-Ten-Noode (63 m²) and Sint-Gillis (66 m²); the highest values are found in the municipalities of the southeast quadrant: Sint-Pieters-Woluwe (92 m²), Uccle (87 m²), Watermael-Boitsfort, Auderghem and Sint-Lambert-Woluwe (82 m²). Moreover, « overcrowded housing is mainly located in the crescent adjacent to the west of the Pentagon, in the old districts of Laeken, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean and Anderlecht ». And the loop doesn’t end there: « the majority of overcrowded housing is occupied by families with children, while most undercrowded housing is occupied primarily by people living alone or without children. » Children from poor backgrounds are the first to suffer from the lack of space to play, rest, do nothing… or learn. And they won’t find anything better outside, because « people who are very far from all forms of cultural activities [qui] are found in higher proportion in the Brussels communes where the socio-economic level is low and are less represented in the well-off communes ».

Extra-communal activities? Youth workers in these neighborhoods note that « the spatial environment of young people is rather limited: they rarely stray from their neighborhoods, which restricts their scope of possibilities. Gardens? In addition to the fact that only 14% of the inhabitants of Brussels have a garden,  » the spaces annexed to the dwelling are essentially in the buildings located in the second crown ». Green and recreational spaces? 802 green and recreational spaces, covering a surface area of approximately 3,000 hectares (including roads and buildings, i.e. nearly 18.5% of the Region’s surface area), have been identified by the Brussels Institute for Environmental Management:  » the most important (in surface) are located in the second crown of the Region. 35% of them include a recreational and/or sports area(4) ».

Let’s stop here for now, we will not describe how « social status influences health status in a very important way ».


Who could think that this reality could, can and will be able to spare the school history of children? Kids living in economically disadvantaged environments, with unemployed parents, smaller and more crowded living spaces, neighborhoods with less green space and playgrounds, less frequent extracurricular activities… doing as well as others? And who could still believe that the decree « positive discrimination », an Orwellian term if ever there was one, « aimed at ensuring equal opportunities for social emancipation for all students », the principle of which is « togive more to those who have less », by granting more human and financial means to schools with students from the most vulnerable backgrounds » (note the use of the term « vulnerable » rather than « poor »), so who could believe that this would counterbalance this reality. Palliative measures? To ask the question is to answer it. 

The numbers speak for themselves. In this task, the CFWB helps us by providing us with educational indicators, which perfectly illustrate the fact that the school reproduction of social inequalities is marked from the beginning of schooling. Even before, in the process of enrolling in kindergarten, we see that the opportunity to attend this education is conditioned by family characteristics.  » Generally, for equivalent needs, the use of foster care settings is less frequent in less advantaged families. » In particular, the service offer plays a selection role: « it was found in Brussels that families with low levels of education and migrant families were victims of unintentional selection, partly due to low levels of public service provision in their neighbourhoods of residence and to eligibility criteria that favoured families where both parents work(5) « . However, early socialization through school is all the more important when one belongs to a milieu that is far from this school culture.

The orientation at the end of the 2nd year of secondary school (2C) acts as a « sorting station » according to the socio-economic level of the students for their choice of 3rd year secondary school

Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, « les indicateurs de l’enseignement 2013 ». You can obtain this document by contacting the CFWB’s General Service for the Management of the Education System (AGERS) at or by calling 02/690.82.18


The rest of the process follows a long path that is most often determined by the environment of origin. Pupils who enter primary education late, « more frequently complete an additional year and also undergo a very important orientation in special education « . Those who repeat before the 5th grade and enter late « experience more repetition within three years than students who enter on time. » Yet, studies show that « fallingbehind increases the chances of not graduating from high school. » In Brussels, the proportion of students who are already two or more years behind when they enter secondary 1 is 17.7%. However, this figure conceals significant disparities between municipalities. These proportions are particularly high in the communes with a low economic status: with Saint-Gilles in the lead (26.7%), followed by Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (24%), Schaerbeek (23%), Brussels (22%), Molenbeek-Saint-Jean (20%), Anderlecht (17.5%), we find the ranking described above, and, with the lowest repetition rates, we find the others: Woluwé-st-Pierre (5.5%), Watermael-Boitsfort (6%), Auderghem (7%), Woluwé-st-Lambert (9%), Uccle (10.5%).


Among the education indicators, number 9: « Socioeconomic disparities in basic and secondary education », draws particular attention. In the header of the page, the CFWB summarizes the situation: « the differentiated distribution of students according to socioeconomic index appears very early in the school career and is accentuated throughout compulsory schooling « . Analysis of socio-economic indices(6) in secondary education by grade and form is particularly illuminating: « a significant disparity between the forms of secondary education appears. It begins at high school entry with a large gap (of 0.56) between 1D and 1C(7). This dispersion of average ISEs is accentuated in the 2nd and 3rd grades(8)The average ISE for students in the vocational program is ‑0.26, while the average ISE for students in the technical program is +0.00. Similarly, for the transitional technical form, the average index is +0.25 and for the general form, it is +0.33.« The CFWB states: « The orientation at the end of the 2nd year of secondary school (2C) acts as a « sorting station » according to the socio-economic level of the students for their choice in the 3rd year of secondary school ». In 1D and 2D(9) the ESIs are ‑0.52 and ‑0.57 respectively. 

The sorting locations apparently pass through several stations throughout the journey: 99.5% of students who entered 1st Common in 2008-09 came from a 6th Primary; 82.5% of students who entered 1C in 2008-09 were in 2C a year later. Two years later, 55.1% of them are enrolled in 3G. In contrast, only 42.5% of students entering 1D in 2008–2009 were enrolled in primary 6 in 2007–2008. 63.7% of the students who entered 1D in 2008–2009 were in 2D one year later; two years later, 57.3% were enrolled in 3ème professionnelle; three years later, 22.5% were in 4P, 37.3% in 3P, 13% in work-study, 7.8% in TQ… 2.5% are in general 3rd grade! There are also significant differences between full-year programs, where the average ESI is +0.09, and work-study programs (CEFA(10)) with an ISE of — 0.29. Of the students entering the second level of the dual system for the first time, 32.3% come from a vocational 3rd level (3P); of those entering the 3rd level of the dual system for the first time, 67.4% come from a vocational level. Railway switch! 

As one « moves up » in the school hierarchy — from vocational to skill-based technical, then to transitional technical and finally to general — the average ESI increases. Moreover, the latter also increases with the year of study within each field of study (except in the professional field). This means that as the years go by, the closer you get to secondary 6, the fewer students there are from disadvantaged areas. The CFWB explains this either by the dropout of socio-economically disadvantaged students during their school career (18.9% of 18–24 year olds in the Brussels Region have at most a lower secondary education diploma), or by a possible increase in the average index in other forms of education if more socio-economically advantaged students are redirected there. In the first case, we are dealing with a complete dropout of the most disadvantaged students who, by their defection, bring up the statistics of the ISE; in the second, with a reorientation of more advantaged students which does not take the form of a « railroad sorting » as for the most disadvantaged, but would take place later in the curriculum and would therefore respond more to a choice. 

In the fourth grade of regular high school, 30% are one year behind in school, 25% are two years behind or more. Again, depending on the form of education, the school delay is very different:  » the average delay in the third year of general education is 28%; it is 59% in the transitional technical form, 79% in the qualification technical form and 87% in the vocational form ». The authors of the study conclude:  » a phenomenon of relegation appears at the entrance of the 2nd degree, moment of orientation, and is reinforced at the approach of the 3rd degree, moment of confirmation of the section and the chosen form ». In addition, the rate of repeaters, i.e., those who enroll for two successive school years in the same grade, is 26% in the vocational form and 33% in the qualification technique, while it is 27% and 12% respectively in the transition technique and in general. 

Special education has the lowest ESI, with a score close to ‑0.38. What does this mean? That the poorer you are, the more you enter qualifying courses such as vocational education, but also, and this is even more serious, that special education, whose vocation is « to meet the specific educational needs of students in difficulty », welcomes a more precarious public. Let’s remember that the specialized fundamental concentrates the majority of its children in type 8 and type 1, respectively designed to treat learning disabilities and those related to mild mental retardation. So there would be more poor people among dyslexics, dysorthographics, dyspraxics and others? Or more of the latter among the poor… 

The truth is that in the face of the decline of general education and the organized ignorance of the debacle, special education serves as a pressure relief valve, taking in students who do not belong to this type of education but who are perceived as abnormal by teachers who can no longer handle students who are no longer following a curriculum where short-termism is the rule. It is therefore understandable why « the share of special education in each level of education in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation has been constantly evolving for the past 15years ».


Whether in university, short-form or long-form education, « age and form of secondary education are important determinants of success. » If the success rate(11) In 2010–2011, the success rate of students coming from general education and following a first year in higher education of the short type is already low (49.5% for students on time and 31.4% for those who are late), this figure progressively decreases as one moves towards students coming from the most qualified stream, namely vocational education: for these, the success rate is 13%, for 189 students enrolled; for the long type of education, the success rate was 0.00% for the eight students enrolled from the vocational stream! As for university education, out of the 21 students registered from the professional sector, the success rate is 4.8%, i.e. one student from the professional sector who will have passed his first year of university in 2010–2011… Perhaps we will take this as an example when we need to be persuaded that « where there is a will there is a way »? 

So the train made its rounds: « On the one hand, children who live in poverty are more likely to experience difficulties in school. On the other hand, leaving school without a diploma increases the risk of poverty in adulthood, particularly because these people often have more problems finding a job and often only have access to low-skilled, low-paid and more frequently unstable jobs ». It is therefore not surprising that the unemployment rate in the Brussels region varies greatly from one municipality to another, as does the level of income, reminding us of correlations already encountered: « the lowest rate is observed in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre (9.8%) and the highest in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (29.5%). This is a factor that influences the level of income of the inhabitants, which also differs significantly between the Brussels municipalities: it varies from €13,289 in Sint-Joost to almost double (22,773) in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. Moreover, while 17.7% of Brussels students in the first year of secondary education are already at least two years behind, this proportion exceeds 20% in the poorest municipalities, with the highest proportion observed among students living in Saint-Gilles (26.7%). Among students residing in municipalities with a high socio-economic status, this proportion is significantly lower, such as in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre where it is 5.5%. ».


School crisis? Certainly… But it is only the expression of a global crisis, the logical result of a certain model of society where inequality is structural and therefore necessary. Let the hucksters, politicians and others, stop their soothing speeches, which, year after year, are repeated while the reality worsens. Their pretense, their emergency solutions, make the school debacle seem like an epiphenomenon of our societies, when it is only an emanation of it. 

The causes of school clusters are to be found in a situation that predates the institutional situation, as we have tried to show in this article. They are located in spatial segregation, rent differences, the type of housing and the way it is occupied, access to culture, leisure activities, and employment, all of which will affect the level of education obtained, which in turn will most certainly determine the standard of living, with the consequences determining the future causes. And it is, moreover, the group effect that will overdetermine personal circumstances. As studies have shown, for example, « Students in schools with the highest proportions of immigrant children are from one to more than one year behind in both written and oral language. As schools with minority immigrant students move toward the standard of a 4th grade(12) « .

Social heterogeneity, stinging differences in the paths of students, who are all bathed in a consumerist world that transcends social spaces, whose influence is even more important on disadvantaged backgrounds who, socially rejected, find symbolic compensation in material acquisition(13).

But it is better to keep quiet, to find a common federator that makes us forget all that, to blissfully indulge in this « regain of belgitude that our country is currently experiencing(14)But it’s better to keep quiet, to find a common federator that makes us forget all that, to blissfully indulge in this « Belgian revival » that our country is currently experiencing, and in which, it is certain, the mass media have no influence…

Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. 1ère et 2ème secondaire.
  2. Le Petit Robert.
  3. Les moyennes communales occultent toutefois parfois la logique de quartier qui quadrille l’espace socio-économique bruxellois. Ainsi dans des communes pauvres, certains quartiers dénotent par leur habitat et le niveau socio-économique de ces habitants, comme c’est le cas de Neerpede à Anderlecht ou de Haren à Bruxelles.
  4. Étude « espaces verts et biodiversité », voir
  5. Perrine Humblet, « Croissance démographique bruxelloise et inégalité d’accès à l’école maternelle », Brussels Studies, numéro 51, septembre 2011. Disponible sur .
  6. Dans ses calculs, la CFWB a attribué un indice socioéconomique à chaque élève sur base des caractéristiques socioéconomiques du quartier où il vit. Cet indice composite intègre plusieurs variables liées au revenu moyen par habitant, au revenu médian par habitant, au niveau des diplômes, au confort des logements, aux taux de chômage, d’activité et de bénéficiaires du revenu mensuel garanti, etc…
  7. La 1D – pour « différenciée » – est la première année du secondaire organisée pour les élèves qui n’ont pas obtenu leur certificat d’étude de base (CEB) en 6ème primaire, en vue de son obtention. La 1C est la première année secondaire commune.
  8. Respectivement 3–4èmes secondaire et 5–6èmes secondaire.
  9. La 2D est la deuxième année du secondaire organisée pour les élèves qui, malgré une 1D, n’ont toujours pas obtenu leur CEB.
  10. Centre d’éducation et de formation en alternance. L’enseignement en alternance est une forme d’enseignement qui combine
par semaine deux jours de formation théorique à l’école et
trois jours d’apprentissage professionnel en entreprise.
  11. Pourcentage d’étudiants passant, l’année académique suivante, dans l’année d’étude suivante.
  12. Voir l’étude « appropriation de la langue écrite », sur
  13. Lire à ce sujet Thorstein Veblen, Théorie de la classe de loisir, Éditions Gallimard, 1970.
  14. Le Soir du 4/01/2014.
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