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The economics of family life
As any parent will tell you, raising children is expensive. For expats with children attending international schools, it can be a particularly costly experience. Nonetheless, there are a number of advantages to raising children in Belgium. From pregnancy to university, Belgium provides excellent value for money in all aspects of family life. The obligatory social security payments (made directly to mutual insurance companies in Belgium) provide a wide range of benefits at relatively low cost.
PREGNANCY, CHILDBIRTH AND INFANCY
The mutual insurance companies (mutuelle/ziekenfonds) covers the cost of childbirth up to a certain amount, and you can opt for a private medical insurance that will cover childbirth fully. After your baby is born, you can benefit from a multitude of physiotherapy sessions reimbursed by the mutuelle (up to 80 percent).
Pregnant women register with the Office de la Naissance et de l’Enfance or Kind en Gezin free of charge. You’ll get regular visits from a nurse before and after your baby is born, plus advice on vaccinations, creches, day centres, childminders and so on. The costs of creches vary and are calculated according to the salaries of both parents. La Ligue des Familles is a good source of information about babysitters, childminding and related costs. In Belgium, the hourly babysitting rate is typically €5 per hour. The Brussels Childbirth Trust is an international, English-speaking non-profit-making organisation that provides support for families.
THE BELGIAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
Aside from €100 to €500 a year for stationery, school trips and so on, local schools are generally free and educational standards are excellent. You can enrol your child in your local Belgian school from the age of two and a half. With some of the money you save, you could take classes to learn a local language or two along with your children. In the Belgian school system, you can benefit from the services of the Académie, a government-funded organisation similar to the Conservatoire system in France, in which activities such as music, dance and theatre are taught at a very high level. Activities take place on school premises and all schools offer it free of charge. A very useful option for working parents is the garderie facility, whereby children can be looked after at school once lessons are over, until parents can pick them up. All schools offer this facility for a very low fee every day after classes and on Wednesday afternoons.
The European Schools system is free for children of international civil servants. Fees start at €3,000 per annum for students whose parents are not international civil servants, but this is likely to increase significantly in the near future. The Lycée Français provides bilingual schooling and you can opt for the international baccalaureate or English-style GCSEs. School fees remain affordable. Le Verseau is an international grant-aided school in Wavre. Courses are taught in French, but English is taught at a high level. Other international schools are expensive (up to €28,000 annually or €40,000 for special-needs sections).
The combination of high-quality, reasonably priced higher education has facilitated an increasingly international student population in Belgium. The increasing cost associated with studying in the UK has further enhanced the attractions of Belgium’s choice of reputable universities. Annual fees of usually less than €1,500 for EU students (circa €5,400 for non-EU students) are very low compared with other countries.
Parents registered with a mutuelle benefit from a monthly child allowance and a reduction on accommodation taxes. If you have a child with learning difficulties or with a certain degree of handicap, ask for an assessment. Your mutuelle will appoint a medical examiner to study your case, which needs to be backed by medical reports. Once your child has been ‘statemented’, you will receive a certain number of benefits, including:
• A larger child allowance
• Reductions on property tax and Electrabel bills
• Support from various organisations according to the type of handicap
• Ability to enrol your child in a special school, of which there are various types. These are all free
• Under the VIPO statute, all medical bills are reimbursed in full
Philip Curran is an independent financial advisor based in Brussels