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Moving to Brussels in September 2013 with kids

(61 Posts)
cecilem Wed 24-Apr-13 19:26:21

Hello All:

I recently found this site, and I was hoping to get some advise and opinions.

My husband and I along with our three children, aged 18, and twins, boy and girl, age 9, will be moving to Brussels from the US for a several year stay in September 2013. The oldest speaks fluent french, so she will be applying to a university, but the 9 year olds only know a few words.

We will be renting a house in the 1500 - 2000 range and are currently focusing on uccle and forest, but we are interested in your observations for the best location, etc. What are the best and the worse places (to avoid) to live in the Brussels area, which are french speaking? (crime, etc).

We are not sure of what to expect as far as the schools are concerned. We can not afford private (5,000+/child), so were planning to look at the public/religious french schools. What's the best stragedy for getting them into a school at this late date? What should we do? Where are the chances the best? We know it will be late in the school year but we were told that the commune where we live has to offer a school, is this correct?

And what's your experience regarding 9 year olds starting a new language? We are concerned that they won't be able to pick it up. Begining in 5th year, is it likely that they will be held back if they don't learn french quickly? Thanks.

moveornottomove Wed 24-Apr-13 20:03:03

I wanted to say hello! I don't think I'm much help with your questions.
However, we live in Uccle; we like it here. It's calm (ish) if you ignore the hideous traffic. However, Uccle is a huge area.
I'm afraid I can't help with schools as kids are younger and at a faith school. I would suggest getting a move on with the schools as they get notoriously full.
I can't comment on the quality of the schools, but we know people with children at schools on dieweg & messidor. (Uccle) They are happy with the schools. (Sorry I don't know the names of the schools)
Good luck

Portofino Wed 24-Apr-13 20:48:56

9 yos will be in the 3rd/4th year, depending on when their birthdays are. I understand from Natation (our local expert) that schools are highly over subscribed in that area. They are not obliged to give you a place, you will need to search over Brussels to find a school with spaces as inscription has already been done this year. East Brussels tends to be better for English speakers if you want to have a social life. Woluwe St Pierre, Auderghem. Kraainem. I think Brussels schools are used to foreign students and there will be classes in the commune etc, but if you have6 months I would be working really strongly on their language skills. 3rd/4th primaire is very full on with a lot of home work, and a lot of memorising stuff IMHO.

Portofino Thu 25-Apr-13 08:47:42

Sorry - to clarify. If they were born in 2004 they would be 4th Primary in September. If born in 2003 they would be 5th year.

marchmad Thu 25-Apr-13 15:30:38

Try Watermael-Boitsfort commune, hard to find a bad school there, usually places except at the most popular of the 7 schools, the north of the commune is connected to the metro, the south of the commune has tram 94 running though it which goes up to Av Louise and into the city centre. The 4 communal schools are more likely to have places than the 3 Catholic ones. Quite a few expats at Les Cedres out of the communal schools, there is usually space there.

cecilem Sat 27-Apr-13 01:50:38

Thanks for your comments. Our current status is that we are waiting for a response for our long stay visa application. We filed in mid January, so we are hoping to hear any time, sooner the better. Unlike most of you, we are outside the EU, so we have to ask for permission to come aboard.

We visited Brussels for a three weeks last June. We stayed in Forest, and we came to like that area and neighboring Uccle, especially the area next to the La Cambre park, which we fell in love with. During our stay, our two 9 year olds spent two days at the Ecole de Coleurs, and they had a great time. Son, Jared, is very outgoing, so by the end of the day, he was coming out of the school with a french girl holding his right hand and a dutch girl holding his left. He was in heaven. Arianne is a little more reserved, so it might take her longer to get comfortable. We put our names down on the waiting list, but we have not heard from them for September. We sent them an email last week, but no response.

Is it possible to contact schools from the US seeking spots for September?

Is it your experience that they can pick up french, even at 9? As I said, their big sister Camile speaks fluent french, so we are having her give them daily lessons. Hope it will help.

Camile wants to atttend University this coming year. If she attends in Brussels the cost will be from 1% to 10% of the cost in the US where it is now getting astronomical. We are looking forward to coming to Brussels. I'm not sure what we are going to wind up doing about primaire. We'll have to hope that we get lucky.


marchmad Sat 27-Apr-13 06:48:42

You need to think practically.
Did you see any other area in Brussels?
Yes you can enrol from abroad but enrolments started last September for many schools so you are months late for most schools, to get 2 places now in a school would require much luck for Forest/Uccle, much persistence BY PHONE not email, or otherwise go look at areas with less population growth and more places, which is why I suggested Watermael-Boitsfort. Whatever you do, don't think about housing until you have 2 school places and are comfortable with you school places. You'd of course have to formally enrol once here but many schools would be happy to have documents by email initially, supplying proof of registration and affiliation to a mutuelle or private health insurance once you have this proof.
How easy is it for the oldest to get to university from Forest/Uccle? That area is not well regarded for public transport connections.
Uccle is a vast commune, built up and very busy in the north, rolling hills and millionaires villas in the south, pockets of poorer areas in the west.
Forest only has 4 schools which are very well regarded, one of which is Nos Enfants - 25 kids max per year, low turnover. The chances of 1 place there is very slim, 2 places even slimmer. I know one person with children there, she was on time applying, it took her 2 years to get in, so many places go to siblings already in the school and it's a very small school. By the time you get places there, your children might be secondary school age.
There are about 300 primaires in Brussels. Try concentrating in areas accessible to university where the population has not increased at such a high rate.
You also need to think about housing budget. You said you liked the Bois de la Cambre area, but some of the most expensive properties are in that area, you won't get much more than a small apartment in that area, I'd expect the left side of the bois de la Cambre to be cheaper and in fact Watermael-Boitsfort is that side.

cecilem Sat 27-Apr-13 16:35:22

I appreciate your thoughts. During our visit we looked at houses in WSP and Scharbeek. WSP near the Chant de Oieseau was nice - nice park too. One problem that we have is that the visa has not been acted on yet, so until then we can't get registered. We will have private health care, so that is no issue. So it's hard to identify a date of arrival until we get the visa sorted out.

Additionally our review of the rental houses on offer suggests that at any one time there are only 5-7 houses that might be of interest thru-out the different communes of Brussels, and finding one exactly where and when you want it is a difficult task.

So is it correct that if we get there in September with two primaire aged children, that we may find that there is no school to place them in? If so, that would be a problem.

So do all of you feel that a 9 year old can adapt and learn a new language, french, without too much difficulty? Is it likely that they could be held back for language issues?

We remain optimistic. What are your thoughts?


irishmumonthemove Sun 28-Apr-13 11:02:45

I can't comment on the accommodation issues as we live in the Netherlands. Regarding your 9 year olds picking up French, I would say yes, it's perfectly possible if they are eager to learn and have a good attitude to school. We moved here last summer when my eldest was 9.5 and middle child was almost 8. They both began in local Dutch school without a word of Dutch and the first week was daunting for them. After that they quickly became comfortable in the classroom, particularly the older boy who is very outgoing. It took my second boy, who is more reserved, a little longer. Their classmates were so friendly so that helped hugely of course. Language wise, within 2 months the 9 year old was speaking to friends and teachers and every day since has improved. I am amazed when I hear him talking with ease now in cafes, to friends, their parents, on the street playing outside. My 8 year old took longer, was very happy in school but didn't speak English or Dutch for 6 months. After Xmas, he gained some confidence to speak out loud and when he did, he had a lot of knowledge stored up and ready to go. His 'voice' is getting louder and this week, finally he is speaking Dutch as clearly as English and understands so much. They both had 6 hours of group language class provided by the gemeente during school hours since November and this helped hugely. My American friends, two families, moved with same age kids and they enrolled their children in an immersion school for a year first and now the kids are practically fluent. I hope this has given you some idea of how it might go. Its a great journey. Best of luck to you all.

irishmumonthemove Sun 28-Apr-13 11:04:43

I forgot to say that Dutch kids don't get homework till Group 7/8 so we and my kids didn't have that to contend with luckily. it will be different for you in Brussels.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 15:32:30

I fear you might have to compromise on housing or schooling. Here are some figures on rentals in communes I'd recommend looking at, plus populations (to give you an idea of quantity of rental of housing per population) and number of schools.

On the subject of housing, this is the number of adverts on immoweb at the moment for 3 bed properties :

1150 WSP population 40,000, 10 schools
- 39 houses between €1295 and €2000
- 129 apartments between and €2000

1170 Watermael population 25,000, 7 schools
- 15 houses between €1450 and €2000
- 26 apartments between €900 and €2000

1200 WSL population 52,000, 16 schools
- 17 houses between €990 and €2000
- 94 apartments between €825 and €2000

1160 Auderghem population 32,000, 7 schools
- 12 houses between €1030 and €2000
- 67 apartments between €1000 and €2000

1040 Etterbeek population 46,000, 9 schools
- 11 houses between €1350 and €2000
- 107 apartments between €850 and €2000

1060 St Gilles population 50,000, 10 schools
- 0 houses under €2000
- 18 apartments between €700 and €2000

where you'd like to look
1180 Uccle population 80,000, 26 schools
- 86 houses between €890 and €2000
- 159 apartments between €800 and €2000

1190 Forest population 53,000, 16 schools
- 3 houses between €1200 and €2000
- 16 apartments between €900 and €2000

Do study these stats. I'd personally cross off Forest and St Gilles immediately, just not enough rentals under €2000 with 3+ beds. As for the others, well you can see that overall WSP and Uccle have a very high amount of rentals of 3+ beds in your price range, when compared against their populations. WSL has quite a limited supply of houses in the price range but plenty of apartments, same with Etterbeek. Watermael is ok for housing and apartments, but as so many of the Auderghem apartments, a good supply, are actually near to 2 good Watermael schools, if it's apartments you're happy with the "Pecheries" area of Auderghem/Watermael is an excellent place to look, as well as being and area with a reasonable amount of houses.

Your problem with Uccle is that the chances of a school place there is far lower than in Watermael, Auderghem, WSL, WSP, Etterbeek, but at least if you manage 2 places, you shouldn't have to worry about finding somewhere to live nearby.

WSP is frankly hard to beat for a combination of school places and housing.

Watermael is good for schooling, if happy with an apartment, wouldn't worry about housing, if you want only a house, I'd probably not want the children to start school there without a house.

You really shouldn't be fussy about housing, unless you want to make your situation even harder. Ideally you should be flexible about size and quality and features. 3 bathrooms are not essential, only 1 is. A garden is not essential, think of it as a luxury. Parking is not essential and in Brussels you can live without a car. 5 beds for guests is not essential. A power shower is not essential. Fitting all your furniture is not essential. Living close to school IS ESSENTIAL to getting a decent secondaire place. Do not sign any housing contract without firm school places and moreover without checking the order of primaire with reference to your new home or order of preferred primaire with reference to your new home. Ignore this advice at your peril. I know 2 families who did this year. 1 has been exceptionally lucky to get a place at a super school which was their nearest but they wanted instead their child to go to the most highly regarded secondaire and didn't get the place and sensibly accept their fantastic 2nd choice (so do half Brussels' parents and therein lies the problem of living more than 400m from this school, non priority children stand no chance of a place).

There is nothing to lose in enrolling for school places now and really I would have done it months ago. It doesn't matter if you don't know the exact date of arrival, the schools won't know that, the worst that could happen if you couldn't start when you want your children to start is that the places are kept a few weeks for you, or you have to look elsewhere. The longer you delay looking, the harder it will get. Your only other strategy is to hope luck is on your side and you get a last minute vacancy at the end of August/beginning of September. Once they start P5, they cannot be held back a year due to lack of French and they cannot change school either until the end of P6. Finally if you think you cannot enrol without being registered, as said before, you do not even need to be in the country, never mind registered, you just need to arrive on the first day for school with your passports and visas and then come back ASAP with registration papers.

Portofino Sun 28-Apr-13 16:49:15

They will be P4 though if they are 2004 born? So they could in theory change after one year.

Portofino Sun 28-Apr-13 16:55:09

Marchmad's advice is spot on though. I myself will look to move from a large house in outskirts of Brussels to a much smaller one or apartment in probably Kraainem, Wezembeek Oppem or wSP in order to secure a good secondary place. My dd is 9 and currently in P3.

cecilem Sun 28-Apr-13 17:07:10

Thanks for your responses. I hope I did not give the impression that we were limiting ourselves to Forest or Uccle, because we are not. But we do want a house, 3 - 4 beds, and preferably 4. We really want a garden or small yard, and a garage, if possible.

On immoweb we are focused on 1500 - 2000 euros rental. Unfortunately, the offerings in April may not be what is offered in July or August. So we may have a completely different picture.
Of course, a lease is for a minimum or 3 years or more likely 9 years, and we don't want to keep moving. So the idea is to find a house where we will be happy for many years to come, as we may not go back to the US following our move. So it will be a balance between area, schools and house, the best combination of each.

So you are saying that we should start calling or (emailing?) schools in different areas, Uccle, WSP, etc., try to get places and then see where we can get a house later on? Are the religious schools more or less likely to have openings? As we are now in May is it already too late to be searching for a school? Although we have a list of schools, we know nothing about them, which are the best, good or not. Also can I assume that if there is no indication of fees on a school's website, that there is no fees?

Thanks for the support concerning a nine year old's ability to learn a new language. I think dutch is more difficult than french, but it's a matter of opinion. You say that they can not be held back for weakness in french ability. Are students routinely held back, and if so, on what basis? I would mention that the french ability of myself and my husband is elementary at best, though as I have said before our 18 year old daughter is fluent.


cecilem Sun 28-Apr-13 17:12:16

I would add that the 9 year olds were born in October 2003, and they began school early. They are now in the 4th grade and expecting to be entering 5th next September. Age wise they could remain in 4th in Brussels and be amonst children of their same age range. We could consider that if that was advisable.


Portofino Sun 28-Apr-13 17:39:31

Yes, children can be asked to repeat the year if they don't pass the end of year exams. It is very common. I can see an advantage in starting at P4 in that yours would be amongst the youngest in the year group and then you could still change schools for P5 if you don't get a place at your nearest/preferred school. It is done in 2 year cycles here, where you keep the same teacher, 12,34,56 etc And you are not allowed to transfer within Brussels during the cycle. So you could change schools for P5, but not P6, if you se what I mean.

Portofino Sun 28-Apr-13 17:45:18

Sorry, in P5 they would be amongst the youngest. In P4 they would be just a couple of months older than the year group but there is likely to be a couple at least doing the year again, in my experience.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 17:56:10

There is no advantage to starting down a year, other than it happens to be P4 where they could change after a year, if you've chosen badly. If they're above average achieving at the moment, they might find Maths too easy, once they've mastered enough language. If they are emotionally average, they might suffer slightly from being older than most of the class by staying back a year. Most children who double, do so in secondaire. The biggest reason for going into P4 instead of P5 would be if you found a school you really liked and it only had P4 places and not P5 places.

I'd drop the garage, you will seriously limit search if you want one. In the inner city, a garage is often half height and you cannot fit a car in it anyway. I'd rather have a "cave" than a garage.

I wouldn't touch a 3 year contract (normally no way of getting out unless you manage to convince a landlord to insert a diplomatic clause which is highly unlikely), I'd go for a 9 year contract, but landlords might want to offer you a 1 year contract initially, without a previous record of renting in Belgium, so I would consider 1 year with the option of changing to a 9 year contract at the end of the year.

Many apartments are ground floor, many apartments have shared gardens. There are tons of playgrounds around, 9 year olds have less need for a garden than 3 year olds, so if you want to increase your housing search, don't rule out apartments. Most duplexes are listed under apartments on immoweb.

I'd consider 7 out of 7 Watermael schools. I'd consider 8 out of 10 WSP schools. I'd consider 4 out of 7 Auderghem schools. I'd consider maybe 13 out of 16 WSL schools. I'd consider 6 out of 9 Etterbeek schools. I can't help you with Uccle schools.

The religious and non religious schools, as a general rule are more popular than the communal ones, with a few notable exceptions, the least desirable are the French Community "Athénée Royal" schools. But there are some Catholic schools I'd not be happy with and some communal schools I'd be more happy with, you really can't rely solely on the 4 types as an indicator of the best schools.

There are 9 public schools in Brussels which have fees of between 1k and 2k per year, in these you'll also find things like school trips, extra-curriculars are also more expensive, so I'd budget 2k minimum extra per year. No they don't list their fees on any of their websites. They are also mega hard to get places at, eg En Couleurs!! These schools attract the motivated type of parent (mind you so do many of the majority no fees public schools). They also keep poor children excluded from them.

You will of course have to pay fees for school lunches, swimming, school day and overnight trips, extra-curricular courses. Oh and expect a list of materials containing at least 30 items to buy, first year is always most expensive as you have to buy dictionaries, grammar books, felt-tips, pens and pencils.

I would have been calling the schools from September 2012. Few schools reply initially to emails. It sometimes takes several "no" calls to schools before they take you seriously and allow your names on a waiting list which I'd want confirmed by email. Yes most schools will now be waiting list only by this stage, but don't let that put you off, you lose nothing by trying and it will only get harder by leaving it even longer.

I'd not say Dutch is harder or easier than French, they are both Indo-European languages, though Dutch is in the same sub-group as English and French is in the Romance sub-group, but it's very personal.

You're held back if you don't come up to the minimum standard the class teacher expects, you can only be forced to double in P2 and and P4 in primaire, all other years are at the choice of parents. It does work the other way, I know a child who was moved up a year and was top of the class despite being 1 month to 2 years younger than the rest of the class.

If you cannot find the property you feel is right for you but find the school, then rent a serviced apartment till you find the right place, even if it is initially a bit of a trek to school. If you choose a school in an area with plenty of rental possibilities, you'll find something eventually.

High season for adverts on immoweb is May to July.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 18:04:28

Just to clarify, your child can only be forced to double P2 and P4, but might be recommended to double the other school years. You'd normally only double P6 if you've failed the CEB exam and then you have the choice to double P6 or continue into S1 in a special class where all the children re-take the CEB and most fail again - the former would be better for children who've failed the CEB due to lack of language skills rather than intelligence.

It's pretty common for children who double voluntarily after P1, P3 and P5 to move sideways to another school at that point, even if it is mid cycle and they normally cannot move, schools seem happy to sign away pupils like this whose parents want to try a different school for the doubled year and it's allowed as a reason for changing mid cycle. Children who are forced doublers at the end of P2 and P4 often also move schools, rather than face staying in the same school and seeing their friends rise up a year and they are stuck with children younger than them.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 18:17:15

Just as an example, this house is Av Léopold Wiener 213, Watermael-Boitsfort. A short walk to the sports centre and the shops.

The nearest Catholic school will surely by full, la Sainte Famille, most sought after school in the commune and only 1 class per year. 2nd nearest however is Ste-Therese de l'Assomption, almost definitely will have places, has undergone renovations recently and numbers growing rapidly especially at maternelle level, primaire not so full. 2nd nearest is good for secondaire. Then the 2 nearest Catholic secondaires, Assomption then St Hubert are really sought after, apply for these with this address and attending Ste Therese and you should get a place.

This is the school's website, something wrong with it at the moment, but usually full of details, even in English.

The 2nd nearest communal is Les Cedres and there are quite a few English speaking families there and usually places, the nearest communal is le Karrenberg, know little about there other than good reputation locally.

cecilem Sun 28-Apr-13 18:32:57

I failed to mention something that may limit our chances further to find a rental. We have a dog. A medium size German Shephard. That's one of the main reasons why we want a yard as well as a house. Is this going to be a big problem for us? We also think a yard will give us a nice retreat from the noise of the city. In the US where there is little negotiation and landlords make the terms - almost all houses are "no pets allowed."

So are you saying that we should just identify 3-5 schools in two or three or more areas and start calling. As I said our older daughter speaks good french, so we might want to enlist her in the calling to improve communication. Assuming that many of the administrators may not speak good english or may not prefer to.

Our 18 year old is very artistic and wants to study clothing design. She wants to apply to La Cambre, which is center city, amonst other schools. We will have to seek an equivalency certification within a few months.

These initial months will be hectic and complicated.


marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 18:38:37

Here is another house / school combination. Rue Kelle 122, 1150 Woluwe-St-Pierre, it's a short walk to Musée du Tram stop where you can catch trams 39/44/94 and buses 36/42, you have a fantastic old railway line path behind the house which leads to loads of playgrounds, even more playgrounds from the front of the house, a football club, tennis club on your doorstep.

The nearest school in Jean 23 Parmentier and probably full, again 1 class entry. But 2nd nearest is Jean 23 Woluwe and it has many non francophones and even prides itself on helping them, take a look at the school website, then 3rd nearest is Providence, don't know much except it's well enough regarded, maybe less international families there.

The nearest secondaire in Jean 23 and it has currently quite a few children who joined as teenagers with no French at all. It was full this year for the first time, increasingly popular secondaire.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 18:54:00

Yes your dog will limit your rental possibilities. It's not something I would not initially mention and you'll have to have it negotiated into the contract. I would think seriously about bringing a dog with you and you will find serviced apartments a non starter with a dog, so it would have to be a reccie trip and lots of planning. Whatever you do, do your own planning, don't employ a relocation agent, it will be a waste of money.

There IS no noise in Watermael or Woluwe-St-Pierre (except around Montgomery). I think you need to adjust to this being Brussels. Thousands of children live with small gardens or none at all

Yes narrow your search down to smaller areas. Look at ways to la Cambre - most of Forest would have been out immediately for there except for the streets near tram line 3 (links with tram 7) and much of Uccle is a huge trek, only northern Uccle any good on line 7 and part of line 4. Anywhere linking with trams 7 or 94 is good, don't have to be directly on the line, just linking with them.

There is no aversion to speaking English amongst the French schools, unlike the Flemish ones which are mainly banned from communication in English, but you cannot expect the secretaries and heads to speak to you in English, French is quite a dominant language like English where speakers don't learn other languages easily as they don't need to.

marchmad Sun 28-Apr-13 19:11:11

Oh I must just link to the blog for Jean 23 Woluwe. It happens to be the twin school of our children's school, heard nice things about the school. It's very active Christian in ethos, rather than church service oriented ethos. Take a look at the little story of the girl on this blog who came from Cameroun for an operation at nearby St Luc - famous for its paediatrics and doing operations on foreigners here for medical help. I guess her foster parents might have some connection with the school, she is due to go back home once better.

cecilem Mon 29-Apr-13 02:39:49

It's interesting that you suggest Jean 23 as someone else had suggested that school to us last year and we made arrangements to view the school in June 2012. Unfortunately, we weren't able to make the appointment. We will definitely check it out. Do you have any recommendations in Uccle? Also what do you think of Etterbeek for housing and schools?


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