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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.

marchmad Mon 29-Apr-13 15:09:35

Uccle anywhere along the number 4 tram route and some of number 7 route, some of 38 and 60 bus routes, some of the TEC/de Lijn bus routes which go down the west side of the bois de la cambre.
no 4/7
En Couleurs
38 and 60 routes
Notre Dame des Champs
St Job
Note Dame (St Job)
TEC/de Lijn routes
St Joseph

En Couleurs, Hamaide and Décroly are exceptionally popular and also have top-up fees, the are likely to be non starters.

St Joseph and Notre Dame des Champs are also exceptionally popular.

Hamaide and Décoly and St Joseph are in areas probably out of your budget., maybe Notre Dame and St job too. Your best bet of places are the 3 schools in the north along the number 4/7, En Couleurs being the 4th on that route is least likely.

Etterbeek will be very hard to find a house in budget - only 9 actual houses currently 3+ beds in budget, many more apartments but few are 4 beds, most are 3 beds. It's real inner city, you'd have to be happy with the noise and the different socio-economic intake of the schools - Paradis des Enfants and St Michel will be most affluent as in the east of the commune near Chant d'Oiseau area of WSP.

Watermael-Boitsfort - all of the schools

WSL - all of the schools except AR WSL, Parc Schuman, Prince Baudouin

WSP - all of the schools except AR WSP, Centre

Etterbeek - all of the schools except Claire-Joie, Ste Genevieve and Al-Ghazali (actually I'd say yes to this one if you are observant Muslim, if not, would be rather hard to fit in)

cecilem Tue 30-Apr-13 00:23:43

Would it be fair to say that I do not recommend Jette, Laeken, Molenbee, Koekelberg and Schaerbeek? These are some communes that I have sometimes seen interesting houses in. I am not sure if they would really be great places to live in though. By the way, we are Christians, so a Catholic school is OK.


marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 07:06:28

1 You could take the easy option and look FIRST for schools and then for houses later.

2 You could take the easy option by choosing areas to look for schools with a high possibility of suitable housing.

3 You could take the easy option by choosing areas to look for schools and live nearby which are a 30 minute or less commute to La Cambre.

4 You could take the easy option by choosing areas where schools are not so oversubscribed.

So Jette fails on all 4 of these.

Laeken fails on all 4 of these.

Schaerbeek fails on all 4 of these in from Parc Josaphat northwards, it only passes in the area south of Parc Josaphat close to the 7 tram lineon number 3 and possibly number 2.

Watermael-Boitsfort passes on all 4. To a lesser extent so does WSP and WSL.

marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 07:08:53

PS please don't look in Laeken and Jette and you'd be silly to consider all but the most southern area of Schaerbeek. I also forgot point no 5.

5 You could take the easy option by choosing schools with a good mix on international children, including some English speakers, so schools are used to children arriving in primaire without French and so that the children will be able to make friends amongst the anglophones and so the adults could make friends with some of the parents for a social life.

Again Laeken and Jette fail on this point. Watermael scores again.

marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 07:10:21

Oops forgot Molenbeek and Koelkelberg. Same as Jette and Laeken.

I have helped you as much as possible. Ignore at your peril. You mustn't have ever been to the areas you have just named.

marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 08:43:10

Sorry if the above seems a bit rude, I'm not meaning to be, it's just the best options for housing/schools/facilities have been suggested.

I'd say you should look at how to get to La Cambre as one of the priorities when considering where to live / look for primaires and secondaires. Here is the link on how to find the travel times and routes. The nearest stops are
7 and 94 tram stop is CAMBRE-ETOILE
60 and 38 bus stop is VAN EYCK
TEC/deLijn bus stop is PATTON
The 7 and 94 in particular link with other fast routes such as metro lines 1 and 5, tram lines 39/44/4. You really don't want to be doing more than 1 change of transport and preferably the fast routes, such as the ones named.
If you put these stops into the link and choose stops near schools, you'll be able to see how long it would take your elder child to university.

cecilem Tue 30-Apr-13 14:01:49

Thanks again, and especial thanks to Marchmad for you help. At this point we are trying to make sure that we have as full of an understanding of our options or possibilities as we can. The communes that I asked about we gleaned from the ads, as they raised an interest because we occasionally saw an interesting house there. We will use this information as a guide, and the easy option will be at the top of the list.
Obviously, we will need as much help as we can get. Here children are normally accommodated in their local school, but a different system exists in Brussels which we will have to adapt to. Thanks again,


marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 18:31:59

One last thing, as you said your children are here long term, I cannot emphasize enough you must verify the order of primaires and secondaires to a possible house before signing any contract. You need to be aware if you accept a house where your chosen primaire is 6th nearest or further even, you significantly lower chances of a chance at a decent secondaire. You see this is where choosing Watermael or similar would be an easy place to look, 2 excellent Catholic secondaires in the commune, nearly every street in the commune you'd have these secondaires as 1st and/or 2nd nearest, if you chose your 1st or 2nd nearest communal or Catholic primaire which is easy to do, you stand a very high chance of places in these 2 Catholic secondaires. The French community secondaire almost closed this year, its numbers halved and went under the minimum numbers requires,this in a time of other schools being massively over-subscribed, it has been taken over by the next nearest school as an annex. A Parents' group is after the building as a potential secondaire they want to set up, so could get interesting what happens to the school. I bet it didn't make even the 50% mark during the recent 1st secondaire enrolments.

marchmad Tue 30-Apr-13 18:50:11

Here is the link for checking which primaires and secondaires are near to a particular address.

cecilem Thu 02-May-13 21:45:45

I have found two schools of interest: La Futaie and La Sapiniere in Watermeil-Boitsfort. Any thoughts or comments?

marchmad Thu 02-May-13 22:26:57

Any school in Watermael-Boitsfort is fine. None of them are huge, ie 3 or more classes per year, some are really small, 1/2 class or 1 class per year. I think la Sapiniere and la Futaie are both 2 classes per year. La Futaie will have a slightly lower socio-economic mix, it's just south of poorer Ixelles, excellent situation for La Cambre on the 94 tram route, la Sapieniere is almost in the foret de Soignes, a bit off of the 94 tram route, would expect it harder to get a place here, lots more children travelling from Flanders Dutch communes here to be in French - nearest French school to Hoeilaart. If you choose either, don't forget to live nearby and ensure it's 1st or 2nd nearest communal to home.

cecilem Fri 03-May-13 14:48:59

I think, based on what you said, that I will focus on la Sapiniere. Now if the children attend this school we are not required to live in Watermael, we could live in WSP or another commune, this is correct? And if we lived in another commune would attending la Sapiniere for primarie be a problem if we then wanted to select or apply to a secondaire in a commune other than Watermael, probably the commune we were living in? Finally, I think you said that no transfers are generally permitted beginning the 6th year, so if we went to la Sapiniere for 5th we would have to remain thru the 6th? Thanks again.


Longtime Fri 03-May-13 18:39:22

For anyone coming long-term with children given the current inscription rules, I would strongly advise finding a primary AND a secondary near to one another that you are happy with and then consider housing ONLY in that area. I know it sounds restrictive and that's because it is. You used to be able to pretty much pick which school you wanted (unless they decided your child was not academically suited to the school) and whilst you can still do this to a certain extent for primary (restriction is the amount of places), that is NOT the case for secondary. I have heard stories of people ending up with their child a long way away in secondary with none of their friends. Not nice for a 12 year old to have to deal with.

Subscription is done on a points basis and you should aim for as many points as possible to be top of the list. Points are given for proximity of house to secondary school but also proximity of primary school to secondary school. Belgians know this. Your dcs would get themselves some nice friends in primary only to be taken away from them for secondary. I know they make new friends but my dd is in second year secondary and has an amazing group of friends, with many being her primary school friends. It also gave her confidence when moving, knowing that these friends would be there.

Marchmad is truly the school and location expert. We have a lovely group of mumsnetters here in Belgium and they cannot praise her highly enough for her help. I think she has given you some excellent advice - advice I wish I had had access to when ds1 started school here.

I actually can't understand why you wouldn't consider Watermael-Boitsfort to live. I live in the next commune in Auderghem and love W-B. It's quiet and in some places quite villagey in feel. However, you are very close to metro into town.

Longtime Fri 03-May-13 18:41:27

Do you have any friends in the UK? You could ask them about getting a school place there. You have to be in the catchment area of the school to get a place. Housing is nearly always considered around the schooling and not the other way round. They may be able to give you advice re this sort of system.

Portofino Fri 03-May-13 20:52:11

I totally agree with what Longtime says re. Choosing an area with good schools for primary and secondary. Marchmad is indeed the expert here, and after living here for 7 years and knowing the system, I am relying on her advice as we plan to move to a smaller place back in Brussels from the suburbs In order to secure a good secondary place for my dd who is 9. You HAVE to live near the schools to guarantee a place in the good ones. We will probably get a 2 bed apartment vs a 4 bed house to ensure this. You really need to take this on board. Pressure on school places in Brussels increases year on year.

cecilem Fri 03-May-13 21:11:46

We appreciate all the advice given. We understand that school subscription is on a first come first serve basis. We won't be arriving until just before the school year starts, so we don't have much to chose from in terms of primary schools. We are coming from the US, not the UK, so our experience is a little different. Essentially, W-B may be fine, and we are open to it for a house and school. However, our preference is to live in the city, not the suburbs. W-B is quiet, we want to be close to the activity, but not necessarily right in the middle of it. We have friends in Forest and we have friends in Uccle. Our preference for a place to live is Uccle. It is simply our choice. The map shows that there are areas in Uccle where we would like to be which are only 2 - 5 k from W-B. So no problem in taking the kids to W-B in the AM and picking them up in the PM. In fact it might be easier than going beteen certain locations within Uccle. So we can see that we could have our cake so to speak. Obviously, there are probably many children in Uccle schools who don't reside there and this causes a shortage of spots for those who do, etc. It is the system. Anyway, it sounds like you are sayihg that for secondaire that if we are living in Uccle that we will lose points based on the fact that the kids went to W-B for primary, is this correct? So even if a secondaire which we were OK with was near to our house in Uccle that we might not be able to attend, becasue the kids went to W-B for primary?


Portofino Fri 03-May-13 21:34:18

That is exactly it. I face the same problem. I need to move house AND change my dd's school in order to not get the worst possible secondary school.

marchmad Fri 03-May-13 22:07:40

Uccle is as much a suburb as Watermael is. In fact some bits of Uccle are far more suburban than Watermael.

It doesn't matter that some of Uccle seems like only 2km from the nearest part of Watermael. Firstly you have a forest between the two, secondly that forest is the worst bottleneck in traffic in inside Brussels, thirdly if you decide to choose a Watermael school and live in Uccle, it means that in reality you won't get a decent school place and might be offered one of the worst schools in Brussels at secondaire. You might not think it's a problem but it will be. Think also about the fact that the vast majority of children school in Watermael also live within walking distance of their schools, those who don't tend to live in Hoeilaart and you can't walk to to a French school from there. Their friendship groups are going to be mainly neighbours. By 10 years old, many children are already taking themselves to school, your children won't be able to do that if you live so far away and in an area not connected by public transport - there is a single bus which crosses the bottom of the bois de la cambre from Uccle to Watermael. If your children live in a different area, they are going to miss out, they won't be able to walk themselves to school or take the tram. Think also about the fact that you'd have to drive your children to school, pick them up again, you are you going to spend long periods in the car in traffic jams in that area. There are so many reasons why living in Uccle and schooling the children elsewhere is just not a good idea.

No there are not that many children schooled in Uccle who live elsewhere, Uccle has a rapidly expanding population and is struggling to provide places for its residents, that's why they give priority in the communal schools to residents first.

If you wish to live in Uccle because of having friends there (can you not make friends in another area too? ), then please please please do not look for any schools which are anything other than 1st or 2nd nearest primaire, if you wish your children to have a decent secondaire place. If you're on the edge of Uccle, then it could even be an Ixelles, St Gilles, Forest, Brussels 1000 school.

One final thing, don't underestimate the advantage of having other English speakers in the same school of the same age. In Uccle, there are not many English speaking children, at least not compared to east Brussels. That's why you don't find much after school in English there and why there is loads going on in East Brussels and Vlaams Brabant. You really should think of the children's ability to adjust, that may be more important that choosing an area because you have friends there.

Portofino Fri 03-May-13 22:49:19

I really would listen to marchmad. Plus traffic in central Brussels is not like the us. There are frequent strikes on public transport. There are accidents in the tunnels and delays most nights. I work in the city centre, and cannot count the number of times I have got my dh to drive INTO Brussels to collect my dd from school as I am stuck on the bus 2kms away.

marchmad Fri 03-May-13 23:42:55

I listed 10 primaires in Uccle above which you should concentrate on due to the connections in the area with la Cambre. If you won't consider any other commune, then don't consider any other schools than these 10. Phone them at least once a week. Email them, saying you've phoned. I listed already which ones of these 10 are least likely to ever have 2 places and which are most likely. They are all not far from the 3-4 secondaires I'd consider in Uccle and these secondaires are likely to be 1st/2nd nearest to home if the primaire you theoretically attend is also 1st/2nd nearest to home.

I'd still say Uccle is a very hard commune to find school places, ideally you should have enrolled over 6 months ago for some of the primaires. We enrolled from abroad, know loads and loads of people who did the same, then arrived in the month before school started.

Saltedcaramellavacake Sat 04-May-13 02:27:48

I'm not in Belgium (I'm in Singapore!) but just wanted to say that the quality and detail of the advice on this thread is amazing. Great job Marchmad, Portofino and Longtime for taking the time and sharing all you've learnt.
Bowing out now, feeling just a bit glad that I don't have to find school places in Brussels...

cecilem Sat 04-May-13 04:17:17

La Sapinere has reserved two places for us. We contacted St. Pierre; Longchamp and Messidor - all full. We have emailed St. Job, Montjoie and Homborch - no response yet. We also plan to contact Verrewinkel and Eglantiers. So we'll see next week, what response if any.

You are all right, it would have been best if we made arrangements 6 months ago. But we did not even apply for the visa until January, and to date we have not received a decision. As we are Americans we have to get a visa to go forward, someone from the UK just decides and moves. So we are putting our best foot forward and trying to be confident of the future.


marchmad Sat 04-May-13 07:01:19

College St Pierre - I do feel a school with 900 children and few English speakers is highly inappropriate a choice for 2 9 year olds with no French. Please think of your children and how they will cope in that environment. You should stick to schools with a higher number of foreigners and English speakers and also a smaller size school, 2 classes per year max I'd say, not the 4 classes per year at College St Pierre and similar.

I have said several times that email is ineffective as an initial means of contract, useful later, but you should phone the schools and phone them several times, don't get disheartened with claims they are full. Please listen to the advice to phone.

I don't quite understand why you wrote Watermael is not preferable for you because it is too suburban and quiet, preferring Uccle which you wrongly believe is the city when only a small part of it is city-like. Verrewinkel and Eglantiers and Homborch are far more suburban than la Sapiniere in Watermael!!!! They are also a terrible long way from la Cambre, why put your elder child through such a journey. And there is only one secondaire (not counting Ganenou) in southern Uccle, so your 9 year olds would also have a trek to secondaire. That area is the desert to me, few shops, tennis clubs but precious little else in terms of sports, no entertainments.

As someone who knows loads of people who've applied and got into schools from abroad, including several Americans with no visas, I cannot see why there is an issue with no visa, it shouldn't stop you from applying for schools. It doesn't seem to stop other visa nationals.

cecilem Sat 04-May-13 16:41:24

Thanks you your points are well taken. After reviewing further, I will not pursue Verrewinkel, Eglantiers and Homborch. Thank you again. You continue to recommend Longchamp, Messidor, St. Job and Montjoie? I will call them as well as email. I problem for us is the time difference as it is 6 hours later in Belgium, so at 3 - 4 pm in Belgium, it's 9 - 10 am here. My french is very weak, my husband's is a little better an my older daughter is fluent. But during those hours I am the only one home. When I called Longchamp the woman didn't speak any english, and all I understood was compleat (full). So we will have to come up with a solution for this, possibly my daughter can stay home for a few hours in the morning and make a few calls. If the school has already told us full what do we say on the second and subsequent calls. "Just checking?" We are definitely open to living in W-B, but would like to consider parts of Uccle also.


irishmumonthemove Sat 04-May-13 23:32:08

Cecile, is it possible one of you could go to Brussels and visit the schools? I understand about being hesitant to speak on the phone, it can be daunting. If you visited for say a week, ( and I don't say this lightly as it's expensive and inconvenient obviously to travel ) then you could visit a number of schools and maybe view houses too? It was only when my husband visited schools in Amsterdam that he got definitive answers about school places. They were quite cagey on the phone. Emails were unanswered in the beginning so I just went straight to phone calls. It's so hard trying to make decisions about the quality and friendliness of the schools from afar never mind trying to deal with location and transport issues. A quick trip might give you many answers.

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