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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 Sun 12-May-13 20:33:52

I can see flights to near Brussels from NYC for €800 and you can get a room in private accommodation for less than €40 a night, so you can do a whole trip for less than €1000.

cecilem Sun 12-May-13 19:51:13

Sure I would like to go to Brussels in June, but it is a 9 hour flight and 4-5 days would cost about $3 - 4,000, a lot unless there is a significant benefit. Also we can't be 100% certain that the visa will be approved or completely approved or what if it is not approved until November. We don't want to act too impulsively. We filed in January, so we believe that we will know something by the end of June, but that's a guess. I would mention that on different occasions the embassy has told us the visa could take 6, 8 months or a year to decide.

As I said, the twins are now getting tutoring from their sister and it would continue over the summer. So we want them to have some foundation, although they certainly won't be fluent. Thanks to all of you for your help.


marchmad Sun 12-May-13 10:06:41

Now you have school places in 2 areas, you ideally need a couple more school places in those 2 areas but not immediately near the schools where you already have places. This is the maximise the chances of housing which would place one of the school places as nearest or 2nd nearest primaire to home and also a decent secondaire in the same category.

If you cannot sign a contract for housing because you don't have visas, then you have no choice but to wait till you have your visas. I would however want to see potential schools whilst they are still open. Can not one of you come over to look for 3 or 4 days in the next 4 weeks? You might absolutely hate the schools you've chosen from afar, you might find you don't like the area they are in. For the cost of a plane ticket, I think doing this research is worth it.

By August, there will be less rentals available, peak time is the next couple of months for moving in August. The upside is that you will have more negotiating power for the remaining housing, to lower rents, because if landlords don't manage to rent in the +1500 euro category which is high end of Brussels rents and rarely affordable to the majority of Bruxellois, then there is a good chance their properties will remain empty until the following Summer when expats come to look again the higher numbers.

cecilem Sat 11-May-13 23:53:55

I contacted one school in Uccle. They asked about our twins french language abilities. I advised that they are now getting tutoring from their sister and it would continue over the summer. They responded that they had some places and they would reserve them. They asked that we meet with them and tour the school during the last week of August. We also have places reserved in a school in W-B. So I guess that going in late August may become my plan. The only problem I forsee is that rental houses may not be available when we want them. What is normal in terms of rental offerings in August and September?

superfluouscurves Sat 11-May-13 14:32:16

Yes, would definitely urge you to visit well before end of June. When you are in another country it's hard to appreciate how "seasonal" Belgium is - everything closes down for July and August. Brussels is particularly quiet during those months - it is a totally different city during term times!

I think you may be confused with many UK schools who start their summer holidays in mid-July (and French schools stagger the starting dates according to region). But all 'native' Belgian schools always finish their academic year on the last day of June and re-open on the first of September without exception.

Good luck!

Portofino Sat 11-May-13 08:53:15

As I said, each school will be different as to when someone will be there over the summer. You need to contact them NOW! Marchmad has given you Stirling advice already. There isn't much anyone can add really.

marchmad Sat 11-May-13 06:28:25

Last day of school is 28th June. First day of school is 2nd September.

Most heads / secretaries will be in school still the following week, but not all hours, some will have heads which stay a further few days. You cannot rely on anyone actually answering the phone or be willing to show you around an empty school in July or August. Some schools do publish the presence of heads / secretaries in the first week of July and last week of August. It really is though NOT the best time to see a school with no teachers and no children.

It's equally not a good idea to do tours of schools in the last 2 weeks of June. 2nd last week is CEB week, then last week will be full of end of term celebrations. The time to visit schools is mid May to mid June.

cecilem Sat 11-May-13 01:49:39

I was under the impression that most schools would be open until about mid July. But you say that's wrong. When is it likely that they would all be open, but before the school year starts. Our plans are not fixed.

marchmad Fri 10-May-13 22:13:49

Completely pointless looking for housing without securing a few school places. You need to get school places now OR you need to wait until the end of August and just hope luck is on your side and look for schools/housing at the same time.

Portofino Fri 10-May-13 19:59:25

The schools will closed in July. Most of them have a late summer window for late applications, but each school will be different. You need to contact them before 29th June when the holidays start.

cecilem Thu 09-May-13 17:43:04

We plan to go to Brussels for a visit in July, primarily to look for housing, but we might also try to contact some schools. This visit assumes that we have received a positive visa decision by then. Being American's it's a little different for us, than for English or other eu citizens. We can go for a brief visa anytime, but a move has to have the bureaucracy's stamp of approval Plus, it's a cher to fly there including the accommodations, and doing so before we had the visa would be a little risky and reckless. We want to be confident that everything will work out, but we don't want to be overconfident. Thanks.


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.

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.


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 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.


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...

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.

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 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.


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