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Ministries take leave of their senses

An "apartheid" school holiday reform in Belgium which had French and Flemish speakers taking time off separately has collapsed in the face of protests from pupils, teachers, unions and the holiday industry.

This Easter, for the first time ever, the French-speaking and Flemish parts of the nation holidayed separately, only overlapping for the Easter weekend itself. Flanders broke up for two weeks at the beginning of April while the Francophone spring term finished on Good Friday afternoon. By the end of their 14-week term, pupils and teachers in French-speaking areas were said to be on their knees with exhaustion.

The original idea had been encouraged by the hotel and catering trade which hoped to profit from an Easter season twice as long as usual. It also tied in with the European Commission's ideal of staggering exit and re-entry times to cut bottlenecks at airports and jams on continental motorways.

In the event, seaside holiday takings were down 40 per cent, leaving hotel and restaurant owners complaining that increased overheads as a result of staying open for four weeks, as opposed to two, meant their profits had suffered.

Children from Flanders accustomed to widening their cultural horizons during the holidays had arrived at their usual venues to find their French-speaking friends were still at school, while the second wave found their Flemish companions had already gone home, said a spokesman at the French department of education.

The school holiday timetable for the next five years has already been set in stone by the Flemish minister, but the protests have stopped his French counterpart doing likewise, according to a ministry official.

The provisional timetable effectively continued the principle of "apartheid", he said. It also provided for an unusually early start to the autumn term, triggering threats of a boycott by teaching unions.

Traditionally, Belgians go back to school after the summer break on September 1, even if it falls on a Friday. But education officials had decided it made more sense to start on the preceding Monday, which falls on August 28 this year.

The unions are angry at the lack of consultation. "As far as we are concerned term starts on September 1, as it always has," said a teachers' leader.

"Nobody has discussed the changes or extra payment for the extra days and it is quite clear that the bureaucrats in Brussels have not fully thought out what is in the interests of those concerned, be it pupils, their families or teaching staff."

With barely a fortnight to go before the general election, Philippe Mahoux, the francophone education minister, has now agreed to meet his Flemish and German-speaking counterparts. Finalising next year's holiday dates will be a matter for the next government. But electoral promises of changing the reforms and even scrapping the early start to the autumn term are starting to emerge.

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