Guide to Educating Your Children in France
This article , written by me, first appeared in the International Press back in 2006 . Much of it is stil lvalid and so I thought it could be helpful to republish it here.
There are many different schooling options available in France from the French Education Nationale schools to the privately financed Independent schools. The choice you make will be determined by your child's ability, their age and the system they are coming from. The level of integration into French life you want to make and whether future life and studies will continue to be in France will also affect your choices.
The State run national system is available to all children resident in France. You will normally be allocated to your local school where classes are usually all in French but by law you can now ask
for a derogation.
Education is free aside from extras such as the canteen.
Here your child will be totally immersed in the French language and culture making French friends. The Maternelle Nursery section is optional with Elementaire primary school becoming obligatory from the age of 6.
Secondary school starts at 11 years in College finishing in the Lycée for students age 16-18 years. There are no Ofsted type reports available so the only real way to judge the end to end performance of schools is to look at the Baccalaureate exam results that the 18 year olds take when leaving school, speak to other parents to get a feel for the school facilities, teachers and students.
Generally younger children pick up a new language quickly and integrate with ease into the French system with little or no extra help.
A PARENT REPORTS Mark, dad to Louis recalls "Our decision to move to France was a Life Choice. Our son had just turned 3 and we felt that he would settle in faster if he was making French friends and learning French as soon as possible. The waiting lists for nurseries were very long so we went to find out about the local French Maternelle. Made up of 3 classes: Petite, Moyenne and Grande Sections they admit potty trained children age 3 before the December. This threw us a little as we had been prepared for Louis to be one of the oldest in the class based on the UK system of September to August however they run a January to December calendar here and so he is one of the youngest. Still, the idea of no friends for a year was not appealing so we set off to complete l'inscription at Le Mairie - As with all areas of French life this involves paperwork in triplicate;
A medical certificate confirming had had the right vaccinations, an Attestation provided by our household insurance company, an electricity bill proving residency and Louis' birth certificate. I also took along Pay slips for working out canteen rates and our own birth and marriage certificates just in case. as to be without a document means you have to come back and queue again. Inscription done, Louis was ready for his first day in the Petite Section. As Louis was one of the youngest, he just went in the mornings to start with. Most children come home for lunch anyway and the idea of another school run this early on wasn't appealing. Our school operates a 4 day system (Editors note since 2014 schools have reintroduced the Wednesday morning which is quite a pity really )and so there is no school on Wednesdays or the weekends . This 2 day on- break is great for the whole family and we eagerly signed up for fun activities on the Wednesday to complement the academic activities. By the 3rd term Louis was ready to do full days and even enjoyed one canteen lunch a week ..Jamie Oliver would be proud as the school lunches are both healthy and balanced from the starters right through to the cheese and biscuits. Siestas are mandatory and after lunch every child is settled down on a little camp bed and encouraged to bring in their doudou or comforter. Children who had already stopped their siestas found quiet time hard so it's a good idea to try and keep your afternoon siestas going.
Each Friday we were sent home with a 'Cahier de Vie' or school story book documenting that week in class. Through his cahier we discovered the themes, stories, songs and events he was studying. At home we then chatted about his week ensuring an equal development in the English vocab and practised the nursery rhymes and poems in French. Parents are encouraged to help their child add to the book with their weekend activities, stick in post cards or flyers, write a few lines about an important event or visit so that once back at school the teachers and children can work together and gets the conversation flowing. It's a great idea that creates a link between parents and the school and is a lovely souvenir of his Early Years.
In terms of language acquisition, we had known for a while that we were planning our move to France and so in the year run up to the move we had French Au pairs stay who agreed to tune Louis' ears into the new language. He started his first day of school understanding everything even though he wasn't ready to speak the language. Within a couple of months he was chatting with his new friends. Through constant contact with the teacher and lots of work outside of class to work both languages we are thrilled that a year later a stranger wouldn't be able to immediately tell whether English or French is his mother tongue. "In terms of language acquisition, we had known for a while that we were planning our move to France and so in the year run up to the move we had French Au pairs stay who agreed to tune Louis' ears into the new language. He started his first day of school understanding everything even though he wasn't ready to speak the language. Within a couple of months he was chatting with his new friends. Through constant contact with the teacher and lots of work outside of class to work both languages we are thrilled that a year later a stranger wouldn't be able to immediately tell whether English or French is his mother tongue. "
Private Sector Schools
The private sector schools offer various language combinations from the International system where the core language is English, to the more bilingual schools where the lessons are taught in a more even mix of French and English. In terms of academic results the Private system has greater flexibility too as one can study GCSE's and A levels thus allowing the possibility to transfer back into the English system at a later stage as well as the International Baccalaureate which is globally recognised for University admissions. When talking to International parents educating their children here in France, bilingualism and the desire for their children to speak both languages is a key element to their at school and at home educations.
A PARENT REPORTS
Mum Teresa, who had all 3 of her children here in France explains that in her family " Both parents are English and bilingual and we have raised our children in a bilingual environment. Our children started their schooling in the French system. My son started in the Crèche and then did his 3 years of Maternelle. I hired English speaking help, thinking that hearing another language when they couldn't even speak English yet was a mistake. However despite two bilingual parents and the fact that French is frequently spoken at home, he had a real vocabulary crisis in Primary school. He didn't say a single word throughout Petite and Moyenne Section and then spouted forth in Grande Section - much to our relief. Although fluent, vocabulary for every day stuff (like clothes pegs) escaped him and caused numerous arguments with his teacher. I would always recommend extra vocabulary help to all children starting at Grande Section, in preparation for Primary School.
With my youngest daughter, I used a French speaking child minder before the maternelle, with fantastic results," Teresa's oldest 2 children have now moved onto an International school and as so to ensure that at home French is promoted she suggests parents " stick with French TV - ban SKY kid's programmes. They soon get used to the French versions and they're more equipped to discuss their favorite characters at school".
It's also worth forging links with French families so that the children have French speaking kids to play with and in the holidays sign up at the Centre des Loisirs for sailing courses, tennis courses, dancing etc all in French to keep their language skills up". Integrating your child into the French system can be challenging and not without its struggles.
A PARENT REPORTS
Nikki, mum to Sarah, age 15, remembers "We moved here in time for Sarah to start her Secondary at Collège age 11. We initially looked at the International schools here but there were no spaces so she started in the 6ème.
On arriving we were handed a list of essentials needed to ensure a happy teacher and child..the various stationery supplies were very specific in terms of size, number of pages and colour.
Getting the items on the list to the teacher is taken very seriously and during La Rentrée you will find the stationery aisles of Carrefour packed with parents frantically trying to complete their lists before the items sell out.
It took a while for Sarah to settle in as she was having problems getting up to speed with her French peers. Friends in other schools where there were more foreign children joined a Classe d'Initiation where 'Français Comme une Langue Etrangère' is taught however our school was less forthcoming about it. With a bit of research we found out that as part of a European agreement, children arriving from abroad can have their education adapted and supported until their French reaches the required level so with a push from our side, the school gave Sarah extra tuition through after school classes.
Given our time again we would have met with the schools in advance, found out their views on teaching foreign language children and their openness to the extra classes and then pushed for Sarah to go to a more open school. Things are going well now with Sarah studying Italian rather than English which means she is now developing her 3rd language!" A PARENT REPORTS
Tricia is another mum to Ben, 17, and Katy, 15. "My husband is French and so they have been around both languages since they were little. Until we moved here a couple of years ago when they were both in English schools and so their transfer into the French system was a bit bumpy, particularly for Ben who is overall less chatty.
In their class there are siblings with 2 years between them but the eldest child had failed to pass the year and so has had to repeat or 'redoubler' the year. We didn't think Ben could cope if Katy caught him up and so looked for private tutors for top up help outside of school for French History and the sciences as my own knowledge and vocabulary just wasn't up to the required level to help understand homework.
It seems to have worked as they have held their own and are now planning to move on to Lycee. Unlike in the UK, most kids seem to stay on through Primaire and Terminal to take the Bac leaving school at 18 which I think gives them a good chance to work out what they want to do with their lives."