Education is a major concern for families relocating to France, and choosing the right school for your child is one of the most difficult decisions you’ll face. Don’t forget to think beyond school to university and work, as the type of education you choose for your children has important long-term implications.
French or International School?
If you’re able to choose between French and international education, the following factors may help you to make the best choice for your child(ren).
There are few international schools outside Paris and the Côte d’Azur (for example, there’s one each in Bordeaux, Lille and Toulouse), although there are private schools that cater for non-French-speakers in many areas. An international school is ideal if your stay is short term (say up to five years) as it’s less unsettling for your children if you return to your home country or move to another country where there are international schools. The standard of education is generally high and teaching methods and the language of instruction are likely to be familiar, so your children will probably adapt more quickly and easily than to a French school. They won’t be under pressure to learn French quickly in order to understand the lessons (but make sure the school offers opportunities to learn the language). Many international schools are ‘melting pots’ of nationalities – some have pupils from up to 50 countries – making them a unique opportunity to meet people from other cultures.
On the other hand, international schools are invariably expensive (expect to pay at least €5,000 per year for primary school, considerably more for secondary) and there’s often a high turnover of pupils, relocating with their parents from one country to another. Some international schools are ‘expat bubbles’ and don’t give children the best chance to learn the local language or mix in with the local community.
If you intend to stay in France long term or if you’re uncertain how long you’ll be there (in which case it’s best to assume a long stay), a French school is likely to be preferable as your child has a better chance of learning French fluently. If the school is local, your children (and you) become part of the local community. Long-term education and employment possibilities are also better. Education at French state schools is free and fees at private schools are considerably lower than those charged by international schools.
However, some children (particularly those over the age of ten) find schooling in a foreign language academically and socially difficult. You’ll also need to learn enough French to communicate with your child’s teachers and understand correspondence from the school – not to mention help your children with their learning.
Some 10,000 children are estimated to be educated at home in France. If you choose home education for your children, you must inform your town hall and education authority before the start of each academic year, and it will be subject to regular inspections.//
The French Education System
Education is compulsory from 6 to 16, but most children start school at three. The French education system and teaching methods are similar to those found in Spain and Italy – but totally different from those in the UK and US. Traditionally, almost all learning was done by rote and students were expected to sit in silence and merely ‘absorb’ information, memorising huge chunks of text and long lists of facts. As a result, pupils had excellent knowledge but little ability to communicate. In theory, this is now changing – the current buzzword in French educational circles is ‘communication’. In practice, however, learning is still very much a passive, teacher-directed process in which children are penalised for their mistakes rather than praised for their achievements.
The French education system is largely centralised and individual schools have less autonomy than those in the UK, for example (inspectors regularly check that everything is as it should be). In particular, head teachers cannot hire and fire staff, and it’s almost impossible for a teacher to be dismissed.
‘Teachers come into school, teach, and then go home. Their responsibility to the student is the giving of information as stated in the yearly programme, making sure that they complete the programme and checking that the student has retained it. That’s all. I was appalled by the lack of pastoral care and guidance expected of me.’ Janet McNicol (British expatriate)//
The following aspects of French education may surprise you:
In theory, children must attend their nearest school (unless having private education) but in practice there are various ways of getting your child into another school, e.g. showing that it’s more convenient for you.
Schoolchildren start in the 11th grade (at the age of six) and end not in the first but in terminale (at around 18), though early years are normally referred to by an acronym, e.g. CP, CE1, CE2, CM1 and CM2.
Children learn to write very differently from their British and American counterparts; not only is the number 7 crossed and the number 1 written with a ‘tail’, but other figures and letters are written in a more florid style, quite different from printed letters, which can make French handwriting difficult to read – and, for French people, foreign handwriting incomprehensible.
Schools organise few extra-curricular activities, such as drama or inter-school sports – some 60 per cent of pupils have no access to a sports ground or gymnasium.
There’s little streaming in schools and most classes are of mixed ability.
Although schools readily accept non-French-speakers, most offer them little support – the onus is on students to learn French as quickly as possible.
Language learning (both French and foreign languages) is grammatical – students learn the names of all grammatical terms and are expected to take dictation.
Schoolchildren learn philosophy.
Schools make little use of computers and all homework must be handwritten – on squared paper; calculators aren’t used until secondary school (age 11).
A comma is used to separate whole numbers from decimals and a full stop (period) used to denote thousands, e.g. 10,123 means ‘ten point one two three’, not ‘ten thousand one hundred and twenty-three’.
Children learn to sing in primary school and to read music (solfège) and to play the recorder and other instruments in secondary school.
Few French teachers speak good English – except English teachers, of course.
Pupils’ marks are combined into an average (moyenne), which is all-important.
At the end of 3ème (age 14-15), pupils must sit a national exam called the brevet, which tests them in maths, French and history/geography.
Pupils can be required to repeat a school year (redoubler) – usually 6ème – if they haven’t reached the required standard, meaning that they spend the rest of their schooldays with children younger than themselves, although this practice is nowadays discouraged and parents must be in agreement.
State schools don’t have uniforms, although some private schools do.
There’s no ‘prefect’ system and discipline can be badly lacking – particularly in inner-city schools.
Although state education is free, parents must buy pens, stationery and sports equipment, as well as some books (all books at a lycée).
Shortly before the beginning of each school year, parents are issued with a list of items required for la rentrée, which can run to three A4 pages, causing a crush in the supermarkets.
Schools provide elaborate lunches (even for three-year-olds), whose menus are posted outside so that parents can consult them.
Most children have no school on Wednesdays – when there may be sporting activities instead – but some have Saturday morning school (though some have shorter holidays in order to avoid Saturday classes); this means that working parents must find child-minding facilities on Wednesdays – but many crèches are closed on that day – and that children have an excess of homework on Monday and Thursday nights (for the following day).
Age groups for sports activities are given names – such as senior, junior, cadet, minime, benjamin, poussin (‘chick’), mini-poussin and ultra-poussin. The amount of sport in the curriculum diminishes with age – at a lycée, children may do no more than two hours of physical activity a week.
School holidays are among the longest in the world; summer holidays last between 10 and 12 weeks.
Not all schoolchildren have the same holidays, those in winter (usually February) and spring (usually April) being staggered across the country to avoid overcrowding in ski resorts.
At the end of each term there’s a conseil de classe – a meeting of teachers and parents’ and pupils’ representatives – at which each class and each pupil are assessed.
A free school bus system operates in most rural areas, so it’s unusual for parents to drive their children to and from school.
Children aren’t permitted to wear any sign of religious affiliation to school, e.g. crosses or (Muslim) headscarves.
Homework isn’t common in primary schools but is onerous at secondary level, pupils having at least two hours’ homework each day.
Children are expected to bring a lot of books home each evening and few schools provide adequate lockers.
There are few boarding schools in France.
There’s no university entrance exam other than the baccalauréat, with the result that universities are overcrowded, under-funded and of a generally poor standard. In contrast, the ludicrously competitive grandes écoles, which produce 90 per cent of France’s ‘top’ people, are possibly the world’s most elite learning institutions.
A high proportion of university students drop out before they’ve completed their courses.
Young people with high aspirations attempt to get into one of the grandes écoles or écoles supérieures, but competition is fierce.
Degree courses last at least four years.
A high number of students take longer than the specified course length to finish their degree, e.g. six years instead of four, and the average university leaving age is 29.
Grants are available only to those on low incomes and there are no loans ‘designed’ for students.
Most students go to a university in or near their home town and live at home during their studies.
Even at university, there are few extra-curricular activities (other than the pursuit of love) and no ‘unions’ or even student bars.
Excerpted from “Culture Wise France” which can be purchased from Survival Books