How to Choose the Right School for my American Child?

AAWE – Guide to Education Choosing a proper school anywhere is challenging under the best of circumstances. When a family is relocated overseas it can be even more daunting because of the myriad issues and unfamiliar choices involved. The basic (K-12) school choices in France fall into the following categories:

  • American school system
  • British school system
  • International school system
  • Bilingual schools
  • French schools

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages for an American child, and of course, each individual school has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is hoped that this article will guide you in your choice by differentiating the schools and their curricula.

The “Checklist for Choosing a New School” at the end of this section should help parents ask the right questions about the schools they are considering to determine which of them would be a good fit for their child.

Highlights of Basic Differences among the School Choices

The American School System
While the American system within the U.S. varies from one school district to another, its overall philosophy encourages individuality, liberty of thought, and creativity. The emphasis is on “encouragement” and creating a “positive” environment in which the child can learn to maximize his/her potential. After twelve years of study, one obtains a high school diploma and usually continues on to college in the U.S.

In the Paris area, the American School in Saint Cloud is the only school truly resembling a traditional American School that awards a high school diploma. Marymount School in Neuilly follows the American curriculum up through grade eight.

The British System
The British School, located in the western suburbs of Bougival (middle school) and Croissy sur Seine (upper school), welcomes American students. The standard U.K. GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) curriculum is taught, followed by A- levels in all subject areas. British A-levels are accepted as entry level qualifications to universities both in the U.S. and Great Britain.

International Schools
An international school is an amalgam of various school systems (British/American/ Continental Europe) usually with English as the common language. The students may come from many different backgrounds, and the ultimate diploma may be an IB (International Baccalaureate – see the article “International Secondary School Diplomas”), British A-levels, or a high school diploma. These schools are typically designed for diplomatic families or families whose children may have lived in other countries in the past and/or who may move in the future. They offer a wonderfully culturally diverse atmosphere where both teachers and students, accustomed to a large turnover every year in their classes, are very open to newcomers. They can represent a stimulating change and challenge for an adventurous child.

Like the American School in Saint Cloud and Marymount School in Neuilly, they are pricier than some of the other schools. Within Paris, the International School of Paris teaches the comprehensive IB program and awards both the IB and American high school diplomas.

Bilingual Schools
Bilingual schools are usually French sous contrat schools that dispense the traditional French curriculum leading to the French baccalauréat diploma and in addition, offer many classes in a second language for mother-tongue and fluent speakers. Many of them accept non-French speakers into an adaptation program and then mainstream them into the regular French classes after one year. The subjects taught in the second language are often history and literature. Some bilingual schools offer the OIB degree (Option Internationale du Baccalauréat), the British A-levels, or a high school diploma, as well as the French “bac”.

Bilingual schools and bilingual sections within French schools are a good choice for children of families who will be staying in France for a long time or for Anglophone children who have a keen interest in French culture and are motivated to learn French.

The Lycée International in St. Germain en Laye is a rather unique school since it is a French public school made up entirely of international sections, including an American and a British section. Students in these special international sections follow the French curriculum for most of their studies and have separate classes in history and literature in their native language. There are special adaptation classes for non-French speakers. The competition to get in as well as to stay in the school is extremely tough. The Lycée International awards the OIB diploma.

Some Crucial Differences between the U.S. and French Systems

Despite what some may see as drawbacks to the French system, the level of education offered in these schools is excellent, and many consider it superior to the American system.

For older children who are used to American positive reinforcement and a large degree of liberty in the classroom, the traditional French or bilingual schools may be a challenge. In the highly structured and disciplined French system, teachers believe no one is perfect; their role is to move the child as close to perfection as possible. Hence, every child, even the best, learns to endure heavy doses of criticism on all school work, and no mistake is too small to be overlooked. Children are never graded on the “average” or “on the curve”. It is not unheard of for teachers to “fail” an entire class on an assignment.

Unlike in the U.S. where the teacher often slows down the entire class to make sure that the slowest student is not left behind, in France, the class often moves at the rate of the best in the class, and the others are supposed to work harder to keep up. Those who don’t keep up are often held back a year (see redoublement in the Glossary of Useful Terms) until they reach the level of the rest of the class. This is a frequent occurrence, believed to be in the best interest of the child; it is not accompanied by the social stigmatism one finds in the U.S.

French and bilingual schools are not known for positive reinforcement and allow little leeway for minor cultural differences. Uniformity and self-control traditionally rule, regulations and standards are the norm. Individuality and creativity have much less importance in the hierarchy of educational values the children learn.

The French grading system is based on a score 0-20 with 20 being the highest. As most French students know, scores of 18-20 are difficult to obtain. Children used to A+++, or “perfect scores” on tests will be surprised not to achieve perfect grades, but will appreciate them as a real achievement.

Excerpted from the ©AAWE Guide to Education, Seventh Edition, 2006,  with permission from the Association of American Wives of Europeans (AAWE)  To order: