Moving to another country is daunting enough, but with children there is the added concern of school. We had heard a number of horror stories involving British children in French schools, and with no prior personal knowledge, we had to dive in at the deep end and take that risk, hoping that our children would not hate us forever as a result!
The beautiful thing about children is how adaptable and resilient they are, and how we often don’t give them enough credit for their ability to integrate and thrive in new, sometimes scary situations.
Our experience has been a positive one thankfully, however, I would like to share my findings of the difference between French and English primary schools, for any parents, like us, who know absolutely RIEN (nothing!)
**Please note: these are my personal findings and may differ from other regions of France.**
- School years / grades are completely different!Okay – this still confuses me! But here we go, I shall try to explain!
–> age of 3 (or until they are completely out of nappies, children go to crèche
Age 3-4 – Petite Section (Maternelle) – there is a petite petite section in our local maternelle for those just under the age of 3 who are no longer in nappies
Age 4-5 – Moyenne Section (Maternelle)
Age 5-6 – Grande Section (Maternelle) – sometimes grande section are combined with CP as is the case in our local maternelle
Age 6-7 – CP (Cours preparatoire – also known as 11eme)
Age 7-8 – CE1 (Cours Elementaire 1 – also known as 10eme)
Age 8-9 – CE2 (Cours Elementaire 2 – also known as 9eme)
Age 9-10 – CM1 (Cours Moyen 1 – also known as 8eme)
Age 10 – 11 – CM2 (Cours Moyen 2 – also known as 7eme)
- Uniform – there is none!
Well, not in the majority of public school anyway. If you’re anything like me, who has worked in a disciplined, uniformed profession in a previous life, I found this concept somewhat bizarre to begin with. I sent the boys to school in smart trousers and shirts initially. This soon stopped when their clothes came back destroyed, with grass stains and rips at the knees. Yes, anything goes in terms of clothing, and most of my son’s friends go to school in tracksuit bottoms or practical sports wear. There is something to be said about wearing uniform – it takes away the issue of choice each morning, and is therefore somewhat easier. But if I can give you one piece of advice, it is, do not send your children to school in their best outfit as it will not stay “best” for very long.
3. French school meals are the best in the World
We have one adventurous eater and one fussy eater whom we pack off to school each day. At first, we were a little concerned about sending the youngest for school dinners each day, and there is an option to take them home for lunch each day, which I have known some English parents to do. This was not an option for us. We wanted our children to fully integrate into French school life, and by taking them home for lunch they would miss out on crucial social elements, not to mention the manners and personal responsibilities that are taught from a young age. I have read that the French school dinners have been rated number one in the World, and so we were completely confident that our boys would be provided meals of the highest quality. And do you know what – they eat like kings! A three course meal every day, with salads and cheeses and meats including chicken, fish, pork, wild boar and duck. They have even had mussels and veal and rabbit though not frequently. Not a turkey twizzler in sight (although as a special treat, very rarely, they may get pizza, chips or chicken nuggets!) Our adventurous eater loves his school meals. Our fussy eater didn’t eat very much to begin with, but is now trying more foods and thoroughly enjoys being with his friends for the whole eating experience!
4. Homework by the bucket load
They get it. From a young age. And quite often – every night. This continues and increases dramatically as they move up through the years. Be very dubious if your child tells you they have no homework as this is very rarely the case!
5. Cahier de liaison –
All memos, information or personal communication between teachers and parents is done via a notebook called the Cahier de Liaison. If there is a school outing planned, it will go in this book. If head lice has returned, it will go in this book. If you forget to look at or sign something in the book, it will go in this book! Do check the book every night regardless of whether your little lovelies say there is or isn’t need to. And as a sub note, I also put a signature at the end of every communication to show we have read it. Don’t want to be sent to the headmistresses office for not being a diligent parent!
6. French children have half days every Wednesday
Children only go to school on a Wednesday morning (9-12). Our eldest son loves Wednesdays as he says they just have fun at school, and then he gets all afternoon off, and usually no homework.
As a parent, I know many parents find the Wednesday mornings a bit of a pain and a waste of time. I usually clean or prepare teaching material on the Wednesday morning as there is no time to do anything else.
Macron, the newly elected Prime Minister of France, is allegedly looking to give schools in France the option to scrap school on a Wednesday and go back to a 4 day week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday). I know a lot of fellow parents, French and English, are hoping this will be the case.
7. The French school day is longer
Most primary schools in the UK finish around 315pm. Most French primary schools finish at 4pm (with the exception of TAP which I explain in a further point). Our children found this extra 45 minutes quite tiring to begin, but it didn’t take long for them to get used to it. Most maternelles (nursery) have siestas for all children. Our nursery has little bunkbeds, and every afternoon they remove their trousers and socks, get their doudous (soothers) and climb into their beds. They are read a story and then they all have a sleep. This was a lifesaver for our little sleepyhead, who like his father, needs lots of sleep!
8. French children as young as 3 take the school bus
In rural areas it is very normal for children to take the school bus from a very young age (3 years up). We found sending our 7 year old on the school bus for the first time very daunting, until we saw the tiny people, barely out of nappies, clambering off the school bus and into nursery. We are very friendly with the local school bus driver who told us that his bus is fitted with a breathalyser, and that he must breathe into it to make the bus go. If he had even a drop of alcohol on his breath, the engine would not start! Anyway, our eldest loved the school bus and it really built his confidence, and ours, sending him off on his own, like a big boy each morning. Look into the routes available for your area as sometimes, it may be necessary for your child to take more than one bus.
9. TAP (Temps d’Activite Periscolaire)
Twice a week, in our area, you have the option to remove your child from school early (340pm in our case). The alternative is to keep them at school for TAP (Temps d’Activite Periscolaire), which is almost an after school club during which they do sports, crafts or are given additional tutoring sometimes if required. It is optional, however, we again decided that we wanted our child to integrate fully, and that they would benefit hugely from the team building games and exercises that TAP provides. The good thing is, if we need to, we can take him out early whenever we like, which is handy on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend!
9. Au CLAE (Les Centres de Loisirs Associes a l’Ecole)
Before and after school club in our area is referred to as Au CLAE. Most schools and nurseries have their own Au CLAE which runs from around 730am – 630pm every day except Wednesday. Like TAP, they play games, engage in sports or arts and crafts, and they are provided with a snack at around 430pm of bread and chocolate or bread and jam. You must pay for this service, but unlike in the UK, it is ridiculously cheap. I believe we pay around 50p a day for our youngest son who often goes after school.
On Wednesdays, only a few bigger after school clubs remain open for the afternoon, for parents who must work all day. In this case, a bus will come to each school to collect the children who are then taken to this central location.
10. In France, you are permitted to touch children…
Sounds a bit dodgy! But its something I felt should be spoken about. France is a lot more hands on, than the UK. Teachers can, if required, use reasonable and appropriate force, to take hold of your child to move them into line, or to make them sit up straight (for example). Yet they can also pick up, physically comfort and hug your child if need be. Both are hugely frowned upon in the UK, and in the case of the latter, I feel that is a huge shame.
In my previous life, I worked with a lot of young and vulnerable children, and under no circumstances were we allowed to lay a finger on them. I found this particularly hard if I had a young person in front of me, crying and desperate for a hug, and not being able to give them that reassurance or love they so desperately needed. The first thing that struck me about pupils in France is how cuddly and affectionate they can be, and how you will not be criticised or disciplined for returning that affection. All the children I teach come up and hug me before a lesson, and its so nice to be able to hug them back! My youngest sons nursery teacher is incredibly loving towards the children which is reassuring beyond belief to know he will be showered with the same appreciation and cuddles that he receives at home!
11. In France, parents provide school notepads, stationery and other school equipments
At the end of each school year, your child should be provided with a Liste de Fourniture – list of stationary and school requirements that will need to be bought before your child returns to school in September. If you have not received this, you will need to make contact with the school to request it. Please dont make the same mistake I did and refer to the list as the “List de fournication” – fournication obviously having a very different meaning!
Unlike in the UK, it is the child (or the child’s parent) who provides school books (cahiers) and all stationary. The list again increases as they move through the years.
13. French children start learning a second language (or third in some cases) very young
Languages are taught throughout primary school. Predominantly it is English which is taught, however in our region they also teach Spanish as we are so close to the Spanish border. My son was also learning Occitane at one point which is the historic language of our region, still spoken by some older members of the community.
14. French children are given more responsibilities and in turn, take more responsibility for themselves
From a young age French children are taught to take personal responsibility for themselves and their belongings, with children aged 3 taking the bus to school and carrying their own school bags (cartables). They are also expected to set tables, tidy away after meals, wash up and assist school staff with various tasks. Even in the case of drinking water, aside from lunchtime where it is provided, children are expected to take themselves to get water where needed and not rely on teachers to remind them to do so (as both of my sons discovered very quickly after several days of not drinking anything during the blazing heat of summer).
One day we left our eldest son’s school bag at home, and didn’t realise until we’d driven all the way to school (which was some distance). I apologised profusely to the teacher who looked confused and asked why I was apologising. She then called my son over and very sternly told him that it was not his mother or fathers responsibility to make sure he had all he needed for school. It was his responsibility, and he needed to be more viligant from there on.
He didn’t forget his school bag after that!
I shall more than likely add to this list, but I hope this has helped to clear up any questions or uncertainties you may have had.
I shall end this post by saying that we have received so much support and help for our children within their schools and the whole education process for us has been a very positive one. We have absolutely no regrets at our decision to put our children into a mainstream school in France, and our children are noticeably happier, more confident and well mannered children as a result.