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Starting School in France

A first-hand account of French education for young teenagers

"No poor schools in France"

It will be hard to forget the looks on the faces of my two children (aged 12 and 13) when they came out of the school gates after their first day. If you've ever watched a World War One film, and seen shell shocked soldiers, you will have some idea of what I mean. One was trying hard not to cry, the other gave up the fight and howled. My heart sank. One of the reasons we had moved to France in the first place was to avail ourselves of the excellent French education system, and to escape the rapidly decaying British Comprehensive system. We had researched the subject carefully, or so we thought, and had accepted places at the local collège (this being the name given to secondary schools in France) feeling secure in the 'knowledge' that "there are no poor schools in France"… "all children behave well in France"… "all teachers in France speak some English"… and other commonly held beliefs.

First day culture shock

The car journey home that first day was something I do not care to dwell upon. Barely speaking to me, my children took themselves up to their rooms, muttering darkly about having to go to bed NOW (at 6pm!) if they had to rise at 6.30 am again tomorrow. This, then, was our introduction to French school. The catalogue of woes was long and varied; the other students behaved badly, (though they did admit that in general the behaviour was not as bad as in England); the days were far too long (8am until 5pm, with a two hour lunch break… and oddly enough, it was the long lunch break which initially occasioned the most complaints); the teachers were, in the main, unhelpful and unfriendly, the school itself was a bleak and unwelcoming building with a marked absence of walls brightly decorated with samples of the pupils' artwork. All of this was on top of the fact that they had no understanding whatsoever of anything that was said to them, either in the lessons or in the breaks. I suppose I had to admit I could see that they had a point…

Pastoral Care?

With hindsight, I should have anticipated much of it. I had, I thought, prepared myself and the children for some difficulties at the start; however, none of us had expected it to be this bad. As I gradually got to know people in the area I found out that this particular school was known as a school with problems. It was in the 'rough' area of the town and over subscribed despite its poor reputation. The staff were also perpetually stressed as a result of dealing with badly behaved children, which hardly brought out the best of their teaching abilities. The last thing the staff wanted or needed was a couple of English kids who had their own very particular needs and problems. One or two of the staff were helpful (and I think others might have been had we had any means of effective communication), but in general 'Pastoral Care' seemed not to exist.

Schools in France: reviewing the options after a bad start

The weeks went by, and things did not improve. I dreaded the mornings - the miserable faces that appeared at the breakfast table put a real blight on our dream of an exciting new life in France. I turned to the ex pats? online message boards for comfort, only to find others with children of similar ages telling equally sad stories. Clearly something had to be done. Asking around, I discovered there were two other schools in our town, as well as an International School some 45 minutes drive away in Toulouse. We discounted the International School after a perfunctory glance at the website. It looked excellent but the fees were well beyond our means, it would have meant a long twice daily drive and we also felt strongly that we wanted our children to be educated in a French speaking environment, so that they would eventually benefit from being bilingual. The best option seemed to be the other state school, which, we were reliably informed, was a considerably better and happier place than the school our children were attending. There were even two English children there already, and by all accounts they were settled happily and coping well. Our spirits rose, only to be dashed again when we were told that the state schools in our town operated on a catchment area basis, and we were simply not in the right catchment for that school.

A Catholic school in France

Finally, we looked at the third option which was a private Catholic school. We had not initially considered this because, firstly, we are not Catholics, and secondly, we felt that private school fees were likely to be prohibitive. We went to see the Headmistress, and we were given a considerable interview-style grilling. The fact that our children were not Catholic was not a problem but the Headmistress seemed very concerned that our children would be well behaved and not disrupt either lessons or relationships within her school. We assured her that they would not but we were asked to go away and return at the end of the term with reports, both from the school they had attended in England and their current French school.

The new French school decides...

By this point, we were convinced that this school would suit our children and we nervously waited for the reports to arrive. We knew the English reports were fine, but what would the French school say about two pupils who could barely understand the lessons, let alone be understood by their teachers? After much nail biting, the long awaited envelopes plopped into the letter box. It was like opening GCSE results all over again. We thought we understood the comments, and we thought all would be well, but my heart was hammering in my chest when I sat opposite Madame as she scanned the documents. She looked up and smiled. We were in!

Preparation and private school prices

Life after that was a whirl of activity - buying new stationery and equipment (les fournitures scolaires, which you do have to buy yourself, whether in private or state education) and collecting the necessary medical certificates (you are required to provide certificates of vaccinations against the normal childhood diseases. If you don't have these, your doctor from Britain should be able to provide a faxed record) and also a certificate of general good health. We also needed to arrange insurance for the children to cover all eventualities at school and on school trips… this is not expensive and will probably form part of your household policy. In these little Church run schools, the fees bear no resemblance to the massive fees charged in the English private system. At our school, which is fairly typical, the fees at the time of writing (Nov 2005) are around 120 Euros per child, per month, and this includes an excellent three course meal four days a week, four that is because there is no school on Wednesday afternoons.

A French school with a family-feel

When term began, we were all rather apprehensive, but when we arrived at the school gates we were totally reassured. There were a few other English-speaking children already at the college, and the staff were clearly at ease dealing with them. There was a real family atmosphere, with parents really involved with the school at every turn. The headmistress prides herself in knowing every child individually. She also takes an interest in their personal well-being as she considers that this is essential if their education is to be successful. Vive la différence!

Some important differences between schools in the UK and France

At last we feel that we have got it right. Our children come home full of chatter about the things they have learned, the people they have met, and the friends they have made. Homework can still produce tears - clearly it is hard to do homework in a language you are not yet proficient in, and whatever you may hear to the contrary, teenage children will not become fluent French speakers overnight. It seems to take around eighteen months for them to become truly comfortable with the language, and longer for real fluency. However, they begin coping acceptably after the first year. Be prepared to allow them to 'redoubler' their first year, which means to remain in the same class and repeat the year. This is a much more common practice in France than in England and does not carry the same stigma. The hours are still long, but as they make friends they begin to enjoy the long lunch breaks, and they appreciate the atmosphere of quiet concentration in class. It is perhaps worth noting here that French schoolchildren do not wear school uniform (apart from in certain military schools). At first I thought that this would cause problems of the "must have the latest designer gear 'cos everyone else has" variety, but this has not proved to be the case. The kids seem much less 'status conscious' here, and mine really enjoy the relaxed feeling of going to school in jeans and t-shirts. They tell me that their French friends find the whole idea of wearing a uniform hilarious and even slightly ridiculous!

Choose your French school with care

To sum up; relocating to France with teenage children is not an easy option, and should only be undertaken after much careful thought. Nevertheless, I believe it can be the best move you can make. You may see weeping, wailing, and messages of doom on ex pats message boards, but it doesn't have to be like that if, like the children, you do your homework. Expect a tough first year, and ensure that your kids know what to expect too. Make your choice of school extremely carefully, after talking to people with first hand experience of the schools in question. Consider all your options…state schools in France are usually extremely good - we were just unlucky - but sometimes a small private school can be a good choice for children who need to adjust to a different language. There are many positives too…. the school lunches are excellent, the holidays are long, and of course, Wednesday afternoons are free!

your questions...

1. Further advice needed about French state schools (added 8/10/07)...

Does anyone have any positive experiences from sending their children to a French state school? I have three children aged four, six and eight. We are planning to move over to France next year and were thinking we would put them in the local state school, but a lot of you seem to be saying state schools don't have time for foreign children. Any advice would be appreciated.

A visitor to the site replies (added 13/11/07)...

I have just fallen across your website quite by chance and could not help reading the article about schooling in France. My experience may be slightly different in that my children were much younger when we arrived in France. My daughter who is now seven started school when she was three and my son who is nearly six also started just before he was three.

My daughter found her first year difficult, but a la rentree of her second year was speaking fluently with a local accent!! I am a firm supporter of the state system here and would never consider the private system unless in very extreme circumstances. I think if you can show support in the school, the school will support your children well in integrating into the school community.

I know people who have sent their children to our local private catholic school, and just because they are paying for it doesn't seem to mean they get a better education. I agree that coming here with children over the age of six should be well thought out, and you should be prepared for difficulties. If you speak French yourselves it will help, if you don't then this makes it doubly difficult for everyone.

2. A visitor to the site wants to know about home schooling and statistics (added 8/4/08)...

We are looking into moving to France from America in the next five years. Our children are six and eight right now. Are there any support groups for home schooling in France? After reading some of the articles about the colleges there, I'm petrified. I have taken four years of French, but my husband does not speak a lick of it. I am considering private tutors to teach them Latin before we move. I would like a website that has the school statistics on it. If anyone has that, please let me know!

3. A question about private schools (added 13/8/09)...

Bonjour, I was very interested and surprised when you stated that you pay as little as 100 Euros / month for private school! We are relocating to the Nice area and I am desperately looking for a private (ideally bilingual school) for my children (ages 3,4,8 & 14). So far the schools have ranged from 6000 Euros to 14000 Euros per year per child!!!!  Not to mention it is too late to enroll in many of the schools for the 2009/2010 year. Any help you can provide would be much appreciated.

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. I am sorry you are finding it hard to find suitable schools for your children, but you are looking in one of the most expensive areas of France, hence the price I would guess!

If you haven't already tried these sites, http://www.fabert.com/ lists private schools in all areas of France, and a list of International Schools in France can be found at http://france.english-schools.org/. Hopefully you might find some schools there which may be suitable.

I'm sorry I cannot be of more help.

4. A question about sports orientated schools (added 13/12/12)...

Can anyone suggest a sports orientated school for a 13/14 year old?

5. A question about finding a suitable school (added 28/2/13)...

I see that this page hasn't been updated for a while, but I'm hoping that someone can help, because after reading some of the doom and gloom websites, I found this site very reassuring. We are relocating to France next year and are currently looking at the Limousin and Poitou-Charentes regions. Our daughter will be twelve when we move and we have been concerned as to how she will adapt to the French education system, as although she will have the basics of the language, it will not be sufficient to enable her to immerse fully in the learning process. We are Catholic and our daughter has received a Catholic education throughout, so it seems both sensible and affordable for her to continue when we move. Can anyone tell me where I can find further information about the availability of suitable schools and hopefully avoid your initial experience which I'm sure would be entirely off putting?

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. I am not sure if you have read our article "French Education System - Schools in France", but this gives information on how to find schools. Basically many people find schools through word of mouth, as well as using forums such as Hobos in France and Total France. It doesn't sound from your email as if you know exactly where you will be living yet, but once you do, in order to find private schools or state (public) schools in your area, I would suggest that you contact your local Académie (or Education Authority equivalent) for your area, which you can find from the website at www. education.gouv.fr. I would also suggest that you contact your Mairie, who will be able to let you know which commune you are in, as this will affect which schools your children will be able to go to. Though if you want to stick to Catholic schools, you will probably need to go down the private route. You may find the site www.fabert.com useful, as this lists private schools in all areas of France. Meanwhile a list of International Schools in France can be found at http://france.english-schools.org/. An International School may be worth considering should you be worried about language problems.

6. Question about the school discussed in the above article (added 30/8/13)...

We are Americans living in France with three primary grade children. We are flexible as to where we live. Is there of any way of getting the name of that Catholic School. It sounds like exactly what we are looking for. Thank you!

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. I have been in touch with my colleague Joanna, who wrote the article and lived in the Aude in Languedoc-Roussillon, and she says:

"There are two Jeanne D'Arc schools, one in Castelnaudary, where my kids went, which takes from little ones to Brevet (age about 15), and one in Carcassonne. Carcassonne also has a lycee (Stanislas) for older kids that feeds on from those schools in Carcassonne."

The links are as follows:

http://www.epjeannedarc.fr/html/ensemble-scolaire-jeanne-d-arc.php

http://www.enseignement-prive.info/etablissement/ecole-primaire-privee-jeanne-d-arc-carcassonne/ET011-23/ecoles

http://www.onisep.fr/Ressources/Univers-Lycee/Lycees/Languedoc-Roussillon/Aude/Lycee-prive-Saint-Louis-Site-Saint-Stanislas-voie-generale-et-technologique

7. A question about schooling in France for a three-year old (added 19/9/13)...

I have just moved to France with my family and my son is three in December. What do I do next? In the UK I would be now sending him four times a week to nursery, three mornings and one full day. Seems far too much to send him straight into full-time school, is there anything in-between I can do?

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. You might also like to read our article "French Education System - Schools in France" (http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/essential/schools-france.html) if you haven't already done so. Here we mention that children aged 2-5 go to Ecole Maternelle in France, which is the equivalent of nursery school in the UK. In order to find private nursery schools or state (public) nursery schools in your area, I would suggest that you contact your local Académie (or Education Authority equivalent) for your area, which you can find from the website at www. education.gouv.fr. You can also find out about Ecole Maternelle from this site, as well as obtaining a list of schools.

I would also suggest that you contact your Mairie, who will be able to let you know which commune you are in, as this will affect which schools your son will be able to go to.

And if you are wanting an English speaking school, a list of International Schools in France can be found at http://france.english-schools.org/.

8. Questions about schools in Lille (added 7/5/14)...

Your article is most interesting and helpful! My fifteen-year old daughter (9th grade in U.S. this year) will be living in Lille next year with a host family. The host mother is strongly recommending she go to 3eme in a Catholic school. It is the best school in Lille, she says. Her eleven-year old daughter will be attending this school. However, we have been advised by my daughter's current French teacher, who was educated in France, that this would be a setback for her both academically and socially. My daughter wants to go into Seconde to be with students her own age. We don't know how to find the best public lycee in Lille. Do you have any recommendations? Many, many thanks!

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I have been in touch with my colleague Joanna who wrote our articles on schooling in France, and she says:

"If you were moving permanently to France and your daughter isn't fluent in French, it would be advisable to be in a lower class probably, this is very normal in France. Though if it is only for a year, I can't see how it will make much difference if she goes to seconde. She will struggle with French anyway unless she speaks it already, so maybe seconde is the best idea after all. Equally, if it is for the year's experience rather than academic reasons, she is better in her own age group. And it will make no difference, public or private, though private may make life a little easier as she will have smaller classes and maybe more help with the language."

Joanna isn't able to recommend any schools in Lille as she is not familiar with the area, but suggests you try ex-pat forums on the internet.

Should anyone reading this be able to recommend any schools, please do get in touch.

9. A question about schools near Castillonnes (added 8/9/14)...

Hi - very scary but exciting times as we are currently in the process of buying a house in Castillonnes. We will be moving in as soon as our house in the UK is sold. Our son will be seven years old by the time we move and I need to find a school for him, he will be in the UK equivalent of primary year 2. He is an intelligent child and whilst my own French is very basic, his Dad speaks the language very well. Any help with information on state schools or Catholic schools in the area would be most appreciated.

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I'm afraid neither my colleague Joanna or myself are familiar with this area, but as we mention in our answers to many similar questions, details of state schools in France can be found from the website www.education.gouv.fr, as well as details of the local Académie (or Education Authority equivalent) for your area. I would also suggest that you contact your Mairie, who will be able to let you know which commune you are in, as this will affect which schools your son will be able to go to. Private schools are listed on the website www.fabert.com. Ex-pat forums may also be useful, if you haven't tried these already.

Should anyone reading this be able to help, please do get in touch.

your comments...

1. Concern about schooling in France (added 17/7/07)...

I have just read your article about schooling in France and can't believe how similar it is to our experiences. We moved to France last December with our four children aged four, eight, ten and twelve. The younger three have settled really well, but our oldest daughter has had a really hard time at the local College. We had always planned to go back to the UK after two terms, seeing our stay as a chance to improve the children's French at a time that didn't disrupt their schooling in the UK. However, we love the life style out here and are now looking at options to stay. I have found a small Catholic school in the area that would be much better for our oldest daughter although she is still really keen to go back to the UK as her initial schooling experiences have been so hard.

If anyone has had any similar experiences or comments that may help us with our eventual decision then I should be very grateful to read them.

2. A first-hand account of settling into school/s in France (added 30/8/13)...

Hi, I have just read your story about you moving to France and it is very similar yet different at the same time! I moved to France with my parents when I was ten - I am now fourteen. We had been coming here every holiday since I was four so we knew the area and the people. We were told that I should go to a private school about 30 minutes away, so I went there. It was my worst nightmare. I was seated at the back of the classroom on the end next to a boy that the teacher told me was "stupid". I didn't understand the language at all. At the end of the first day I told my parents it was fine as I didn't want to upset them. But the second day I cried all the way through it - I went to the toilets and pretended to be sick so I got to go home. After a week I told my parents that I was never going back there and that I was going back to England. This continued for six months until I moved to a state school. This school was lovely! I was there for a year - I had a couple of friends and I was liked there, but I didn't fit into their friendship groups properly as in Year 6 they did not want anybody new. I am now at the college (which is French for secondary school). I love it here now! I have made friends and I feel I have a place here now! I am halfway through my time at this school, but I'm sorry to say I will be moving back to England when I've finished the 3eme. My family is in England and I just love England.

So to anybody who has just moved to France, just stick with it, it will all work out! It took me eighteen months to be confident in French, I have now been here three and a half years and I am fluent. I do all the same things as the French people, I wear the same types of clothes , I say the same things, but I will never be French! If anybody would like any help on life in France then get in touch. Thank you for reading!

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