French School - experiences of a 14-year-old

A real-life account of what it's like to go to a French school

A French school in Normandy - my escape plan from GCSEs

I've always been something of a Francophile, even as a teenager. Just over five years ago, aged fourteen, I was given the opportunity to move to France to live with my godparents in Normandy and study at a French school. I'm not sure whether my decision to go was provoked by the thought of imminent GCSEs, or whether I had some pompous notion of living a life of Riley, spending afternoons basking in some meadow in Normandy, drinking cider and reading Flaubert. Either way, my work was cut out.

Catholic and private French school

Following a disastrous visit to a French state school, where I was told that I may not be given a place anyway, my godparents and I decided to look into the possibility of me going to a private French school. The only private school in my local town was a Catholic school, and as a non-Catholic, I was worried that I'd have little chance of being offered a place.

The interview

As I waited for my interview in the small corridor outside the Head teacher's office, I saw various paintings and representations of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the cross, fixed to the walls - they terrified me. What would I say if my interrogator asked me about how many Marian prayers are in my repertoire, or whether I can recite Salve Regina in Latin? Given my limited linguistic powers and lack of Catholic learning, I'd be done for, well and truly! Then I'd have to face the awful tumbledown state school for a second time, perhaps indefinitely. Fortunately, the Head teacher was more concerned that I couldn't pronounce his name correctly and he wasn't too worried that I wasn't a Catholic. He was just glad that I could play the piano (an ability which wasn't shared by any of the teachers!).

New place, new faces

I need not describe the usual feelings most children experience on their first day in a new school. The only thing which made things slightly more fraught for me was that I wasn't exactly sure what was being said most of the time. I wasn't sure whether my fellow teens were blaming me for bringing foot and mouth disease to their country or asking me what pop music I listen to.

French school - rules of the playground

After being given my timetable by an extremely bossy woman with short dark hair who was the only member of staff referred to by her first name (Annelise for the purposes of this article), and whose voice could be heard barking everywhere other than the classrooms, I was coaxed into the playground. It was the moment I'd been dreading for days, my biggest dread since my encounter with the directeur!

Being shown the ropes

I felt slightly better when I was introduced to an attractive young girl in my class, Josephine, whose responsibility it was to ensure that I settle in and go the right classes at the right time. Despite her attractive appearance, she was initially petulant and unfriendly. I could tell that this poor girl had drawn the short straw. Paranoia set in… I imagined Annelise rushing round my classmates asking, "Who will take care of the English boy?", and the boys grunting "Ahh, non, pas moi!" at various pitches and the girls shyly looking away. Josephine had surely been commanded by Annelise to complete this mission. It was the first of a number of paranoia pangs that would set in during the coming weeks, but they gradually diminished as I started to think, speak, dream, eat and study at my French school like a fourteen-year-old French boy.

French language

Feeling a bit out of place standing with a crowd of girls who seemed to be talking about hairstyles, I felt an urge to join the guys who were kicking a ball around (though not too high or hard for fear of an Annelise lecture). But given the linguistic barriers, I didn't have the confidence to face those I hadn't been introduced to, so I stuck it out with the girls. And as I didn't have much to add to their conversation, I studied my timetable for the first time.

French school timetables

In the first box, Monday, lesson 1, was "LV1 - An - Mlle Vaudard - 23". After interrupting an argument about perms, I discovered that LV stands for "langue vivante" or modern language and that my first lesson would be "Anglais", English. Feeling delighted that I'd be on very familiar territory for my first lesson, I immediately perked up. Maybe going to a French school wasn't so bad! Forgetting my initial paranoia, I stopped studying my timetable and turned to Josephine, asking her as many questions as my French would allow me about school gossip, what the teachers are like, who's who etc. Josephine perked up too and began laughing at and correcting my mistakes, as well as practising her English.

Lessons in French

To be honest, apart from English lessons, when I was used as a guinea pig on which my classmates tried their English, I understood very little of what was going on during my first few weeks at school in France. Even the terminology used in science and maths lessons threw me.

Improving spoken and written French

A combination of a lack of close friends (whom I'd left back in England), a poor understanding of the language and a sense that I wasn't really "accepted" by my schoolmates (which was essentially due to my lack of French), made me feel rather down in the dumps for the first month or two of being at school in France. I soon realised that my depression was due to my own limitations, linguistic and cultural. With help, I had to make the most of it, and worked hard at improving my French. I read comics, books and watched films in French.


After a while, I realised that acceptance was on the horizon when I received multiple kisses on the cheek from my female classmates and generally limp-wristed handshakes from the chaps, every morning upon arrival at school. To make my time in France a worthwhile, life-changing experience, I had to throw all my comparisons with England, my objections, ignorance and prejudices overboard. This wasn't easy. All I knew was England and English (apart from the paltry modern language teaching I received at school), and so comparisons with England and English were surely natural. All I needed to do was to try to think in French all the time, not just at school. I became aware that language reflects culture in many respects. That is to say, being at one with the French language would help me to understand French culture better. The way the French express certain things which don't really exist in England would be less of a mystery if I didn't spend time trying to find English equivalents.

French school friends - some of the best friendships

Of course, the decision to try to "become French" was my choice. I could quite easily have made friends with local English speaking ex-pats, or go to an English speaking school. It's true I would still have benefited from some of the wonderful things that attract us to France, the wine, the food, the countryside etc., without having to deal much with language barriers and mishaps and, ultimately, the French. But had I done this, I would have missed out on some of the best friendships I have - the English and non-English speaking French with whom I have maintained strong relations since I was fourteen.

France - a second home

I feel a certain sense of pride when returning to France, as if it were a second home. I relish the opportunity to speak French, to mix with my French friends and to inhabit a different world. How different my perception of France is now that I have crossed the cultural barrier well and truly, rather than initially, when I was continually cursing and struggling at school. To make this change is to enter a different mindset and it is, without a doubt, one of the most life-enriching experiences I'm sure I'll ever have.

Other articles which may be of interest:

French Education System - Schools in France
Starting School in France

About the author

Andrew Rowe joined French Property Links in October 2006. He went to school in France for a year, returning to the UK in 2001.

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