Schools in France

Earlier this week, our three children began their school year in France.  While there have been some tears from our 3 year-old twin boys, and some rather determined protests at drop-off, we are very happy with our schools and are looking forward to a fun and rewarding school year. 

For families with children considering a move to France, I thought it would be useful to share our experiences to date, including navigation of the French public school system and our first real glimpses of our schools.  I'm not going to devote much space to a discussion of the structure and philosophies of the system, as there are many websites that offer a thorough treatment of this topic.  Two that I found useful are: http://about-france.com/primary-secondary-schools.htm and http://www.french-property.com/guides/france/public-services/school-education/.

Once you have determined where you will be living (or as part of the process in making this decision), you will need to identify the schools your children are eligible to attend.  Public schools are managed at the regional level by a network of Académies, and at the department level by a network of Rectorats.  (For those not in the know, think of departments as sub-regions.  For example, we live currently in the Poitou-Charentes region, in the Charente department.)  A map of Académies can be found at http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid3/les-rectorats-et-services-departementaux-de-l-education-nationale.html.  On the map, select the city in your region, in our case Poitiers, and then select the list of Rectorats, in our case Charente.  You can now view schools, by level, in alphabetical order by location.  In my own research I did not encounter any way to search schools within a given radius of a location, so to make this exercise useful, you will need to consult a map to figure out what cities/towns/villages are closest to where you will be staying, and then which of those have schools consistent with your children's ages.

Once candidate schools have been identified, you will want to initiate a dialog with the mayor (le mairie) of the town in which the schools are located.  In our case, I sent an email to the mayor's office in Villebois-Lavelette, written in French but also asking whether there was anyone in the office who spoke English in the event communications in French bogged down.  My French is decent, but with my children's education at stake, I wanted a safety net just to be sure I did nothing foolish.  Luckily, my initial transmission was forwarded to a British ex-pat who gently guided me through the enrollment process.

Which brings me to, you guessed it, the enrollment process.  Despite France's reputation for paperasse (paperwork), the required documentation was hardly burdensome.  To put the process in motion, only two documents were required: birth certificates (translated into French) and vaccination records.  (For translation services, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, I highly recommend www.appletopomme.com.)  I emailed our documents to the mayor's office, and once processed, our children were enrolled.  After we arrived in France, we stopped by the mayor's office to confirm enrollment and to provide emergency contact information and the like.  At this time, we were given a school calendar and a list of required school supplies.

We are just wrapping up the first week of school, making field research very much a work in progress, but thus far, our experience has been quite positive.  Our boys are having some difficulty adjusting, perfectly understandable given their near-complete lack of exposure to French, but I suspect we would have had the same protestations back at home when dropoff time rolled around.  We have yet to try the "push me out the door" technique, our reluctance stemming from the fact that the trick apparently has not made its way to France.  As Americans, we are already somewhat of a curiosity, and I don't want to give the other parents any reason to refuse future playdate invitations.  In addition, there seems to be a strong emphasis on quick good-byes, even more so than in the U.S.  The teachers sense immediately the runners - the children who will race after the parents - and wrap them up so that the parents can quickly leave the premises and allow the decompression period to get under way.  For my boys, more than a hug is required to restrain their quest for freedom, but there have been no full nelsons or scissor locks.  The philosophy seems to be "whatever force is necessary," but no more.  From what I can tell, this responsibility has fallen to the assistant teacher, a 50-ish woman trained in the old-school methods.

The boys' school (Maternelle Arc en Ciel) is laid out very much like our preschool back home (Hello Duck's Nest - We miss you!!).  Lots of activity tables, a space for naps, open area for circle time, and hello, a pitcher of chocolate milk first thing in the morning!!  One big difference is that the schools in France serve lunch, and we're not talking PB&J and apple juice.  More like tomatoes and steak, or green beans and chicken, with desserts like yogurt, cheese and fruit, or chocolate cake.  The fact we have been excused from lunch duties makes the mornings more relaxed family time, less fire drill.  What's more, we effectively have subcontracted out the expansion of our children's palates, an endeavor with which we were having little success.

Our daughter is in the CE2 (third grade) class at the école primaire, and she has really hit the ground running.  In her case, she has four years of bilingual education under her belt and is basically fluent in French, so I have no insight into how a near 8 year old might adjust if s/he does not speak French.  Similarly, the teaching style and structure of the curriculum over here is pretty much identical, but that observation might not hold true for a child coming from an English-only program.  There is an emphasis on comporting one's self with efficiency and without disruption, right down to the tennis balls affixed to each table and chair leg to prevent unwanted screeching.  But by no means is the school military-like.  Other than a run-in with the lunch lady over some uneaten tomatoes, which our daughter forced down, she has found her teachers warm and her new classmates friendly and welcoming.

As I said, I will have future posts on our school-related experiences, including back to school nights and playdates.  In the meantime, feel free to send questions, especially if you are planning (or considering) a move to France and want to know more.