Thinking of moving to France with young children? The French education system is one of the best in the world, with an emphasis on academia and discipline. A young child will be able to become bilingual in a very short time, and is likely to have advanced skills for their age. It can sometimes be useful to employ a tutor to start with although children are usually fearless language learners and should integrate fairly quickly.
Full-time schooling is compulsory in France for all children aged 6 to 16, and the current system of state education has been in place since the 1970s. More recently, developments have ensured that all children aged between 3 and 5 attend nursery school.
Standards are high and there is a high degree of consistency in state schools across the country, although the curriculum is reformed regularly. Generally students of the same age will be studying the same subjects with the same textbooks across France. All pupils are taught for twenty four hours a week, spread over eight or nine half days. There are three zones that determine the school year; whilst all zones begin on the same day in September, the holidays vary according to the zone you live in. Zone A consists of Caern, Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble, Lyon, Montpellier, Nancy-Metz, Nantes, Rennes and Toulous, Zone B consists of Aix-Marseille, Amiens, Besançon, Dijon, Lille, Limoges, Nice, Orléans-Tours, Poitiers, Reims, Rouen and Strasbourg, and Zone C consists of Bordeaux, Crétail, Paris and Versailles. Corsica and other overseas areas have their own different dates again.
The French education system is split into:
- Nursery School (Ecole Maternelle)
- Primary Schools (Ecole Primaire)
- High School (Lycée), or Vocational options
Collége lasts until age 15, where the next step is decided by examination, with the top students going on to attend a Lycée to study for the Baccalaureate, and without the necessary grades following more vocational educational options. Around 80% of students continuing schooling beyond the age of 16. Around 300,000 student per year will undergo apprenticeships.
At age 18, the “Baccalauréat” is sat – the university entrance exam. If your child passes, he will have a free place at any of France’s universities. If at an international school, they will sit the International Baccalauréat; this was created in 1968 and involves a pre-university course of study leading to exams. The study is quite rigorous but once a student receives his or her diploma, they will have access to the world’s leading universities. International schools teach in both English and French, and are therefore popular with expats. Often pupils can also learn other European languages. They cover all age ranges and may also offer international GCSEs or follow the English National Curriculum. They are situated all over France, most in areas with a large expat population, such as Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and Toulouse.
There are a number of different schooling types across the country, including private and international schools. These schools are state funded, usually Catholic and account for about 15-20% of the population in education. Private schools must also adhere to the national curriculum.
Private schools do exist and have a more flexible approach to teaching. They are more affordable than those in the UK and very popular with expats. They also have a better teacher to pupil ratio than state schools. Here the school day is shorter than in state schools - and another advantage may be that the schoolteachers do not strike as much as in the state system! There is a system of grading in most schools and repeating a year is common.
Nursery and primary schooling is divided into three cycles, with flexibility built in to the curriculum so that a child can take more or less time to work through the cycle if necessary.
- Cycles des Apprentissages Premiers: first two years of Nursery School (Maternelle), for children aged 3-5
- Cycles des Apprentissages Fondamentaux: final year at Nursery School and the first two years of Primary, known as GS (Grande Section), CP (Cours Preparatoire) and CE1 (Cours Elementaire 1)
- Cycles des Appronfondissements: the last three years of Primary School, known as CE2 (Cours Elementaire 2), CM1 (Cours Moyen 1) and CM2 (Cours Moyen 2)
In 2005, the seven skills that underly teaching across primary and secondary school were introduced by the French government. All students are expected to have command of these skills at the end of their education, and in theory they should be able to use them in practice in their potential professional life. These skills are:
- Command of the French language
- Proficiency in a modern foreign language
- Key elements of mathematics, scientific culture and technology
- Mastery of ordinary information and communication skills
- Humanist culture
- Social and civic skills
- Autonomy and initiative
Each competence is overseen by a member of the ‘Committee of Orientation’, who devise the framework to ensure the success of the project in the schools. The assessment of these competencies ensure the French education system is highly structured, with traditional teaching techniques designed to help pupils attain required standards and pass exams. Students will encounter regular homework and particularly high expectations from teachers.
Primary school students are evaluated twice against these competencies during this period; the first takes place at the end of CE1, and assesses mainly the standard of reading and writing, whilst the second takes place at the end of CM2 and includes grammar and elementary calculations in addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Students are assessed against all seven required competencies at the end of lower secondary school. It is generally believed that this emphasis on exams and results will ensure that almost every child will end up with the opportunity to study for a trade, diploma or degree. Each school has a specialised group of career guidance instructors to help pupils, parents and teachers solve problems and assess future goals.
Despite the stricter learning environment, many schools offer a class de découverte (discovery class), where the school class moves to an outside venue (such as the ski-slopes or sea-side). There is not, however, the same level of extra-curricular activities that children from the UK and other European countries might expect – particularly in the case of Arts, Drama, Music and Sports. There are many clubs and associations outside of school, so it is generally up to the parents to assess in which way their child should spend their time and money. The local Syndicat D’Initiative (or Tourism Office) will have details of all local classes, groups and associations. In some areas, sports facilities are subsidised.
It is important to remember that any parent wishing to move their child into the French system will have to deal with the challenge of learning a new language for everyday use. There are a number of additional learning support classes for non-French speaking students available, and you will be able to meet other expats in your area who have been through the same challenges. Starting a child early in primary school in France will reap its rewards pretty quickly and you can expect him or her to become fairly fluent in their adopted language within as short a time as 6 months. In fact, you may well be the one asking for guidance from your child! As a general rule of thumb, children under the age of 10 will learn French without accent. Over this age, there may be a slightly detectable accent but again, such is the nature of youth that there should not be too much difficulty in happily integrating.