We’ll begin at the very beginning
Although nursery school is optional in France attendance levels are high with around 30% of the children aged two and nearly 100% by the age of four attending l’Ecole Maternelle. School is divided into:
Petite section: 3-4 years old
Moyenne section: 4-5 years old
Grande section: 5-6 years old
Children under three are not normally accepted at nursery school and each application is considered on a case by case basis. A child who is not toilet trained will not be accepted.
Note that the petite and moyenne sections together form cycle 1 – first learning cycle – see article 76 “Educational Cycles”)
Nursery schools are widespread, even in rural areas, and are usually attached to the local Primary School. Hours are generally from 0830/0900 to 1130/1200 and 1330/1400 to 1600/1630. Depending on the location, the norm with Primary Schools, is that there are either classes on Wednesdays or Saturday morning depending on the chosen “rythme scolaire”. Your Mairie will be able to inform you in this respect.
Children may attend for half-days initially if preferred. For the youngest group, an obligatory rest period is provided after lunch. Children usually can sleep as long as they need and won’t be woken up. They can bring dolls or teddies with them for the afternoon nap.
Lunches are served at the school for a small fee in public schools, typically around €3 to €4 for children of working parents. The cost will vary slightly from one town to another and according to income. This is decided by the municipal council. Children on special diets or with allergies can ask for special meals, although no allowances are made for faith-based dietary restrictions in public establishments due to the principle of laïcité. They may also bring their own packed lunch to school. This also applies to primary school.
Nursery school is designed to introduce children to the social environment of school and to develop the basic coordination skills. The main aim of nursery schooling is oral expression and communication. Self-awareness is encouraged as well as group activities. These include arts and crafts, music and games. During the final years of nursery school, the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic are taught in preparation for Primary school.
For parents not used to the nursery school system, sending a child to school at three years old may seem premature. However, the French nursery system is excellent, and not only a way to help children socialise but to make long-lasting friends. A child who enters the French system at primary school level may well find it much harder not only to succeed, but to integrate.
Experts reckon it takes a French child who misses out on nursery school -going straight into year one of primary school- a good six months to catch up to the level of nursery-schooled kids. These children often find themselves repeating that cours préparatoire year. For a child with poor knowledge of French the situation is even harder. It is extremely hard to learn to read in a language that is not yet mastered.
Nursery school on the other hand is an excellent way to make sure that your child has a good command of French before primary school, essential if he or she is to do well.