Information, location and education
There are around 55,000 nursery and primary schools, 7,000 “colleges” and 4,000 “lycées” in France and a little over 15% of them are private schools. So, there is plenty of choice! But of course most people will want to know where the nearest schools are in relation to an area they are considering moving to. A good place to start is the website of the nearest Académie (the regional Education authority).
There are 28 Académies, each with their own website where you can find lists and contact details for local schools and (if your French is up to it) read about local education issues. If you know where you will be living, the search is even easier on the website of the city in question. If it is a large urban area, you will need to go to the website of the “mairie” (town hall) of the arrondissement you will be settling down in. Public and private schools are generally listed under the heading “enfance” or “education”.
Catchment areas/ school sectors
Assuming you have settled on an area, your children will usually attend the school closest to your house. However in September 2007, the “carte scolaire” concerning secondary schools, “colleges” and “lycées”, was abolished which means you can send older children to the school of your choice outside of your area, provided there in a place for them and as long as you have a good reason for wanting to do so.
Due to the declining numbers of children attending traditional village nursery and primary schools, small rural areas schools often group together in order to keep them open. This may mean that your child moves with his or her peers from one small local school to another school not quite so nearby as they go from one grade to the next. Secondary schools are generally larger and located in nearby towns, so there may be some distance to travel for children of this age.
It is worth noting that certain primary schools are “feeder” schools for certain secondary schools which in turn feed into certain “lycées”. This means places are granted to pupils from feeder schools in preference to those coming from elsewhere. Pressure for places in a school is not particularly a factor at the primary level (as numbers have generally been declining) however there may well be pressure at the secondary level. Therefore, the earlier you can contact a prospective school the better.
Will they be accepted?
With many public primary schools the basic attitude and approach of the teacher and their experience of teaching non-French children will be a major factor. There are many heart-warming stories about children being welcomed into the family atmosphere of a typical village primary school and adapting with few problems. However some people have also experienced unsympathetic attitudes to foreigners from more traditional older-generation teachers. Private international or bilingual school are often more adept at helping foreign students adapt, but even in these specialized schools the teacher plays a major role.
Parents with children of secondary school age (11+) will naturally be interested to find out more about the relative performance of the prospective school. There are no league tables for schools in France equivalent to the UK, however you should be able to enquire either at the school itself or through the regional “Académie” to find out about recent exam results. These results may then be compared with national averages in French and Math for CM2, 6 ème or 5.
So far as the “lycées” are concerned, the” Baccalaureat” results are the indicator most often used to compare schools. You can find the results for the most recent exam, “lycée by lycée”, on the national education website www.education.gouv.fr
Of course, there are many other criteria beyond exam results which may come into play and a visit to the school with a list of sensible questions and an open mind can be very valuable. Joining a secondary school will be slightly more challenging as there will be larger numbers of children, many teachers and it will be harder initially to gauge the atmosphere.
Regardless of your child’s grade level, there are a few questions you can ask: What is the school’s experience in teaching foreign children? Are there other foreign children attending now and are there children who share your child’s mother-tongue language? Are you able to speak with the parents, foreign or French, of other children? What allowances are made for new pupils whose French is only basic?
Starting any new school can be daunting and unsettling for children (and parents too), so the prospect of a new school and new language should not be taken lightly. Ideally, you will be able to visit your child’s prospective school in advance so you can perhaps meet the teacher(s) and generally get a feel for the atmosphere and the facilities. If at all possible your child should also visit the school in advance, but if a visit has not been possible there should still be an opportunity for you and your child to meet the teacher and/or Head teacher the day before term starts, as teachers will generally be at school preparing for the new term (“La Rentrée”).
Some rural or suburban schools have a free bus service which will be able to pick up and return children to your house or close by. Your school teacher or your local “mairie” can advise you of the arrangements, but bear in mind that this journey can add an hour or more to the length of your child’s school day.
So how long before they settle in?
In some parts of France many English speaking children start in French schools every term. Although it is never a good idea to generalize, many parents and teachers have found that the earlier a child joins the French system the quicker and more easily they integrate. This does not mean it is impossible to move your children at secondary education level, indeed there are thousands who do so successfully every year. But it does mean that the older the child, the more there will be to investigate beforehand and the greater the variety of challenges facing you will be.