We really had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the school gates for the first time in France. Our children couldn’t even count to 10 in French (we weren’t much better) and so it really was a baptism by fire for all of us. But 3 years on, the children have settled in well, have made some really good friends and speak pretty good French.
- Pretty much none of the teachers speak English. A bit of a surprise given that the French national curriculum has included English for many years now. One teacher spoke reasonable English, for the rest you may as well attempt to converse in Chinese. So it’s a good idea if you familiarise yourself with school related terminology (something I’d omitted to do myself) as well as of course, already arriving with a reasonable grasp of the language.
- School days are long but currently* only 4 days per week. School starts at 8.30am and finishes at 4.30pm for both the Primary School (Age 6-10), and the Ecole Maternelle (Age 2-6), with Wednesdays off. After-school care is usually available to working parents. There is a fair amount of homework to be done when you finally get your children home exhausted and tired. The dress code is very relaxed. My husband turned up to his first meeting with the principal in a suit and tie in 36 degree heat, to be met by the principal in shorts and flip-flops (to much amusement in the playground). Here, whatever’s comfortable goes, although French kids tend to dress like they’re on a polar expedition in the cooler seasons and consider my children cold-resistant oddballs.
- The school canteen will provide your children with very good “adventurous” food and this is great news, but only if you have a good eater. Ratatouille, moules, bloody steaks and veal escalope are all regulars on the menu, usually preceded by a salad and followed by a cheese course. Not eating at least a minimum of each course is frowned upon. In some towns non-working mums are expected not to use the canteen services and to pick their kids up for the lunch interval. Luckily for me this isn’t the case in Cotignac, as I would never cook up a remotely equivalent three-course menu at home.
- The teachers and other staff don’t mince their words. Unlike many other countries where any physical contact with children is minimal and teachers have been taught to (nearly) always be encouraging, here your kid may well get handled and yelled at…a lot. Teachers are “always right” and parents largely accept the status quo. Kids who misbehave get punished and sometimes humiliated in front of the others. Schools are short staffed and they do what’s needed to function. If you have a very sensitive child (as our middle child) this may lead to some anxious moments.
- The school curriculum is academic and focused on the essentials, concentrating largely on Maths and French. We found our children have progressed well in their core subjects, but we are missing some of the more interesting aspects of our former school life. Parents are expected to arrange extra sporting, musical and creative activities on the free Wednesdays to compensate. All in all we are grateful to have found a school that functions so efficiently and has prepared them well for entry into secondary school.
Oh and one last thing – your kids won’t speak totally fluent French after 6 months and not even after 1 year. They will eventually, but we’re still working on our French 3 years down the line. Still, the best thing for us is to hear them nattering on to their friends in a language they didn’t even know the basics of 4 years ago and you can’t put a price on that!
*Legislation is being passed to shorten the day to a more UK style 8.30-3.30, with a half -day of school on Wednesdays.