We arrived in Cotignac 6 years ago in order to start a new life working in the world of wine and living and breathing our new home in Provence. Our two older children had been educated in English schools and only mastered rudimentary French, so suffered a shock to the system when they started at the little village school here in Cotignac. Josie and Felix were welcomed with relatively open arms, but since very little English is spoken, they had to get by on their own and live with the fact that they didn’t understand much and weren’t understood much either. George was under two years old, which was a distinct advantage in terms of getting used to living in a different country.
George started the Ecole Maternelle (Kindergarden) as soon as I could get him out of nappies (which is the prerequisite) at 2 and a 1/2 years old. The Maternelle is full time, state funded education and enables most mothers to go back to work if they wish. While they focus on discipline and on learning basics the academic pace is more gentle than the one I was used to in the UK. The preparations for reading and writing only happened in the Grande Section, i.e. the year before your child goes to the Primary School (Ecole Primaire) and is therefore already 5 years old. Having seen Felix struggle with the pace of his primary school in the UK and lacking maturity at 4, I was glad to see that George was left a little more time to get serious. By UK standards it’s a sturdy approach to childcare and you must be prepared that your child will have to fit in and that consequences will be taken if he or she doesn’t. Education in France in general is much less child centric and much more focussed on teaching children to fit the mould and follow the core curriculum, which in some aspects is very old fashioned.
Another thing to look out for (obvious in retrospect) is that your children may not end up in the same year they were in back home. Children here get sent to school based on the year of their birth, not on the running of the school year. Josie therefore went a class ahead given that she was an October birth and ended up being the youngest in her class, when she had been almost the oldest in the UK. This led to further academic complications for her, as added to language barrier she had to cope with a curriculum that had moved out of her grasp. Felix was fortunate to go the other way since he’s a March birth and he found catching up much easier and had the advantage of learning to write French from scratch with his peers. I could have insisted on Josie starting the year behind and easily had my way, and looking back this may have been better for her overall academic progress. The Ecole Primaire is generally of high academic standard and, being in a small village, we have the added benefit of small class sizes. There is much less organised sports and extra curricular activity than in the UK and the focus is on learning core skills like French and Maths. A nice feature of our school is that they do organise outings and trips, sometimes for a week at a time to the sea or to the mountains or to a good museum in the region.
After 5 years at primary school your kids will be prepared for and sent on to Middle school, Collège, which involves a bus journey to the nearest town if you live rurally. Le Collège appears to be France’s problem child when it comes to education. The mixture of a continued rigid curriculum with a lot of learning by heart mixed with teenage rebellion seems to to bring out the worst in kids. We chose to send our kids to a Catholic Collège in the nearest large town, an option we were very fortunate to have, and we had to fight hard to get a place. Consequently my kids have done fine and Josie is now starting Lycée, having passed her Brevet at the end of June, but a lot of her peers are deciding that education is not really for them. France offers several vocational routes and the end of College often marks the end of school as we know it for many kids.
We have chosen a small international school for Josie to start her three years of Lycée. You can send your children to specialised state schools if they make the grade, which is interesting. You can get Lycées specialising in agriculture, technology or design for example, though they may be at a considerable distance from home.
In summary, we have had good education here for the price of our local taxes and this affordability has been a huge benefit for us as we’ve had to invest most of our funds into our fledgling business. The system’s focus on core subjects means that you cannot really leave primary school without your core skills in Maths and French well and truly drummed into you. This may be a disadvantage for non mainstream kids at either end of the spectrum and looking after the gifted, as well as the kids with difficulties is not executed as well. Of course we have occasionally dreamt of the softer and more child centric approach of the education system we left behind and have wondered how our children would have developed back home. Yet the experiences they’ve had, and the resilience they’ve acquired coping with the change in language and social life, has made them into strong little people that are able to cope with some adversity, which is also an important life skill. Oh and you will have to keep the English up, as language teaching is the real weakness in the French Education system!