French parents have traditionally sent their children to a private school only for linguistic or religious reasons or when they needed extra assistance that was unavailable in a state school. In recent years, however, there has been a surge in demand for private school places as an increasing number of parents become disillusioned with the state education system. In 2005, some 50,000 applicants were unable to obtain places as private school attendance reached the 2m mark.
The following checklist will help you decide whether state or private education will be better for your child:
- Language and other integration problems mean that enrolling a child in a French state school isn’t recommended for less than a year, particularly a teenage child who isn’t fluent in French. If you’re uncertain how long you will be staying in France, it’s probably better to assume a long stay.
- The area where you choose to live will affect your choice of school(s). For example, it’s usually necessary to send your child to a state school near your home. If you choose a private day school, you must take into account the distance from your home to the school.
- Where you’re going when you leave France may be an important consideration with regard to your child’s language of tuition and system of education in France, as will his age – now and when you plan to leave France. Consider also what plans you have for his future education and in which country this is to take place. The younger a child is, the easier it will be to place him in a suitable school.
- Ask your child how he views the thought of studying in French but consider also what language is best from a long-term point of view and whether schooling is available in his mother tongue.
- Ask yourself whether your child will need help with his studies, and more importantly, whether you will be able to help him, particularly with his French.
- Find out what the school hours and holiday periods are, and consider how these will affect your family’s work and leisure activities. Many state schools in France have compulsory Saturday morning classes.
- Ask whether special or extra tutoring is available in French or other subjects, if necessary.
- If religion is an important aspect in your choice of school, your options may be limited. There’s no compulsory religious instruction in French state schools. In fact, state schools ban even displays of religious affiliation, even crucifixes (some Moslem children have even been expelled for wearing headscarves). Most international schools are non-denominational.
- French state schools are usually co-educational, so if you want your child to go to a single-sex school you may need to find a private establishment.
- Consider whether you’re prepared or wish to send your child to a boarding school and, if so, in which country.
- Consider the secondary and higher education prospects of prospective schools and whether the examinations your child would take are recognised in your home country or the country where you plan to live after leaving France. If applicable, check whether the French baccalauréat examination is recognised as a university entrance qualification in the country you plan to move to.
- Check a prospective school’s academic record? Most schools provide exam pass rate statistics.
- Find out how large the classes are and what the pupil-teacher ratio is.
Obtain the opinions and advice of others who have been faced with the same decisions and problems as yourself, and collect as much information from as many different sources as possible before making a decision. Speak to teachers and the parents of children attending the schools on your shortlist. Don’t forget to discuss the alternatives with your children before making a decision!
Don’t assume either that all state schools are alike: some are more ‘welcoming’ of foreigners than others, particularly regarding help with language learning. Even before buying a home in France, it’s wise to check with the mairie whether there are other foreigners in the area and whether the local schools have staff and facilities to cater for children who speak little or no French or whether they’re likely to be sent to a ‘special education institution’ for children with learning difficulties, as is often the case. (You will also find out whether you and your children are likely to receive a warm welcome into the community.)
If not, you should budget for private French lessons or send your child to a private school or even a boarding school abroad until he has mastered the language, which can take as long as two years – or choose somewhere else to live.
Also check the reputation of the local collège and be wary if it’s in a zone d’éducation prioritaire ( ZEP), which is a euphemism for an area where the majority of children have behavioural problems! Note, however, that private schools in such areas can be as bad as state schools.
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.