The state school system in France differs considerably from the school systems in, for example, the UK or the US, particularly regarding secondary education.
The Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sport is responsible for most of France’s state education system, which divides the country into 28 regions or districts (académies), each of which is a group of several départements headed by a superintendent (recteur) and attached to at least one university.
The académies set the curriculum and examinations (all schools in the same académie have the same exam questions), and a high degree of consultation ensures that standards vary little from region to region. Although the state provides a large proportion of the funding for the French education system, in recent years some of the responsibility has been transferred to regions (for lycées) and departments (for collèges).
Pupils usually go to nearby nursery and primary schools, although attending secondary school often entails travelling long distances. One of the consequences of the depopulation of rural areas in recent years has been the closure of many schools, resulting in children having to travel further to school, although in most areas there’s an efficient school bus service.
Extra-curricular activities in France
A general criticism of French state schools often made by foreigners is the lack of extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, drama, and arts and crafts. According to a recent Ministry of Education report, 60 per cent of pupils have no access to gymnasia or sports grounds and 20 per cent no access to a swimming pool, and 25 per cent of schools have inadequate sports facilities. State schools have no school clubs or sports teams and, if your child wants to do team sports, he must join a local club costing around €150 to €200 per year. This means parents need to ferry children back and forth for games and social events (Americans will be used to this!).
However, although not part of the curriculum, a variety of sports activities are organised through local sports associations (e.g. Écoles Municipales de Sport), which may also organise non-sporting activities such as dance and music. Fees are low and activities usually take place directly after school. Some organisations also sell second-hand sports equipment. French state schools also make limited use of computers; homework is generally handwritten (usually, and bizarrely, on squared paper).
On the plus side, children are taught calligraphy (French handwriting may be quite different from the style you’re used to), grammar (every French child knows the difference between a direct object and an indirect object!), philosphy and ethics, environmental studies and civics. And, in place of extra-curricular activities are ‘discovery classes’ at primary school level and – a uniquely French idea – an annual ‘taste week’ in October, during which schoolchildren are initiated into the finer points of le bon goût!
Class numbering in French
Note that class numbering in French state schools differs considerably from the US and British systems. The French system is almost the exact reverse of the US system. Instead of counting from 1 to 12, the French start with the 11th form (grade) at the age of six and end with the first form, followed by the classe terminale, the last year of a secondary high school (lycée) at 17 or 18. If pupils fall behind at secondary school, they’re often required to repeat a year (redoubler), although this is seldom the case in nursery and primary schools thanks to the introduction of a more flexible system of cycles.
Having made the decision to send your child to a state school, you should stick to it for at least a year to give it a fair trial. It may take a child this long to fully adapt to a new language, a change of environment and a different curriculum. State schools have special education sections (sections d’education spéciale/SES) for children with learning difficulties due to psychological, emotional or behavioural problems and for slow learners. Those who have difficulty with the language can take advantage of an orthophoniste, a specialist who deals with all sorts of speech and pronunciation problems. If you need to change your child’s school, you must obtain a certificat de radiation from his current school.
Children must attend a state school within a certain distance of their home, so if you have a preference for a particular school, it’s important to buy or rent a home within that school’s catchment area (which may change periodically in accordance with demographic changes).
You may make a request (dérogation) for your child to attend a different school from the one assigned by your town hall, but you must usually have good reasons for such a request, e.g. another of your children already attends your preferred school, the preferred school is close to your home or place of work, or it teaches a unique course that you wish your child to follow, such as certain foreign languages. The transfer must be approved by the directeurs of both schools.
Information about schools in a particular area can be obtained from the schools information service (service des écoles) at your local town hall. If you wish to arrange your child’s education before arriving in France, you should write to the Inspecteur d’Académie of the département where you’re going to live, with details of the child’s age, previous schooling and knowledge of French.
To enrol your child in a French school you must compile an ‘enrolment file’ (dossier d’inscription) at your town hall (for primary schools) or at the rectorat school service (for secondary schools) and must supply the documents listed below. You will then be given a registration form to take to the school.
- Your child’s birth certificate or passport, with an official French translation (if necessary). If your child was born in France, you must take along your family record book (livret de famille) or birth certificate (extrait de l’acte de naissance).
- Proof of immunisation. In France, immunisations are recorded in a child’s health book (carnet de santé), which is issued to parents when a child is born. When you arrive in France, you’re issued with a carnet de santé by your mairie for all school-age children.
- Proof of residence in the form of an electricity or telephone bill in your name. If you don’t have any bills (lucky you!), a rent receipt, lease or proof of property ownership (attestation d’acquisition) is acceptable.
- If your child is coming from another French school, a certificat de radiation issued by his previous school.
- Evidence of insurance.
Most state schools have adopted the four-day week (semaine de quatre jours) with Wednesday remaining free (a tradition dating back to the separation of church and state almost 100 years ago, when parents were expected to arrange religious instruction for their children on Wednesdays) and the lack of Saturday lessons compensated for by reducing holiday periods (the option favoured by most parents in a recent survey), although most collèges also have lessons on Wednesday mornings.
The changes are now official, although a few départements still institute Saturday morning classes for primary school children and in the Paris area schools changed to a five-day Monday to Friday week in September 2002. Contact your local education department or town hall to find out the position regarding school hours in your area.
School hours vary. Nursery school hours are from 08.30 or 09.00 to 11.30 or 12.00 and from 13.30 or 14.00 to around 16.30. There’s a 15-minute break in the mornings and afternoons. Primary school consists of 26 hours per week, usually from 08.30 to 11.30 and 13.30 to 16.30. Secondary schools have the longest hours. In a collège, students attend school for 27 or 28 hours per week and in a lycée for around 30 to 36 hours (depending on the type of lycée). The school hours for a lycée are usually from 08.00 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 17.00, although some start at 09.00 and finish at 18.00. At both collège and lycée, children aren’t obliged to remain in school if they have no lesson.
Most schools have a (free) bus, which collects children from outlying regions and returns them home at the end of the day. Due to the roundabout journey, this often adds considerably to the school day (although children usually enjoy the journey and it’s a good way for them to make friends). Many parents prefer to take children to and from school or take them to school and allow them to get the bus home. State schools and communities usually provide an after-school nursery (garderie) for working mothers, although many working mothers arrange to be free on Wednesdays to be with their children.
French children have the longest school holidays (vacances scolaires) in the world, with 117 days (excluding weekends in term time and some public holidays). They generally attend school for 160 days a year only, from early September until late June, although they compensate with long school hours and abundant homework (from primary school onwards). Winter and spring school holidays vary from town to town according to a system of zones in order to allow ski resorts to cope with the flood of children during these periods. Term dates may be modified to take account of local circumstances. The year is made up of five terms, each averaging around seven weeks.
Schools are also closed on public holidays when they fall within term time. School holiday dates are published by schools and local communities well in advance, thus allowing parents ample time to schedule family holidays. Normally you aren’t permitted to withdraw your children from classes during the school term except for visits to a doctor or dentist, when the teacher should be informed in advance.
In primary school a note to the teacher is sufficient, while in secondary school an official absence form must be completed by the teacher concerned and submitted to the school office. For absences of more than two days, a doctor’s certificate is required. If your child requires emergency medical care while at school, you will be asked to sign an authorisation, as you will for school trips.
The government issues instructions regarding student employment during the last term of the academic year. The rules apply to tertiary level students and students in secondary and technical schools aged 16 or more, although those in secondary education aged 14 or 15 are eligible for a permit for part-time summer employment, provided it’s only light work and for not more than half the summer holiday period.
Education is free in France, but pens, stationery and sports clothes/equipment must be purchased by parents. Most other provisions are provided in primary schools (ages 6 to 11) and in collèges (ages 12 to 15), although parents may need to buy some books, but everything must be purchased by parents for children attending a lycée. A number of passport-size photographs are required by secondary school students.
This can be hard on low-income families, although they may qualify for a ‘back to school allowance’. All grants must be applied for by the end of March for the following school year. It’s also possible to buy second-hand books at the start of the term, when schools hold second-hand book sales (bourse aux livres).
Primary school children require the following articles:
- School bag or satchel.
- Pencil case, pencils and crayons, stationery, etc..
- Gym shoes, shorts and a towel for games and exercise periods.
- Sports bag for the above if the satchel is too small.
Be warned that children are expected to bring a lot of books home every evening for their homework; these can be heavy and it’s widely believed that carrying them can damage children’s spines. Schools may provide lockers but seldom enough for all pupils, and lockers are often broken into in some schools.
You may be given a list of items required (liste des fournitures de rentrée), which can run to three pages of A4, at the end of the summer term or the beginning of the autumn term (the latter causing parents to flock to the supermarket on the first day of school to buy everything that’s required).
Note, however, that some items are ‘optional’; if in doubt, wait until term begins to see whether these are really required or were simply added to the list willy nilly. Don’t forget name tapes for coats and sports equipment; you can order them from a mercerie or simply write on tape in indelible ink, but it’s better to sew them to clothing than to use iron-on tapes that can fall (or be pulled) off.
At nursery school, children usually take snacks for breaks but either go home for lunch or eat at the school canteen (cantine), where gourmet-style meals are available for around €1.50 per meal, paid a month in advance. The cost of lunch at a nursery or primary school varies with the area, the parents’ income and whether they live within the catchment area. Lunch at a secondary school costs around €100 per term. Children who have school lunches are called demi-pensionaires, those who go home for lunch externes. Taking a packed lunch isn’t usually considered an option and may even be forbidden.
Children are normally expected to eat everything when they have school lunch, which may consist of five courses (including wine – for the teachers!) can last up to two hours, and there may be no ‘tuck shop’ or even vending machines.
With the exception of a few ‘exclusive’ schools, school uniforms are non-existent, although there may be ‘house rules’ concerning what may and may not be worn. There has recently been some debate over the introduction of uniforms, as in any case children usually devise their own ‘uniforms’, which can cost far more than a conventional school uniform. In some areas the theft (e.g. by ‘mugging’) of designer clothes by ‘gangs’ is widespread and has resulted in children being discouraged from wearing expensive clothes to school. Controversially, pupils aren’t allowed to wear any ‘signs of religious affiliation’ such as crucifixes or headscarves.