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Education in France

I’m about to start on a tour of several of France’s universities with my daughter Caitlín. She’s in her last year of lycée and will be taking her baccalaureat in the summer and moving on to third level education. But what and where. She has eventually plumped for informatique (computer science) as the subject so that just leaves the where.

It’s the season of Journée Portes Ouvertes – open days at these establishments. It’s unfortunately also winter, which makes the trips dodgy at best and impossible at worst. We are meant to be going to Grenoble this weekend, but we have thick snow here and temperatures in the region of minus 16 are forecast for there. So it may not happen.
meteorologically challenged time of year, the JPOs of necessity clash with each other. Each Saturday between mid January and mid March sees half a dozen or so of them taking place.You have to choose between Limoges or Strasbourg or Toulouse or Marseilles and so on, which is tough if they’re all universities you’re interested in. But there probably isn’t a better way to organise the open days, so it’s a case of putting up with it.

After Grenoble we head to Paris to see two universities there, luckily on the same day, and then there will be one or two more visits I imagine. It’s an exhausting but very exciting time and has brought education to the forefront of my mind.

I’ve now had, or have, a kid at each stage of education in France from maternelle to post bac (university/tertiary). We’ve taken the state as opposed to private education route all the way through. First up, maternelle (nursery school). Ruadhrí had a year in Grande Section when we first arrived here. He was always very vague about what he did there. The vagueness stemmed initially from the fact that he didn’t have a word of French and therefore literally didn’t have a clue what was going on. However, that stage was soon passed. He didn’t talk much in class, but his teacher told me that he understood very well. He was happy and brought home the occasional worksheet and lots of drawings and raved about the dinners.

At home he was fussy and would pretty much only eat peanut butter sandwiches, yogurt, bananas and chocolate buttons. In no time at all at the cantine he was tucking into betteraves (beetroot), lasagnes, chou-fleur (cauliflower) and flan for a typical meal. There’d have been a riot if I’d tried to make him eat that! The only item we had to provide for him to take to school was a box of tissue. I thought this was inspired. In Ireland classrooms in winter had been a sea of green snot. That didn’t happen here in France. On the down side he had to have a BCG vaccination, his was the last year that required it, and it left him with a huge bouton (lump) on his arm for nearly a year which has now shriveled away to a nasty scar.

Ruadhrí is now in CM2, the final year of primary school. He spent two years at one school, and is in his third at another in the same co-operative. This is common practice in rural France, where small village schools open are kept open by hosting two or three years of the primary schooling each. It has to be said that some of his teachers have been more motivated than others, but on the whole it’s been a good experience. He has received free school transport the whole time and most school days out have been funded by the commune.

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He’ll move on to collège in September, which is where his older brother and sister began their French education in 2006. Unlike Ruadhrí, who was left to learn French on his own, Benjamin and Caitlín were given special French lessons. I had to push for these, it’s true, and we had to go to another collège for them, but they proved to be a huge help. The two kids were fluent in around nine months.

Their first few months at school were very hard going. They didn’t understand much, despite the fact we’d done quite a lot of French at home, but total immersion is a good, if brutal, way to learn! It wasn’t long before they stopped getting 0,5 sur 20 and moved steadily up the ranks. Some profs were more patient than others with non-francophones, but they definitely got the hardest time from the English teachers! Both of them left collège with a mention bien, the second highest grade, in the brevet. Benj achieved that in two years and Caiti in three, which I hope will be encouraging to any other expat students in the early stages of secondary education in France. You can do just as well as the French kids!

Lycée has been a great experience. We live around 50 kms from Guéret, where the lycée is, so my eldest two boarded there in the Internat from Monday morning to Friday night. They both adjusted very happily to this lifestyle, as did Chris and I, and it gave them a lot of independence and maturity. The whole approach at lycée is about independence. When kids don’t have lessons, they can leave the premises (provided you’ve authorised this if they’re under 18).

There’s the temptation to skive cours of course, but the vie scolaire keeps on top of this. I had a few calls from the staff in this department asking where one of my kids was. One of them, naming no names, didn’t like the games teacher and tended to disappear. Parental pressure was applied and the absences stopped! Benj came out with a mention assez bien in his Bac (philo – philosophy was his downfall) and Caiti sits hers this summer and is quietly confident of doing better than her brother.

Ramassage scolaire, school transport, for collége and lycée is subsidised by the département with parents paying a contribution. There’s usually an early start for country kids but it’s a fantastic service and has been extremely reliable, apart from a few times when it’s been suspended due to the amount of snow on the road when the kids were still at school. We’ve had to stage several rescue missions to Guéret!

Benj is now in his first year of Université, at Limoges. He is loving it. He has fantastic accommodation at the student résidences with a fridge, shower, WC and electric bed in his room. He is reading applied languages, a practical and well constructed course, which allows him to take Chinese and journalism alongside his main languages. We’re on a low income and so Benj receives a grant and he also qualifies for assistance with his rent from CAF since he’s 20 and so I no longer receive child allowance for him.

France is good with education. The country is investing in its future by investing in its children. I am eternally grateful to my new country for the treatment it has given my children and the care it has taken of them at school. In return it will be getting three bilingual, educated citizens who will contribute actively in the years to come. That seems a good deal to me.

I’m Stephanie Dagg, author, editor, fishery owner, alpaca and llama farmer – oh yes, and mum and wife too. We live in the rural heart of France in Creuse, an area famous for its hazlenut cake and extremely elderly population. We’re truly Europeans having lived in England and Ireland before coming here. I blog about our daily life as expats with all its pleasures and perplexities, and fun and frustrations at www.bloginfrance.com. You’ll find my many and mostly free ebooks here on my Smashwords page www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SJDagg.

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