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Primary school around the world: France

Primary school in France
Wednesdays off and four-course school dinners: we take a look at what it's like to go to primary school in France.

Nicki Brown lives in Cognac, South-West France. She has two children: Maddie-Rose Wade, 17, and Ollie Wade, 11.

My ex-husband and I moved to France in 2004, when Maddie was five and I was pregnant with Ollie. Maddie had done her Reception year in England before we moved to France.

Following my divorce in 2011, I moved back to the UK and the children spent a year at school in Hertfordshire. Then in 2012, I moved back to France and married a Frenchman. Maddie and Ollie have been at school over here ever since. Maddie is in Terminal (the final year of French sixth form) and Ollie is in 6eme (the equivalent of Year 7).

Here, children start school a year later than they do in England. It worked in our favour with Maddie, as she repeated her Reception year here after a year in the UK, which gave her time to get to grips with the language without worrying too much about the school work.

With Ollie, we had the opposite experience. He did his first year of primary school in England, and found it very hard when we moved back to France. Teachers here know their subject matter well, but they often lack an understanding of children’s emotional needs. His teacher shouted a lot, and he was scared stiff. He was given no help settling in, and had a very difficult first year.

‘The school dinners are much better in France’

Both children go to private schools, although it’s nothing like the independent school system in the UK. Here, private schools aren’t necessarily any better than state schools; they just have smaller classes (Ollie has 33 in his class). They’re typically Catholic schools, but take children from all religions. The fees are much lower: I pay about 900 Euros per child per year.

There’s plenty of choice of schools in our area. Our town has seven primary schools and three state secondary schools, but our children both wanted to go to the same schools as their friends, which is why we went down the private route.

Kids in French schools don’t wear uniform, although there’s talk of introducing it. My children wear jeans, trainers and a sweatshirt or hoodie most days. I miss school uniform; it definitely cuts down on washing!

The school dinners, however, are much better than in the UK. I pay 5.60 Euros per day, and they get a starter, main course, pudding and cheese. Chips are only served occasionally; a typical meal would be liver pate followed by chicken in a cream sauce with green beans and garlic mashed potato, a chocolate pancake and two choices of cheese.

‘There’s an hour of homework every night’

The curriculum in France focuses very much on the core subjects, but not so much on the creative ones, so children who love art, music and drama really miss out. There’s no teaching about religions other than their own, and in our area, there are very few non-French children in the schools. Anything Ollie learns about other cultures and religions, he learns from me.

There aren’t even any school events or celebrations such as sports day or harvest festival. The only annual event is the kermesse at the end of the school year, where each class does a song or dance, and there are a few stalls in the playground. It’s very basic compared to the UK.

Sports are also different: each term at primary school, Ollie tried a different sport, including rugby, rowing, wrestling, football and swimming.

The school day here is longer; Ollie’s primary school started at 8.45am and finished at 4.35pm. However, there was no school on Wednesdays, and they have longer holidays than in the UK: eight weeks in summer, and then two weeks in October/November, Christmas, February and April/May.

They also get a lot more homework: at least an hour every night in primary school.

‘There’s no stigma in kids retaking a whole year’

There are no formal exams in primary school here, but there are a lot of tests. Each child has a grid, arranged by subject, of all the knowledge they have to acquire during the year. At the end of the summer term, the school will decide whether the child is ready to move on to the next academic year. If not, there’s a system called ‘redoubling,’ where kids can retake the whole year. It’s not uncommon, and there’s no stigma amongst the children when it happens. 

Overall, I feel the UK education system and teaching methods are far superior to what we have in France. In the UK, my kids were stimulated when they came home. They had interesting projects to complete, and would bring home things they’d made. You could see the personality and passion of their teachers in what they were learning.

Here, I see boring exercise books with pages of worksheets stuck in; the only colour is the correcting pen. It feels a bit like children are on a treadmill rather than learning about life. In fact, my daughter has decided to return to the UK for university, and it’s going to be a breath of fresh air after the French education system.

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