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Life in Rural France

Living the French Dream….The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

The front gates of a French school

UK Expat in France: What are the schools like in France?

When we first relocated to France there were a million little things that operated differently from the UK – and there was no one to explain how things worked. Luckily (after a lot of struggling) we figured it all out, and are now living the French dream out here in rural France.

But wouldn’t it be easier if you have an inside wo(man) letting you know how things work so you can spend your time enjoying the move rather than stressing?

Of course it would!

If you have kids and are thinking of relocating to France then understanding the schooling system is going to be important, and likely one of your main stressors.

How do the schools work?

What age do they start school?

Which school should you send your child to?

Can you homeschool your child?

Just some of the questions that will likely be floating around your brain. And this is only amplified by the addition of language barriers.

So, it’s time someone gave you the lowdown in plain English, so you can figure out how the schooling system in France is different (and similar) to the UK.

Overview of the French Education System

The Ministry of Education is responsible for France’s public schools and children are required to go to school between the ages of three and sixteen (although many continue on til age eighteen). If you’re a French resident paying taxes, you’ll be entitled to send your children to state school, however, there are some caveats attached.

You might think of the UK schooling curriculum as pretty tough – but it’s nothing compared to the French education system.

In French schools, the teacher has absolute authority, and high academic standards are demanded, especially from middle school onwards. Sometimes, non-French parents to criticise the education system for being inflexible, with a lack of opportunity for children’s self-expression. I at least would rather you know this before your children enter the school system and you know what to expect!

However, the benefit of this is uniformity, which means that regardless of where a child is educated in France – whether it’s in the south of France or the heart of Paris – they’ll learn the same thing at the same time.

Of course, you’ve also got the added barrier of learning the language. So, as an expat, you might want to consider arranging additional tutors and classes to help your child integrate more easily. The earlier you move to France the easier the integration into the French education system will be.

What are the different types of schools in France?

There are multiple different types of schools that you can send your child to:

  • Public
  • Private
  • International

Most of the schools in France are publicly funded (ie. free) and are referred to as public schools (écoles publiques). These schools are staunchly non-denominational and co-ed and you’ll be assigned a local school based on the catchment area.

It might be possible to state a preference outside of your catchment area, but you’ll have to gain permission and have a good reason e.g. for a school that offers language integration support.

While public schools are free, the class sizes are bigger and your child may get less attention – which can present a challenge if they are settling into a new learning environment. Although the average class size is 23 pupils per class, which is favourable compared to other Western European classes.

There are also a few private options for schools, however, these are mainly in built-up areas and the fees will vary. These schools are under contract (sous contrat), meaning the teacher’s wages are paid by the government, and in exchange, the school follows the national curriculum.

Something to consider is that many private schools have religious undertones, actively run by the Catholic Church and encourage Christian values – so this will be something you need to consider.

However, you’ll also have the option of Montessori schools (where education is led by children’s natural interests and activities rather than formal education) or bilingual schools.

Although private schools have a high cost associated with them, your child will benefit from smaller class sizes and personalised attention – which may be especially helpful as an international student.

Another private option is international school – which offer foreign-based curriculum from countries such as the UK and US, with some adhering to international curriculum. They generally have higher fees than other schools but are particularly useful for addressing the potential challenges of adjusting to a new cultural and linguistic environment for expatriate children.

A Baccalaureate certificate

What are the different levels of school in France?

Much like in the UK, there are different levels of schooling that students cycle through as they age. Schooling is mandatory for all children from the age of three in France:

  • Preschool (écoles maternelles) – ages three to six
  • Primary school (école élémentaire) – ages six to 11
  • Middle school (collège) – ages 11 to 15
  • High school (lycée) – ages 15 to 18

French preschools (écoles maternelles) are compulsory for children aged three to six and focus on preparing them for primary school. The curriculum includes an introduction to reading, writing, and numeracy skills, and is also a great way to help international students learn French. However, the main aim is socialising children and getting them acquainted with learning.

Next up, from the age of six to eleven is primary school, which focuses on preparing children for middle school. In primary school, there is more of a focus on academic skills such as literacy, arithmetic, and science education.

After preschool and primary school, children move on to secondary education – which includes middle school and high school.

Students attend middle school from the ages of eleven to fifteen, and there are no entry requirements, all children have designated a school near their homes. At this stage subjects become more specialised, taught by teachers who are subject matter experts.

Schooling is only compulsory until sixteen at which point students can continue to high school (Lycée), for a three-year course:

  • General ( lycée générale) – academic training
  • Technical (lycée technologique) – arts/applied sciences/technical training
  • Professional (lycée professionnel) – vocational training

At the end of this students will do the baccalaureate, or ‘bac’, examination in one of their speciality subjects. A pass in the French Baccalaureate will allow entry into most universities.

Extra-curricular activities in French Schools

Despite the high level of academic performance encouraged by French schools, they do tend to have a lower level of extracurricular activities than those enjoyed by others in European countries.

There are extra-curricular classes such as music, drama and sports but it is up to parents whether they want to spend time and money developing those skills.

In general, much more focus is put on academia than developing soft skills, and this might not suit children who have skills outside of the traditional academic fields.

An open book, pens and a note book on a living room table

The Homeschooling option in France

Well that’s an interesting one. Homeschooling is popular with as many as 60,000 homeschoolers now registered, and who can blame them. France, especially rural France, is a great place to homeschool. The gorgeous weather, the countryside, the beaches, the long lunches, and so much more.

I facilitated distance education for my daughter Summer when she was in senior school in Australia, and we received wonderful support. She was a figure skater competing internationally and spending extended periods of time training in America with her coach. This put all sorts of pressure on her from an educational point of view. Being able to go to school when she was able to and study by distance when she couldn’t was a great middle-ground for us.

I didn’t have to actually do the teaching myself because the school gave her a set curriculum. Plus, there was an online centre for her to chat with teachers etc. We were lucky in the fact her school was at a sports school, the only one in the state of Victoria. They understood the pressure of a high-performing athlete, which really helped. So like I say, ours was a combination of traditional and homeschooling.

What restrictions are there around homeschooling in France?

The rules and regulations around homeschooling in France changed in 2021 when a new directive came in, severely restricting who can homeschool and who can’t. Now, you have to prove your reason for needing to homeschool. You’ll only be authorised for reasons such as sport, health, high-level training or artistic practice, disability, remote location, or family homelessness. Also, in the event of a “situation specific to the child motivating the educational project”.

The steps of homeschooling in France

Declaration of Homeschooling: You’ll need to make sure you register your intentions with both your local marie and to Dasen (Directeur académique des services de l’éducation nationale) at least one month before the new school year starts. You can do this by clicking here and scrolling down to Démarches à accomplir par la famille then entering your postcode.

Approval of Curriculum: Parents have to submit a detailed educational plan outlining the curriculum they’ll use to educate their child, which should follow the guidelines set by the French Ministry of Education. It must cover the same subjects taught in public schools.

Regular Inspections: There are regular inspections conducted by the local education authority to ensure homeschoolers are receiving an adequate education. These are done annually and can include tests, interviews, and in some cases observation.

Qualifications of Parents: At least one parent must have a diploma or degree equivalent to a French baccalaureate (high school diploma).

Limited Timeframe: Homeschooling is only allowed for one year at a time and has to be renewed annually.

If you want to find out more about the new law around homeschooling in France CLICK HERE. It’s in French, but if you set your browser to auto-translate you’ll get it in English.

A chalkboard with "Parlez-Vour Francais" written on it

Ready to move to France?

As an expat, the teacher-centric approach and the focus on academics can be a concern. Add to this the language barrier, and it can be worrying when you think about integrating a child into a new educational system.

However, I have several friends with kids, mainly younger ones in élémentaire and collège, who have nothing but good things to say. The kids have taken to French like a duck to water and are usually fluent within months not years.

A friend of mine recently had a birthday party for her seven-year-old daughter. Nine kids from her daughter’s class were invited and duly came to the party.

They were all French and jabbering away at a hundred miles an hour. She said you wouldn’t have known that her daughter wasn’t French. Unfortunately, she said the same couldn’t be said of her.

She had to keep asking the kids to speak slowly so she could understand what they were saying. Apparently, her daughter was absolutely no help and just laughed at her horrible French.

Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and how wonderful it is for them to be bilingual.

So, if you can adapt to the inflexible and rigorous approach of the French schooling system, then your kids will have a structured education that‘s enviable around the world. Not to mention kids that will be fluent in two languages.

And luckily, there are multiple options to school your children in public, private or international. But my advice would be to get them into a French school so they can integrate. They’re like sponges as kids and pick the language up quickly, which will give them a huge advantage in life.

It’s all about finding the right educational environment to suit your child’s needs – and ultimately, the sooner you move, the easier it will be to integrate.

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