7 things every parent should know before sending their child to a French school

School, eh? Like high-fibre cereal, the EU and not drinking EVERY night, you may not like it but know that it’s ultimately good for you. But school in France is guaranteed to be French, and therefore a bit different. Will my children be taught philosophy, flirting and how to smoke, I worried as I went to my first parent-teachers meeting. The answer: not yet. I do have other, possibly more useful, information about the French school system to share with you though. Read on!

1. School starts at a young age.

Between the ages of three and five, most French children go to maternelle, which is similar to preschool in that children learn colours, shapes, numbers, the alphabet and cheese. An important difference, however, is that maternelle is not considered to be preparation for school the way it is in the UK: maternelle is the real deal right from the kick off.  Maternelle and élémentaire (for kids ages six to eleven) are each fingers which together form the Twix bar that is école primaire.

Twix analogy

Not sure why I did this.

French kids are guaranteed a place in a state school for absolutely no euros whatsoever. And this is full time; none of your vouchers for 10-hours-of-preschool-a-week shenanigans. There’s no requirement to start school before the age of six but the vast majority of kids start earlier. Now whether it’s because someone will look after your little angel for FREE after you’ve been paying €800 a month for a crèche/nanny (I’m crying blood just thinking about this) or because of the implict understanding that this is just when school begins, I don’t know.  Just prepare yourself for people saying to your  basically still-a-baby two-year-old, “You’ll be starting school in September!”

Alexandre does his homework

2. French school year name are completely bonkers.

Why use numbers to mark the progression through school years, like Britain with their yawnsome “primary one” and the snoozily logical US “first grade”, when you can puzzle and perplex with a naming system as complex as the Enigma code?

Things start off sensibly enough in maternelle with its three years called petite, moyenne and grande sections, like a sort of French Starbucks order.

Disappointingly, this doesn’t continue into élémentaire with vente and super size classes. Instead they opt for abbreviations that sound like chemical compounds: CP, CE1, CE2, CM1, CM2 and CO2. (That last one is FAKE NEWS.) Sure, the full names make sense (cours preparatoire, cours élémentaire blah blah) but you shouldn’t have to know the course name to understand the sequence of the classes.

Things look up for collége and lycée where numbers are employed! Except backwards! So we start at sixième (sixth), next cinquième (fifth) and work our way down to …. première? NON, English fool! It’s terminale! Presumably because by the time you’ve got to the end you want to kill yourself.


The French government have a handy machine that helps you work out what class your child will be in next year

3. French schoolkids don’t wear uniforms.

There are many valid and forceful arguments on both sides of the school uniform debate (expense versus peer pressure being the main thrust). I’m not going to get into all that here, I’ll just cut to the part that really matters: there are no uniforms in France so your child WILL NOT LOOK AS CUTE  as all the other kids in the “first day of term photos” that are obligatory on Facebook. I know I’ll be photoshopping my kids’ photos next year so as not to be outdone by my British friends.

Back to school already! Can’t believe how big Emma, Louane and Ron are getting!!!!


4. France has incredibly long school holidays.

In other countries, school holidays feel like they last forever; in France they actually do. There are only 162 days of school per year in France, the lowest out of 35 countries, including the UK, Germany, Spain, the USA and Australia.

That’s three whole weeks more than in Britain.

Three weeks where I have to look after my own children.

(During those three extra weeks, French children are sent to camps run by l’Académie française where they are given intense  noun gender training; children who fail to correctly identify words like “sparrow” or “drainpipe” as masculin or féminin are forced to participate in a state-sponsored survival exercises, similar to those depicted in The Hunger Games. I have not received this training which is why I struggle to tell le différence.)

French school kids enjoy some downtime in the Académie’s playground. “LA boue, LA pluie, LE froid”

Obviously I don’t actually look after my children all that time – that’d be crazy! No, much as I’d love to *clears throat*, I only have five weeks of holiday a year so I (like most French parents) rely on the very wonderful accueil de loisirs, or after-school club, to pick up the slack. My experience of these has only been positive; they do a fabulous job of organising fun outings and activities for the wee ones, which does wonders to assuage my working mum’s guilt.

5. And the number of days out of school may even go up.

Until now primary school children have four and a half days of school per week, the half day being Wednesday morning. However, as of this school year (2017 – 2018) some schools will be going down to four days a week, omitting the Wednesday entirely. The decision as to whether a school will give le mercredi the chop is made at a local council level but I get the impression that people are in favour of it, certainly where I live. Which is fine. I mean, what good has ever come from that thar book learnin’?

6. Strikes are a thing.

I have no idea if French workers strike more frequently than in other countries (I’ve tried to find out but the internet says no). What I can say is that school strikes feel frequent, at about once a term. The amount of industrial action is no doubt due to the fact that there are three different groups who could be affected: teachers, support staff and the after-school club.

If it’s just the support staff that are on strike then the school probably won’t close (my daughter was particularly happy the last time the dinner ladies went on strike because they had sandwiches and crisps for lunch) however if it’s the teachers, or everyone at once, you’ll receive the dreaded note in the cahier de correspondence and will have to scrabble for childcare.

Not to be outdone, sometimes older pupils go on strike too. These pupils went on strike this week because of the poor quality food in the canteen, including but not limited to a lack of grated cheese for their pasta. La lute est réelle.

I guess the cat’ll be babysitting again

7. The choice of cheese on the school menu will blow your tiny mind.

I wasn’t joking earlier when I said that French kids learn about cheese at primary school. The range of cheese varieties a three year old is exposed to in an average month in a French school canteen is far greater than a simple cheddar-muncher like me had in a lifetime before moving to France. Look at this menu: 16 different cheeses! This is an extraordinary education for the palate and goes a long way to explaining the deeply grained love of fromage that permeates this place.

Children's menu

There we have it. Is there anything I haven’t covered? Probably! Ask my in the comments and I’ll see if I can google the answer for you. And please share and like and all that. Merci!!!!!!!!!!!
















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  1. Juliet

    23rd October 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Trop funny! I remember it all so well. Mine are now at ‘la fac’, bloody Nora. So have lost track of school holidays and cheeses and the likes. I just know that their summer holiday started in May this year and ended in September. Eh oui! I need to subscribe to you again. I think I lost my follower status. My fault maybe…


    • admin

      24th October 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Yes, the holidays get worse when they go to big school, don’t they? I have nephews at collège/lycée and school just seems to stop really early in the summer.


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