The period before we moved to France was very intense, not only finishing the house but also preparing the children. I spent a great deal of time in a state of anxiety that we were undertaking an impossible task, and spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet researching other families who had attempted the same experience. Of course ideally I wanted to find someone who had undertaken such a move and who could tell me that it had been “a walk in the park”! I found that there was almost no information available on-line dealing with people relocating abroad with children. There are simply hundreds of “real life” experiences of couples relocating overseas and starting new businesses and renovating houses. Very few relate the experiences of their children. The main bias of this blog therefore is not only to relate our adventures but also give some valuable information regarding the struggles of children relocating with a new language to master.
The primary decision to make was the choice of school. France has two different systems, the normal state school or “ecole publique” and the private sector or “Ecole privée” which is generally catholic. The advantage of the state sector is of course free education, and some state schools can be exceptionally good. I have heard stories that these schools can be substandard in the countryside, and in some inner-city areas. This I imagine is globally the same – and certainly the case in the UK. The disadvantage is that there are no published OFSTEAD reports and therefore without personal recommendation, and without a general understanding of the country as a whole it can be very difficult to judge the quality of education in any particular school. The French pride themselves on equality, and as such I have also heard that within the state sector it can be very difficult to demand extra tuition for struggling children without giving those individuals a “perceived” advantage. However I have no experience of the state sector and at the time of our decision, had no experience of the private sector either, and was forced to make a really tough decision.
We opted for the “Ecole Privée Catholique” despite the fact we are neither catholic, nor wealthy! The reasons were essentially simple. Firstly it was highly recommended by French work colleagues of my husband for an excellent education, secondly it had the reputation of being “sympathetic”, “familiale” and with some experience of other non-French speaking pupils (though not British.). Thirdly, the private school system in France is completely different to that of the UK. Private schools in France still receive state subsidies, but charge a “top-up” figure for each child – In our case relating to approximately 100 euros per month per child for a nine-month period. In fact we discovered that with family “nombreuses”, a discount was also applied to each successive child, 10% for the second, 20% for the third and so on. This degree of independence allows the school to consider additional help to the individual pupil if necessary, and indeed we were able to employ our own bilingual tutor to give our children extra French lessons within the school building during the time-table.
Once our decision was made, my husband visited the school again to complete the necessary paperwork and register them with a small deposit. He then made a further appointment for us both to visit the school for a tour, and for a detailed conversation with both head-mistresses of Primaire, and of Collége regarding the characters and personalities of the children. Following that we made a third appointment for the children to spend a week during the summer term at the school to give them a feel for what was to come!
We were hugely fortunate to have a native French woman (and friend) living in our village who had already begun to teach children French as a foreign language. The local primary school was prepared to allow her to come into school during the lunch hour to give the three primary age boys some much-needed tuition. The boys, aged 6, 8 and 10, were in years 1, 3 and 5 respectively and had individual lessons. However, we concentrated our efforts on the oldest boy who we had just learned would skip an academic year and pass directly into the first year of collége due to his birth date sitting in October. The French run their school year/age intake from January to January, as opposed to September to September in the UK. Our oldest daughter, aged 12 was already at a girls’ grammar school, a language specialist school, and was timetabled 4 hours of French per week. We boosted this French by an additional hourly lesson each Sunday for all four children, and another after school lesson as part of a group mid-week. In retrospect we could have done with giving them more.
One of the few blogs available on line that I did read was about the Dagg family who home-schooled at least one of their children for 6 months before their move. I hugely admire their decision! It is very difficult to be both parent and teacher at the same time, as I have found out since moving to France, however I believe it pushed their daughter (also aged 12 at the time) further ahead and, reading between the lines, she was more linguistically able to cope with the change than our daughter at the same age. Read their blog, http://www.frenchentree.com/france-brittany-family-schools – “Preparing for school”.
We bought a series of workbooks, published by Hatier –“Tout Savoir” CP, CE2, 6ieme and 5ieme etc, and indeed also the books for the school year preceding the ones they were due to start. These books are immensely popular in France and can be bought in most large supermarkets in France, as well as bookshops and also on-line through Amazon. I started by translating in pencil all of the tasks – mainly in the subjects French and maths, so that the children would have something to do on their introductory week in French school. We have been using them ever since, and they are one of my most useful teaching tools now, along with “Living French” by T W Knight, which I used for myself and for the older children.
In June 2009 we set off for France, having rented a gite as near to the school as possible, to experience the introductory week with their future class-mates. After a slightly “wobbly” beginning, the children were led to their classes, and the school had found, with the exception of our 6 year old Theo, a English-speaking child for each of ours to sit with. In Rory’s class was a fluent French speaking American girl, For Anabel, a bilingual French/American, and for Angus, the brother of the Rory’s companion. All of our children finished the day with a slightly daunted smile on their faces, but a smile nevertheless, and Rory came out demanding that we found woollen gloves (in June) as he was due to do fencing the following day in PE. Fantastically Anabel came out relieved that the her companion was extremely fun to be with, only to be dashed the next day on learning that the companion was herself relocating back to America at the end of the year. This crushing feeling of success, swiftly followed by failure was to be no stranger to us over the next 6 months!