Sunday, June 19, 2011

French Rural Village Schools – shouldn’t we be able to choose what’s best for our children?

In France when your children start at school you have to get a Certificate d’Inscription from your local Mayor (Maire).  Mayors play a much larger role in France than they do in the UK and even the tiniest village with a couple of hundred inhabitants has one.   We had originally wanted our children to attend the school in our nearest town, but when we went to see our local mayor we were told that they HAD to go to the local village schools.  I can understand that they are trying to keep the village schools open for the benefit of the small communities.  We didn’t want to alienate ourselves from the start so we agreed to place our children in the village schools.  

The eldest was 10 at the time and the village school he went to had the grand total of 14 students with age range from 9 - 11 and 1 teacher.  The teacher was lovely and extremely sympathetic towards our son who had very little French at the time.  He was the first English student to attend this school.  She helped him enormously and by the end of the year his French was sufficient enough for him to move on to the College.  So, in this case it was an advantage that there were so few students because it enabled his teacher to give him the extra help he needed.  

Our younger son (who was nearly 3) started at the local village school that catered for the younger children where they had 2 classes.  The class he was in had children aged from 2½ - 6 and had about 20 students.  He only went to school in the mornings and when I say “school” it’s more like a playgroup really.  They don’t start to learn to read and write until they are 6.  School is not compulsory at this age, but we felt it was important for him to have the opportunity to mix with others his own age and start to pick up the language.  However, he was very unhappy there.  There’s nothing abnormal about a child being unhappy when they start at a new school or playgroup and I had already been through similar with my 2 older boys in England, so I wasn’t overly concerned to begin with.  However, as the weeks passed, he seemed to get more and more subdued and didn’t seem to be interacting with the other children at all.  We spoke to the teacher several times about how things were going and she seemed quite disinterested.  The final straw for us was when they went on a school trip to the swimming pool - we hadn’t got the note home about it, so he didn’t have his swimming kit.  He was forced to sit at the side of the pool and watch the others have fun in the water.  He had no idea why he wasn’t allowed to go in and it must have been torture for such a young child.  When we picked him up from school that day he was highly disturbed.  He wouldn’t talk and just sat there wide eyed, with tears in his eyes, but he refused to cry or talk about it.  It was heart wrenching and we were appalled by the teachers lack of understanding.  Why didn’t they call us for his swimming kit?  Why didn’t they let him go in his pants – they don’t seem to usually bother about things like that.  They should have realised how disturbing this experience would be to any child.  We instantly removed him from this school and went to the Mayor to get the piece of paper we needed for him to go to the local town school.  He reluctantly gave us the permission – what else could he do, but said he would not be entitled to the free school bus.  A small price to pay for the happiness and well being of our child I think.

So, he started at the local town Maternelle where they had 3 classes of about 15-20 in each catering for each of the age groups - les Petites (ages 2-3), Les Moyens (ages 4-5) and Les Grands (ages 5-6).  His teacher was lovely and spoke some English, which helped, and he really enjoyed it there.  He did very well and happily went onto the Primaire next door when he was 6.  The most important thing to us, at this age, was that our child was happy.  If a child is happy they are more likely to be receptive to learning.

Recently a friend of mind had a problem getting her child into the school she wanted.  When she arrived here 2 years ago, she went to her local Mayor to get the Certificate d’Inscription for her 4 year old son to attend the local village school.  At the time the school were not accepting under 5’s and so she was instructed to register him at the Maternelle in her local town.  So, her son attended the Maternelle in the town and was happy there, made friends, started speaking French and was looking forward to going to the Primaire next door with all the others in September.  However, her Mayor informed her that he would not permit him to continue in the town school as their local village school could now take him.  She was understandably very upset about this.  Her son was happy and settled, why move him now?  She went back to her local mayor to try to explain her case but he refused to listen and said he was young, he’d adapt.  Luckily the Mayor of the town where her son was already attending the Maternelle has agreed to take him at the Primaire in September and has said the two mayors will sort it out between them.  The problem seems to be that the village Mayors are given funding for schooling the children in their area and they want to keep this money to fund their village school.  If they allow a child from their village to go to another school, they see this as giving away money that should rightfully be theirs.  Unfortunately this seems to be colouring their logic and it’s a shame that they seem to be putting their funding issues before what’s right for the individual child.

The positive side of sending your child to small village school are:
1.     Fewer students should mean that your child will get more individual attention, 
2.     It gives your child the opportunity to mix with local children so they can have friends living close(r) by
3.     You are supporting your local village by sending you child there which may help you integrate better into the local community.  

On the negative side of sending your child to a small village school:
1.     A small school often means the teacher having to cope with several different age ranges and curricula which is more challenging for them and they may not have the time needed to devote to a child who is not fluent in French. 
2.     By being in a class with varying ages and therefore varying levels of work, it may be more difficult for a child with little or no French to understand what is going on.
3.     There are a limited amount of resources at a village school, a larger school is more likely to have better access to computers and media resources etc
4.     Children have a limited range of friends.  If there are only 15 in their class of varying ages, it’s likely there will only be 3 or 4 their own age and they may not actually be children they’d normally choose to be friendly with.  In a larger school with 20 children all the same age, they are more likely to find compatible friends.

These are the main points I can think of – maybe you can think of more?   I’d be interested to hear others experiences good or bad with village schools in France or elsewhere – the same rules apply wherever I think.  It seems to me that it often boils down to the individual teacher.   If you’re lucky enough to find a really good one at a small village school, then that’s great, but if not, you have to dig your heals in and insist you get the school that’s right for your child.


  1. Hi, our children attended a village school in France and the main problem we encountered in addition to those you mention, was the turnover of teachers (I think this is because many teachers don't want to teach at village schools and move on as soon as they can). The quality of teaching was highly variable, in fact one of the 'remplaçants' was a much better teacher than the lady he replaced. An excellent lady arrived for a while, but moved on very quickly, it was such a shame. As a result, the children did not receive a good level of consistency - even the foreign language chosen to be taught varied between English, Spanish and Occitan!

  2. Yes that's a good point Susan. We had similar problems with our older son when he went to the local college. In one year he had 5 different Maths teachers and they were well behind where they were supposed to be by the end of the year. We ended up moving him to a private school, which has been generally much better, but not without it's problems.