French Education

The U.S. has SOLs and the SAT. In the French education system, if you want to do anything beyond Lycée (France’s high school equivalent), you have to pass le bac, an entrance exam for students planning to attend university.

As usual, we are learning as we go. The end of my son’s second year is almost finished, and as he has decided to stay in the French education system to finish school, we had to seek out educational opportunities. We were still trying to figure out how the French education system works; we have learned that obtaining the French Baccalauréat is almost a must.

His first year in France, he entered the French education system in Terminale S (S for science) with an agreement that he would not take the Bac. The private school didn’t want to bring their overall scores down, and with his entry level of French, it’s certain he would not obtain a good “note.”

After one academic year and a weekly private French course, his oral and written French were better than mine were after two years (learning as I go; no French course for me). Then it was time to move on. Well….

Easier said than done. That agreement not to take the Bac bit us you-know-where. There are very few options for a serious student who has not passed the Bac. To enter university, it’s a must; to enter most other types of specialized schools, it’s a must. So we went backwards a bit.

He decided to redoublé, repeat a year, and entered Première. This would allow him a year to prepare for the French Bac exams, taken at the end of Première, and then a year in Terminale to prepare for the final Bac. He wasn’t too happy about this at first, but there is a silver lining.

First, his French language skills after the one year spent in a private French school were excellent. Second, he could have applied to some schools that are more hands-on and geared toward his chosen field, design or art. We were looking at options for him to go into a two-year Bac prep program with an art and design focus. The French education system is so different from the U.S. system, I was trying to get him to look at it as not taking two steps back, but rather as getting some really interesting and focused training in his chosen field while preparing for the Bac. Yes, this means he would lose one year before being eligible for university, but what’s one year for an 18-year-old? After two years living in Europe, I’m finally losing that American mentality of “this is the way Americans do it.”

There were other options. He could enter an international program and get OIB, option internationale du baccalauréat, which he could take entirely in English. This is an internationally recognized option of the French Bac. If we had followed this option when he first arrived, I might have considered it; but now that he’s fairly fluent in French, it seems right to both of us that he should just continue in a French school. Also, the one program that we found that offers this option is private and very expensive, about 22,000 euros for one year.

We also discovered the option of the IB, International Bac, partly in English and partly in French. We found a two-year program in the International section of a public school (meaning FREE). But it’s a general education program. This would feel more like he’s repeating a year, as he would be taking the same subjects he’s already had.

In the end, we decided on the IB, and he entered Lycée Georges Duby in Aix-en-Provence. It has turned out to be an excellent choice. He takes a few courses in English, and the rest in French, including a French course designed especially for non-native speakers, to help him prepare for the French Bac at the end of Première.

We were fortunate to get a place in this school, as we were told by the director that more than 6oo students apply for 1oo places. We are finding this to be the norm in France–acceptance to high school is not a given; you have to find an opening and gain acceptance, particularly if you haven’t moved up through the system or are looking to change schools.

The course work is rigorous, as the Bac is rigorous. But despite the work load, my son is enjoying the school. He attends with students from all over the world, as this section is international. It’s a cultural, as well as an educational, experience.

And the fact that he’s losing a year, by U.S. standards, no longer seems to be an issue. The educational and cultural experience is making up for any perceived loss of time.

Moving A Child to France 2: School

I made the first inquiry in March about how to get my son enrolled in high school in France. They told me to call back the end of August.

They weren’t kidding. August 30 is when everything opened back up after the summer holidays, and school started just a few days later. So I thought a visit to the school, a few papers, and within a few days he’s ready to go to French school.

No, I didn’t really think that. This is Southern France.

During August the entire country (I exaggerate only slightly) is on holiday and nearly everything that resembles administration of any kind is closed. With school only a few weeks away, I was surprised and frustrated that I could not find one person available to answer questions about where to start–until Aug. 30. And then there was an exam to be taken to determine his level. The exam was scheduled for Sept. 14. School started Sept. 5.

Yep. Thats about how it goes here. I mean why should I expect that he would start school on the first day? much less in the first week? Because after the exam, then they have to find a school. Oh, yes. It’s not as simple as going to the local high school.

On the day he took the exam, the examiner told me to local high school was full. We’d have to find another in a town somewhere close, hopefully. This was from the man who runs CASNAV, and organization with the goal of helping children newly arrived in France get adjusted, settled and enrolled in school.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. But I was ahead of the game. While waiting for the exam, I had been working to get him into a private school.

I’m happy to report that he was accepted to an excellent school, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Education in France is free, including universities; of course, private schools are not. Because France has this mentality of education for all, even private schools here, or at least the one’s I’ve seen, are relatively inexpensive compared to private education in the States. 110€ per month for tuition, and another 93€ per month for him to eat everyday in the canteen. I don’t think I could feed him at home for the cost of tuition and lunch at the school.

I’m not sure if the public school would have required different paperwork, but I think this is standard: vaccinations, proof of residence in France, and liability insurance.

All students in France need liability insurance in case something happens to another student as a result of some action, like another kid trips in the aisle over your kid’s foot. Bizarre, I know. But it was only 13€ for a year, so I didn’t even groan.

And so, he boards the bus every morning at 7 and gets off the bus every evening at 7. Schools in France have longer days than American schools, but more and longer holidays. School usually starts around 8 am and end around 5 pm, except on Wednesdays, when most schools close at noon. There are lots of breaks in the day because classes seem to work more like an American university with regards to their schedules. On Thursday mornings he has a 2-hour break, so that’s when he takes private French lessons.

He had one year of basic French in the States. Not enough, but at least it was an introduction. If we hadn’t worked out a certain type of arrangement with the school, he probably would have had to start back a year or two, at least until he picked up the language. He’s doing ok in physics and math, but the philosophy may as well be taught in Greek. He doesn’t understand a word. But then again, he says the French students in the class don’t understand a word of it either. English is, of course, is easiest subject, and I think they like having an American in the class. It enhances the other kids’ English studies.

So in the end it worked out better than expected. And Friday night he spent his first night out with his new friends. They threw him a birthday party.


National Holiday?

Yesterday was Halloween in France, but that’s not the national holiday that had everyone NOT working. Today is All Saints Day (which is, of course, where Halloween has it’s origin). Can you believe All Saints Day is a national holiday? You can add this one to your international holiday list. And it’s big–festivals everywhere. In the South, any holiday means bulls run in the street (Abrivado). I wonder if they run the bulls at Christmas, too?

Oh, wait. Did I forget to mention that no one told me that today is a national holiday?

People stopping by unexpectedly is normal. (Remind you of living in the South U.S., Laura?), but I wasn’t expecting a steady stream of people yesterday. And in France, when people come to your home, you don’t just offer a coke or cup of coffee. No, you provide an aperitif, which includes a drink and a salty snack. And it seems they have a habit of showing up (unexpectedly) at mealtimes, or they stay so long it runs into mealtimes, and then you feed them. And if you read my blog, you’ll learn that a French meal is always at least 5 courses. I’m not exaggerating. When I”m alone during the day, I can eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but this is not acceptable, at least in our house, at other times. Normally, even “quick” meals consist of: aperitif, entre, plate, fromage (cheese), and dessert. (See previous blog on French food.) I’m convinced there is no such thing as a quick meal in France, unless you go to McDonalds or the French equivalent of McDonalds: Quik. Yes, that’s what it’s called–Quik.

And so, let me conclude by saying that I had a minor melt-down yesterday evening. An unexpected holiday is nothing to have a melt-down over. It was the proverbial straw…. After several weeks (let’s say months) of the stress of getting my residency documents, getting attacked by a dog (I”m still taking antibiotics for that one), trying to open a French banque account and buy a cell phone, and numerous other daily life stresses of being a “foreigner,” I just lost it. I mean, why didn’t someone do the small courtesy of telling the American it’s a holiday in France? You would think my husband would have thought to mention it? (And yes, Marion, French husbands are no different than American husbands.)

I’ve discovered that one of the greatest stresses of living abroad, for me, is that feeling of “lostness,” never knowing what comes next.

Next year I’ll be expecting All Saints Day.