Going to school in France

Going to School in France

It is midday in a small village in the foothills of the Mediterranean Pyrenees, the hallowed hour when everyone in France stops to eat lunch. The church bell tower, rising above the huddle of red terracotta roofs and narrow twisting streets tucked into the hillside chimes twelve, the village shop firmly locks its door, and soon the sound of clinking knives and forks can be heard from behind the shutters. The children in the village school form themselves into a crocodile, older children holding hands with the little ones and troop through the village square to the cafe, where the windows look down the valley to the snow capped Pyrenees.
School lunch is served, logically enough, in the village cafe, subsidised by the village to encourage tourism. Feeding the school children seemed a sensible method of using the facility to everyone’s benefit. Here the children eat a proper three course meal, complete with water served in wine glasses. The chef sends the menu out at the beginning of the week so parents don’t duplicate their child’s meal in the evening. The standard menu for the week for older children attending secondary schools is also published every week in the local paper. A typical meal at the village cafe might include tomato salad, roti de veau, frites and yoghurt, produced by the new village dairy from cows that graze a few fields away. Learning about food is naturally considered a critical aspect of a French education, and one of my son’s recent homework exercises entailed identifying six different types of bread including baguette, brioche, and pain de campagne, from the shapes alone. And of course the children have already been shown round the dairy and met the cows.

They all have their own napkins, and at the end of the meal one of the older children goes round with a face flannel and cleans the sticky faces of the younger ones. After lunch the infants are put to bed for an hour in a little dormitory in the school, while the older children play outside. The playground is a rough and ready affair, but there are swings and toys, and space to play football and climb trees, all against backdrop of enfolding mountains.

My son Theo, who is eight, has been going to this small village school in France for two years; in the photo I have of him on his first day, he looks so small and English, his little blue cartable (satchel) on his back, grey eyes huge behind his glasses, in front of the great double doors with Garcons still inscribed sombrely above the peeling brown paint. He was only six and spoke no French, except for “Bonjour” and “Je m’appelle Theo.” His urban roots showed straight away; while the country children drew cherry trees, horses and goats, Theo determinedly drew a large red bus.

The contrast with the central London school he had previously attended could hardly have been greater, but he was at least familiar with the school because he had gone for a few weeks the previous summer. The mayor of the village and schoolteacher were happy with this arrangement since like all village schools they needed to keep up their enrolment. There was also another English family in the village with a daughter already at the school so she could help out when Theo could not make himself understood. He came home one day and said he had been sick at school, and had to ask Abigail the word for vomit in French, before he could be excused. Soon after that he announced brightly over supper one evening, “I learned the French word for fart today.”

Now after two and a half years, he is effectively bilingual in French and English, and learning some Catalan as well. Although his French is not as sophisticated as his English he is coping at the same level as the other children at the school, although he still struggles with French grammar and spelling. By now he translates for his parents, and is rigorous in correcting our pronunciation; he rolls his rrrs (Arrrete!) with particularly frightening intensity. Learning a foreign language in childhood, while it is still easy to do so, was one of the many reasons we decided Theo should spend his early school days here, along with the healthy environment of the mountains, the space, greenery and fresh air we craved in London.

Every morning, rain, shine, howling winds or sometimes snow, the little white school bus picks him up at the end of our drive way, winds its way up the valley, collecting children on the way. In the evening Theo is brought home again, and the bus also takes some of the children home for lunch. In France primary school children in particular are well provided for. They can start school at 3, attending the maternelle, or nursery, full time, as preparation for school. There is also a garderie after school, where children can stay and play until 6 pm. There is no charge for any of these services. The oddest thing to get used is that there is no school on Wednesdays, which is supposed to be devoted to sports or arts activities, but they do go on Saturday mornings. This is difficult if both parents work or you like to go away for le weekend, but many women in France work a 3/4 hour week so they can have Wednesdays free for the children.

The school itself is a typical turn of the century French school building, with two doors for Garcons and Filles, although these days all schools in France are co-educational, and in common with most schools in France there is no school uniform. Like many in this rural mountain area, the school serves three villages in the valley and outlying hamlets and homesteads, and now has about 40 pupils altogether. About ten years ago the numbers had dropped to less than 20, and there was a threat the school might close. Now it is thriving again, helped significantly by the foreigners and outsiders coming to the village.

The mix is obvious at the summer school fete, which resembles something like a 1950s church fair, with games, tombola, home made cakes and sales of pottery made by the children. Prizes for the tombola include horse riding lessons, donkey rides, home-made preserves, local cheese, supplies of milk, watercolours by an English artist, and, most coveted of all, a large jar of foie gras, produced by the duck farming auberge next door to us. Agriculture, predominantly growing peaches and raising cows, and rural tourism are the main sources of income, but there are also nurses, forestry workers, singers, artists and writers among the parents, and there is a truly international mix of pupils with English, Belgian, Dutch, and Spanish as well as French.

The pupils, aged between 3 and 11, are divided between two classrooms, with two teachers and two assistants. This is the old system of classe unique, where the teacher teaches children at several different levels, and the children themselves are encouraged to help each other’s work. Les Petits play and draw at low tables, supervised by a nursery assistant, while les Grands sit at desks and are taught by Maitresse, as she is always known, from the blackboard.

Once they can read, normally around 6 or 7, they move nmext door into the older class, which is organised into small teams, each with a mix of younger and older children. The Maître is a reserved, self-possessed young man whose little pony tail and computer skills seem somehow at odds with this remote mountain school, but his commitment is obvious, and he succeeds in teaching the basic national curriculum using a cooperative and non-authoritarian teaching method which strives to instil a sense of self determination and responsibilty in each child. Despite the casual atmosphere, Maitre is treated with respect; school children in France generally appear to have greater respect for education and for their teachers. One French teacher of English here, recounted an experience which summed up the difference for him, during a a trip to Britain with his class. Waiting for the ferry were two coaches, one full of English children, and one French. On the steamed up windows the French children wrote greetings in the English they had learned, “hello” and “how are you?” Guess what the English children scrawled back?

The village cafe lunch is typical of the way the school is an integral part of this small community. Nearly all the local children go to the school, and everybody knows them all, knows their families, their dogs, often their problems too. The school takes full advantage of its location, learning as much as possible from the environment, visiting local farms, wild life reserves, and historic buildings, getting to know the history and legends of their own villages. Then they write up their adventures in painstaking French script, and correct them to be included in the school newspaper, or posted on their new Web site.

They often go off tramping into the mountains, and Theo came home one day with spectacularly muddy boots. He explained. “We went for a walk, and hid in some bushes, then we put down some bread and had to be really quiet while we waited for birds to eat it.” Birdwatching, I figured, though Theo seemed even more excited at having identified wild boar poo. He is now very knowledgeable about poisonous mushrooms and even more important, like any good French child, knows which ones are good to eat.

In winter they can ski, either cross country skiing in the forest, or at the village ski station. It prides itself on being the smallest ski station in France, and must certainly be the least glamorous. There is one creaky ski lift and two runs; in winter the entire village decamps to a makeshift cafe where they perch on hay bales and barbecue sausages. When there is enough snow, the older school children go every week, kitted out in a mixture of borrowed ski outfits and shabby salopettes.

Last summer the itinerant pottery teacher, Sylvie, came and made a kiln in the school playground. The process took several days and involved every single child. The older ones helped to build the kiln, constructing a base of papier mache covered in clay. Everyone put on plastic aprons and rolled and pummelled great lumps of red clay into pots, from the smoothest round bowl to the most twisted little thumb printed offering. When the kiln was finished the littlest children picked bunches of wildflowers and excitedly pressed coloured petals all over its outer surface of wet clay. Then a fire was lit below and the pots inside were slowly baked. Now they have made pottery plaques for the new village fountain, proudly embellished with the village symbol, of a cat, and the name of the school.

Each year a weeks exchange is arranged with another school, and I joined our school for a day trip with their correspondants from the other end of the Pyrenees.

We visited the local olive mill, and tasted olive oil, and toured a dam, exploring the passages and machinery deep beneath the water. The children all had notebooks, and were expected to aks questions and write up their impressions afterwards.

Everyone ate a picnic lunch, children at one table, and at another the teachers of both schools, the bus driver and several parents. I had been puzzled bythe large rucksack Maitre had been carrying all the time; the mystery was solved when from it he produced a bottle of Banyuls, the local aperitif and a bottle of good local red wine, which we drank with our meal. In the end Lunch will always remain an important part of a the French national curriculum.


It is well known that the easiest time to learn a foreign language is as a child, so it is a great pity this has yet to be seriously included in the education system in Britain or France. Most children only start foreign languages when they are 11 or 12 when it is too late. When they are very young they learn by ear, unhampered by spelling or reading. Until the age of 6 or 7 they learn a foreign language as they do their own; after that it becomes a more formal affair. Even the facial muscles remain flexible until the age of 7, so it is much easier to adapt the muscles to the varied jaw movements required for the pronunciation of other languages.

French Education System

The French have a national curriculum (instructions officielles) followed by every state school. This may be strictly followed using traditional teaching methods, and the French system is often criticised for being too formal, lacking creativity, with little emphasis on sports or cultural activities. In practice, however, especially in primary schools, the teachers have considerable autonomy, and the core national curriculum can be successfully fulfilled using more creative methods, and augmented by other activities. In France church and state are firmly separate, so French state schools are laique, (“lay”) so there is no religious education. Education in France is all about learning to be a good citizen, and this includes sex education; the permission of parents would not be considered relevant.