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The education system in France may be more complicated than most expats are accustomed to, but it's generally of a high standard. There are a variety of school types in France, including public, private, bilingual and international schools. Parents will need to consider the language barrier, cost and curriculum before deciding which type of institution will be best for their children.
Public schools in France
Education in France is highly centralised, with most public and private schools following the national curriculum mandated by the Ministry of Education. Public school in France is free for citizens and those who can show proof of residence in the form of a signed lease or a utility bill. Public school attendance is based on catchment areas.
School attendance is compulsory for students between six and 16, but parents often enrol their children in a maternelle (kindergarten) from the age of two. Children generally spend two or three years at this level before advancing.
Many expat parents choose to send their younger children to their local nursery school, as it's practical and free of charge. Children of this age tend to overcome the language barrier quickly and, as there are few formal educational demands, the difficulties of reading and writing in French are irrelevant.
As in most destinations, schooling standards can vary immensely from one neighbourhood or city to the next. Certain public schools in France run a curriculum geared towards teaching French to non-Francophone students, known as a Section Internationale, to eventually integrate these students into the French system. Few primary schools offer this programme. It's largely reserved for middle and high schools in France's large cities.
Private schools in France
Private schools in France are either state sponsored or privately funded. These tend to afford smaller class sizes, more individualised instruction, better facilities and improved access to teachers. Most private schools in France are Catholic, meaning that the curriculum incorporates a faith-based value system.
Expats should note that state-sponsored private schools have a better reputation than their privately funded counterparts.
French is the primary teaching language in most private schools, but expats will find that there are more bilingual options in this category than in public schooling. Private schools are also more likely to make an effort to hold special classes for non-Francophone students. Parent associations tend to be stronger and more prevalent in private schools.
Admission requirements and tuition fees of private schools in France may vary considerably. Proof of residence is not usually required, but some schools may request previous school records and entrance exams. Tuition for state-sponsored schools is generally significantly less than that of privately funded schools.
International schools in France
There are many international schools in France, though most are located in large commercial centres such as Paris. These schools generally either uphold the teaching language and curriculum of an expat's home country, or subscribe to the International Baccalaureate curriculum and teach in English.
Turnover rates for both teachers and students tend to be high in international schools in France, though this is largely the result of expat families not living in a country for more than a few years at a time.
While educational standards and school sizes tend to vary, high tuition fees are common. Nevertheless, international schools in France are ideal for expat families who would like to maintain consistency in their child's education, who plan to stay in France for a short time, or who have high-school-aged children looking to attend university in their home country.
Special-needs education in France
France has fairly adequate infrastructure in place to support children with special needs. Both public and private schools in France try to cater for the needs of students with special needs through the use of specialist teaching assistants. The Maison Départmenetale des Personnes Handicapeés (MDPH) is the organisation charged with evaluating a child's special needs and work with the Commission des Droits et de l'Autonomie des Personnes Handicapeés (CDAPH) to create a personalised learning plan.
When it isn’t possible for a special-needs student to adjust to a mainstream school, the options include special schools or private tutors. The availability of additional staff and facilities to accommodate special-needs students often depends on the school as well as the area in which it's located. Expat parents are most likely to find this type of support at schools in major French cities.
Tutors in France
The private tutoring market in France is booming. Generally speaking, most private tutors offer one-on-one sessions with students, but there are also some who offer small group tutoring sessions. With the rise of tutoring agencies, the industry in France is now more regulated, and by working through reputable agencies parents can rest assured that tutors are suitably qualified.
There are lots of tutors that are qualified to tutor the French curriculum and the International Baccalaureate, but there are smaller numbers available to tutor other curricula such as the British or French curriculum.
Expats looking to relocate to France in the long term typically get a French language tutor to improve their children’s language abilities at a faster rate. Naturally, French tutors are available in abundance, but it's worth vetting their qualifications to see if they are certified teachers or simply native speakers of the language. Expat students who require extra assistance on a particular subject can also look at tutors that are subject-matter experts rather than those that follow a particular curriculum.
Parents will find that inquiring at their children’s schools and networking with other expat parents may be a good starting point for sourcing good private tutors. Axiom Academic is a global tutoring database that offers access to several tutors throughout France.
►See International Schools in Paris for a list of international schools in the city.
"The French public schools are basically very good, but some neighbourhoods in the northeast of the city have social problems which complicate the school issue. We’ve put our son in a small Catholic school nearby, which is excellent and inexpensive. It’s been great. I would strongly advise against alternative schools in France, which tend to be 'cultish'." Anne M shares her experience as an expat in Paris.
"My oldest son was home with a nanny for almost two years because we couldn’t get him into a childcare system. The education system is great, but only after the age of three – before that, it’s rather challenging." Read the full interview with Rita, a Russian expat living in France.
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