Education in France

Back to school in France: Tips for a successful rentrée

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Expat parents and children alike can be nervous on the first day at school. Here are some tips on what to expect from schooling in France and the French education system.

Expat parents are often as nervous as their children on the first day back to school. Here are some tips on what to expect during the start of school in France and the French education system.

'La rentrée' in France

The word shows up in all kinds of contexts, from the la rentrée politique when the government heads back to Paris to la Rentrée du Cinéma for when the more serious fare kicks summer blockbusters out of the theatres.

But the French take La Rentrée scolaire the most seriously of all, from lengthy news reports on how heavy a child's schoolbag, le cartable, should be to the announcement of the first teacher's strike of the school year.

Here we help those with school-age children, especially new arrivals, prepare for your 'rentrée' into the French educational system by briefing you on some particularities of the French back-to-school ritual and the 2006–2007 school year.

For more general information, read our guide to the French education system.

The academic calendar in France

September is when most French students head back to school.

The traditional and still most common school schedule calls for students to attend school four and one/half days per week, with Wednesdays off but classes on Saturday mornings.

More and more schools are now moving to a four-day week system known as the rythme scolaire aménagé; these children are already back in class because their school year is proportionately longer to make up for the missed Saturday morning classes.

This year — as every year since 1993 when a national study indicated that students in four-day week systems performed marginally better than those on the traditional schedule — you can expect to hear more debate on whether France should eliminate Saturday morning classes.

The teacher is in charge

Generally speaking, the teacher is still a very powerful figure in French society, both politically in terms of the powerful teacher's unions and in terms of the undisputed authority he or she exercises in the classroom.

The inside of the classroom is considered the teacher's private domain in France; French parents drop their children off at the door to the classroom, even on the child's very first day of school, and may rarely set foot inside the classroom itself.

A tip to newly arrived expat parents: don't cross the threshold without asking the teacher's permission and don't be surprised if they respond with a Non. French teachers won't expect you to 'help' your child get used to school; they will expect you to say a loving but short good-bye and then leave.

For older children, one often baffling Rentrée ritual is the school-supply list. This is usually distributed the first week of class and often provides a very specific and lengthy list of supplies and study aides. Some teachers are extremely precise in their requests.

It may seem strange to you if a teacher wants a specific brand of coloured pencil or a ruler of a specific length and no other but, generally speaking, no substitutes are accepted. Whether or not you see this as the teacher's way of establishing authority, a symbolic part of a long tradition of academic rigour, or a symptom of systemic anal-retentiveness, it will ultimately be easier for you and your child simply to comply.

Many teachers schedule a meeting for all the parents at the beginning of the school year to summarise what will be taught that year and specific expectations of behaviour and academic performance.

Be advised that this is not necessarily a forum where the parent's feedback is welcomed; but you should feel free, in fact, you should make a point of arranging private meetings with your child's teacher, especially if you are newly arrived, your child's French is limited or if they have any special needs, from a learning disability to food allergies.

If your child has a physical handicap, the law states they are still entitled to attend the school closest to your home. The administrators charged with helping handicapped children integrate into their classrooms are known as Auxillaires de vie scolaire or AVS.

Many expat parents are taken aback by a seeming lack of dialogue between teachers and parents in France and French parents do tend to defer to the teacher's authority; there are parent lobby groups, however, that comunicate concerns and questions to the school administration on everything from methodology to school safety to the lunch menu.

Probably the most commonly encountered is the Association de parents d'élèves. Parents with questions, especially in the case of some kind of communication problem with the teacher, are well advised to seek out a parent d'élève.

The reading debate

If your child is starting their first year of primary school, the Cours Préparatoire or CP, then they will be learning to read this year.

Know that the Ministry of Education has officially dictated, as of 2005, the strict use of phonetics-only to teach reading, as opposed to what is called le méthode globale or teaching children to recognise whole words.

This mandate has been actively resisted by many teachers who want to use both methodologies; in fact, the textbooks for many schools have not been updated in time to eliminate all traces of the méthode globale.

For some schools, this has meant both confusion and controversy as the two camps iron it out and it will continue this year as the Sien-Unsa, or the union of teacher's inspectors, has already said they will tolerate some hybrid methodology.

If your child is entering CE1 this year, then their reading skills will be tested early in the year; if your child is not reading French yet, then a Programme personnalisé de réussite educative or PPRE may be suggested with the goal of making sure he or she can read by the Christmas break.


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