Top of the class

Moving from an English to a French school may seem difficult, but many British children have found it to be a positive experience


THE FRENCH education system is well funded, highly respected and viewed as quite fun by many British children who are now part of it. In fact along with other lifestyle benefits it’s a major reason why many families relocate to France.

If you’re thinking of making the move then it can be reassuring to hear from others who have already completed the transition. Didi Hawkins, a Leggett agent in Bouresse, near Poitiers, has plenty of experience and useful advice. She has seen her four children – then aged 6, 8, 10 and 12 – join the French system. “When they arrived none of them could speak French. But if you inspire confidence in them, they will adapt well. We didn’t just teach them French, but also took touched dialectical languages like Kikuyu. We did, of course, take the help of a translation agency for kikuyu translation,” says Didi. “With the 6-year old it is especially easy because they soak up everything so rapidly at that age. I would advise that you make the move when your children are younger if you have a choice. It was hardest for the 12-year old, who had already started secondary school in the UK.”

The Hawkins family

In France compulsory education only starts at age six, but nursery schools (“écoles maternelles”) take children aged three. From 6 to 11 is primary school (“école primaire”), where learning is more structured. Then you have lower secondary (“college”), from 11 to 15, and finally a “lycee” from 15 to 18 if the child is suited to further education.

When Stuart and Sarah Hudson moved from Birmingham to St Gervais in the Alps they brought their three-year old, Isabelle, with them. “She found it quite hard at first,” says Stuart, who runs a business there. “Isabelle’s confidence was very low because she didn’t speak French well – but the école maternelle was wonderfully supportive. The fact that the lessons were quite formal and structured actually helped her adjust. Now six, she loves school activities such as ice-skating, ice-dancing and rock-climbing.”

Differences between the English and French systems seem to be high on the list of things that expat children relish about being at school in France. Whilst Freddy Hawkins (now 14) loves the lack of uniforms and going to school on the bus, Fenella (now 20) liked having Wednesday afternoons off (for sporting activities). Harriet (now 18) picks out the nice lunches. “In France no one brings sandwiches,” reports Didi. “Instead, they have four-course lunches. And in collège the children kiss each other and their teachers as a greeting. It gives them a refreshing social confidence in dealing with adults.”

This translates into a greater respect between teachers and pupils, reports Tilly Lawes, aged 15. She has attended Caraman school in the Haute-Garonne since her parents moved to the area from Sussex to run gîtes in Beauville. “Coming from an English school, I noticed that the teachers in France are respected by the students. My parents told me that English schools used to be like this 20 years ago,” she says. “The school days are longer and you are made to work harder.” Her sister Maddie, aged 17, at Revel school, alludes to another big difference between the two systems: there’s no stigma attached to re-taking a year. “It’s not abnormal to do this. You can get better grades,” she says of the system known as ‘doubling’.