When my daughter began maternelle (pre-school & kindergarden), I wanted to know where the best schools where. During my research online, I found that most information pointed out that all schools are equal in France. They teach the same material and receive equal funding from the government, so no matter if the school is in a neighborhood of poverty or excess, kids all have an equal opportunity to learn. There are no standardized tests or rankings to let parents know which schools perform better than others, as all schools should be performing the same.
I was comforted by this during my daughter’s first year of maternelle at 3 years old. We were happy with our daughter’s maîtresse (teacher) and her frequent progress reports, so we never felt the need to look around at other schools. After moving from Normandy to Provence, I found her next school to be much different. The differences ranged from the items the school provided for kids, progress reports, and class performances for parents. Because of the appearance of the recently built school and our impression of the director after our meeting, we felt reassured. We met the maître for our daughter’s class (only one class for all kids aged 3 to 5) and were a little unsure about him. He rushed our meeting (never even sat down) and didn’t give our daughter any acknowledgement (she might as well not have been there). Since it was the end of the day and the last day of school before vacation, we gave him the benefit of the doubt that he needed to be somewhere.
After two months at the new school, we wanted to transferred our daughter to the private school 25 minutes away. The main reason being that we were not confident with how the class was run. The maître was unapproachable and it was obvious that he was not passionate about his job. It was just a job. He arrived on time, and left as soon as possible. He hid from parents to avoid questions, and always gave the appearance of being overworked. When asked if our daughter made any friends, he responded “I don’t know, I don’t pay attention to her.” If I had any questions about her progress, I was directed to the assistant – it appeared that she was responsible for the younger kids and he only took care of the older kids. I didn’t like that my daughter was not being taught by the person who was trained to teach (even though now after 1.5 years, I see how valuable she really is). Our daughter was shy and obedient, one that can easily slip into the shadow. I wanted to make sure that she was being challenged, not ignored if she knew what to do. I felt she would not be challenged at this school, and wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be lost in the crowd. The private school offered smaller class sizes, and classes are composed of students in her section (not mixed together like that this school).
The quality of teachers is one factor that sets schools apart in France. We often forget that no two teachers are equal, and not all schools are full of passionate educators. Of course, there are some bad teachers at good schools too. Progress reports, activities, and events are usually at the discretion of the teacher – anything above and beyond the curriculum. Teachers who are passionate, usually go beyond the curriculum, while those who teach as a job just do what is required. Also, schools have different expectations of their teachers. For instance, the teachers at the school in Normandy were expected to prepare their students for two shows for parents per year, plus take their classes on a parade during the school day for Carnaval. The school in Provence had their first show at the end of the year last year, of which the maître didn’t even attend, and Carnaval was done on the weekend with a very low turnout.
We couldn’t get our daughter transferred last year, as it’s impossible to do unless you move, so we had to stick it out. We continued at the school this year because the maître was replaced, our daughter was comfortable there, and we liked that our 3 year old son would be in the same class as his 5 year old sister. She’s at an age where I think that as long as she’s comfortable and learning at a reasonable pace, there’s no need to disrupt her life to commute to another school far away. We do lots of activities at home to supplement their education (thank you, Pinterest!).
Before deciding which area to move to, we first researched all the schools within the vicinity. We looked all around Alpes-de-Haute-Provence before deciding to stick to the nearby area of Manosque. While Marseille had better schools, the quality of life is important to us. We don’t like life in the big city and being around nature is important to us, so we decided to stay around here (1 hr north of Marseille). There is a public International School and a highly regarded private school, so those would be our backups if the school near our house does not fit our kids needs. The International School has high demand and limited space, in fact, there are no openings for our kids grades for next year (we checked the list the day it was made public). For the private school, you need to register in October in order to get in the following year.
We are moving again and visited the school in our new village. The director informed us that this school received more funding from the mairie (mayor) than is typical. This really got me to thinking, this may be the ultimate reason why not all schools in France are on the same level. Schools are ultimately different by the amount of financing by the local mairie AND fundraising done by the parent association. This is how the school in Normandy was able to provide more to the students, and why this school our kids would be going to had such an array of equipment. The school itself looked older, but it had an equipped gym and lots of goodies for the kids. In addition, they do at least 5 outings a year! While the director doesn’t feel putting on shows is important for the kids, he does an open house at the end of the year for kids to show their parents all that they have done.
We’ve put much energy and research into deciding where our kids will go to school next year. We chose this school not only because we think it will offer a quality education, but also because of the convenience factor. Both the maternelle and elementary schools are within 5 minutes walk from our house. We also have a two backup schools in case we find the local schools don’t satisfy our kids needs, even though we are going in with high hopes we’ll love these schools. I was fortunate to be raised in an area with excellent public schools and I want the same opportunities for my kids over here. I was able to graduate high school with two years of university already completed. This allowed me to get an MBA right before my 21st birthday. My kids may not have the same drive, but I want the options to be there for them.
There’s not much information about individual schools online, so you have to pull information from may different sources in order to have a clear picture. I’ll post tips for you soon about how you can figure out which school in your area is the best choice for your child. Just keep in mind while technically all public schools in France offer the same program, not all schools are created equal. Extra funding can be provided by the mairie and the parent association, which can bring more equipment, outings, and activities to supplement the kids learning experience. Also, it’s the teachers that make a school great! You can have involved, excellent educators in poorly funded schools that can provide your child with a better learning experience than a school with lots of money but educators who are disconnected from it’s students.