As with any new place, negotiating your way round the local education system can be perplexing, frustrating and, most fundamentally, lead to many sleepless nights as you ponder what is best for you and your child/children. Finding a school that you feel happy with is pivotal to your decision to change your life and move somewhere new, and Paris is no different.
A crowded and varied market
Paris has more than its fair share of socio-demographic problems, and these, coupled with years of government cutbacks, are making state schools not very nice places to be. For a surprisingly high number of parents, private schooling is the answer: in the Ile de France, an estimated 17% of children are educated privately, compared to about 7% across the UK. Not that we have more rich people here: thanks to government contributions, the private sector’s promises of smaller classes, smarter facilities and better standards all round can be delivered at surprisingly affordable prices.
Of course the schools we are concerned with, those catering to English-speaking families, are but a sub-set of this sector, but quite a large one nonetheless. On the demand side you have not only the huge clusters of anglophone (and partially-anglophone) expats living here, but also the swelling ranks of well-travelled French families keen to give their children all the advantages of a second language.
And since in France just about anyone can open a private school, you find all manner of organisations and individuals rushing in on the supply side. Some are experienced educators with the noblest of motives, others are much more commercially-minded and won’t necessarily have an academic background.
All this helps explain both the sheer number of international schools out there, as well as the huge variation in standards. It hardly helps that oversight for some schools is minimal to say the least. We will address questions of educational standards later, but your first task, with more than 50 prospects to choose from, will be to draw up a shortlist of target schools.
This can be quickly done once you’ve decided which type of school will best suit your child. There are four main categories:
I. International Schools
These faithfully follow the curriculum of your home country, or, alternatively, offer the IB. Teaching language, core subjects, exams, and (if facilities allow) most extra-curriculars, are all very much as you would get back home. At the same time, certain elements of French language and culture are emphasised so that your child will be fast-tracked in this area, if desirable and possible. Typical examples might be sitting GCSEs, AS or A levels earlier than usual, in French language and/or literature.
From an academic viewpoint this transition may seem easiest on your child, but he will still face certain adjustments: his classmates may come from a spread of cultures, and not all of them will have English as a first language. For a handle on the linguistic mix, get an idea of the numbers of children receiving ESL support.
These schools are not subsidised by the French government, nor are they inspected by them (other than for periodic, and it turns out sometimes quite cursory, health and safety checks). The best ones are inspected by bodies such as COBIS, and make their findings available to parents.
These come in three guises… opt for France's unique combinations of state-plus-private, or go entirely private.
Students in bilingual schools are prepared for variations on the French Bac called “Option Internationale” or “Mention Européenne”, which are examined in two languages.
Quite apart from the obvious advantage of producing often highly-cultured, bilingual students, these schools are prized by many for the way the French learning style (with its emphasis on rigour, structure, retention of information) combines nicely with and balances out the more creative and holistic Anglo-Saxon approach.
In sous-contrat schools the French Ministry of Education keeps tabs on what’s going on in the French teachers’ classrooms only, while hors-contrat schools are not inspected other than for basic health and safety standards.
IIa Bilingual: Sections Internationales
These are basically French state schools, following largely the French National Curriculum, but with some additional subjects, taught in English (usually language, literature, and history/geography), and following a specially adapted version of the curriculum from back home (UK or US). The English-led part of the programme is usually fee-paying.
New arrivals usually follow a special ‘adaptation’ programme of study during their first year, designed to bring them quickly up the curve in French language. A child can start in Section Internationale from as early as primary school, or feed into one (ideally by 6ème) from either a pure French school or a bilingual one. Children will sit a combination of the French Brevet with some GCSEs or equivalent, going through to sit the prestigious OIB (either US or British option).
These highly-regarded schools particularly suit motivated, academic students who are close enough to bilingual (or who start young enough to become fully up to speed in time for the final baccalauréat). The weighting of the exam papers in the OIB tends to favour bilingual students who are slightly English-dominant.
Fees will be very low, covering just the English/American part of the programme; the remainder is paid by the French state.
Remember that as state schools, the primaire and collège levels are bound to accept all students from their catchment areas… which means that you will probably get the odd disruptive element in classrooms and playground. At Lycée level, these schools are selective and all the students are clever and work hard.
Section Internationale schools are inspected by the relevant French education authority as to the delivery of the French portion of the curriculum, and for the international portion, by either CIE (UK) or the College Board (US).
IIb. Bilingual: Sections Européennes
Not quite bilingual, your typical Section Internationale person will be quick to point out... but very nearly so, and becoming more and more popular. A few schools, some of them very prestigious and progressive in their approach, offer Sections Européennes (usually alongside Langues Orientales, hence the acronym SELO). "European" students can choose between German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian and English streams. They study for the mainstream French bac with just one non-linguistic subject (for example, history-geography, biology or maths) examined in their chosen language. A good performance in the assessments and final exams earns you a bac with "mention européenne", opening doors to many good universities abroad... and if you're staying in France, it's a sure ticket into the classes préparatoires, giving students a good stab at the Grandes Ecoles or Sciences Po.
IIc. Bilingual: Private
Think of these as private versions of Sections Internationales schools. Often partly subsidised by the French government, although some choose to remain hors-contrat in order to preserve complete autonomy of teaching programmes and methods. These schools are popular with well-off French families with international aspirations, so the mix of nationalities in these schools may lean more towards the French than you might imagine. On the one hand this may bring your child quickly up-to-speed in French (depending on how ‘segregated’ the playground feels…), on the other hand, if there is no proper streaming, it could slow things down a little in the English-led lessons.
Don’t expect vast premises and lush facilities to go with the high fees. Even the sous-contrat schools receive very little from the government (usually just the French teachers’ salaries), so these schools tend to run on tight budgets.
Our roundup of schools for expats includes a handful of establishments offering what you might call "near-bilingual" education. These are French schools where children prepare the straight French bac, with the added option of studying for (and sitting) extra exams in English.
The English-language exam most usually offered is the Cambridge First Certificate in English (FCE)*. Sometimes the odd GCSE will feature.
Notre Dame in St Germain is one such school, and it is so highly regarded, its particular formula so evidently successful, that it would be wrong to leave it out, and wrong to gloss over this category of school.
French-plus is a very good option for bilingual, French-dominant kids. It was ostensibly created for French families returning from anglophone postings. Nonetheless, there are examples of anglophone or bi-cultural children, very strong in French, doing extremely well in this system. The proviso being, of course, that they respond well to the French teaching style (please refer to "The French System: In All Its Gloire").
* FCE is a good measure of a student's proficiency in written and spoken English at an upper-intermiediate level. Along with good bac results, it helps open the door to a fair number of universities in the UK for candidates whose level of English would otherwise be in question.
Some private schools combine international programmes (for example, A levels and/or IB) with the French National Curriculum and perhaps also the OIB. Some also throw in a bit of what we're calling "French-plus". Fees will probably be high for the international programmes, and lower for the programmes delivered wholly or partly by French Education Nationale teachers.
The obvious advantage here is the possibility, should the need arise, of switching from one curriculum to another without having to change schools. The main question for parents though, is how well these schools are able to cater to the diversity of needs they are trying to meet. In short, such schools might be solid in their delivery of one programme and really quite shaky in another. Ask which programme has been in place longest -- this is the one that will mostly underlie the school’s reputation. Is there a strong head in place bringing all the departments together and divvying resources fairly between them, or are all the talented teachers siphoned off into the most lucrative programme? Are the best facilities accessible to all?... practically speaking that is, and not just on paper?
Another note of caution for such schools concerns their stick-ability. Some are quick to take up new programmes based on perceived demand, only to abandon them fairly sharpish if take-up proves to be poor, or if it looks as if the first cohort of students are not going to make the grade. This can rather leave you in the lurch if you are half way through a particular programme.
Quality checks in a captive market
Expat families are loathe to switch schools mid-posting. For one thing, by the time you realise a school is not right for your child, your next post may be just around the corner... and you really don't want two school moves in close succession. Secondly, if you live in the suburbs, a new school may mean another 40 minutes commute. It’s easy to feel like a captive customer, and if you'll allow one more comparison with restaurants, it's often when they know they've "got you" that some cafeterias serve up the most inedible rubbish (we're remembering some terrible meals in zoos and amusement parks).
Luckily for us, the best schools, rather than seeing an opportunity to over-charge and under-deliver, feel a moral duty to remain irreproachable in everything they do.
Obviously though, not all schools are this honourable. Looking for the low-down on prospective schools, whether by asking around or by trawling the net, has driven many a devoted parent to distraction. Expat families being so mobile, the collective memory of the current parent body only goes back so far… plus, expectations are so diverse -- what on earth to make of the school roundly denounced by some and praised to the sky by others?
Your first stop is our “schools expats consider” article: it gives the consensus view on the major schools around here. Schools sporting the GSGI banner, as long as they fit your main requirements, are a very good bet. Beyond that, you should also quiz schools about the following:
Very good signs
It should give immediate comfort if a school has:
- Fee-paying agreements with large multi-national companies (and discounted fees for those paying out of their own pockets) -- this school is a proven factor in attracting high-flying employees to Paris posts.
- A thriving parent’s association with statutes and AGM minutes you can consult -- this school cultivates the parent/school partnership and works at building a strong community.
- A solid board of governors with published meeting minutes -- so necessary for checks and balances, addressing concerns.
- Published inspection reports eg COBIS -- for impartial, expert, outside validation.
No one item condemns a school, but more than a few ticks and you should be asking questions or looking elsewhere:
- No properly constituted parents’ association with 1901 charitable status: most schools are happy to accept all the free labour and donations their talented, time-rich parents can offer. So when heads make it difficult for a proper parents' association to exist, you have to wonder why. For one thing, it's a legally questionable stance in any school offering a French cursus (where parent and student representation is a vital part of the stytem). More importantly perhaps, in terms of the parent/school relationship, it is a sign of underlying tension that is in itself likely to make things worse... Ask some pointed questions of the school, then make sure you speak to a good cross-section of parents to get to the bottom of what's going on.
- No board of governors: the sure sign of a head used to running things his own way
- Profit-making school where head = proprietor: profitability will often clash with the children's interests -- how can this set-up be healthy?
- Head rarely at the school: what exactly is this?
- French boarders (many French families send unruly kids away as a last resort!): disruptive students?
State school (maternelle, primaire, collège) bordering on rough neighbourhoods: likelihood of disruptive students
French curriculum hors-contrat (unless you are looking for a particular teaching style): it is hard to switch out of these schools if staying in France.
The above pointers should be enough to start you on the right track. If you haven't already read "Best Schools in Paris, France Considered by Expats", take a peek now.
And for a very good background on the French educational system, check out "The French System: In All Its Gloire", especially if you are interested in a bilingual school.