Sending kids to school in France wasn’t quite how writer Gillian Harvey expected it to be when she first moved to the Limousin from the UK. Ten years later, and with five children now in the French school system, Gilian shares her expertise…
As a former teacher, I thought I was pretty clued-up when it came to all things educational. But when my first child, Lily (then 3) started school in France back in 2012, I realised that many things differ from the UK – and probably from many other countries too.
In the UK, it’s common for schools to offer the option of packed lunch or school dinners for parents to choose from. However, here packed lunches aren’t really a ‘thing.’ Instead, we have the option of sending kids to eat in the canteen or picking them up for lunch at home.
The good news is, the menu is pretty amazing. Each day our children are treated to a three course, dietitian approved meals with a set amount of local produce in the mix. And there’s not a turkey twizzler in sight – Moules frites or butternut squash soup anyone? Sometimes I read the menu and consider trying to pose as an oversized pupil to dine with the kids rather than eat the dried-up sandwich I have at home.
Dinners aren’t cheap (especially with 5), but although they can cost up to around €4 a head in my commune, they are means-tested, meaning that families who have less pay less, which can only be a good thing.
One of the biggest shocks on sending the kids to school has been having to have insurance to cover them. What on earth could such insurance be for? I wondered. Flooding, fire or theft? Libel, when they call out the playground bully? Perhaps it protects them against disappointing exam results (you may be entitled to compensation).
School insurance covers third party liability for your child, meaning if they destroy someone else’s coat in a playground brawl, you’re covered. To me, at first, it did seem a little excessive – and I know few people who’ve actually made a claim. That said, depending on your policy, you can get cover for tuition if your child is hurt, or some recompense if your child has an accident, which sounds quite sensible.
Like all insurance, you only really know the value of having it when you need to claim. But as the policies tend to be fairly low cost (some are around €20 a year, although as with most things, the sky’s the limit if you want cover for any eventuality), it’s become just another admin job to sort out at the start of the year.
Ever been called a swot or a boffin? Teacher’s pet? When I went to school as a pupil, I learned to hide my aptitude for some subjects to keep myself out of the bully radar. But in France, or at least in my part of Limousin, it seems that you can be top of the class without being bottom of the social pecking-order.
But like all good things, there is a flip side. In my opinion the amount of grading and testing that goes on once kids hit college is rather excessive. Marks come home almost every week, and every pupil is painfully aware of their average grade.
Testing has definitely increased in the UK since I’ve moved, so its hard to make a comparison. But in my mind, education is not just about numbers on a spreadsheet, but about encouraging young minds to be inquisitive, to explore and to develop a love of learning that will last a lifetime.
I have a love-hate relationship with uniform. As a teacher, in the UK, I saw it as an important part of school life. It helped, I felt, to create a sense of togetherness within a school and levelled the playing field, meaning children who couldn’t afford designer clothes wouldn’t be bullied for their outfit choices.
Here, I changed my tune. I enjoyed seeing my children select their own clothes and go to school expressing their individuality. And I still find it wonderful to see the riot of colour in the primary school playground at recreation.
But now my eldest is at college, the pressure is different. Like all teens, she’s conscious of what she wears, meaning mornings can be traumatic if the right t-shirt has not yet come out of the wash.
On balance, I think I’d quite like the kids to have to wear a uniform, if only to save on the angst of early morning fashion choices.
Overall, I’m pleased with the school system here. Like all educational systems it has its faults. But certainly in my corner of Limousin, I feel my children are well taught and supported. Low population means class sizes here are small, and the schools are very much part of the local community.
And while you might have to fork out for insurance, the dinners are to die for.
Vive la différence!
Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer and author living in Limousin, France, with her husband and five children.