In France, compulsory schooling starts at the age of six. Many parents though, start sending their toddlers to “maternelle” — the French version of playgroup, nursery and kindergarten — when they are three years old.
I am a Singaporean who has been living in Europe for over a decade. My eldest child attends school in Paris, where we are living now. I see differences in her educational experience compared to mine when I was growing up. Some of these differences, I love. Here’s why.
1. School is Free
School is free for every child, as long as he or she is residing in France. The only other condition for a toddler to be accepted is that he/she has to be potty-trained.
Usually, a “maternelle” is affiliated to a primary school. Children from the “maternelle” will automatically be placed in that primary school and do not have to re-register. Both are located in the same building, making drop-off and pick-up easy for parents who have children in different age groups.
“We accept tiny tots who have working parents and can’t pick the kids up in the afternoon. They play and learn in the morning and rest (sleep) in the afternoon for about 1.5 hours,” says Madame Brigitte Leblic, the principal of a “maternelle” school. These tots are dismissed the same time as the older ones.
Madame Leblic’s school accommodates up to 30 ‘sleeping beds’ (mattresses placed on the floor) in two rooms. There is a teacher in charge of the tots during their nap.
2. Hands-On Learning is Encouraged
The main aim of “maternelle” is to encourage oral expression and integration. Activities include art and craft, games, music and story-telling, even cake baking. In the last year of “maternelle”, curriculum activities are geared towards preparing the children for primary school.
Compared to a Singaporean preschool, the “maternelle” may seem lacking. When my daughter (now 10) was first enrolled in “maternelle” at age five, she did more singing and drawing than anything else.
We used to come back to Singapore for long periods, and I would register her for classes at a local kindergarten for a term (three months) each time because I wanted her to experience the Asian (learning) culture. But the workload here is heavier and the pace was too fast for her. She would cry each morning when I sent her to school as she could not keep up.
However, the hands-on approach in France has helped developed her artistic side very well. She is creative in inventing her masterpieces and she takes pride in her work. Doing presentations have boosted her self-confidence and vocal abilities.
3. Children go to the School Closest to Home
In France, a child attends Primary 1 the year he turns six. Primary education goes on for five years. France has public and private schools. The former is free and more popular.
Kids are allocated to a near their residential address. Usually the school is within five to 10 minutes walking distance of home. As majority of the kids in the neighbourhood attend the same school, everyone knows each other. Since it’s a small community where I live (each level has two to three classes only), all the teachers (including the Principal) know every student. There is great rapport between teachers, students, and parents, and it’s a really close-knit community.
Children attend school for about 31 hours a week. Typical school hours are from 8.30am-3.30pm (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) with a lunchbreak of approximately of 1.5 hours. Wednesday is a half day, with school finishing at 11.30am. In some towns, Wednesday schooling is done on Saturday, leaving every Wednesday a free day.
During the lunchbreak, kids have the option of eating at the canteen (chargeable) or going home to eat. The kids who eat at the canteen follow a menu prepared by the “la mairie” (the town council).
The daily menu is posted on the school’s main notice board so that parents know what their kids are eating at school. No home-made meals or outside foods are allowed. A typical daily lunch menu includes a three-course meal with a salad as a starter, a main dish of pasta, rice with meat or fish and vegetables or “couscous” (a meal of semolina covered with a traditional sauce of chicken or meat and legumes) and desserts like yoghurt, fruits or cheese.
Public vs Private School
Private schools function similarly to public ones except that the kids do not go back home for lunch. However, private school students are allowed to bring home-cooked food. By sending the kids to private schools, parents have the freedom to choose their preferred school. Even then, according to statistics, fewer than 20 per cent of French students attend private schools.
Private schools tend to be further from residential areas. Since private schools do not provide transportation, parents have to send and pick-up their children or pay someone to do the job. Driving through the infamous Parisian traffic jam daily is no joke. Children have to get up very early each day to reach school on time. Despite the hassles and the fact that these private schools are not cheap, some parents still choose to send their kids there.
One of them is Madam Hajer, whose three children attend two different private schools. She feels that children who attend private schools receive individual attention, and that the relationship between the teachers and students is closer.
“The standard of private schools is also higher than public ones, and children who attend private schools are more well-behaved,” she remarks. Hajer pays almost 4000€ (approximately S$6,438) per year in private school fees for her two children.
4. Children get a stationery & books budget
In some regions, stationery is given out free at the start of the the first day of school. In Noisy le Grand, a Parisian suburb, the town council sets aside a book and stationery budget of 50€ for every student each year. On the first day of school, students come to school with an empty bag and pencil case and go back home in the afternoon with a bag full of stationery and books. The textbooks are on loan on a yearly basis and are returned at the end of the year.
For children whose schools do not provide such a service, there’s the ARS. This is the “allocation de rentrer scolaire”, a sum of about 360€ to 400€ that is given out each year to families with school-going kids between the ages of six and 18 years. The amount given varies depending on the family’s income.
5. Children enjoy stress-free learning
Main subjects like French, Maths, Science, History, and Geography are taught in both public and private schools. Private religious schools include religious studies in their curriculum. Some schools may introduce English as early as in Primary 1 while others may delay the learning of the language to another couple of years later.
“Maternelle” and primary school education in France is rather stress-free, I’d say. The French system encourages hands-on learning and engages in a balanced system between classroom settings and nature and discovery.
At the end of the primary school education, there is no national exam like the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination). Entering secondary school (“collège”, in French) is simple and straight forward. If the student chooses to continue studying in a government secondary school, the “la mairie” will choose the school for him based on his residential address.
Because there is no class ranking at the end of the year, students are less pressured to perform extraordinarily. Tuition is not popular here. There is a downside of course, in terms of academic ability. My daughter is now in her final year of primary school education (equivalent to P6 in Singapore). We bought some assessment books and past exam papers for her level when we were last back in Singapore and yes, she could not do them. The questions were just too complex for her.
6. Extra-curricular lessons are free
Extracurricular activities after school are optional. Currently my daughter is going through a programme called “Les Petits Curieux” (loosely translated as “The Curious Minds”) after school hours. In this programme, children learn a new skill every six to seven weeks. She is now learning Judo, and will move on to a music class and then a cooking class. This is a year-long programme that was introduced by “la mairie” and which is fully sponsored by them. The sessions start after school and are conducted by professionals.
Secondary school lasts four years. In general, students start their secondary education at the age of 11. Latin and the learning of a third language (usually Spanish or German) are introduced at secondary level. Students also Physical Education every week.
After completing secondary education, children proceed to the “Lycee” – French for college. Students attend three years of college and sit for the Baccalauréat (or the “bac” for short), a national exam.
Is it all Good?
In general, I like the easy-going style of the French education system but there are certain things that I find disheartening, like the no-uniform policy. I have seen kids who go to school with highlighted hair, and school boys with pierced ears. And this is just in primary school. The minute they enter secondary school or college, they look like rock stars!
There are also no national anthem or pledge-taking ceremonies each morning. I feel that with these two rituals missing, kids here lack patriotism and nationalism.
At times, I will sit down with my daughter and reminisce about the days when I was a student in Singapore. Ironically, she is envious when I tell her about what I did. She finds sports days, the uniform and big compunds very appealing.
Here, while I do love most aspects of the French education system, I sometimes feel that the schools look tiny, closed and lack warmth. Perhaps it’s just a matter of the grass being greener on the other side?