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French school or not French School – it’s a big question

This is Ros Eddies she is our new writer!!! Thanks Ros

 

When we decided to move to France it was only intended to be for a year, one of those mid-life crisis things that seem a better idea than buying a 2-seater sports car when you have 3 kids. We obviously had to do lots of planning and get our finances straight, but the thing that scared me most was putting my children into a school where they wouldn’t understand a single thing. As a British primary school teacher, I was very aware of the many Polish children who I had taught who didn’t speak any English and who had not actually spoken for 6 months.

I was determined that my children would attend an international school so that they could learn French whilst wrapped in cotton wool. The school we chose had a 50/50 system: they taught a week in English, then a week in French. After 3 months at this school, it became clear it just wasn’t working for my children. They were incredibly unhappy. During English week the level of English was far too low and so they became bored and restless. Then during French week, the level of French was far too high and so they spent a week staring at the sky. They struggled with friendships and couldn’t do the homework, so got into trouble with the teachers. We soon discovered that it really was a school to teach French children English, and our children were considered a learning tool for the teachers. There was minimal teaching at their French level, although they did pick up some through sitting in class for a year.

Towards the end of our year in France, we realized that it just wasn’t long enough to really get to grips with the country. We were just about settling in, finding our way about and weren’t ready to throw in the towel and so we decided to extend the experience. That also meant making some grown-up decisions about our children’s education.

Deciding to stay was the catalyst for moving the children to the local school. The village school had never taught English children and the teachers were inevitably nervous. However, they could not have been more caring and kind. They took our children under their wings and the teachers went out of their way to adjust their teaching activities to suit our children. Now they go to school as happily as they ever did in the UK.

It definitely took a while for them to settle, but after a month or so they were talking simply with friends in the playground and after 3 months were able to converse more fully with the teacher in class. Now after 3 years they sound French. (Infer from that that we have stayed, survived the official house buying endurance test as well as the tests for registering our UK car and getting a social security number… as well as numerous others too many to mention.. all to be written about given time. We are currently undergoing the test for “finding a reasonably priced car mechanic” but the house renovation trial has blown all others out of the water!)

Back to the kid’s education…
Often when we’re out and about we have had to explain to locals that our children aren’t being rude, but that they actually don’t understand everything that they’re saying, because they’re not French kids. There is usually a short shocked reaction and most then think that they have incredible French accents. When we are in the UK my youngest child likes to play jokes by speaking English with a strong French accent and then quickly switch to her very northern English accent, which always raises a laugh… and when in France she initially speaks English and then answers superbly in French and people cannot believe how easily she changes from one to the other… It really confuses people but she loves the fact that she can be different people whenever she chooses.
One interesting thing is that the children have some gaps in their English; despite speaking only English in the home, regular trips back, reading in English and watching British tv, there are several words they only know in French and so naturally slot them into their English sentences.

So after all my deep-seated concerns about my children fitting in and missing out because of the language barrier, it turns out it was only a barrier in my mind. The children have adapted wonderfully.

The year in the International School, which I thought would be a soft landing for them, actually impeded their language development. Sure, the initial months in the local village school were really hard work and the children were incredibly tired, but the “chuck ’em in at the deep end” approach has ended with the children metaphorically learning to swim. They have been totally accepted into village life by the French children here. They are supported by friends who aren’t bothered by their British-ness and have all but forgotten that they are British, and certainly, don’t judge them for their British start in life. Perhaps these really were just my parental hang-ups.

Last week I helped out at school and a little boy spent ten minutes staring at me very strangely. When I asked him why he said: “I’ve never met an English person before”. When I replied that of course, he had, as he was in the same class as my daughter, his reply was “oh, I didn’t know she was English.”

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