cherry tree to danceAs part of the U.S. gets hit by snowstorms and Australians start thinking about winter, here’s a ray of hope: some pretty spring pictures. Since there isn’t much to say about them beyond their captions, today you get completely random pictures while I write about a topic for which I don’t have photos: the quirks (at least in my eyes) of French elementary school.

In France, universities appeared before primary schools: The University of Paris opened in 1160 and the one of the world’s first medical schools opened in 1181 down the road from us in Montpellier. It wasn’t until 1698 that Louis XIV ordered French children to attend school until they were 14.

old buildings
Already getting green

I won’t write about secondary education until I have the value of hindsight. But for the lower grades here are things that blew my mind.

orchard blooms 1
Taking this photo, I sensed somebody behind me and turned around to see:

horsesThey start young–two years old, as long as they are potty trained (propre–clean). It’s preschool, with an emphasis on learning to be civilized, and it’s free. And it’s all day. I thought, how dreadful, but my kid could not wait to get in there, and loved being there all day. As one mother told me, “They get to do all the messy things you don’t want them doing at home” like painting and playing with clay.

The government tries to have a preschool and primary school in each village, close to home. For small villages, that means combined classes. In our village, each classroom held two grades. In tiny villages, a single teacher might hold down the fort with kids ages two to 11, like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

chatonsIn our village, about half the kids go home for lunch, and the lunch break is two hours long. That means kids get out of school around 5 p.m., which seems so late. But it’s good for working parents; their kids can eat at the cafeteria. Before and after class, there is also government-subsidized and -organized daycare, often in the school building or an adjacent one (no transportation issues). Tariffs for the parents’ share are based on hours spent in daycare, family income and number of kids, and range from €5 to €13 a day around here.

They learn more than manners at the maternelle, or preschool. Our kid’s teacher in grand section (five-year-olds, like kindergarten), or GS, had the kids make a “passport” and they spent the year filling it in with different countries: they learned about counting and colors and the alphabet via a trip around the world. They were read stories from different countries, cooked and tasted foreign foods, sang songs from other countries, built huts…it was wonderful. One day when we were in Carcassonne, our kid, still in GS, spied a black man and got all excited. “Do you think he’s from Africa? Which country? There’s Cameroon. And Congo. And Senegal. And Côte d’Ivoire. And a lot of others. I wonder whether he likes winter here. And the food….” On and on it went. Not fear of “the other” but interest, curiosity and excitement. (Our little village isn’t exactly diverse.)

white blooms
Snowy white blossoms

The grades are not 1, 2, 3, etc. There are, in typical French fashion, a bunch of acronyms instead: The two-year-olds are in TPS for très petite section (very small section), followed by PS, or petite section, then MS, or moyenne section (medium section), and GS. How wonderful to be grand–big–when you are just five years old.

It gets more confusing as you climb through the grades. First grade is CP, for cours préparatoire. This is where they learn to read. Second and third grades are CE1 and CE2, for cours élémentaire 1 and 2, the idea being that the second round is a revision and deepening of the first. Fourth and fifth grades are CM1 and CM2, for cours moyen 1 and 2.  Then they go off to middle school, called collège, where sixth grade is sixième–6thbut seventh grade is cinquième–5th–and so on through lycée, or high school. All these mental gymnastics now can’t help but ward off dementia in my old age.

ducksHere’s what really shocked me: already in maternelle, they went on overnight–TWO straight nights–field trips. The first one was to the beach (I thought: are the teachers out of their minds? A pack of preschoolers by open water??? Not to mention keeping them slathered with sun block and hats on). The next year they went sledding in the mountains.

In CP and a few other years, they went cross-country skiing, also in the Pyrénées. (This sounds illogical, but there is no snow here unless you go up in altitude; around Carcassonne, this winter’s snow arrived between 7 and 8 a.m. two Saturdays ago; by 8:30 it had melted.)

like snow
A vineyard enveloped not in snow but weeds. Pretty anyway!

In CE1 or CE2, I forget now, they went rock climbing, with ropes and helmets and everything. In CM1 or CM2, they went spelunking, not just to the pretty cave that has nice paths for tourist visits but also to caves that are wild and unlit (everybody had a helmet with a lamp), where a false step in a dark corner could send one plummeting in a gaping hole to the middle of the Earth. And no cell phone service.

All I can say is that when I was in elementary school, one year we went to the natural history museum and another we went to a pasta factory. There was none of this adventure stuff, and no overnights.

pruning vines
Pruning the grape vines. They stopped and blew me kisses when I stopped taking photos.

As PTA member/room mother, I got to accompany many of my kid’s class outings. The last night would usually involve a boum–a loud dance party–and the kids would get to stay up late. By design!

On the cross-country ski trip, we stayed in a dormitory, girls on one floor, boys on the other. Dinner was in a big cafeteria. I figured we parents would have to keep an eye on things. Far from it! The kids were at their own tables, and the cafeteria ladies set out big dishes at each table; the kids were expected to serve each other–no help from the cafeteria ladies nor the parents. This should not have been so surprising; it’s how the school cafeteria operates. The parents, meanwhile, were at a separate table on the far side of the room (not in peace because two classes of kids–about 50 in all–create a deafening noise even when well-behaved), furnished with carafes of wine. The meal, just like at school or at any restaurant, had a starter, main course, cheese, dessert, and for the adults, coffee–I forgot the exact menu, because it’s been years.

Can you make out the snow-covered Pyrénées?
field with rows
The same field as above (different angle), a few days later, already growing.

Unforgettable, though, was when one of the dads took a sip of the wine, grimaced, and left. He returned with a jerry can of his own wine; he’s a winegrower and never leaves home without a supply of reliably good stuff, I guess. I could not imagine this scenario playing out in the U.S., not even in Napa Valley.

Is it just that the school I attended was bare bones and that such activities were wild and crazy back in the ’60s and ’70s? Do all schools have field trips like this nowadays? I suspect that the French, and perhaps other Europeans, are far more laissez-faire about letting their kids experiment with independence. They don’t do helicopter parenting; it’s more like autopilot, taking control only when there’s a crisis. It seems to work OK.




25 thoughts on “Spring and School in France

  1. No, there are precious few school trips these days, and if there is one, the first thing parents receive is a permission slip that state (in totally legal terms) that the teacher/school/school bus/facility etc. are in no way responsible for any problems, accidents, etc. etc. etc. Re: helicopter parenting, it is alive and well in America! My sister was an executive in a major corporation, she told me parents would call if their kid did not get a job (these are young men and women in their 20’s or older!) to find out why. Oy vey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, we have to fill out a form, too, and give the primary doctor and hospital and all that. And an emergency phone number. That’s just best practice.
      Re the calls to your sister, that’s just incredible!


  2. When home in le Cantal, my apartment is above l’école maternelle. I moved in September 2013 and I have got to know many of the parents and of course the teacher (who is assisted each year by a fledging teacher doing their intern year). The thing that stands out is how happy the children so clearly are. Out hiking in Vassieux on Saturday we arrived back in the village and there were two mini-buses of children on an away weekend in the Vercors – they had been skiing. They were up from the Vaucluse and ranged, I think from 6-9 in age. My favourite moment as I was changing out of my hiking boots was a little girl spotting my dog and squealing with delight ‘le petit mignon’ (this happens often) and her friend shouting ‘ne bouge pas …. le parking est plein de caca de cheval. Which it was! But it was the confidence and delight of these little children that struck me. I remember going ‘camping’ for the day on Bucklebury common at age 10 but that was about the size of it at my English school …. my husband reports that when he moved here in 1980 with his stepson aged 5 it was just the same. I loved your snapshot of school and I’m happy that it seems to be here to stay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a sweet example. One teacher told me that some of the families wouldn’t be able to afford to take their kids to the beach or to the mountains. The government offers a lot of assistance to lower-paid workers, and minimum wage isn’t bad, but there still are poor people. And the kids would never know the sea or snow despite living so close, unless they had these trips.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The French have got a lot of things right.
    School trips in UK are expensive, boring and chock full of health and safety issues/requirements.
    Apparently teachers now have to do a risk assessmnt just for taking the children to a local park

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I recall, the ski trip was something like €60 per kid for three days/two nights, with meals and transport and equipment. The parents’ association raises money (the loto) and the mairie kicks in some, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds like the education system in France has good ideas.

    I have no idea what the primary and secondary school systems are like here- I have no children, so that winds up taking that experience away. I see it a bit second handed through students coming into their university years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are the crème de la crème. Which is a topic for another day–how the system ruthlessly sorts kids through testing (possibly bad), but that non-university careers are not looked down on at all (pretty positive).


  5. I’m an experienced USA mom (3 kids attended school kindergarten through high school in 3 states) and their experiences were nothing like France – sadly. Usually one field trip per year to a park or museum…and they went to very good schools by USA standards. The only way you might have an overnight trip would be via sports or music team trips and that would never be until high school. Or if you attend private school, which most do not. Emphasis here is on test scores and scholastic achievement, plus the school lunches are AWFUL which is why my kids brought lunch from home with them every day. I think the French have the right way to approach life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. There were overnight field trips every single year that my kid was in primary grades (and preschool). And they weren’t expensive. In France, too, there’s a big emphasis on test scores–every step you take forward involves a test, with a bell curve and a certain number failing. We are still in the middle of that process, so I can’t say too much about it yet, but it seems that for people I know, success can take multiple paths.


  6. This sounds like an amazing school experience. I homeschooled my kids until the oldest was a sophomore in high school and the middle in 8th grade. The youngest stayed home the first half of the year but became lonely without his siblings at home, so he started in January of his 6th grade year. I have to say that he is the most affected by school and maybe shut down a bit, becoming the person others wanted him to be. But now that he is 21, I’m slowly seeing the true him come around.
    I wonder how different my kids would be if they had gone to French schools. Their experience at school here was fine once they went, but we live in a small, very good school district.
    Thanks for sharing this info and the beautiful pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Home schooling is a big responsibility! That was a long commitment on your part.
      We have only one child, and social contact was probably the #1 benefit of school.
      France runs schools nationally; there’s some local input, but there as much variance in quality from one place to the next as you see in the U.S.


  7. Wow…an overnight trip at such a young age. Were you nervous? When we lived in Paris our mairie had a summer camp and they took our kids all over Paris for free (no charge on the metro…or for the water park, museums, etc.). Tommy was only 5 years old. He LOVED it and learned French so quickly on their basketball court. I love reading your experiences!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t sleep the entire time. Then I became a room mother and got to tag along (but there were always two classes on the trip together, and the teacher wisely assigned parents to be with anybody but our own kids. So, close but not too much).


  8. Your story about pre-school in France is lovely. My wife and I and two boys had the chance to kayak down a section of the Dordogne River among a group of French children (perhaps twelve-year old) who seemed very attuned to their activity. It is similarly fun to see a class of Italian students at a restaurant with their teacher, who has followed them through many grades. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think it’s up to the kids to choose which outings they get. But cost, danger factor and liability worries seem to make for a big difference between the U.S. and France.


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