Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Education in France - Update 7 years later....navigating choices of schools as expats

I can't believe it's April 2019 already and we are currently finishing up our Spring vacation.

In my effort to redesign and update this blog, I have looked back on some of my most popular posts..most were no surprise, as it's the same ones that generate emails and questions.  One in particular is how and why we chose immersion in French schools for the girls when we moved here and it continues to receive many questions.  For every family its a personal choice, but I hope by sharing our experiences that it continues to help others on their journey.  My original blog post can be seen here:  Education in France- our experience as new expats

Presently, my three girls are in 6eme (6th grade-US), 3eme (9th grade-US) and Terminale (12th grade-US.)  We have experienced our fair share of moves, school changes and enrollment in both public an private schools at all levels now....and if I have learned anything it is that there are choices within the French system and that each child is different and has different learning & social needs.  Often as it was in the US, the true experience is dependent on the teachers and their teaching style.

I focused my last post on our initial choices, fears and concerns as we arrived with 3 young girls who didn't know the language.  I tried to be honest, our road was not without bumps during that first year. and truthfully, our experience has continued to have minor ups and downs.  I would venture to guess as we would have experienced in the States but here the system is different.

I often receive emails regarding school choices and it's such an individual choice for each family depending on kids' ages, abilities, and how long they will be staying in France.  There is no one answer.  I hope by sharing my own experiences, people can learn and take away what works for them.  I share this post as I know many families ponder the question of staying in France longer but are unfamiliar with the system or how it works.

I shared in my last post that my oldest daughter ended up transferring in the middle of her academic year 6eme/6th) to a private catholic school as the public middle school in our town sector that she started attending didn't work out.  Long story short, she experienced a form of prejudice from a teacher in that school  who wasn't going to change.  The teacher for whatever reason had decided that my daughter was not worth her time or effort and purposely would ignore her questions in class - further seating her in the back of the room.  Obviously, her grades suffered and my daughter was extremely frustrated.   After my initial meeting with this teacher at the end of the first term, where she went on and on about how my daughter talked in class, didn't understand (well of course, this was only her 2nd year speaking French) and wasn't doing well.  When I tried to explain her special situation of just moving to the country the previous year and learning French - she didn't seem to care.

So as my daughter got more frustrated, and her grades were not improving, we requested a second meeting but this time I asked to have a school counselor present.  This teacher even tried to manipulate the meeting to not have any other adult present, but this resulted in the Director of the school hosting the meeting for us.  The behavior of the teacher both in class and in the meeting shocked the Director, who found this teacher highly unprofessional and indeed prejudice against my daughter.  It was evident that nothing was going to change in that classroom.  The Director even spent an additional 45 minutes with us after the teacher left the meeting trying to give my daughter strategies of handling this awkward situation.  To this day, I am grateful to this Director, but I learned something else that day.....

 In France, the school Directors have little power over their teachers.  The Director herself explained this to me a week after the meeting.  She too, was frustrated by this teacher and her behavior and explained to me that her hands were tied.  Only a Regional Prefect, or regional director has any power over a teacher in the French system.  (Region here is defined by the whole city & surrounding suburbs of Bordeaux, not by the town!). She apologized again for this outrageous behavior.  

As parents who advocate for their children, I was able to share with her that as parents we needed to do what was best for our daughter and we had found that there was an opening in the private catholic school in town, so we would be transferring our daughter.    The Director said that as a parent herself, she totally understood and would do the same, as a Director she was sorry and invited us to document our experience, as this was the only way to pass information on to the regional Director.  The Director hoped that if enough parents did this, something could be done.  We did that and didn't look back.

I share this experience for 2 reasons - one is that life is real, here in France.  It's like anywhere else, you can have excellent teachers and bad ones. But I know as an American, my first thought is to request a teacher change.   In France, as opposed to the States, changing teachers is not an option, they just don't do it.  But there are always options.  If something isn't going well - look for other options.

Catholic school in France is not as expensive as it was in the States - yes, there is tuition and lunch costs - but it's a sliding scale based on income and then you have the ability to pay over 10 months.  Catholic Elementary and Middle schools in Bordeaux run between 1000 to 1400 euros total for the year (tuition/cantine & fees).

My daughter started at her new Catholic school and overall we were pleased with our experience as she continued through.  Yes, she was an inquisitive child, who asked questions when she didn't understand and sometimes would just ask her neighbor or a friend.  Yes, some teachers called her talkative - but here was another lesson for me.  French teachers love to critique the to find flaws and faults.  Unless its a child who does extremely well, very obedient and doesn't speak out in class unless spoken to.  So yes, I knew that my daughter talked, but this time, it was just a comment, not a prejudice .  As our experience was going well, we planned for her younger sister to follow in her footsteps.  So in 2015-16 - When my oldest was in 3eme, my middle daughter started 6eme at the same private catholic school in our town.

Each child is different and my middle daughter who had arrived in France at 7 years old was totally different in both personality and abilities than her sister.  She is quieter, more reserved and at this point starting middle school was very fluent in French.  It was a new school for her, with new students and new friends to make. There were only 4 other students from her elementary school who transferred to this private catholic middle school. For her, it was like starting over again, making new friends, but I know this is also common in the States.  My middle daughter struggled to find her social group in 6eme, I also found that several teachers who had had her sister, assumed that she was the same.  It's not easy to be in the shadow of an older sister and for her, my quieter, more reserved and sensitive daughter - it was harder than we realized.  As much as I liked the school, I came to realize that it wasn't working for her.

Due to a house move, I was now living in another part of the town where an excellent middle school was located in my sector. I had heard really good feedback from neighbors and friends.  Word of mouth is always a good sign.  I also consulted the following National site - which indicates the results of the Brevet -  the comprehensive National exam given at the end of Troisieme (9th grade) for all students in France:  This middle school had earned the highest distinction of  3 palmes and interestingly enough had almost the same test results as the private catholic middle school that she was currently attending.

After much thought and discussion, we decided that it would be good for her to change schools beginning in 5eme (7th grade).  This would give her a fresh start and be in a school where she could be herself,  and not the sister of.  As she is currently finishing up her 3eme (9th grade) year - we know that this was the best choice for her.  I have been thrilled with the communication, teachers and overall feel of the school.  Again, with the minor exception of a few teachers, I have been overall very pleased with our local public middle school.

An aside here about the French education system.  When a child enters 6eme (6th grade) - they are entering Middle School (College).  Families have choices -The most common is the Public College located in their residential sector or if one lives out in some of the smaller countryside towns - the designated local middle school and even high school may be a town away or they many choose, a Public College not located in their residential sector, but still in their town - but this means asking for a derogation (a transfer that needs to be applied for and approved from the town Mayor's office),

Another choice is Private catholic -this could be anywhere in the area, not necessarily in your town. (i.e.  in Bordeaux or elsewhere - but the family/child is responsible for transportation).  If choosing a private Catholic school, an application needs to be made in the Winter/Spring before the start of the following school year in September.  Usually by April/May, these schools are full and have waiting lists.  It's always good to be added on the waiting list and keep calling to check on status if this is your desired school, especially late June/July as there are always families who end up moving but have held their spot.

Additionally, there are some Public Middle schools (Colleges) that have special language/cultural option sections  (American, Chinese, Spanish etc..) that one can apply for and must accepted into.  Residency is not an issue in these cases- it's about getting accepted into that particular program-usually by passing a language test.  Again transportation is up to the family.

Locally, some English-speaking/American families opt to look at College Alain Fournier in Bordeaux- which has an American section Option.  This means that students continue with the regular French curriculum but have a more advanced English class plus have an American Culture/history class added into their schedule.  Any child in can apply for this program, but to be accepted they have to pass an English test and be highly motivated for the extra work in the program.  It's a competitive program with about only 1/3  of the applicants being accepted.  I have heard excellent feedback about this program, but for us - the commute from where we live to the school would have been too far for the girls.

I have found the French education system more complex than the system that I was use to in the United States.  I know both where I grew up and where we lived before moving to France - Public school was directly based on where one chose to live - unless a family chose Catholic or Private schools.

Another point about most Middle schools here in Bordeaux.  Most children once they begin Middle School use public transportation, ride their bikes or walk.  Yes, in the suburbs, some parents will drive their children, but most children find their own way back & forth.  For the 6eme (6th grade) this is often an eased in process - with parents escorting their kids the first few days/weeks and/or beginning of the school year.  Kids often meet up with friends, or other students and travel in groups on the buses and trams.  It's considered quite safe here in Bordeaux and it's perfectly normal to see young kids (middle schools age) traveling unaccompanied to and from school.  I find this independence really good for the kids.  They learn very quickly how to read bus schedule tables and have applications on their phones to easily check bus and tram lines for times.  Additionally, a bus/tram pass costs around 20 euros per month.

Finally, a little about French high schools (Lycee) - the final 3 years of a student's academic years.  Here they are called Seconde, Premiere & Terminale (10th-12th grades).  Like for the middle schools, students and families have some choice.  Most will choose their local public high school or if one lives out in a small countryside town - there would be a designated high school in a nearby town.
But students do need to choose if they are doing a General Studies route (preparation for higher education after high school)  or a Vocational route (direct career training for work options directly after high school).

If a students chooses the Vocation High school route, they would look for the closest high school that has the career training that they are interested in.  Many towns do have these programs, so often they are not too far away.  For general studies, their first year is general studies and then after they choose a track - Science, Economics & Sociale or Literature.  This system is currently changing and we will be learning more in the coming year the new concentration choices for the final two years of study.  In any case, the levels of study in each track is more advanced for those concentrations.  For example, my oldest daughter chose the Science track and during her Terminale year - she has studied the equivalent of Calculus, AP Physics, AP Chemistry & AP Biology.  

Another option that is similar to the middle school option is where students choose public high schools that have special options/sections to enhance their studies in that certain area.  For English-speaking expats - this can be Option - International Baccalaureate American Studies or European Section - English available in certain high schools.  The OIB-American Studies in Bordeaux is only offered in one public high school - Lycee Magendie and is a 3 year intensive program added to the regular French high school program.  An English admissions test and application is required to be considered for admission.  This is a highly competitive program.

The European Section-English is available at many high schools.  This programs again is by application selection process and consists of a more advanced level of English class along with another class of culture/history taught in English. They do select students who are generally strong in English and are motivated to take an additional cultural class in English.   It gives students more exposure to English studies in English without too many added hours in their curriculum.  My oldest daughter did this option at her high school and yes, being a bilingual student is was still fairly easy but I did see her written English improve, in addition to her cultural understanding of America & England.  My middle daughter will be applying for this option at our local public high school later on this year.

I continue to learn and experience the French education system as my middle daughter is choosing our local public high school as her school of choice with a request of the European -Section -English unlike her older sister who chose to rest at her private catholic school for high school.

This year we are currently experiencing the preparation of 2 large comprehensive National exams -
The BAC or Baccalaureate for my oldest -end of high school and the BREVET - comprehensive National exam marking the end of middle school/9th grade for my middle daughter.  In addition, my oldest is choosing to stay in France for her University studies - so we have been navigating the French application process (ParcoursSup) to the Universities and Preparatory programs.  (Saving this for another post!).

I have been pleased to see the schools give the students practice versions of these exams called - BAC Blanc and BREVET blanc .  This enable the students to have a good idea of what the real exam will be like in addition the results of these exams are counted into the student's averages during the year.  These practice exams are taken seriously and teachers encourage the students to study and review well for them.  Students are also encouraged to purchase review books which go over the curriculum that will be covered on these exams.

I hope that this post further explains some of the facets of the French education system and how an expat family can navigate through.  It has been a learning experience for us and I know each family will have it's own story to tell.  Every child is different and also has different aspirations.

Next year we will be entering the world of POST BAC or University in the French system and that will be a whole other adventure!!! 

As always, questions are always welcome.



  1. Hello there!
    Thanks for posting this information. Very useful. I'm planning a sabbatical in Bordeaux next academic year with my daughter that will be in 11th grade while we are there. I was looking into the Bordeaux International School mainly because my daughter doesn't speak French and we'll be there for only 1 year. Have you at any point considered it? Any information would be appreciated! Many thanks, Laura

    1. Hi Laura - feel free to email me at and we can talk further and I can connect you with people who attend that school. Thanks


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