A French education 

Tomos went off to school this morning with a face like thunder. It’s his second week and reality of French school life is setting in.

The lady on crossing patrol saw his face and raised her eyebrows: ‘What’s eating him?’ was the gist of her remark. ‘Oh, he doesn’t particularly want to go this morning,” I replied. “He’s a little anxious’. ‘Why, does he have worries?” she asked.

Yes, he has a few worries. Going to school is one thing. Plenty of kids have trouble just with that. Going to school in a different country, in a different system, in a different language, where you have no friends, is another entirely.

But Tomos is up for it. Whether or not he is worried about it, whether or not he grumbles about it, he still puts one foot in front of another, and goes anyway. I admire his resilience, and his goodwill, which is enabling us to have this second experience of living in France.

Tomos is back in the Ecole Paulin Nicoleau, a mixed class elementary school of about 100 children in four classrooms, with pre-school (ecole maternelle) attached. Kids in the school range in age from 6-11 and Tomos is in a class that equates to Year 6 in New Zealand, being the last year group before the children go on to the local middle school (college), covering New Zealand years 7-10.

At that stage, classes rotate between different subject matter teachers, and more starts to be expected of students by way of participation, schoolwork and homework. Nominally Tom should be at college, but given the challenge for him of simply coping in the French language, we’ve opted to keep him in the final year of primary – a more forgiving environment.

Although the school he attends is still designated ecole de filles on its signagethe school is co-educational. The sign dates from earlier times, when the town, with a population of more than 30,000, had several schools. A separate building in the town, now housing a library and activity space, was once the ecole de garcons.


French school hours are very different from New Zealand, and vary between regions. In Quillan, classes are held Monday to Friday, 8:30-11.30am, and 1.30-4.30pm. Wednesday afternoons are free, and on Friday afternoons the Mairie runs a separate and optional programme of extra-curricular activities, so Tom only has four days of school a week. Not that he considers that any advantage! The long lunch hour allows Tomos to come home in the middle of the day, and have a good break. A programme allows those parents who are working to send their children to the canteen at the neighbouring school for a hot lunch.


The school ‘culture’ in France is also very different to New Zealand and takes some getting used to when  you are new and don’t know anyone. In Quillan, school opens just ten minutes before class starts. No entry to the school is allowed before that time. Parents drop their kids off at the door and are not typically encouraged to enter. Once the children are in and class starts, the school doors and gates are locked and no-one comes in or out without prior authorisation.

Inside, the children hang out in the internal courtyard until the bell rings for class, at which point they line up in an orderly fashion until their teacher ushers them in. There is little by way of play equipment in the school grounds. In class, children sit at individual desks facing the front of the class, and work to a programme almost entirely dictated by the single teacher per class.

This used to be the norm in New Zealand too, but is increasingly being discarded for the ‘modern learning environment’ that allows children a greater involvement in the class programme through subject matter ‘workshops’ and self-directed learning. A greater emphasis is placed on ‘inquiry’ topics rather than on a strict curriculum of reading, writing and maths. Rarely do children sit at individual desks anymore, but rather in groups of tables, or on cushions. Children have a lot more freedom to enter the school grounds – and the classrooms before and after class.

So on day one in Quillan, Tomos was assigned his own desk, in a pair of desks towards the back of the classroom, and that is where he will sit, and do the majority of his learning, for the duration of his time in school here. He is not used to such long periods of sitting in one place, and one unexpected result is that he often comes home with sore legs or back from not moving. It is also a novel experience for him not to have any say in what he does in his time in the class. Often, simply understanding the instructions is the challenge.

Getting a place in the school in Quillan however, has been a thoroughly delightful and remarkably straight-forward experience.

The benefit of coming back to the same town a second time is that we knew what we were in for. Given our great experience with the school in 2014, the accessibility of local officials and of the principal, I was pretty sure it would be fine. But, when I had again had no reply to my several emails to the school in advance of arriving, I did start to get a little anxious. I was reluctant to face a phone conversation in French, so asked friends with children at the school to have a chat to the principal in person and the result was reassuring: Oh yes, not a problem. You are very welcome. Just turn up!

That said, we still had to process the necessary paperwork at the Mairie on arrival, and that was not assured.


On our first day back in Quillan we duly presented ourselves at the Mairie and the initial response was not encouraging. The woman was not particularly impressed that we had already been in direct contact with the principal . Whether Tomos would be accepted and where he would go was not up to the principal, we were informed: it was up the regional educational inspector, who she would now phone. Outwardly smiling our agreement, we waited nervously through the ensuing conversation, while answering rapid fire questions about where we are from, where we are living, what year of school Tomos is in, and whether he has been here before. Thankfully the upshot was good, our passport was accepted in lieu of a Carnet de Famille and, once I’d emailed Tom’s birth certificate through, all that remained was to return that afternoon to collect the official registration papers.

The following morning we arrived at school at 8.20am, flouted normal proceedings to enter the school grounds, and found the principal in the internal courtyard. He quickly remembered us, and was delighted to see us, welcoming Tomos warmly.

I am incredibly impressed with the attitude of the principal, and the flexibility of the school to accommodating children with other languages and needs. Despite little notice of our arrival, a desk was found in the class, and basic exercise books provided. We have not had to pay a cent. In addition, despite being a small school with few teachers, a resource is made available one hour per day for Tomos to have dedicated French language lessons outside the normal classwork. This is an incredible opportunity and should do a lot to reinforce his efforts through twice-weekly tutorials with the Alliance Francaise over the last term.

So we are off to a good start. And I am pleased to report that, following his long lunch, the thunderclouds have lifted, and Tomos has gone back for afternoon classes laughing with delight.

I am hopeful that this second experience in a French school will cement his language skills, his confidence and his strength of character. Time will tell.

17 thoughts on “A French education 

  1. margaret21

    Good for him. I have to say that although my children are long grown up, I had a fair bit of contact, through volunteering, with elementary schooling in our French community. Although individual teachers were impressive, I found the system stultifying and uncreative. One conversation with a mum stuck with me.She was talking about college though. The one her child was starting was going to start timetabling some art, music, drama and so on. ‘What a waste of time!’ she opined..’I send my daughter to school to learn, not to have fun!’ Ah well…….

    1. margaret21

      On the other hand, French children seem confident and able to advance their opinions freely in a way that British children and teenagers seem more reluctant to do.

    2. Stephen Christie

      Agreed about the value of learning philosophy, but the French system is what you might do if you wanted kids to hate the subject. The system is rigid and top-down. It is not tailored to the individual. Tomos will get no philosophy at ecole because bureaucrats decided that children his age should not learn it. If he came back at an older age and went to lycee, then it would be compulsory. It’s the assembly-line model.

  2. Emma

    Inspiring! I hope he settles quickly and is able to make some friends. We are hoping to get our daughter into the maternelle in Fa, even if it’s only for a short time before we find a more permanent home in the area. We were going to wait but having read your post from your visit two years earlier and now this one we’ve talked about putting her in asap if she says she’s happy to go – and she says she’d like to, so that’s decided! Also, we may yet end up in Quillan so it’s good to know there is such a friendly school there and to learn more about the system here in France.

  3. Susan Andrewes

    Great article and great experiences! The class format reflects what we grew up with too. And we thrived. I find it freeing to know that coincidence and resilience are always inbuilt. Tom’s demonstrating that so well in his ability to so effortlessly navigate all these amazing new experiences, even when it feels tough in the moment. I love how he is just throwing himself into the challenge!

  4. Osyth

    Hello! Thank you for following my blog – I hope I won’t disappoint with my discursive ramblings. Doubtless Tomos will thrive but I have to say chapeau 🎓 to him for getting on with it even when it doesn’t feel easy … a lesson for us growns I feel!

  5. mariel

    I’ve done the same thing as you but the other way around: We moved from France to New Zealand, twice 🙂
    We always worried that our choices might be a bad move for our children, especially with school. My daughters love their new Zealand school and do not want to ear about French school anymore. They do miss the Cantine though, and so do I 🙂
    Good for you for choosing L’Aude, one of my favourite part of France 🙂


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