The times they are a changing – schooldays in France

I really enjoy September. I always have.

As a child September beckoned new copybooks, pencils, pens, crayons, sometimes new socks (!). There was nothing more lovely than a full set of colouring pencils- before they would become lost, one by one, throughout the year. September provided a glimpse at what the year ahead would bring in our new schoolbooks. I remember looking towards the back of the book at the more difficult schoolwork and wondering if I would ever be able to complete the exercises.

For me September holds more promise than the empty promises of January 1st. Routines are easier to adapt to. Rhythms are set before the long dark days of winter kick in. The September feeling hasn’t changed for me- it’s the same feeling of possibility in France as it always was in Ireland, albeit on a different playing field.

I am still negotiating my way through the unfamiliar. It’s amazing how destabilizing a different school system can be. Your child is looking to you for guidance and assurance. Your child needs to see that you know what you’re doing. My little one hasn’t actually realised yet that almost every time I read a note from the school, I open a cupboard or the fridge so I can turn into it and hide whilst some expletive escapes from my mouth in exasperation! My eldest knows that I am bluffing most of the time (she’s onto me!). Thank goodness for the resident Frenchman in the house!

And it’s not that I don’t literally understand things. More often than not it’s that I don’t culturally understand! I’m not really an ideas person – I’m a why person- annoying I know!

There’s a whole heap of collective French parenting that I haven’t been privy to. Things that French parents “get”. Like on the school list this year we were asked for a matchbox each. Of course I immediately presumed that my child was set to become an arsonist. Well you know – the French do take their protests seriously! Anyhow I skimmed the list again and realised that an empty matchbox was required. And I just couldn’t figure out why!

A kind Maman at work explained that the matchboxes are to hold the stickers (I still don’t know what the stickers are for but that’s for another day!).

They cover schoolbooks differently here too.

In my day in Ireland books were covered with leftover wallpaper. Only families who were slightly better advantaged could buy actual brown paper in an actual shop. I longed for it – I still love brown paper.

But we had our wallpaper- and it did a damn good job of covering the books. In bigger families, the smart one would cover the books first and have their pick of wallpapers past. The disorganised one would be left with the bathroom vinyl yucky wallpaper (this was the eighties!). Slippy stuff- difficult to manipulate!

Here, in the spirit of French frugality and maintenance of what can still be useful- a different technique is employed – and it’s enough to make a grown man cry! It strikes the fear of all the gods in me!

If I say triangles and T’s – does that mean anything to you? It didn’t to me either. For those of you easily bored you may want to tune out now!

Here goes (and I know it makes sense but it is a pain in the …).

With a view to successfully maintaining books, we are sometimes asked to reinforce the edges. This means cutting out a bazillion little cardboard triangles and T-shapes from cardboard. This is where you start crying because you switched to porridge recently and you don’t have any cereal boxes in the house. Not one! You are a bad mother!

So- once you’ve commandeered anything harder than paper in the house, you may now proceed to cut your little triangles and T’s. You use the triangles to reinforce the corners of the bookcovers. And the T’s – well the T’s are a little trickier. You slip the leg of the T into the binding at the top of your book and another one in the bottom of your book. Then you bend back the T’s arms to successfully reinforce the top of said book Easy peasy you say! Nah I just make it look easy! I’ve got this down!

The tricky part is putting the selected covering material over the said triangles and T’s. One wrong move and it’s curtains! However if successful – well you’re one step closer to the chocolate, Facebook time, or hell even a G ‘n’ T!

I should add at this point, that I am very grateful for the fact that schoolbooks are loaned for the year by the school. It is a very effective system and teaches the children to respect the books. Win-win!

School started for us 2 weeks ago, and I’m happy to report that we seem to have it all in hand. The endless forms have been filled in and given back. The mountain of photocopies duly handed in too.

La petite changed schools this year. Although I like her new school, I feel a little sad when I think of the school she attended last year. If any of you have ever seen the French documentary “Avoir et Etre” you’ll know where I’m going.

For a year we got to experience sending la petite to a one-teacher school. It wasn’t just any old little school either. It was where mon homme acquired the keys of knowledge himself. I’m a sentimental soul and so I was happy that she would go to the same teeny tiny school.

However times are a-changing here in the French countryside as much as anywhere else. Progression. Apparently.

The Academie (School Administration Authority) here in France seems to have a remit to pretty much close as many rural schools as possible. The little village school didn’t survive the cull this year.

I’m not naive enough to think that there aren’t advantages to bigger schools, but overall it’s simply about money and budgets. If I was sure that smaller schools were closing for the benefit of the individual child then I could go with closures. But we all know we can pay panels of experts to find the results we want. We all know it costs money to keep schools open. We all know education budgets are never enough of a priority for any country.

And so the little school closed.

The things that can’t be seen on paper- the walk through the fields to the sports-ground, the parade through the village for Carnival, the way that the children seemed to learn at their own pace. Lessons were adapted for two or three children at a time.

The children would talk about the horses in the field as if they were part of the class. I was actually surprised one day to find out that Hugo was indeed a horse and not a 6 year old boy! When four legs were mentioned I knew something wasn’t quite right about the boy!

I had accompanied the children on their end of year school outing, and I was struck by how much they acted like a family. Older siblings keeping the younger ones in check. Younger ones naturally seeking out the older ones for help. At one point, one of the little-uns was promptly swooped up onto the hip of an older girl for comfort after falling. They even squabbled like siblings!

I know in this life we need to be adaptable, and it is an ability that is a gift. But sometimes I feel we are moving further and further away from a sense of community. Small solid ideas are becoming swallowed up by the big drive towards the unknown.

In our relentless yearning for progression, are we simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

And so the end of June heralded the end of an era. The committee of parents put in a Trojan amount of work to ensure that the school went out with a bang. There was an exhibition of the end of year class photographs- the oldest one dating back to 1935.

There were activities and games for the children, there was music, and the very last end of year concert. All of the past pupils able to attend were asked up to the stage to participate in a last waltz. And so mon homme and la petite shared a dance on a common terrain. The circle closing.

It was a poignant moment.

We finished off the evening with a meal together on the village tennis court. So much work had gone into the day. We started in the early morning under the pouring rain. Setting up tables and chairs. Building the stage. Stretching the awning. Should the dancing be inside or out- could we risk the weather! In the end the local DJ took the decision – he tilted his face towards the sky, grinned, and said “Ca va aller”. It’ll be grand.

And he was right.


Feel free to comment…
  • December 19, 2016, 8:01

    It’s so lovely reading about the French school system. And how wonderful your daughter got to experience a year in the small, community school. Do you know if privatization of the school is an option in France?
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