The start of the school year in September offers a chance for parents to become involved in their children’s schools, through a parents’ association with activities linked to education and fundraising. Jane Hanks joined in to meet local people and become more active in her own community – from performing puppet plays to sharing a bingo hall with dead rabbits hanging from the rafters.
When I came to France 23 years ago I had two very young children and as soon as the eldest went to the local primary school I joined the Amicale Laïque, the association in our village for parents who wanted to become involved in the school.
I still remember going to one of the very first meetings and understanding very little of what was going on – but appreciating the welcome I received.
Over the following years, I took part in plays to raise money for outings, organised bingo nights (very rural in our area with dead rabbits from the day’s hunt hanging from rafters above our heads as prizes, and bits of maize for the counters).
I set up stalls for the school fête, wrote and performed puppet plays for the children, helped on school trips, campaigned to keep school classes open, went to several meetings and eventually became the president of the Amicale Laïque, when I could at last understand and contribute to what was going on. It meant I made extremely good friends among the other parents – whom I still see even though the youngest of my four children is now at lycée.
Two of my best friends here are also the teachers I worked with – as we shared a great many experiences together. I was lucky because the tiny village school was very active and my children benefited from numerous school outings and extra-curricular activities, such as circus and drama. But, for me, it really was the way to integrate into the local community and meant I got to know the families that make up our commune.
Denise Stevenson is another parent who says that joining two associations linked with her primary school in Cadalen in the Tarn means she no longer feels like an outsider: “I joined because I wanted to give something back to the village that has made us so welcome and it has been a lovely experience.”
The Stevensons have three daughters, Kate, Rebecca and Hélène, and moved here 11 years ago when the two eldest were 7 and 4. She says part of the reason she got involved was because people were so kind. “At first I didn’t feel my French was good enough but about four years ago I was asked to join one of the groups – and I said yes.
“I am now involved in two: the APEEC (Amis et Parents des Elèves de l’Ecole de Cadalen) which raises money for extras for the children, with an annual Christmas market, loto, egg hunt etc, and La Farandole which organises the pre and afterschool and holiday club. The first is great fun – with a totally committed president and there are about 20 of us. The second is much more serious – and actually employs five people who run the out-of-school activities. Recently it got very heated when the president and director walked out and there was a four-hour meeting with quite a few personality clashes. “I had just read J K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy and felt I was living that tale of embittered local politics!
“The meetings and events have had me laughing and crying, frustrated beyond belief and throwing my hands in the air in disbelief.”
However, she says, taking part means you get to know people at a deeper level. “Friendships don’t come immediately but gradually. After you’ve spent a whole weekend sorting out clothes for a jumble sale conversations get beyond the ‘ça va?’ stage, you begin to really share experiences. “Every meeting is a two-hour French lesson when you get to grips with the langue courante. It acts as an open door. If your car breaks down and you go to the local garage, it is very different speaking to the owner if he recognises you because you served him crêpes at the local fête. It has definitely changed our relationship in the village – you become one of them.”
Janty Pike came to France in 1990 with four small children to run a sheep and cattle farm near Palluau in the Vendée. Her children – two sets of twins who are now 26 and 29, left school some time ago, but she still remembers her time in the school association as a positive experience. Her children went to private Catholic schools as they were the only choice locally. At primary she was involved in the OGEC – Organisme de Gestion de l’Enseignement Catholique – the organisation which manages the school and when the children went to the 250-pupil collège, the APEL (Association des Parents d’Elèves de l’Enseignement Libre) parents’ association was flagging.
She went to a meeting with just five people – and then was elected president and tasked with reviving the association. “We sent out letters and gradually more people got involved. They had to work out how to improve matters. Our first idea was to introduce a breakfast for parents and new pupils on their very first day. They had croissants and orange juice and it made that first morning just a little less daunting. Our school was very sports orientated and parents of children who weren’t keen on sports wanted something different. So we started up a comédie musicale which was written and performed by pupils – and is still running today.
"Another move was to change the annual school trip to London as there had been a lot of complaints about the poor welcome from host families. So now the school goes to Somerset or Dorset with a one-day trip to London – and they feel they are better looked after and get a wider experience of England.”
Mrs Pike says it was hard work but worth it. “I went to that first meeting because I wanted to be more involved with my children’s education; which is sometimes difficult with teenage boys. It opened up discussion at home because I knew a bit more about their school. It also meant I got to know people and we had a very good team working together.”
Catherine Dumas teaches English in a Versailles lycée and is a regular French reader of The Connexion. Having been involved in her son’s parent-teacher association at collège and now at lycée, she is keen to share her experiences with readers to explain how parents can get involved in their children’s schools. As both a teacher and parent she says there are benefits to joining in.
When her son was at collège she was in the PEEP (Fédération des parents d’élèves de l’enseignement public) and sat on the Conseil de Classe. Teachers and parent and pupil representatives meet three times a year to discuss the progress of the class. “These meetings are an important link between the teacher and the parents and are valuable to both. You are able to talk about things that can’t be written on the school report and you can then refer back to the parents. And teachers can learn things about pupils they might otherwise not know, for example that there has been a divorce which has affected the child.”
Mrs Dumas’ son now goes to a Catholic lycée where she is a member of the APEL. And she says that teachers appreciate the parents’ participation: “When I taught in a collège, pupils had a free hour at lunchtime when it was often too cold to be outside at lunchtime. So we opened rooms for the students but there had to be an adult – and we were delighted when parents stepped forward to help out. “It’s a really positive experience and you can always learn more about what’s going on than you can from your child.”
Graham Fenner, who lives at Muzillac in the Morbihan, served on the PTA equivalent of his two sons’ primary school for some years. “I think it’s worth being involved for several reasons. You give something back to the children’s school, you get to know people – and in return you get known. It shows that the British will get stuck in. My French was what I would call restaurant French when I arrived here about 20 years ago and it improved my language because you are put into a position where you have to speak.”
Mr Fenner and his wife Maryline, who is French, were invited to join the committee. They went to meetings, helped with fundraising and took part in Saturday morning activities where parents were asked to help maintain the building by, for example, digging the garden or painting the classroom. “We had a nice time. Mind you I remember the first time I went along I was surprised that no one came up to me to welcome me into the team, as they would have done in England – you have to make the effort and go up to people yourself. But that’s just the French way. There are cultural differences in the way things are organised or happen. As we are an Anglo-French family we often joke about it – is it going to be done in the French way or the English way?”
Mr Fenner says it need not take up too much of your time. “I began as an ordinary member and went when I could and no one minded if I wasn’t always able to be there. There are a few meetings during the year and then the events themselves. We used to do a huge lotto and I used to wrap up the prizes, set out tables and chairs and clean up afterwards. Not very complicated – but it’s a good way to meet people and it’s amazing what lovely conversations you can have when you are brushing a floor. It also makes it easier when you are attending the event itself – you have already got to know people – and you have a role to play, which is better than standing about not knowing what to do.”
Mr Fenner’s boys are no longer at the school, which is a private Catholic school, but he continues his involvement by being on the OGEC, which he describes as the equivalent of a board of governors. “I was asked to help in a project. It was no longer appropriate to be on the PTA but it is good to keep up the link.”
DIFFERENT schools have different groups acting as parent-teacher associations and their roles go beyond that of giving information on classroom progress.
Parents of children in école publique state schools have three associations. The FCPE (Fédération des conseils de parents d’élèves) is the largest, with 310,000 members, but the oldest is PEEP (Fédération des Parents d’Elèves de l’Enseignement Public) with 200,000 members.
FCPE is seen as being Left-wing and, often, as representing teachers more than parents but it defends pupils through national campaigns to improve conditions, such as to reduce the weight of school bags.
PEEP aims to be the voice of the parent and works more locally, but it, too, campaigns nationally. However, there has been a rise in independent groups and UNAAPE (Union Nationale des Associations Autonomes de Parents d’Elèves) is their umbrella organisation.
Primary schools often have their own associations called something like Amicale Laïque or Association de Parents d’Elèves.
In private schools, there is the APEL (Association des Parents d’Elèves de l’Enseignement Libre) with around 825,000 members representing two million children in Catholic schools. It aims to welcome, inform and advise parents.
There is also the OGEC (Organisme de Gestion de l’Enseignement Catholique), an association made up of parents and former parents which helps to run the budget in Catholic schools. It also assures links with the local authorities and the owners of the school. It employs school administrative personnel.