It's every parent's nightmare: your child accidentally kicks a football through a massive plate glass window, smashing three priceless Ming vases on the way, and you are liable for the damage. Or your child injures another child by carelessly dropping a large dictionary on his foot.
Never fear. One of the best things about living in France is school insurance. It doesn't cost much, from about €10 a year, and gives parents real peace of mind ... at least as far as being financially liable for their accidents and misdemeanours is concerned.
Most household insurance covers at least some civil responsibility. So if your child drops a mobile phone out of the window and it falls on a neighbour's head, the household insurance will pay for the damage.
But not all household insurance policies cover damage committed out of the house. And none of them covers the medical costs of your child having an accident. Which is why a separate specific school insurance policy is a good idea.
Many insurance companies offer assurance scolaire, but "La MAE" (www.mae.fr) is the long-established specialist school insurance company that until recently only offered school insurance. (It has recently started offering other types of policies, too.)
MAE offer four levels of cover, costing from €9.90 to €33 per year, and this top level covers almost every eventuality. Third-party damage to other children and their property is covered as standard, and additions include school trips outside the school. Your child's teeth and glasses are also insured against accidental damage.
The top level of insurance guarantees your child for accidental third-party damage plus accidental damage to his/her own person or property.
It also covers "risky" sports such as skiing and horse riding. Sports clubs and associations always ask for proof of insurance before your child can join them, and specialised sports insurance can be expensive. One advantage of the MAE is that, if your child has an accident inside or outside school, it acts as a mutuelle (ie top-up health insurance).
Although taking out school insurance is not, strictly speaking, a legal requirement, most schools ask for proof of it and they can refuse to include your child on school outings if you don't have it. It is therefore probably easiest just to pay out for the best cover you can afford.
But liability doesn't end there. In the riotous careers of today's schoolchildren, it can seem to parents as if anything is possible. The age of criminal responsibility is 13 in France, but even when your children are older than that, especially in the countryside, the parents remain the first port of call for irate victims of juvenile pranks.
Sometimes, especially for a first-time minor infraction, the solutions can be remarkably simple. Gill from the Herault, whose 16-year-old son was caught spraying graffiti in the village square, says: "I got a call from the local police, who explained what had happened and suggested that, if I didn't collect him before the morning, they wouldn't press charges."
Feeling that her son was old enough to sustain a sleepover in a police cell, she didn't collect him until dawn and says the police let the charges lie on file and then dropped them a year later.
In many other cases, all you can do is apologise profusely and offer to put right the damage. You can claim on your insurance for such things as a broken musical instrument or damaged carpet, however.
But liability for damage isn't the only financial risk involved in sending your child to school. Most youngsters are carrying the equivalent of a small electronics shop in their satchels and lucky is the parent who never hears the wail, "I lost my phone!"
Most schools strictly advise against bringing any expensive gadgets to school, saying they can't take responsibility for thefts or muggings. But even the cheapest, most basic, gadgets go walkabout and I have twice now retrieved my children's mobile phones by dint of ringing the number and asking the child who answered to turn the phone into the school office anonymously.
If a phone really is stolen, you should report it to the mobile company as soon as possible, so it can block the SIM card and de-activate the phone using the IMEI number. Find out the IMEI number of your child's phone (or indeed any phone) by dialling *#06# on the phone.
Then make a note of it so that, if a thief does make off with it, you can retaliate by making it completely inoperable. The IMEI is also written on the documentation that came with the phone if you bought it new.
Other hidden costs of school
The other expense is equipment. Schools in France don't supply pens and paper; parents do. In primary school, you will probably be given a list of furnitures scolaires to buy for the beginning of the school year, which could include paper handkerchiefs, or even a toothbrush.
In collège (middle school), the list could include anything from Japanese paint brushes to an Italian dictionary, and some teachers are sticklers about insisting on having precisely the right equipment. In lycée (upper school), the list continues and could include items such as a white lab coat and a specialist calculator costing anywhere up to €100, not to mention sports clothes.
But there is help at hand. A family benefit called l'allocation de rentrée scolaire is a one-off payment made at the end of August. It is worth up to €284.97 for six- to 10-year-olds, €300.66 for 11- to 14-year-olds and €311.11 for 15- to 18-year-olds. For families with a single child, the threshold for receiving the full payment is €22,970 per year. Families earning more than that are not paid the full amount. More information is available from www.caf.fr.
As far as textbooks go, the situation varies from area to area. Many schools don't supply them, but if you join one of the parents' associations you will probably find that you can borrow the books via the association either free or cheaply.
You should ask about this when enrolling your child. Don't worry if you don't have the books on the first day of term; this often isn't completely sorted out until the end of the first week of the rentrée (re-opening of the schools) in September.
As everyone knows, teenagers are expensive, but for families on low incomes, there is help at hand. For lycéens (ie pupils in upper school), there is a grant available called a bourse des lycées, which can be worth up to about €430 a year. The threshold varies with the number of children and parents in the house and their income. If your child gets a mention bien or mention très bien result at the brevet exams (at the end of the collège cycle), he or she could also get €800 a year for the next three years. There are various other payments available, for vocational equipment for example. Full details are available on www.vosdroits.service-public.fr
Finally, if it crosses your mind that your teens might enjoy making their own pocket money, legally speaking, under-14s in France are not allowed to work; 14- to 16- year olds may work only during the summer holidays and even then for only half the holidays and under strict conditions. 16- to 18-year-olds can, however, work as long as they have written permission from their parents.
In common practice, responsible teens of almost any age make extra money by looking after pets, watering gardens, washing cars, babysitting and the like. The accepted way of doing this is by telling the neighbours, putting a notice up in the local supermarket or, if you live in town, telling the concierge you're available for odd jobs.
Anglo-French teenagers often have a handy source of pocket-money available in the shape of helping out with English homework.