If your child has an interest or gift in sport or the arts there are state schools where they can mix normal school work with additional lessons in their specialist subject.
Some 2,000 secondary school collèges and a smaller number of lycées have a section sportive (you may also hear them called sport-études) and they cover about 90 sports.
Many specialise in football – there are 615 across the country that focus on “the beautiful game”, followed by 281 in handball and 218 in rugby.
Others teach swimming, tennis, gymnastics and skiing, while two schools are specialists in squash and one in boxing. Four schools have a sports section for disabled pupils.
Pupils follow the same mainstream lessons as everyone else in the country but with an extra three to eight hours of sport a week, plus competitions at weekends or in the evenings. This is on top of EPS sports lessons written into the timetable for all pupils.
It is difficult to get a place, however, as they are popular and accept only between 15 and 20 in each class. Students must have good overall marks to show they can cope with general lessons as well as their sport.
They also have to show they have regularly taken part in a sport and belong to a club. Recruitment may be at local, regional or national level.
Interested parents are advised to contact collèges at the beginning of the second term of CM2 at primary school or get in touch with potential lycées while children are in quatrième.
It may be possible for children to board at the school if the nearest one is not within easy travelling distance or if the sport needs it, eg. a mountain location for skiing.
There is a higher-level intensive sports education system for those who have already been spotted as potential national sportsmen or women.
They are the Pôles Espoir (for those who hope to represent France) and Pôles France (international competition hopefuls). They can train for up to 20 hours a week and will either do their academic work in a school or by CNED (distance learning).
Romane Zillhardt, 14, is in her first year of lycée at Bordeaux in a Pôle Espoir, where she specialises in volleyball. She was spotted as a potential future national player at her club in Sarlat and, after a rigorous selection process, was picked to follow an education regime unlike regular lycées.
Every day, she has four hours of academic lessons, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, and has to catch up on some lessons via distance learning. She also has to do four hours of training – two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon or evening. She has a further 90 minutes of personal study time for her homework in the evening.
She will do the same bac as other students and has to keep up with her studies to ensure she does not miss out on a quality education and future career options after her sporting life has ended.
Romane is one of a class of 18, who all do different sports and who have different timetables as the hours of sport they do depends on their speciality and their trainer.
She studies in one school which has a sports section, boards at another and trains at the Centre de ressources, d’expertise et de performance sportive (CREPS), where many high-level sports people in the regions train.
At weekends she plays at least one match with her club. Despite the heavy schedule, Romane says she is in paradise: “I have less school and more sport; more autonomy as I board and have to look after myself. I have met lots of people who love sport as I do and because I am in a team sport, there is a really good atmosphere.”
Her mother, Anne-Cécile, says such commitment requires support from the whole family: “The education is free, but it will cost us around €6,000 in boarding fees, plus €300 a month to CREPS, train fares to and from home, and we will have to find a family for her to stay with at weekends so she can go to her sports club as school boarding is closed and her club is far from home. There are some grants we are looking into.”
Despite the high financial price, Mrs Zillhardt believes it is a wonderful opportunity for Romane: “She will have a good education and a good chance of playing in competitive sport for her career, which is what she wants to do, and the CREPS and the lycée take good care of their students.”
Music and the arts
For pupils interested in the arts, there are special classes in certain primary schools and collèges where you can have music, dance, theatre or art lessons that are not available to other students in the school timetable. They are called classes à horaires aménagés (CHA) and are CHAM for music, CHAD for dance, CHAT for theatre and CHAAP for art (arts plastiques).
The 120 conservatoires countrywide have to offer them as part of their remit. Parents are free to apply for a collège or primary school which is not in their town, but there will be a selection test in the chosen field.
Murielle Mahé, president of FUSE, an association which represents families with children studying the arts, said: “It gives an opportunity for children who might not otherwise have been able to learn an instrument, because it is free or very low cost and because parents do not have to find time to take their children to lessons outside school hours.
“We’d like to see more. It is difficult to find out how many of these classes there are but most are in music, with some in theatre, dance and art.”
She says there are other schemes: “Some primary schools and collèges have classes orchestres and classes chorales which you cannot apply for from outside the school, but you benefit if your child happens to be in a school with that facility. There will be music lessons for the whole class within their curriculum.”
Mrs Mahé lives in Paris and her four children have all opted for a system that is so far only available in the capital.
They go, or have been, to state schools linked with two conservatoires in Paris (music), the Opéra de Paris (dance) or la Maîtrise de Radio France (choir), where students have school in the morning and their specialist lessons all afternoon.
They can start when they are in primary school.
“My children said it was a magical opportunity,” says Mrs Mahé, “because they did not have to sit in a classroom all day and it kept them constantly challenged.
“There is a lot of competition. At the Conservatoire de Paris there are up to 1,000 auditions a year for 200-300 places. It shows there is a demand and we would like to see more set up in other parts of France.
“Funnily enough, there are a lot of Japanese children but not many British, so perhaps they don’t yet know about this scheme.”