Standards in France’s private schools have been called into question following news, in February, that directors of an Orthodox Jewish school were taken into custody on suspicion of ill-treating pupils.
That school mainly serves Israeli and American families in Seine-et-Marne.
The government has already introduced stricter rules for setting up private (hors contrat) schools in the loi contre le séparatisme, which came into force last August, with the aim of preventing radicalisation of pupils.
The new rules mean that before opening, an hors contrat school must make a declaration to the local education authority, which in turn passes it on to the prefect and public prosecutor.
The school can open three months later, unless there is an objection on the grounds of public order or the protection of young persons, or: the person opening the school is not French or from the EU or EEA; has been convicted of a crime or an offence against morality; is banned from teaching; does not have the skills to teach, or has fewer than five years’ teaching experience.
Any school that opens without a declaration can be closed by the prefect, and the founder of the school risks a year’s prison sentence and a fine of up to €15,000.
Once open, the school is inspected in the first year, and will be controlled in future on administrative and educational grounds.
Different types of schools
France’s education system is split into state schools, private sous contrat schools (which follow the national curriculum and have their teachers paid by the Department of Education), and private hors contrat schools, which must teach basic education requirements but can choose their teaching methods and have no state funding.
There are 60,000 state schools, 7,500 sous contrat schools, most of which are Catholic, and just under 2,500 hors contrat schools.
There are many different types of hors contrat school. The largest percentage, 29%, follow traditional teaching methods. Examples are the private international schools found in most big cities, such as the American School of Paris.
Some 16% teach professional skills, 21% are Montessori, and 13.3% follow other teaching methods. Overall, 21% are religious, most of them Catholic.
Hervé Rolland, president of the Fondation pour l’école, a Department of Education-recognised body to encourage diversity in education by supporting private schools, welcomes the stricter rules.
“Of course, schools like the Orthodox Jewish one should be reviewed and closed down if the allegations against them are proven.
“Cases like this can give independent schools a bad name, and it is right that they are strictly controlled, as there can always be abuses.”
He says it is difficult to set up hors contrat schools as they need a sound financial plan, but he insists there is huge demand for them.
“In September 2021, 122 new ones opened and we are working with 200 more that hope to open this September. A school in Tours, which opened this year with 66 pupils, already has requests for 80 new places.
New rules for home-schooling
Mr Rolland says he has nothing against state schools when they work well, but maintains parents are increasingly fed up with existing ones and want to see a different approach.
In independent schools, he says, “their child is treated as an individual”.
An increasing number of parents are also turning to home-schooling. Ten years ago, there were around 5,000 families doing it; in 2020/21, there were 62,000.
However, the loi contre le séparatisme also introduced much stricter rules for home-schooling, which will come into force in September.
Parents will need permission to teach at home and this will only be granted for specific reasons: the health of the child, or a registered disability; intensive artistic or sports training; itinerant families; or living too far from a school.
Publication of decrees giving more detailed regulations are expected soon, but their content has already been leaked, provoking anger among some home-schooling families.
Parents unhappy with stricter law
Jean-Baptiste and Marie Maillard have home-schooled their three children for the past 10 years.
They have also written a book on home-schooling and, after researching the situation in other countries, concluded that France already has one of the most restrictive sets of controls, comparable, they say, with China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
“The expected decrees make the rules even stricter,” says Mr Maillard.
“Parents must have a baccalauréat or equivalent and prove they are available to teach. Applications can only be made between March 1 and May 31 and children will not be able to switch to home-schooling until the new school year. This means there is no escape route for any child who is severely bullied during the year and could benefit from education at home for a while.”
They are challenging the new laws with the highest court in the land, the Conseil d’Etat, and several MPs are taking up their cause.
“We know many families choose to home-school because their children have dyslexia or other similar conditions, which they do not feel are catered for adequately in mainstream schools,” says Mr Maillard.
“[Under the new laws] this will not be an acceptable reason, unless the child has been registered disabled, which is a very long process.
‘Parents should be first educators of their children’
“We believe, from a report I have seen, that the government wants to reduce the numbers of home-schooled children by two-thirds. We say their argument that children could be radicalised in the home is unfounded. There is no proof that any child has turned to terrorism because he or she did not go to school.
“We believe parents should have a choice and should remain the first educators of their children.”
Families who are already home-schooling will not have to comply with the new rules until September 2024, but it will be more difficult for new families to start.
Mr Rolland says this could mean greater demand for places in hors contrat schools.
The government says its philosophy for education is to work towards an école inclusive, with quality education for all children from the age of three to 18, taking into account their differences and their individual educational needs.