Getting involved in your child’s education can be daunting when you are not familiar with the school system or not confident speaking French. However, there are several ways you can participate.
Parents’ associations are one way to join with other parents to defend your common interests. They may also organise trips, fairs or informational sessions around the school. If you really want to have a say, you can stand as a délégué (parent representative).
For each class, at least three times per year, a conseil de classe is held among school staff and parent and student representatives, to discuss each student’s marks as well as issues such as homework and pupils’ choices for the future.
Read more: A guide to starting at school in France
Elections take place every October, and while it is common for members of parents’ associations to stand, this is not a prerequisite. You can also stand for election to the conseil d’administration, the school board in collège and lycée.
The primary equivalent is the conseil d’école. Responsibilities include agreeing the school’s budget and having a say on the addition or removal of academic options.
No sense of community
As both a déléguée in her son’s lycée class and a teacher herself, Emma (name changed on interviewee’s request) has experienced both sides of the French education system.
“You can make of it what you want. My son went to a school which had an English section, so the parents were very active in that section,” she said, adding that it is rare for parents to speak up during meetings.
“Your role as a parent is mainly educational, and you are less involved in the wider school life in France. There is not really a sense of community around the school.”
‘She looked at me like I was mad’
She gave the example of a parent she had previously spoken to who arrived for a conseil de classe. “I asked if she would like a coffee. She looked at me like I was mad, and said no one had ever done that.
“In England, we would make sure people feel comfortable. In France, you are expected to turn up and understand what’s going on.”
While it can be challenging if you do not speak French, Emma said she would encourage parents to participate, as it can be a cultural eye-opener.
She also said foreign parents can be taken aback by the educational culture in France.
“For parents not used to the system, the way teachers treat children is surprising. Where my son went, there was a technology teacher who, if you hadn’t drawn a line in the right place, would rip up the paper.”
Barbara Armstrong was also surprised at the lack of parent participation when she moved here more than 30 years ago.
Her daughter had previously attended school in the UK and in California, where parents were eager to get involved. While she was invited to consult with teachers due to her daughter’s struggles with French, none of the other parents did.
Later, when her grandson attended the local one-room school in the Cévennes mountains, the experience was radically different. “Here it’s all parents on board! With fair stalls, jam for crêpes at the Chandeleur, meetings to learn about the programme the teacher had chosen,” she said.
Ms Armstrong believes a foreign perspective can be welcome. “And don’t worry about your accent. It might help your child’s teacher to understand why his spelling is less accurate than his maths.”
Foreign parents might even find they have other things to bring to the table.
Reader Bob Timms previously participated in snowshoe and cross-country skiing outings, and classe verte trips to the countryside. He is a qualified mountain walking guide, and cycling, canoeing, rafting and kayaking instructor and guide.
“My daughters’ schools liked having me along, even though my French was not always good enough to deal with backchat from cheeky kids,” he said.
“Children can sense when people are passionate about things and they are drawn to it. You don’t need a lot of language to facilitate great experiences.”
Mr Timms suggested many instructions could be conveyed through body language.
It was while socialising with teachers and other parents at lunch that his language skills were most tested. “But those days were often the best at moving forward my French-speaking confidence.