The given day

One of the happy side-effects of becoming a bloggeuse is the number of people who get in touch after they have just moved to France. A fortnight ago I spoke to one such person. Her two young children were due to start school five days after we spoke. She was beginning to feel a little bit uneasy about this, which was perfectly understandable given that a) the only conversation she’d had on the subject (some months earlier) had taken the form of a vague reassurance from the maire that everything would be fine; b) nobody had made it clear whether or not the younger of the two children was eligible for, or expected at, school; and c) there had been no letter, e-mail or text telling her when the school term would begin.

Happily, despite the fact that I live several hundred miles away from the commune in question and, indeed, had never even heard of it before, I was able to answer most of the questions. Yes, I said, because the younger child had been born in 2014, she would be expected at school. Term would begin on lundi 4 septembre. I knew this to be true because the school in question is a state primary school, and such things are governed by edicts from central government, no doubt from the great hand of Emmanuel Macron himself.

About the precise time and location I was less certain (Macron is presumably disinclined to micromanage). I was unable to specify what, if any, school supplies would be needed by each child (though I knew there would be a list). Nor, because of a recent and controversial change in the law, was I able to say whether or not there would be school on Wednesdays. However, all was not lost because the very next day was vendredi 1 septembre, and I did know that, on that particular day, the teachers in question would be found on the school premises, and could therefore be approached for all the answers that I had been unable supply. How did I know this? Well, everyone knows that la rentrée des profs happens on the working day before la rentrée des élèves … don’t they?

Not only do all pupils go back to school on the same day, they all have the same Tann’s bags, too.

When we first put the kids into French school, I found the lack of basic information available bewildering, and read into it a certain degree of hostility towards interlopers. It turns out that I was just being paranoid. Nobody communicates with you about the bare essentials because they are, quite simply, une évidence. When, at the start of our second year, I tried to engage another mother at the school gate in a little bit of cheerful griping about the fact that I had resorted to guessing when the kids needed to show up on the first day, I failed miserably. She looked at me as if I was a bit dim: mais comment tu ne le savais pas ? she asked. Well, nobody told me. Mais tout le monde le sait !

She was right. Tout le monde does indeed sait. This knowledge is not genetic, as I had at first wildly imagined, or even cultural: it’s laid down by central government, or at the very least by the mairie, and, having remained largely unchanged since Napoléon, can be considered to be immutable.

In some ways this monolithic system renders matters much simpler. This August I spent several hours telephoning and e-mailing people to try to arrange our children’s extra-curricular activities for the coming year. The responses, when the people concerned were not on holiday or at lunch, were mildly derisive. Je vous prie, Madame, de vous rendre au forum des associations. OK, fine, but when is this forum? The first Saturday after la rentrée, Madame, comme d’habitude. (Oh yes, silly me.)

The simplicity of having a single day on which people across the entire land can sign up for clubs is, like everything in France, a double-edged sword. Yes, it is convenient for you to know when and where to go without having to ask. However, suggesting to everyone that they do the same thing at the same time and in the same place is ultimately helpful to nobody except the organisers.

Imagine the terrifying consequences of a failed registration for Karate Kid.

The annual forum des associations is home to queueing on an epic scale. If you are English, the sight of perfumed ladies casually wafting into the line in which you have been waiting with only a mild air of martyrdom for twenty minutes is likely to send your blood pressure soaring. When you eventually get to the desk, you need to make sure you have your entire dossier at the ready, otherwise your application for your offspring to do karaté will be sunk for want of a single passport photo, a certificat médical or a stamped-addressed envelope (smiley though those people in jolly t-shirts at the desk may seem, they are ruthlessly unforgiving when it comes to dossiers). And whilst being turned away may not seem so terrible, when you are aware that there are only a limited number of available spaces, that the perfumed lady has taken 75% of them, and that registrations are for the entire year, well… failure doesn’t bear thinking about.


#AllAboutFrance is back on the Lou Messugo blog. To find out more about French ways why not peruse the other blogs on there?


28 thoughts on “The given day

  1. Once I realised it probably wasn’t genetic, I thought it was a case of putting trust and faith in the fact that somewhere along the line the system works. Bah non! It is clearly the centuries entrenched, standardised, centralised systems at work!

    But… the anomalies are so weird. I came across a little form at the start of September asking for information about who would be dropping off Josie on the first three days of maternelle (dropping off I stress, not picking up…), which had to be completed aussitot que possible, or by the VERY LATEST by end June. Total panic! Would they remove her from the registration form?

    So I rocked up on the first day, very sheepishly, with the form, and the teacher looked at it like she had no idea of its existence. Panic over. phew!

    1. Ha! I think the system does work, Shoena, it’s just perplexing for outsiders… I hope maternelle is going ok? And hope you spotted the fact that you had inspired this post.

  2. I must say I’ve never queried this one as I’ve only ever had children in the French system…isn’t it like this everywhere? I must say I’m intrigued as I thought this sort of thing was the same in the UK. I look online regularly to check when UK school starts/holidays start/half term dates etc in order to market the gite accordingly. It all seems to be pretty centralised too. And in my area, PACA, the forum des associations is on different dates in different towns, so I haven’t come across that issue either. Although my experiences are different from yours, as always I do love the way you write with such acerbic humour! Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

    1. No, in the UK (which I don’t think is better, by the way) there are some basic guidelines but holidays are all over the shop, depending on region, state/vs private and school-level decisions about teacher training days and the day new kids will start on etc. And the idea that teachers rock up the day before is crazy: they know their classes before the summer and will be working together on lesson plans (which change year on year) for much of the summer. And clubs are on a term by term basis: you call/email, rock up and pay. It’s interesting to hear the regional variations though.

      1. If Annalie’s ever in Scotland during term time, I can usually get her into a club she used to go to just for that week. Swimming is a big exception – long waiting lists, you pay in blocks, no flexibility, but everything else is fine if there’s a space.

        The problem with the UK is that regional authorities have such different holidays, so friends of mine who are teachers often have kids who don’t always have the same holiday as them.

        1. Exactly – the system in the UK is a bit random – flexible but not predictable. The system here is rigid and inflexible, but you know where you are (once you work it out).

      2. French teachers also know their classes for the following academic year before the summer, in fact usually by April or so. I feel hope that the dedicated ones work on their lesson plans over the summer (and I’m quite sure not all UK teachers spend their summers working!)

        1. That’s interesting. I think we’re hitting on regional differences. When I taught here, I spent the day before term started arguing with my colleagues about who would get which pupil in their class. I kid you not. And of course many teachers here work over the summer, and many in the UK don’t, but the fact that the programme here is relatively unchanging DOES mean that once you have planned your lessons for a particular year group, you don’t need to do it again in subsequent years. I ought to start my blog posts with a health warning: 1) Don’t read them literally, and 2) No, I don’t think the UK is all that… Thanks for stopping by.

  3. What intrigues me is how the school knew this child was due to arrive there? Here in rural Yorkshire there are a plethora of small village primary schools, plus there are at least six in nearby Skipton. They all compete with each other, to keep their class sizes up, and children don’t necessarily go to the school in their village. Indeed, MANY of them don’t go to their nearest school. Does this happen in France too?

    1. Well, it’s changing, but basically you go to your local school. It’s the default. If you decide to pay for a bit of Catholicism then you go elsewhere but otherwise your local school is obliged to take you. In this case they had told the mairie they wanted to go, and it appears that was sufficient…

  4. LOL of course you should know, except when you don’t. Honestly, I have tried for a month to understand how the short-term gym card works only to realize (finally) that the person “responsable” was on holidays and no one else checks the email.

  5. I remember parents practically crying because of the line/scrum to sign up their kids for swimming.
    Eventually, when they are bigger, it gets easier. After years with a coach, the signup is by SMS, with a form eventually brought home, filled out and returned, along with a check and certificat medical.
    And the high schools and junior highs have a fabulous online system showing their class schedule, absent teachers, lunch menu, grades and homework. Very easy to keep track.

    1. Ah! That is a comfort. Actually, dance has already got much easier because it’s every year and we know the teacher, but new activities. Argh. As I say, I think everything is fine once you are in the system (thoroughly institutionalised) but at first I don’t know how anyone knows what to do…

  6. We arrived on Sep 10 for our big family adventure in France. Our bewildered state of ignorance took us beyond the enrolment date for extra-curricular activities. We had incorrectly presumed that that would make no difference and that we could enrol our children late, pay their season fees (in this case for tennis) and that would be that. But no, tennis was off the cards completely. Shame, but the following year, we knew that we had to look out for the dates and did not miss them. That first year we got so much wrong. Luckily, we thought it was all worth re-doing and stayed.

    1. It is worth it, you’re right, but unless you are prepared for the 1 September cut off for EVERYTHING (and the enormous rentrée cheques) it’s a little bit of a shock. Often organisers are willing to be a bit kind when you look as if you’re about to cry, thank goodness.

    2. We didn’t bother at all with extra-curricular stuff in our first year either. Had enough on our plate with setting everything else up!

  7. I am struck by the universality of this experience. When I arrived with kidlet to sign up for school in Lyon back in 1992, it was entirely the same. And although a rude awakening for those who, in fact, ne savent pas, it is oddly comforting to read that nothing has changed since! At the same time, I can’t imagine how people arrive in France and just expect information to be delivered to them, presumably in English. Surely part of the expat experience is having to go out to the Mairie or the school and figure it out? Perhaps this attitude is proof of my ‘Frenchness’ after all these years!

    1. Ha! Yes, nothing changes. There probably are people who just expect information to be delivered to them, and possibly in English, though I don’t know anyone like that. In the case of the person I spoke to, she had indeed been to the Mairie and enrolled the kids in French (a couple of months previously), but everyone there just expected that she’d know the form and she didn’t know that there was a form to know so she didn’t get the basic information she needed. In many countries those enrolled would at least get a brief note telling them of the date and time they were expected on the first day. Here it’s just assumed that you know. And once you do, you do, but until you do you don’t. As for the activities, well, it never would have occurred to me to rock up at the Mairie in my first year for that. I did what I had done in the UK and looked on the internet, where you find nothing, so then asked around. The forum is a good system (apart from the queue jumping) though the centralisation is novel for many people. (It’s absolutely true though, that when I was first here I had ideas for blog posts every week, but now everything is beginning to feel more normal, so I’m having fewer ideas…!). Thanks for stopping by.

  8. We don’t have children and so the French school system is a closed book to me. I feel nothing but admiration for people who move here and then negotiate the system to educate their children. It takes a lot of courage – both for the parents and for the children, I imagine. Chapeau! #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thank you. It either takes courage or naievety. And there are big rewards, which make it worthwhile. But extra-curriculars here are for adults, too… You should go to your local forum des associations and join in the fun. #AllAboutFrance

  9. I so get what you are saying here, having had the joys of putting 2 young children into a French school for the first time. I think the French are so entrenched in their way of doing things that they cannot understand that other countries may do them differently and so we foreigners might not actually have the faintest idea what is going on or how to try and find out! I now had my older boy in Lycée and to be honest I am not sure I have done everything I should have done …. #AllAboutFrance

    1. I think you’re right. And up to a point they’re right too: it’s France, so the system is designed around the French. I just wish that they could use their imaginations enough to realise that outsiders are not so much stupid as unfamiliar with the set-up… thanks for dropping by.

  10. Just as I start thinking about moving back to France, I am reminded NON!! I have only just recovered my confidence lol. The curly one has grown 🙂

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