My Thoughts, Switching from an American to a French Pre-school System 🧒

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Comparing the American and French pre-school system: pros and cons, and our own experience. Leyla was 4 when we moved from the US to France.

Olivier and I, and our daughter Leyla, moved “back” to France in 2009, after 18 years of life in the US. Leyla was 4 years old when she attended her French pre-school, and she was bilingual.

Her English was much more developed than her French, and she had quite a strong American accent. Her voice pitch and intonation were American.

1- Organization of Daycare in the US versus France

a) Private daydaycare the US

Leyla had been with a nanny since she was 4 months old, part time first, then full time, allowing me to go back to work. When she was 2, we enrolled her at Creative Corners, a very dependable and outrageously expensive day care in Winchester. Creative Corners offered all kind of mentally-challenging activities, lots of arts and crafts, and had a great indoor and outdoor play area. There were up to 8 kids, 1 teacher and 2 helpers per group, 2 groups in one big common space.

leyla preschool

b) Public daycare In France

When we moved to France in December 2008, Leyla had just turned 4 (she was born in November) and went to “la Moyenne Section” which I believe is 2 years before Kindergarden.
“La maternelle” starts at 3 years old and is composed of:
– “la petite section” (3 years old),
– “la moyenne section” (4 years old)
– “la grande section” (5 years old).
None of this is compulsory. Learn More about the French school system

Classes run from about 8:30 AM-12 PM, with a morning break, then the option of lunch à “la cantine” or back at home, then 1:15 PM-4:15PM, with naps for the littlest ones and one afternoon break. Then possibly “la garderie” which is supervised (or so it claims) play till 6:30 PM or 7 PM.

There is one teacher and one helper per class of… 22 kids !!! And it gets even worse at “la garderie” where there is one or two supervisors for all the kids of the school who need to stay after school… Of course, this varies tremendously according to each school, but these numbers are far from being uncommon.


2 – Dependability of Preschools in France

In France, there is usually no school on Wednesdays (although that is in the process of changing with the new – and very controversial – school reforms that the current government is putting in place this year and next), and tons of vacations, holidays, long weekends, not mentioning the strikes…

In the US, CC was open every weekday, snow storm or shine, 7 AM to 6 PM (with flexible drop off/ pick up times within this frame)… I believe they may have been closed on a couple of national Holidays, but not all of them. They would give us a schedule at the beginning of the year, and plenty of reminder ahead of time.

It took me a while to figure out my options in France since no-one seemed to care to explain the whole picture. It was amazing how even the school principal or the person in charge of the “communauté de communes” (a government organization who is supposed to help the families integrate their community and other things which I have not figured out yet) could not give me a clear picture of what I was supposed to do with my kid when there was no school !!!

I first started to look into hiring a nanny, which seemed to be the only option at that time. Oh my Goodness…. The nanny wanted to be “declared”, so officialy she could get a pay check with the benefits, and being new to the system, I had to fill a HUGE file to get into “Les Allocations familiales”… It was such a mess !!! I finally found someone who reluctantly accepted some cash while my file was getting processed… And then, miracle, I heard of “le centre aéré”.

“Le centre aéré” is a government sponsored yet private center which takes your kids from 8ish in the morning till 6ish in the evening. You can enroll the kid for the full day (including lunch) or half a day. They are opened on Wednesdays, and during school vacation. They offer all kind of arts and crafts, some outings, and have a big outdoor play area (our “centre aéré” in Paimpol is even by the beach…). “Les centres aérés” quality varies a lot from town to town, that’s what I’ve heard. You need to go every month to city hall (“la mairie”) to register your kid, and there are specific dates you need to go to enroll your kid during vacation times. All this during working hours of course, Monday-Friday, so this AGAIN is a big mess for working parents.

I am lucky since both Olivier and I work at home, and Olivier’s family is always ready to help with Leyla, but I really wonder how French parents who both work and have no family nearby can cope with all the days when school is closed…

leyla grece

3 – Cost of Preschools in France

In France, public school is completely FREE (including lots of the books and basic supplies needed).

“La cantine” and “la garderie” are extras… a whoopping max of 4 Euros a day if you were to enroll your child to lunch and maximum of after school care. And of course, you could receive government help if you needed help to pay this.

For “le centre aéré” , it’s free if you are under a certain income level. Then it varies depending on the towns, but I’d say about a max of 12 Euros for the whole day including lunch and snacks. You may have to pitch in a couple of Euros for a special day trip to a castle, or an amusement park…

So let’s say your kid goes to la cantine, la garderie, et le centre aéré = ~112 Euros per month.

In the US, Creative Corners cost us 1,250.- USD A MONTH (in 2007) and we had to pack her lunch!

Now of course, you’ll note that these are public school costs but most of the private system is also incredibly ‘cheap’ compared to the US (and a lot of other countries).  Leyla is currently in a private school and we still only pay about €40/month on top of the costs above.

There is a big trend right now in the US to be a “home maker”: many women these days say they choose to stay home and raise their family.  However the price of day care being so prohibitive, I can’t help but thinking: “is it really a choice ??”. Or is it that women (who stay home more often than men) can’t afford to work, and stay home not because they want to, but because they cannot do anything else. And when it’s not a choice, being a home maker can be really, really difficult.

4 – Teaching Philosophy of Preschools in France

When Leyla was at CC in Winchester, all the day’s activities were optional: Leyla could learn the alphabet, or sit quietly in a corner and draw. She could go play outside with all the kids, or stay in and read a book. Nothing was ever imposed, except a quiet time at nap time.

By the time she was barely 4, she could write her alphabet, her name and a couple of common short words, could count till 100. Teachers couldn’t stop telling us how wonderful, kind, social, intelligent and loving Leyla was :-) Leyla looooooved going to CC, she had many friends there and they even threw a party when she left and I have kept all the drawings and pictures they took that day.

When Leyla started “la maternelle” in “moyenne section” in France, the school was thrilled to have a bilingual child (read my section on how to raise a bilingual child), and Leyla had no problem adapting to speaking French all day. She seemed happy enough, her voice pitch dropped and after maybe 3 months, her French was as good as any other kid her age.

Olivier was dropping her off in the morning: there was no alloted time to speak to the teacher who was welcoming all the other kids/families (with another teacher (grande section), parents were not even allowed into the classroom at all, they had to say goodbye to their kid at the door.)

Then I would go pick her up at 6 at “la garderie”.

The big surprise came at the end of the first trimester, with Leyla’s grades.
Well, not exactly grades, no numbers or letter, but definitely red marks and comments on “tests”:

  1. – “Leyla doesn’t do what the teacher asks”
  2. – “Leyla takes too much time doing the exercise”
  3. – “Leyla is not precise enough”
  4. – “could do better” (already, sigh….)

It was the first time I had heard the preschool gave tests. And the first time I had heard there was something wrong with Leyla’s work.

The teacher, who my husband saw every morning, never mentioned anything (was she trying to be discreet in front of the other parents ???).

Needless to try to describe how shocked we were… With Leyla’s results, all the red marks, as much as with the fact that the teacher didn’t say anything to us about it!!

So we asked for an appointment with the teacher. And then she repeated the remarks: Leyla was smart enough, there was nothing wrong with her, her French level was good enough, but she didn’t seem to pay attention when there was a test, and would be reluctant to stop drawing or playing when the teacher was teaching something.

And then it hit me… Leyla didn’t KNOW what a test was.

She still operated under the “participation at will” of the US!

When I said this to the teacher, she was so surprised and didn’t even register the possibility… “What do you mean Leyla doesn’t understand what a test is. It’s obvious! It’s school: she has to do what she is being told to do!”…

I felt like I came from another planet!

Back home, we had a quiet talk with Leyla, and explained that this was different now, that school was her “job”, that she had to obey the teacher and pay attention to what she taught, stop playing/drawing when the teacher said so, and that there would be tests and grades, and that it was her job to get good grades at school, just like our jobs were to make money to pay for the rent and the food etc…

Leyla understood, and from that day on, she has been a A student.

Now, it pains me to say Leyla learned NOTHING more than what she already knew in the first 2 years of “maternelle” in France.

By the end of “grande section” (she was 5 1/2), she could count to 100, write her name, and knew the alphabet. Everything she already knew when she left Creative Corners. So much for matching a kid’s potential…

leyla balancoire

5 – Difference in School Education France Versus US

Adapting to the French system was not easy. The price break was awesome, what a relief, but all the rest was… quite a disappointment compared to our experience at Creative Corners.

The way the teacher treat the kids in France is VERY different… They are not going to say lots of good things about your kid, and are more likely to point out the problems than the positive. If you get a “tout va bien” (all is well), then you should be happy, it means your kid is doing what’s expected, and that’s a good thing.

It’s like teachers want to keep school a “private” place for the kid. They have their own life here, and parents are not on the need to know list. Maybe it builds independence? Or maybe the teachers just don’t have enough time for the parents…

I remember going to a parent’s reunion for Leyla (I had to cancel 2 lessons to be there since it was at 4 PM, again, how do working parents cope?) and the teacher said “I have nothing special to tell you. Leyla is doing great, she is happy, obedient and has a good attitude in class”. That was all I could get from the teacher. Next parent…

One thing is certain: the French system, from the very beginning, promotes fitting in the system. And you get yelled at when you don’t. Not a great way to form future thinking out of the box, entrepreneurs or to develop originality and self-esteem… I hate to think my Leyla is being raised to fit in a (shoe) box.

She is getting no glory at all from being the first in her class (she told me she asked her teacher, who looked around before telling her under big secret she had the best grades, as if it was something to be ashamed of). Is it to spare other kids feelings? Sparing kids feelings didn’t seem to be the top priority of French teachers to me…

Anyways… I wanted to share some of my experiences with you and of course, they will be different for everyone (based on the school & region) but I thought it might be an interesting perspective on this subject… Let me know what you think in the comments!

leyla aquarium

If you’d like to know more about the French school system, read this article.

You may also be interested in my tips on how to raise a bilingual kid.

We are lucky that Leyla always wanted to contribute to French Today: she recited several French poems and even sang for you, and lately, she developed her own French videos to learn French – check them out!

To learn French in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation. 

You’ll find exclusive mini lessons, tips, pictures and more everyday on French Today’s Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages – so join me there!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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