The Fairfield blog
The rewards of moving to a UK Independent School can be tremendous. Your son or daughter will be released from the very formal French curriculum and they will find themselves in an environment where their views are valued, where they are expected to make a contribution in lessons, and where learning can be an adventure.
Moving younger children is easier but moving to Britain can be a huge opportunity or a huge problem depending on your viewpoint, and that of your child. The biggest decisions are how bilingual you want your child to be, and how influenced by British culture.
The debate at this level is practical as well as philosophical. If you want your child to be bilingual but also retain his or her French culture then it is worth doing your research. If you immerse them in a British school you run the risk of their French remaining at a rather juvenile level but if you send them to the Lycée then they will never be truly bilingual. On moving to London the decision therefore, is quite simple; either stay within the French system or step outside and look for a school that will understand your child's background and will make the necessary allowances.
At primary/junior school level this is relatively easy to find. London is an international city and most centre city Prep, Pre-Prep and Nursery Schools are therefore international too. Eaton Square School has over 40 different nationalities among its 390 pupils, including 21 French children. Headmaster Sebastian Hepher suggests that “the French pupils face no more a challenging time than the other nationalities from Europe”. The increase in French 'custom' is true of many schools with whom he meets on a regular basis due to the recent changes in tax laws on the continent.
For Eaton Square the relevant information is:
When they join: The French system is always several years behind and reading, for example, does not happen until they are 6 - 7 years old. Therefore if a child joins for Reception or up to Year 4 there can be related issues there.
Non-English speaker: The acquisition of spoken English is relatively quick and within a year most children communicate well. However, the acquisition of the skills of inference from text and deeper understanding when reading and writing can take up to seven years to fully attain.
The answer to these challenges, Sebastian believes, “is to provide strong EAL support and to 'flow' this through the staff and classes. With this in place success will be obtained. It is also important that the language spoken at home is as much English as any other to further cement this. If this is difficult for the parents then an English nanny, if there a nanny in the household, is preferable. In addition watching English TV and listening to English radio adds more layers”.
The alternative is for your child to join one of the many French Junior schools such as L'Ecole de Battersea which currently educates over 200 pupils from age 3 to 11.
Moving to the UK or into a British school when your child is older; 13 to 16, is probably more difficult and please don't imagine that your son or daughter will manage without some careful planning.
Between 300,000 and 400,000 French nationals now live in London which is often said to be France’s sixth biggest city. As a result it is is possible to find a "mini-Lycée" in most of the central boroughs but outside the capital things are very different and provision of French education is very rare; the exception being Northbourne Park Prep School in Kent which runs the French curriculum alongside the British. The Lycée Charles de Gaulle, London, which opened in 1915 now educates almost 4,000 pupils. A new Lycée, for another 1,000 pupils, will open in Brent Town Hall in Wembley in 2015. The Grade II listed Art Deco building was sold by Brent council to the French Education Property Trust, which will run the school backed by the French embassy.
And so back to planning your move; if your son or daughter already has a good command of English then you can concentrate on curriculum differences. Do not try to cover all subjects but focus on mathematics and English, and to a lesser extent, science. Marc Dath who teaches Mathematics and has been a Housemaster at The King's School in Canterbury, for 17 years, explains that the difficulties facing a French pupil joining a school following an English curriculum are threefold.
“Firstly, the French teaching methods are very axiomatic while the English approach is more heuristic. The child learns to ‘play with the Maths and Sciences’ and leaves the formalisation till later. This is very much in contrast with the French approach which tends to favour rigour over enjoyment. This means that lessons may seem less structured in the English cursus and less prone to the ‘definition - theorem – lemma’ plan which follows the national French programme.
The second hurdle facing the French pupil is the presentation of mathematical solutions. The rigidity of the lesson plans in the French programme is duly reflected in the expectation by teachers for water-tight written solutions. A missing ‘implication’ sign will cost you dearly! In contrast, marks will be awarded as long as a hint of an explanation is given in an English piece of homework.
And this leads to the third difficulty. In order to produce strictly argued solutions, the French system favours quality over quantity, which means testing only three or four topics in public exams. Hard luck if these are amongst the topics you did not revise. In contrast, the English papers will attempt to test as many of the topics studied as possible. This implies being able to ‘regurgitate’ as many methods and techniques as manageable in the imparted time. Many French pupils find the tasks demanding in the allotted time.
Nonetheless, these are difficulties which, in time, and given the right attitude, can be overcome and many of our French ‘contingent’ eventually adapt to the ‘trans-manche’ requirements”.
Luke Sullivan, Director of Riviera Tutors - a company that does a lot of work with families in Monaco and the South of France - advises that students moving from the French to the UK Independent system tackle the English language issue before anything else: “The assumption of competent English underpins every subject, even mathematics. Exam questions are sometimes designed to punish careless reading by native English speakers, and for a foreigner this level of nuance can be quite a hurdle to overcome. We often recommend intensive spoken and written English tuition for foreign students making the transition to the UK, as without this the general content of subjects can be inaccessible; it's to gain equality rather than an advantage. Schools are often alert to this and put measures in place to give foreign students an early boost, but it pays to preempt the probable language issue as much as possible, given its relevance to every aspect of schooling in the UK.”
Independent senior schools may not make huge allowances for the difficulties faced by a French national and preparing for a move without consultancy or tutorial support can be very difficult. This is where good advice is essential. A reputable educational consultancy and/or tutorial company can certainly help as can The Independent Schools Council. It is also helpful to understand the structure of senior schools in the UK. The pupils have to settle into a new school with its new curriculum and routine. At age 14+ they start the two year GCSE programme and at 16+ the two year programme (sixth form) in A levels or IB leading on to university entry.
Strangely a move at age 16+ can be surprisingly easy particularly if you are planning to study A levels where your son or daughter can play to his or her strengths and concentrate on just four subjects which are of most interest. Although A levels do build on what has been taught, the courses are sufficiently "new" for all to feel that they are different.
So now comes the really difficult part, how to choose a school. Many Prep (junior) schools are booked up early and entry to senior schools in London is normally sorted out years in advance. My personal advice is to make contact with your educational consultant as early as possible, get your advisor and tutor to work together and plan to visit their selection of schools as far in advance as is possible. At the point of application what many French parents will find very refreshing is the interest and account that is taken by the schools of a pupil’s interests and talents, especially in the arts, sport and languages. An international background can also be a distinct advantage. Entry tests here are not restricted to the purely academic.
Despite the usual curricular constraints all Independent Schools strive to place independent learning at the centre of what they do and for many who have endured the French system their new environment can be truly liberating.
Rory Reilly spent 10 years as Registrar for Admissions at The King's School Canterbury and now advises French families on how to make a successful transition to a UK school.