UPPING sticks and moving your young family to France can pose many challenges, both at home and in the schoolyard.
Graham Downie settled near the town of Cognac last year with his wife and two young daughters – escaping the exhausting world of the property business in the UK.
Here Graham gives his first-hand experience of putting his children into the local village school and how his family’s life has changed.
MY wife and I moved to Mainxe, a small hamlet in the Charente, western France in October 2003. Try looking it up on a map and you’ll struggle as it only consists of a few houses and a church some 10 km’s outside Cognac.
Quite a move as, in my previous life, I worked in the heart of the West End while my wife stayed in Walton on Thames to look after five year old Holly and Katie, aged three.
One of the major reasons for moving to France was so that I would have more time to spend with my family. We also wanted our children to grow up in an area where people weren’t so focused on money and property.
We had some close friends in Surrey but it’s just so difficult to escape the cycle of big houses, expensive cars, long hours and whopping great mortgages. Throw in the fact that we really weren’t prepared to spend all our spare cash on private schooling for the girls and a move to France seemed truly appealing.
But how does the reality sit with the dream… well here’s the inside track.
Getting the girls into the local school was simplicity itself. Schools in rural areas are crying out for new entrants – the fact that our girls were English was seen as a real positive, bringing a cosmopolitan touch to the school.
Obviously we had to show passports, birth certificates and medical records. We also had to get a doctor to give the girls their BCG jabs (much earlier than in England) and to take out a special “schooling” insurance policy, which cost the princely sum of six euros.
The girls began in school within two days of our arrival. They attend an ecole maternelle and are in a class of 3 to 5 year olds. There are 20 pupils in class with two full time teachers and a classroom assistant. The “Maitresse”, Christelle, does speak a little English but tries to encourage them to speak French.
There are big differences to English schooling for both girls. Holly’s old friends in the UK are at primary school now and are getting a formal introduction to reading and writing. She was always well advanced in these areas but now she’s definitely lagging behind her English counterparts. She won’t get tuition in these subjects until September, a full year behind her old peers.
For Katie the difference was even more marked.
If we had stayed in England she would have gone to nursery for a couple of mornings a week. Over here she is in the same class as Holly and does 8.45 am until 4.10pm four days a week. At first she found this difficult, even though all the little ones have a sleep after lunch.
However, she’s finally turned the corner (after three months) and now skips into school each morning. Looking back this is only slightly longer than Holly took to settle into nursery but at the time it seemed an eternity.
The benefits of our “new life” far outweigh the disadvantages.
For a start it’s wonderful to hear them beginning to speak French like the locals with no trace of an English accent. Of course they are nowhere near fluency yet but you can see the improvements almost daily.
Secondly there is the attention they receive from both teachers and pupils. The high staff to pupil ratio means they get lots of attention and help. The “curiosity” factor has also helped them make friends quickly. Both girls already seem to have a string of French suitors and there was almost a fight on the school bus when Holly was sitting next to Geoffray but holding hands across the aisle with his (ex) best friend Jules.
Such outings are commonplace as the French are keen on the arts and theatre. Trips to see mime artists, clowns, musicians and other fringe theatre take place every term and are great fun if you happen to be invited along to help.
Another outstanding feature is the weekly menu we read in their schoolbooks. Always involving a three course meal and making use of local produce (with the notable exception of the aforementioned Cognac and Pineau). The girls have both developed healthy appetites, even if Katie does always answer ‘chicken’ when you ask her what she had for lunch.
School ‘pick up’ time is particularly different from the UK.
Outside the school in Surrey we were used to seeing a variety of jeeps, BMWs and other upmarket cars double parked and causing chaos. Here we have a far wider variety of vehicles.
You do see BMWs and even an Audi but they sit comfortably alongside a tractor (God’s honest truth, it’s owned by Charlie’s dad), a Citroen van that must be older than me (42) and a higgledy row of Renaults and Peugeots parked, I use the term loosely, alongside the vines.
To anyone contemplating a move involving young children I’d say don’t be frightened.
Of course there are difficult moments but no more than you’d have if they went to school in the UK. Watching the kids here in the playground is no different from seeing them run and play in any school – they run, jump, skip, argue, shove, laugh and cry along with the best of them, they just seem to gesticulate more.
Now if only we could get rid of this compulsory kissing of boys every time they meet…!
Graham Downie runs a property management & search service covering the Cognac region, details at www.cognacproperty.com