La Rentrée and Shopping For The French School Year
Angie Power moved to France from the UK over twenty years ago to settle in a small provincial town. Her experience as a secondary school teacher in both the English and French state school systems, in bringing up her own children abroad, and in tracing their lives at local schools and watching them develop their bilingualism has provided her with some valuable lessons to pass on to other parents.
Go into a local supermarket in France over the last fortnight in August and you will feel it in the air. Visit a stationer’s and the atmosphere will be positively buzzing. The French even have a word for it: la rentrée. It is the run up to and the start of the new school year.
When I first arrived in France and with no children, I could never understand what exactly everyone was buying – after all there is no uniform to buy since very few pupils in France wear one and certainly none in the town where I live.
Nowadays, as a mother of two teenage boys who go to local state schools and having undergone a fair number of rentrées, I know exactly what parents up and down the country are buying.
BUYING A SCHOOL BAG
Firstly, there is the school bag. Some research is undertaken before its purchase and I am not talking about brand names either. There are good reasons for buying your child the best school bag you can afford. All children, even those at primary school, have homework so textbooks as well as exercise books are carried home. Secondary school children carry all the exercise and textbooks they will need for any one morning or afternoon to and from school – that is if they go home for lunch. Those who stay at school for lunch carry all their exercise books and textbooks for the whole day with them. My children’s bags – books, sports kit and all – have weighed about eight kilos at times! There is not the system of personal desks in form rooms and lockers are limited in number in most schools. Teachers (in other than primary schools) do not have extra sets of textbooks in the classrooms and in any case their job is to teach not to provide books.
All this lugging around of heavy satchels and back packs – and up and down three flights of stairs as in the case of my sons – lead French parents to choose their children’s bags carefully in order to avoid back-ache at the end of the day. This always comes up as a point of contention at school meetings, but the nearest thing to any sympathy on the part of the teachers is to allow one of two pupils sitting together to bring in and share their textbook. Teachers are usually loathe to make even this compromise because if one of the two children is unexpectedly absent, then the other is without a textbook for the lesson.
Local supermarkets circulate fliers and publicity with these concerns in mind. Not only are the dimensions of a bag provided but also even cross-sections of the materials used to illustrate padding and shock-resistance. I have even seen school bags stamped with ‘approved by the medical profession’.
Next on the list is les fournitures. (Which is not to be confused with furniture!) All children are expected to provide their own pens, pencils, exercise books, files, writing paper, drawing paper, paint, paint brushes ... In fact, everything that they will use to write, draw or paint with.
At primary level, the class teacher may provide certain things and this is often paid for by the voluntary contribution which is requested of parents at the beginning of the year. As for secondary school pupils, they go to school armed with all they need.
Teachers provide lists of what their classes require and this proved to be a real mal à la tête for me in the early years until I got into the swing of things. When my son was at primary school, I had to buy an ardoise for him. The dictionary said it was a roof tile and I wondered what a class of six-year-olds could possibly need with that! A kind French mother explained that it was a writing slate that I had to buy: it saves wasting paper when the children start to write and they need to practise the same letters over and over again. Then I understood: writing slates like the ones you read about in Victorian novels. But even then, I hadn’t quite understood because nowadays they are actually small whiteboards (needing special whiteboard felt tips) rather than small blackboards.
Paper is another sore point since my notion of writing paper was not the same as everyone else’s very specific type. I was overcome by the very vocabulary: feuilles simples, copies doubles, petits carreaux, séyès ... Single sheets are for taking lesson notes whilst double sheets are for tests so that the teacher can add up the marks more quickly.
At first, I – in vain – looked for lined writing paper that I used to write on at school and which does not exist here: in fact French school children write on squared paper. Small squares for maths (petits carreaux) and larger squares (séyès) for everything else. This is explained by French handwriting. Primary school children are taught joined-up writing from the very beginning and each letter begins at a certain point in the square and ends at another. When they begin a new paragraph, they start two squares in, after the margin and two lines down.
Some teachers are very precise about the dimensions of the exercise books their pupils will require and although I have been furious when I have needed to go to a specialist shop to order, there is usually a good reason for being so exact. Often it is so that the children do not have to trim down maps or graphs or sketches before they glue them into their books. One humanities teacher insisted the children write on pink writing paper for her history lessons, blue for her geography lessons and yellow for her civics lessons!
It is wise to wait for the teacher to distribute a list and to stipulate exactly what pupils are expected to bring, because otherwise you may find that what you have bought in advance will only be wasted.
When my sons first went to secondary school, their teachers spent an hour with them discussing the things they would always need in their pencil cases, stressing the importance of checking their equipment regularly. They were told that good presentation depends on their tools and at every rentrée, I buy them a brand new pencil case with new pens and pencils to reinforce this idea.
At secondary school certain booklets for use in the language lab or for music or technology need to be bought by parents on the orders of the subject teacher. Since there is a great belief in mental arithmetic, it is usually only at collège that calculators get a mention on school lists, with the type recommended.
The final three years of secondary education takes place at the lycée and it is at this point that la rentrée becomes ‘big time’ because parents need to provide the textbooks for their children as well as the writing equipment. Given that pupils need some twelve textbooks (not counting dictionaries) buying them brand new seems an expensive option to many parents. Second-hand book sales are a possibility but since the school programmes often change from one year to the next, parents cannot be sure of selling the textbooks that their children have finished with the following year because other pupils will not be required to use them. Like me, many parents decide to hire their children’s textbooks through a parents’ organisation. For the cost of just under 80 euros my son has all his twelve textbooks ready for the start of the school year and he will return them at the end of the year. They are all in good condition – now that is what I call parent power! In the last two years of lycée, our local authority actually helps with this cost.
Although l’assurance scolaire or school insurance is not compulsory as such, it is so strongly recommended by schools that parents with children of all ages consider this a must to be sorted out at the beginning of each school year. In any case, school insurance is necessary for a pupil who takes part in a school trip or who is part of a sports association. Parents’ groups distribute brochures when term begins and a wide range of accident and damage cover is available.
It is amazing to me that the majority of parents provide more or less what is required and the overall cost seems to be going up every year. According to the figures for the rentrée of 2006, la Confédération Syndicale des Families puts the average budget for a pupil at primary school at 170 euros and 335 euros for a pupil at secondary school. Teachers I have asked have confirmed the cost, but add that they – as a profession – do their best not to incur too much expense since they are often parents themselves. There are both government and school grants available to help families in financial difficulty. Workers’ committees, too, sometimes make a contribution. Often parents buy in quantity, which both reduces the price of individual items and provides a stock that lasts the whole year.
L’Association Famille de France estimates that at the rentrée 2006-7 parents with children starting their first year at collège spent about 202 euros per pupil on pens, paper, school bags, books and other equipment. Given the cost to their parents, French children probably have every interest in taking good care of their school things – otherwise they have some explaining to do at home! Vive la rentrée!