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What you need to know if your child is starting school in France

The Local France
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What you need to know if your child is starting school in France
Rentrée is coming! (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

Whether you've got a little one ready to start school for the first time or an older child switching to a French school, here's what you should expect from the French schooling system.


Children technically start schooling at the age of three in France, since attendance at maternelle has been compulsory since 2022. But maternelle is really more like nursery or pre-school with singing, games, teddies and an afternoon nap (for the kids, not the staff).

The jump to école primaire (primary school) is a big deal and it's when school gets real.

If your children are older but starting in a French school for the first time you may also find the experience and the general schooling ethos different to what you are used to.

Here is what you can expect;

What if they don't speak French?

If you have recently moved to France and your child does not speak much or any French, they may need extra help. The general rule is that kids going into maternelle (age 3 to 6) don't get any formal classes because it's assumed they will pick up the language, but older children can receive extra tuition to help them to learn the French they'll need for the classroom.


Different areas organise this slightly differently, but the key thing to know is that it is up to you as a parent to contact the education authority - don't assume that the school will do this for you.

Find full details of how to access language support HERE.

What if I don't speak French?

If you're lucky the teacher may speak some English and be willing to help you, but that's not a guarantee. If your French is very basic it's a good idea to take along a French-speaking friend for any important school meetings.

Joining the parents WhatsApp group can be a good way to get an idea of what is going on - it'll be in French but at least you can look up the words you don't understand. Once your child picks up French they can translate for you (although don't be surprised if they stitch you up by 'forgetting' to translate anything that might get them in trouble).

What sort of school bag do they need? 

Most children starting school with a new backpack - known as a cartable.

As they get older, these bags get bigger, as workloads get heavier. By collège (age 11 to 14) or lycée (age 15 to 18), your children may be lugging round several kilos of school stuff. And it may be tempting to get them a wheeled bag - check with the school, first, however. Some don’t allow them.

What clothes do they need? 

A few schools in France have a uniform policy. Most, however, do not. It is routinely expected, though, that children are reasonably well turned out, and dressed appropriately for the weather conditions.

From September, pupils will not be allowed to wear the long robe or dress known as the abaya, as part of a crackdown on France's laws on secularism. Female pupils are not allowed to wear the hijab or Muslim headscarf.

Winter coats: Children still go outside at break time, even in the depths of winter - if it’s raining, they may stay under a covered area, if the school has one, so they will need appropriate warm and waterproof clothing. Be aware that what the French consider 'cold' weather might not be the same as your notion of cold, and there will be tutting if your child doesn't have a coat. 

READ ALSO Parents reveal: What to expect when your non-French speaking child starts school in France

Sports kit: in maternelle and primary school (ages three to 11) sports education in school is pretty basic. You may want to dress your child in more suitable clothes on days they do sport - tracksuit bottoms, as opposed to jeans, for example - but don’t expect them to have anywhere to change.

By collège, you’ll get a list of required kit for sports lessons. 

Spare underwear: Little children may still not have a 100 percent hit rate when it comes to making the toilet in time, especially in an unfamiliar setting, so one or more spare pairs of underwear may be an idea. It's a requirement that children are fully toilet trained by the time they start maternelle, but in reality accidents happen and it shouldn't be a big deal.


The school will probably have some spare clothes for emergencies, and - at the end of certain school days - you may be presented with a differently clothed child and a small, damp, bag.

READ ALSO The essential language you need to understand the French school system

It’s good form to wash any replacement clothes before returning them. 

As always, it's a sensible idea to mark the clothes with at least your child's first name. You can buy name tags online where you can write your child's name, school and your phone number to increase the likelihood of things making their way back to you.

Do I need to buy stationery? 

Your school will send - probably already has sent - you a list of things your child / children must bring in on their first day known as fourniture scolaire. It can be very specific, in some cases down to the preferred make of certain items, or the weight of paper (really). Each teacher may even provide a different list.

Early on, it will include things like pencils, crayons, felt-tip pens, a pencil case, glue, plain paper, a wipe-clean writing slate, and tissues.

READ ALSO: The 29 stationery items that schoolchildren in France (apparently) need

Further into your child’s schooling, expect to see a diary and a fountain pen among the items added to the list. The French are very particular about writing - and the pen you have carefully purchased may be held back by the teacher and presented, with a certain amount of sombre ceremony, to the child when they are deemed ready to use it. 

You will also be asked to provide cardboard folders, files, clear plastic pockets, and an old shirt to protect clothes during art classes.


Do you need to buy textbooks? 

Schools usually supply textbooks. You will be told to cover them. This is not really an early parenting standards test, honest.

Will there be homework?

Officially, homework is not a requirement until collège, but that doesn’t stop teachers from setting some for children in primary schools even from CP - the first year of école primaire.

READ ALSO How to enrol a non-French speaking child in school in France

Will my child need to be vaccinated?

Yes. Before a child starts school in France, parents are asked to provide proof of vaccination, with 11 vaccines now compulsory for school starters. 

Children who are not vaccinated will not be fully enrolled in school. Instead they will be provisionally enrolled and the parents will be given three months to have the vaccinations carried out.

Diptheria, tetanus and polio vaccinations have been compulsory for some time, but in 2018 another eight were added to the list - whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, influenza, pneumonia and meningitis C.

READ MORE: Which vaccinations are compulsory for children in France?

What food or drink does your child need to bring? 

School meals in France are generally of a high standard, and are affordable. You can, if you want, take your child out of school at lunchtimes, or provide a packed lunch.

Some have gone so far as to say that French pupils have the best lunches in the world, with a balanced, multi-course menu offered each day with vegetarian alternatives.

Consider, also, a morning goûter of fruit and a drink; and perhaps an afternoon goûter. Don’t be too surprised, either, if your child starts demanding a post-school trip to the boulangerie for a croissant or pain au chocolat.

READ ALSO Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

Do you need to come for the first day? 

Schools may have a gathering of children and parents before classes on the first day back. There may even be coffee. It’s nice, but not compulsory. A parents-teacher meeting may also be organised in the early days, to advise parents about the year ahead. It’s a good idea to go to that so you get an idea of what’s in store, and early warning of any school trips.

Can I sit in with my child in class? 

That’s something to check with the teacher, who may or may not be open to the idea. Parents don’t usually sit in with their children in classes because, in France, teachers teach and parents parent - and the two jobs are considered quite separate. 

If you are used to the level of involvement parents can have in the US or UK, you may be surprised by how little daily interaction you have with your kid's French school. At primary schools, the headteacher (directrice for a woman or directeur for a man) often stands at the school gate each morning, in case you need to talk to him or her, but don't expect regular updates from your child's class teacher.

A good way of knowing what's going on inside the school is to become a member of the parent-teacher's association (a 'parent d'élève').


Another way to get involved is to join the parents' informal Whatsapp group. Ask around during pick-up or drop-off to find out how you can be added to it.

Can I take my child out of classes for holidays?

No… and yes. Sometimes.

Students are expected to attend scheduled classes, unless they have legitimate reasons for their absence - and going on a family holiday outside of the standard vacation periods set by the school calendar does not constitute a legitimate reason.

"It is not possible to envisage à la carte vacations that would disrupt the functioning of classes and harm schooling", according to France's Education Ministry.

Religious holidays, on the other hand, are acceptable reasons for a day off, but taking your kids back to the US for Thanksgiving probably would not be accepted.


READ MORE: Can parents take children out of French schools for a religious holiday?

What about any after-school activities?

On the whole, after-school activities aren’t really a thing. Your school may offer a garderie - which basically involves someone watching your child run around the playground before and after school, so that parents can fit work in between dropping off and picking up. This will normally entail a nominal fee.

Teachers may offer homework clubs, certainly as children get older, so that parents don’t have to deal with it (remember, teachers teach, parents parent). 


Remember, too, classes on Wednesday are usually cut short at lunchtime, so that children can take part in extra-curricular activities, such as organised sports. 

READ MORE: Family-centred society: What it's really like being a parent in France


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