I wish I'd had a bilingual education

... admits the parent of a child enrolled at one of the local international schools. In the first of two articles on education, Nancy Wilson reports on primary years

Family life in the South of France, at least in the expat community, is not like the Simpsons where the husband works for the same company most of his career and the wife stays home with the kids, putting a hot meal on the table at six to eat together. In many expat families the husband (or wife) works in another country, returning home on the weekend and maybe for a few extra weekdays now and then. Mom doesn't wait for the kids to come home after school because they need to be picked up and dropped off every day. And the school becomes a lifeline for the family, replacing the neighbourhood welcome wagon.

stop signWeighing up your options

To choose the most suitable school you need to do some digging. As we've written in these pages before, there are three possibilities for education: leave the kids behind at boarding school, put them through the French system or enrol at one of the local international schools.

Boarding school is an expensive option and an emotionally difficult one for some to leave their "babies" in another country. As for putting your kids into a French school, the biggest obstacle is the language. Even though children generally pick it up in the classroom rather easily, for parents not comfortable communicating with teachers in French, this decision is made for them. Beyond this, the lack of arts and sport in the French curriculum (not to mention the often severe classroom environment) must also be considered.

That leaves the international schools. Just five years ago there was considerable disquiet in the community when the International School of Sophia Antipolis (ISSA) disappeared as a result of mismanagement. That was an unusual event unlikely to repeat itself. There are now five international schools on the Coast to consider at the primary level (see box). Aside from the obvious geographical conveniences (you might not wish to enrol in a Monaco school if you live in Mougins) and varying fees, each of the schools has a make up of its own.

A new approach to learning

The International School in Nice, just off the Route de Grenoble, is the oldest of the establishments. Originally known as the American International School (AIS), it was founded in 1976 and has an American high school feel. The ISN is the only local international school fully accredited by the European Council for International Schools and the Middle States Association of the United States - not easy accomplishments. The 330 student body at ISN studies the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program under the direction of headmaster Michael Wylie, who arrived in September. "We're planning to implement the Primary Year Program - PYP - through the International Bac over the next three years," Wylie said. "This creates a consistent philosophy throughout the school." In fact the PYP program - developed for ages 3 to 12 - is an inquiry-based approach to learning, moving away from the old teaching styles. This won't affect the mandatory French classes, applicable to all grades at ISN.

Currently, ISN has one class each of pre-kindergarden through to grade 5, each with a maximum of 22 students. "Placements are available as of next fall," Wylie told me, "when we'll have two classes of grade 5 and two of a 3/4 level composite."

What do children need at the primary levels? "A strong sense of community, good friends and trusting relationships. Plus there's the multicultural community. With 39 nationalities, ethos transcends political, racial and religious tensions. They realise 'not everyone's like me' from a young age." And for parents? "The main thing parents want is for their children to come home happy and be enthusiastic to go back to school the next day."

Half English, half French

There are almost 400 primary students,  starting from the age of two, attending the three International Bilingual Schools of the Riviera: Pain d'Epice in Nice, Pain de Sucre in Cagnes-sur-Mer and the new La Bergerie in Pégomas. The Pain de Sucre, resident in two sunny villas facing the medieval village, was started by the current headmistress Pascale Rosfelder in 1982, followed by Pain d'Epice (near the Negresco) in 1987. All classes are taught fifty per cent in English and fifty per cent in French, and are limited to twenty students. The schools provide a "fully bilingual, multidisciplinary curriculum anchored in both French and English programs to provide a new and unique educational experience".

A broad education

"The difference between the UK system and the French system is that we introduce reading and writing in Form 1 (age 5) whereas the French start in CP1 (age 6)," Brian Hickmore, headmaster at Mougins School pointed out. Mougins School, located on the outskirts of Sophia Antipolis in an appealing woodsy setting, offers a British curriculum and has enjoyed continued success since its opening in 1987. "We have five or six calls a day about enrolment. At the moment, though, we have a total of 475 students. There are 22 children in each primary class, with one class per form up to age nine and two classes per form from age ten. Students  have five teachers including a music and PE teacher from the age of seven and there's also a special needs teacher. French, by the way, is taught from age four."

What are parents seeking in schools here? "Parents look for a strong academic approach, a broad education with a full curriculum, including music and sport, and they want a protective environment." What are the requirements? "Entry is by school records - there's no screening or testing. We are not selective but we are here to serve the international community." And how do they know whether they've made the right choice? "If their child come outs of school smiling after the first day, it'll be okay."

Maximum 16 pupils per class

The International School of Monaco, which opened in 1994, houses 385 students at its newly renovated premises on the Quai Antoine 1er. "Ours is a fully bilingual programme with equal emphasis on both French and English," Angela Godfrey, Admissions Officer, explained. "For students who are not already fluent in one of our two official languages when they arrive, we provide extra support in the Primary School. Most young children, though, adapt easily to learning two or even three languages."

How does the school weigh pedagogy and curriculum against environment for young children? "We believe in providing both: children thrive in a happy and stimulating environment with a structured curriculum. At ISM, the Early Years is an integral unit for three to six- year-olds with two classes per year, each with a maximum of sixteen children. In the younger classes, there is a teaching assistant in addition to the teacher."

And parents' concerns? "They are looking for a safe and nurturing environment where their children will really enjoy learning. Of course, they want to be sure that if they move on, their child will be equipped to enter either another international school or reintegrate into the local education system back home."

ISM Director Mary Maccaud offered some advice to parents: "Do your homework carefully; read the prospectus of what each school offers, look at their website and take the time to fully understand the philosophy and the programme of the school to which you are applying. For instance we are not a "British" or an "American" school transplanted to the Côte d'Azur. Be honest about your child's needs and above all visit the school, meet the Head and get a feel for the atmosphere."

One-to-one teaching

The most recent addition to the list of local international schools is EBICA (École Bilingue Internationale Côte d'Azur) in Sophia Antipolis, which started with nine children and two full-time teachers in two barely-furnished class rooms in September 2006. Today it has 55 students from 17 different nationalities. EBICA is the product of Florence Lafforgue, who in 1999 helped create Le Jardin des Enfants in Bordeaux, and partner Maya Chauffard. "It was a real challenge to convince parents that our school was going to start," Chauffard stated. "A new school has no reputation. In the end, it's the teachers and the educational approach that make the difference. We have six international teachers plus ones for sports, music and art. For after school there's hip-hop, piano and yoga teachers as well."

"Classes larger than seventeen pupils don't work," Lafforgue added. "We want one-to-one teaching. Up to CE1, classes are taught fifty percent in English and in French. From CE2, one-third of the curriculum is English and two-thirds French as we are working towards the French IB. We closely follow the Éducation Nationale programme and the International Primary Curriculum."

How about the location at Les Espaces de Sophia? "We have been so welcomed here by our neighbours," Chauffard said. "At Hallowe'en, we approached the businesses next door and asked if we provided them with candy, would they allow the kids to come by and Trick-or-Treat. Not only did they agree, but they provided the candy - enough to last for years!"

"When it comes down to it, every parent must decide on what best suits the child's and the family's situation," Lafforgue stated. "There has to be support from both the parents and teachers with bilingual education." Chauffard put in: "In September of this year CM4 will be offered so it's worth coming to visit."

From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008
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