End of classes at the Charles de Gaulle French lycée and the high-spirited pupils spill out of the red-brick building and rush into the London underground. Another 250,000 pupils like them worldwide are taught within the French education system outside France. And it’s a growing trend, with 4% more pupils enrolled in the system than last year. The network of French schools abroad consists of 461 institutions all over the world.
Over a third of these pupils are the children of French expatriates. They take priority in enrolment and some receive grants to finance their education. Louise, aged 17, in her final year, and Charlotte, aged 15, in her first year, are at the Chateaubriand French lycée in Rome. The two sisters, a blonde and a brunette, followed their father’s transfer from Kenya to Rome. As French girls born abroad, they have never lived in France. Their older brother, who took his baccalaureate two years ago at the Lycée Chateaubriand, has been admitted to an architectural school in the Paris region and is now living in France for the first time. “The lycée enables us to study in our culture of origin, but without being closed to the culture of our host country, far from it!” explains Louise. Indeed, in the lycée schoolyard she chats in a Franco-Italian “pidgin” with her best friend, who is Russian!
The flexibility of the French lycées abroad means they are able to be extremely open to the cultural diversity of their pupils but especially to the ways of life of the host country, whilst at the same time maintaining the very French demands for rigour and for developing a critical approach.
Adapting to the host country
The history and geography curricula, for instance, are adapted to the host country. This does not involve merging two different curricula and overloading the pupils with extra hours, but instead integrates both, in accordance with the requirements of both countries. The French lycées are particularly careful in their educational approach to welcome and support non-French-speaking pupils in the early stages of learning the language. Another strong point of French lycées is the early introduction of foreign languages. In nursery school, around the age of three and four, children are familiarised with the language of their host country through the use of games. In the third year of primary school, around the age of eight, another language is added, often English, but also German or Spanish. Mahaut, an eight-year-old with brown hair tied in bunches, who is taught at the French lycée in Shanghai, plays with her Barbie dolls in Chinese and in French. The little girl, whose father was transferred to China, finds this UN assembly for dolls in princess garb perfectly natural. In her games Mahaut echoes the educational project of French lycées abroad, which promote tolerance and openness to others but also equality of opportunities for girls and boys: French republican values that are sometimes at variance with the culture of certain host countries.
Speaking perfect French
It is in Asia that French lycées have chalked up the most spectacular growth, with enrolment increasing by over 10% in countries such as China, Korea, Vietnam and India. Indeed, French businesses have been setting up branches there in increasing numbers, and their expatriate employees have moved out with their families, expanding the numbers attending these institutions. Local pupils have also turned to the French lycées in recognition of their excellent reputation but also because their tuition fees are reasonable in comparison with other international schools for an equivalent level of education.
Although the primary purpose of French lycées abroad is to provide an extension of the public service for French pupils, they also in practice provide a cultural influence and contribute considerably to the speaking of French. Every foreign pupil educated in a French lycée, whether he or she is from a third country or the host country, leaves speaking fluent French. Esther, who is British, took her baccalaureate at the French lycée in London two years ago. She has an excellent command of French and English, both written and spoken. Her parents’ decision to enrol her, along with her four brothers and sisters, in a French institution from nursery school, is part of a family tradition. Esther’s grandmother is French and they felt it important to keep this legacy alive. Esther is now bilingual, a considerable advantage for her future career, and she benefits from the excellent reputation of the lycée she has just left.
Acquiring French software
Veselin is Bulgarian. When he was very young he began school at the French lycée in Belgrade in Serbia, where his father was posted. Back in his native Sofia, his parents enrolled him in the French lycée so that his education would not be interrupted and to maintain continuity if his father was transferred again. After ten years at the French lycée, Veselin, who passed his baccalaureate with honours, seized the opportunity to go to France to pursue his higher education.
Indeed, as one of the best students, he was eligible for an “excellence-major” grant from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to fund the beginning of his studies. 714 students benefited from this assistance this year. Veselin is now studying for a Master’s degree at the Sciences-Politiques school in Paris. “An Ambassador for France, with whom I did a work placement, described me as an international computer, with French software,” smiles this strapping young man of 22, who speaks no fewer than five languages fluently.
Versatility such as that achieved by Veselin is particularly sought-after by French companies abroad. A demand that has not passed unnoticed in the French “Grandes Ecoles”, which are relocating in increasing numbers outside mainland France, and are keen to increase the numbers of foreign students in their classes. Already over 200 branches abroad are associated with French universities. According to UNESCO forecasts, from 2000 to 2015, the number of students in the world should grow from 100 to 200 million, and three quarters of this rise will take place in Asia, precisely where French secondary education is expanding fast.