It’s no surprise to anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks that I can’t get my head around the English pre-school system. I really don’t get it: the whole way it is organised – or not organised – is a mystery to me. Before anyone thinks this is going to be a ranty post dissing the whole thing and praising the French way of doing it, I am not going to do that. I’m happy to accept that I’m probably at fault in this instance because it’s been by far one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced in years. And yeah, it’s at least in part because I am bitter about the fact that I failed to get Little Girl a space at a pre-school for the beginning of September. So I’m just going to explain the differences that struck me most so you can maybe see why it’s been a head-doer for me.
In France, school starts at three years old. Before you start primary school at 6 years old, you spend three years in the school system going through the Maternelle; they are called small, middle and big sections. Whilst the first year, like pre-school, is not compulsory, most children attend from day one, most likely because why wouldn’t they? In terms of what happens in the classroom, it is very much like an English pre-school, the environment is designed for them to learn by play. The main difference that I can see is that as it is officially ‘school’, so children are guaranteed a place in the school in their catchment area. You get your letter, you put down your preferences, you wait, the end. Not so in England.
I was astounded when I discovered that I should have put Little Girl on a pre-school waiting list from about 6 months old if I hoped to guarantee her place when she would start the term after her third birthday. Astounded. I knew nothing about it at the time of course, what with still being in shock that I’d given birth to an actual real baby and it was still alive and, goodness me, already moving on to the weaning stage. So when I was asked where I thought she’d go to pre-school when she was about 18 months old, I felt super-stressed and didn’t have a clue what to do about it, so I just dug my head in the sand a bit and thought I had plenty of time to figure it out. It was the wrong decision to make, as I found out this summer.
At the end of last year, I bit the bullet and visited places, because you have to do that yourself, and you have to decide what the best fit for your child might be. Based on my zero experience in what preschool is supposed to look like, this was really disconcerting. But I did visit a few and got my list of important things to look for down to three:
Safety: my first visit to a preschool, on a rainy day, was fine until I had to go down a metal fire escape ladder to get to the playground, the very same steps the children would also have to follow to play outside. I feared for my life, and decided that maybe, I did have a faint idea about where I didn’t want my child to go.
Sanitation: I clearly visited the wrong day, because throughout the 30 minutes I spent in that second place, the smell of poo was so seriously overpowering that it put me right off my lunch and that preschool as well.
Cost: another thing that surprised and shocked me a little. You often have to pay an administrative fee to put your child on a waiting list, and it doesn’t guarantee a place. It can be as little as £10, but even that adds up quickly if you want to up your chances by putting your child’s name down in more than one place. And then, because pre-school is literally ‘pre’ school, it is not actually free. The government only subsidises 15 hours a week, which is not very much at all, basically three mornings. A lot of places are nurseries that run all year round and only have a limited number of subsidised spaces. They will only offer 12 out of the 15 free hours because it’s more profitable that way, and you’re automatically at the bottom of their waiting list.
Unfortunately, this is what happened with Little Girl. I put her down at the one place I wanted her to go, a pre-school located in an actual school, with grounds and a distinct scholarly feel that I felt would better prepare her for when she goes to ‘proper school’ next year. Then we got the letter telling us she didn’t have a space for a September start in the middle of July, the week before the end of the term, thus giving us no chance to contact anyone to try and find a place elsewhere.
I left a few slightly deranged voicemails at one pre-school and then went off on holiday feeling like the worst mother in the whole world. And was reminded of it again when we got back and received an invitation to go to an open day at the pre-school she hadn’t gotten into; then felt even worse when she picked up the leaflet and said ‘look maman, it’s my school!’ in the most excited voice. I could have wept.
In the end, I’m happy to say that we eventually got a place at a preschool not five minutes away. I don’t really know how it happened, I think it might be another miracle if I’m honest. Little Girl started last Wednesday and loved it. She’s only there two mornings a week but they will add to it as soon as they are able.
The biggest thing that get me about the whole saga is that Little Girl is only going to be there for a few months. School officially starts at 4 years old and as an end-of-July baby, she will start next September. So this whole hassle, stress and disappointment was all for a measly 9 months of her life. So yes, I don’t really get it.