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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Educating the Frenchlings - National or International?

Education is a subject that every bi-cultural family must manage carefully.  The choices are, I think, slightly less emotionally charged if the family is living in a Third Place, a country where neither parent is a citizen and neither has the home court advantage.  When the family lives in a place where one parent is a citizen and the other is a naturalized citizen or an immigrant, this topic can be a source of great conflict not only within the nuclear family but with the extended family on both sides who may have very strong opinions about it.

However, there is no escaping it, education being compulsory in many places, and, even where it isn't, there is still a decision to make when the children reach a certain age.  And the reason that we all care so much is because those decisions have enormous consequences for the future.  For the bi-cultural family the main options are the national school system or an international school.

National Public or Private School
The default, of course, is to send the child to whatever public or private school systems exists in the country where the family is residing.  There are distinct advantages to this and it looks like the obvious choice.  You are doing what everyone around you considers "normal".  The local system has established procedures for seamlessly welcoming your child into the system and in most modern countries public education is free.

If the family is not living in a Third Place,  this is a chance for the non-citizen or immigrant parent to deeply participate in the life of the citizen spouse's country.  The non-citizen parent will ideally meet teachers, administrators, other parents and their children, on common ground.  By accompanying the children through their schooling that parent learns (from the ground up)  one of the fundamental life experiences that makes, for example, a Frenchman, French.  This can help the non-citizen spouse gain important insights into the mentality and behaviour of the citizen spouse and his or her family.

Those are the advantages.  What are the disadvantages?  Usually (not always) the national school system is mono-lingual.  Second languages are introduced much later.  This means that the children are not learning to read and write in one of the home languages.  So the non-citizen parent is at a disadvantage and must make a special effort to reinforce his language at home.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  For one thing, the children may not be motivated to speak, read, or write a language that they don't hear at school and can't use with their friends.

The schools are another issue.  The teachers may agree in principle that is it a Good Thing to speak multiple languages but their priority is to encourage mastery of the national language.  Bi-lingualism may be discouraged in subtle ways.

Another priority of the national school system is to form citizens - to make Americans, Americans, for example.  This can be done in a positive way or it can descend into teaching children about the national culture by explaining, in fairly gross terms and by making ugly comparisons, what they are not.  For a bi-cultural child and the non-citizen parent this can be painful.  We had an experience in one school where the Frenchling's teacher explained to the class (she did not know that she was teaching at least one Franco-American) that Americans were fat and stupid from watching all that television and eating at McDonald's.  This is not, I think, a unique experience and similar stories could be told by immigrant parents in almost any country.

International Schools
If the bi-cultural family lives in an urban area, there are usually international schools.  The advantages are multiple:  multi-lingual/multi-cultural education and no home court advantage for the citizen parent.  Almost all of the children's  friends are "just like them" with one or both parents being from another culture.  They live the advantage of speaking multiple languages because their friends do. Many of the children have lived in multiple countries and they and their parents consider themselves global or international citizens and not just French or American or Japanese.  Some of the schools teach to one system in particular (American with an eye toward future SATs, for example, or French with the goal being the French baccalaureate).  Others have a broader scope and teach to multiple systems (International baccalaureate, National baccalaureate, SAT, O Levels...)

All of the above sounds wonderful but I genuinely think there are disadvantages.  The first is certainly financial.  If you wish to opt out of the national school system, then you must pay your own way.  For those of us who are not expatriates and do not have funding from a company, this can be expensive.  If you are not living in a Third Place, the non-citizen parent does not have the same opportunity to learn about the spouse's culture through the national school system.  The citizen parent and the extended family may have a very strong attachment to the national culture and may resent or be very ambivalent about an attempt to opt out for something more neutral.

Also, in an international school, the children will be surrounded by people who are predominantly global and have a similar socio-economic status, but is that always a good thing?  Thomas Friedman in his book "The World is Flat," talks about the difference between the "Flat" (Global) and the "Unflat" (Local) worlds and he fears that the first is a kind of limousine that glides through Unflat neighborhoods without ever stepping out and breathing the local air.

To me the international schools have always felt a little like Friedman's limousine.

That said, my experience with international schools is very limited, and some readers of this blog may have a different view.   I invite you to share your experiences here.

The Franco-American Flophouse Experience
Our choice was the national French public school system.  The Frenchlings went straight to maternelle (nursery school) and into elementary school,  first in a suburb of Paris and then in Paris itself.  Their first experience with an international school was at the French-Japanese high school in Tokyo which was very much oriented toward the French Baccalaureate but offered English and Japanese classes and had a very diverse student population with many expatriate families from France and North Africa.  When we moved back to France, they went to the local college (middle school or junior high school) here in Versailles.   The elder Frenchling opted for a French high school and will graduate with her French baccalaureate at the end of the year.  The younger chose an international high school run by the French public school system which has instruction in English, French and German.  She is opting for an International baccalaureate.

Overall, I have been very happy with French public school system which has high academic standards, is blessed with (in my experience) dedicated teachers and is well-funded.  As the non-citizen parent I have learned a lot about French national culture, history and language through the school system and by following my Frenchlings' progress.  Some of the teaching methods (which are very different from my home country) have had me swallowing hard and struggling to keep my temper but the Frenchlings seem to have survived.

The hardest part has been keeping my culture and language alive in my house and in my children's lives. There was a period when they were younger when they did not wish to speak, read or write English.   They were sometimes embarrassed when I went to the school, met other parents or talked to the teachers because I had an accent, because I made the occasional grammatical error, because I asked a lot of questions about things that were "evident" and because I was not French (I am sure other immigrant parents can relate to this).  It took a great deal of persistence to get past that and many other challenges but today I think I can safely say that they are bi-lingual, fully grounded in two cultures and proud to be both French and American.

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