Every bi-lingual/bi-cultural family faces the choice about what education system would be best in the country and context that the family is living in at the time. In some places the choices are very limited and the options are between the local national school (state school or private) or home schooling. Naturally, in large cities there are more options. Tokyo, for example, has well-attended American and French schools that not only serve the English or French-speaking communities but are sometimes a choice for local people too. I was very surprised to see that the Lycée Franco-Japonais had Japanese children whose parents had decided that an international school conferred some real benefits: a good education in English, French and Japanese means a much wider range of choices for university (France, Canada, Germany, UK or USA).
Sometimes families have to make this decision more than once. If the family is truly nomadic then a decision has to be made for every country where the family finds itself. Sometimes there is a company behind the move and an expatriate community in the destination country that can help, sometimes not. There is also the fact that what may be a good decision for elementary school may not be the right decision for high school (lycée).
That was the situation for us when we moved back to France from Japan. The Frenchlings were in collège (middle school) at the time. They had always been in the French state school system prior to the move. For continuity, and because the company we were working for at the time paid the tuition as part of my spouse's expatriate package, they attended the Lycée Franco-Japonais for the time we were in Tokyo. So, it seemed logical to just re-enroll them in the local French state school when we returned. This worked out well for the elder Frenchling. Not so well for the younger.
To my surprise the search for an alternative came from the younger Frenchling herself. She decided that she wanted an education that was more international - something similar to her school in Tokyo - and she was motivated enough to do the research herself. What she found is worth a mention here because it is a solution that, at the time, I didn't even know existed: a local, state-supported, multi-lingual, international school.
Chaville/Sèvres - Sections Internationales is a state-supported French school on the outskirts of Paris that offers not just one but two bi-lingual programs (German and English) from elementary school through high school. The students follow the regular French curriculum in French (indispensable for passing the French Bac) but then have other classes in the second language in order to prepare for a wide range of other certifications recognized by the German, UK, US, and other university systems. To get an idea how this works, see this link for a typical class schedule for a typical student in the 6th grade.
The International Section classes are all taught by certified native English and German speakers. Last year, for example, the younger Frenchling took a History/Geography class taught by an American professor in English. All this for very reasonable price - far less than other international schools I've seen. The French classes are fully state-supported (no fees) - the modest tuition is for the extra classes in the second language and 90% goes toward paying the salaries of those teachers.
Above and beyond the attractive and challenging program, just how successful is it and does it adequately prepare students for university? The results are clear: in 2011 they had a success rate of 100% at the French Bac with 60% of the students passing with honors (mention bien or très bien). For those who chose also to pass the OIB (Option Internationale Bac), an exam supervised by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (English) and Kultusministerkonferenz (German), the success rates are 80% for the English sections. After the Bac, roughly half the students that choose to stay in France go to classes to prepare for entry into a French Grande Ecole and about 25% of students are accepted into and leave directly for a university abroad.
The younger Frenchling has been very happy here. Not only is this a challenging academic environment, she is in a world where she is not an Exotic Beast since most of the kids are products of multiple cultures, have connections to multiple countries, and speak several languages. We, the parents, are pretty happy too because, frankly, there is no way we could afford the international English-speaking private schools in Paris whose tuition rates seem to assume that the parents are either rich or working for large international companies who include school fees in the expatriation package. I hadn't thought that this option was available to us here and I am deeply grateful to the French school system for making it possible.
Given this experience and our perspective, you will understand why we are a bit bemused by the debates over bi-lingual education in the public school systems of the United States and France. At the same time that people are arguing over the desirability of allowing children to study in more than one language, some of us are fortunate enough to be getting such an experience. Let me be very clear, bi-lingual education confers enormous benefits for the children who become fluent (and literate) in two or more languages, who ultimately have a much wider range of choices when the time comes to choose a university, and who will ultimately have many more options about where and what they will do after they finish school and choose a profession.
So, from my perspective, you have to have a special kind of insanity to think that bi-lingual education is a Bad Thing. Done right, it increases national competitiveness in the global economy by nurturing a skill that bi-lingual children have naturally - a skill, I must point out, that mono-lingual children struggle to obtain later in life. Squandering this potential by allowing bi-lingual kids to become illiterates in the second language is just a huge waste of human capital.
The Lycée de Sèvres is, I think, a great model for combining the public school system in the national language with an additional program oriented around a second language. Bravo to the French for coming up with this serious and creative solution which marries the very best of all worlds.
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