I have ‘issues’ with the English pre-school system

Preschool header 280914

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. For me, based on my zero experience in what preschool is supposed to look like, 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.


10 thoughts on “I have ‘issues’ with the English pre-school system

  1. Oh you poor thing! As mums we are just too quick to always blame ourselves and I am sure that this has affected you more than Little Girl! Based on this though (and having no previous experience of pre schooling myself) I shall never again complain about my village Ecole Maternelle where my little girl is in a class of 11, goes to school everyday and loves it! Although another kid did cut a huge chunk out of her hair yesterday…. :-))

  2. I feel for you, really… It’s kind of the same in Ireland and by chance my childminder had her son in pre-school when she was minded mine, so I put Ciaran’s name down in January of the year he would start (and apparently I was late compared to other mothers!). Worse thing is, we had to put his name down on the waiting list for primary school when he was 2 years old, even though primary school starts at 5…!! And in Ireland, pre-school is only 3 hours day. There is one year subsidised by the government but because the child has to be 4 at the latest by the end of May of the September he will start (if that makes sense), it means kids who are born between June and December have to go through 2 years of pre-school. That happened to my 2nd child, who is born in August. So this year he only goes 2 afternoons a week to pre-school and we have to pay 25 euros a week! In those moments, I really regret the French system… And don’t get me started on the fact that there are no canteens in the schools…I nearly have a lunch box phobia at this stage…

  3. Ooh, don’t start me on this! In France L started maternelle the September before she turned 3 in the December. It was fab and we all loved it! Then we moved to the UK and the September afterwards I tried to find her something similar and was told she wouldn’t start school until the following September, but that she could go to nursery for 5 mornings a week (a massive drop-down from the 4 full days a week she was doing in France). I think there are issues with catchment areas and the like in both the UK and France but I really miss maternelle starting at 3, and even worse my girls are November and December babies so have to wait ages for the school year to start 😦 Ok, rant over!

  4. Pauline, it doesn’t stop here: once my little one was in, they said that she could only spend the morning (i.e. 9.30-11.30 am) for a whole term to ‘get used’ to pre-school. I was ballistic.

    1. I heard about that! I heard one friend’s child had to come in just for the afternoon for a month to get used to it. I don’t know how working parents are supposed to manage this. I would have thought that going to preschool would be enough prep.

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