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.


A stranger complimented me and I liked it

My seduction routine somehow lacks in subtlety
My seduction routine somehow lacks in subtlety

I once had a little chat with the cheese seller at the French Market, and he made an interesting comment about the differences in the way French and British women react to compliments.

I haven’t mentioned it before but the goat’s cheese I bought last time was so tough and pungent I would have needed a stronger stomach than I possessed to actually enjoy it, so I was in serious need of a nice gentler alternative to wash away the memory of dead goat from my taste buds. The cheese seller and I somehow got into what I was doing in England; I told him that I was a personal assistant before having my daughter and he said: ‘How is it that all the PAs are such pretty women?’ I thanked him, all the time thinking what a nice man he was (I’m easily pleased like that), and he then responded with: ‘you’re not going to blush now, are you?’ and went on to state that most English women blush and become awkward when he compliments them, whereas French women just take it in their stride.

As this awkwardness between the sexes, especially around compliments, is something I have also observed, we discussed a bit what the reasons for this could be. Here are my personal thoughts; I’m going to try to not just speak in generalities but it is hard with a subject like this, so do chip in in the comments if you think I’m way off-line.

What English women view as sexism, French women often see as their due. French women don’t tend to think that receiving a compliment is objectifying. That’s not to say it is never the case; I have had enough experience of being on the other end of a lecherous comment to recognize the difference, but I don’t assume that every compliment is a come-on. I just don’t get uncomfortable if I get complimented by a man, be he a friend or a stranger. Not that I get lots or anything, but you know what, I have received a heck of a lot more of them in France. It’s possible that French women are better at taking compliments from men because they have more practice. Despite the liberation of women in the 60s and more equality in the workplace, when it comes to relationships between men and women, old-fashioned stereotypes still abound. Women play coy and hard to get and men pursue them. Lucy Wadham in her book the Secret Life of France, puts it much better:

(…)the reason I notice this low-level hostility (between the genders) in Britain is because I do not encounter it in the place where I live. In France, the war between the sexes simply never got off the ground. Somehow social evolution has brought about changes to the status of women without ever giving men the impression that they were losing something in the process. French women also happen to be very attached to the particular privileges that have always gone with being a woman (…). While they are just as eager to secure their social and political rights as their British sisters, they do not wish to give up the experience of being loved for their beauty, sexual power, mystique or indeed any other of the often illusory qualities for which they are admired.

I know that many women find it offensive and demeaning if they get whistled at in the street, that they resent being singled-out for their physical attributes in that way or with compliments. Some dislike it if a man holds the door for them or shows any sign of treating them differently to men. I get that. As for me, I am tired of being offended. Maybe it is part of my upbringing. I have been whistled at in the street since I was a teenager. I am not a model by any stretch of the imagination, as you can see from the gorgeous picture above yet I have been given flowers by strangers, been kissed on the hand, and more in a similar vein.

What I do know is that we all view the world through the lenses of our life experience, and some of it might have been very bad. It is therefore to be expected that many women will be very uncomfortable with a man speaking to them in that way. The French cheese seller laughed when I suggested that some women might think he was coming on to them. He was an older man and a grand-father, he said, why would they think that? Maybe because there are plenty of lecherous older grand-fathers about but in this particular case, that is not the impression he gave me at all. I thought he was just a good-natured cheese seller with a healthy dose of Gallic charm. He said that he will notice whether a woman has nice hands, beautiful eyes or well dressed and he will just say so with no after thought.

The only conclusion I can come to is that when it comes to male/female relationships, the French and the British are very different and whilst neither may necessarily be right or wrong, the why and how are more complicated than saying all French men are chauvinistic and British women are stuck-up. What do you think?

A Very British Diamond Jubilee Street Party

Today we celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a quintessential British street party: lovely neighbours, a mountain of finger food, Pimm’s galore. Followed by rain, a freezing cold wind, and more rain. Towards the end, I was wearing a fleece!

I severely overestimated people’s appetite, as did everyone else, so we are back home with nearly as much food as I left with this morning.

My contribution to the feast was British with a hint of French style-wise, consisting of goats’ cheese and tarragon scones with a cream cheese and chives dip, homemade Frankfurter sausage rolls, salade niçoise a.k.a tuna salad, a couple of cheeses, a couple of patés, four French sticks and a flan pâtissier a.k.a custard flan.

Our lovely street party before the rain
Street Party food
Food glorious food

And finally, keeping the best for last, knitted by a very talented neighbour…

The Royal Family
A toast to the Queen

National Rail vs the French Elections

I should have been going off to London today to cast my vote in the first round of French presidential elections but thanks to National Rail, it is not going to happen.

National Rail (Rest of UK)
National Rail: expect little to avoid disappointment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is some engineering work taking place on the train line and so half of the journey needs to be undertaken by bus, which adds at least 40 minutes to an already long journey north. I am not happy. There has been engineering work on that line for at least five years as I remember taking this route to see Badgerman when we were dating. I cannot recall these bus trips without getting a sick feeling in my stomach. Hurling along country lanes in a double-decker bus is not fun.

I am not happy. In fact I’m pretty angry about it. I was all geared up to go but it is an additional hurdle I am not willing to jump. I was literally just logging in to check train times when I noticed that the travelling times didn’t look right. It is so frustrating because I haven’t actually ever voted for a French president and I was looking forward to it, despite not having made a final decision on who to vote for.

Urne vote France
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

France is often slow to embrace and use new technologies and to implement changes to existing systems however out of date and so there is nothing set up for postal votes. That something so simple and practical should not exist would normally make me shrug and think ‘well, that’s French bureaucracy for you’ but it is an important day and it makes me angry that there is no alternative to turning up in person at London’s Lycée Français. Especially when you think that internet voting has in fact been set up for the élections législatives next month, which are to elect our representative in England (like an MP I guess). I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for this but it doesn’t make it less useless today.

Blog Writing: English vs Français

Anyone who has read the few entries in this blog will have gathered that I am French and have lived in the UK for over 13 years. My relatives still live in France and I have been asked, quite understandably, why my blog isn’t in French. Surely, it would be more interesting to the French to know what it’s like to live in England, than for me to blather on to an already informed community of fellow English-speaking people.

I did think about this when I first started the blog. I had thought I might do some posts in French and some in English depending on the subject matter, however the more I think about it, the less I think this would actually work in the long-term, it is convoluted and makes the blog too much of a mish-mash and ultimately less appealing.

The main reason is calculated; writing in English brings a wider audience and I hope to attract a variety of readers other than my immediate family and the French community living in the British Isles.

These days, I also feel more comfortable expressing my thoughts in English. After so many years, I think and dream in English; my working life has in its entirety been spent on UK soil, in fact I do not know the language of the workplace in French at all. Although I identify myself as French and am not currently considering taking UK citizenship, I also feel that I have lived in England too long to feel ‘fully French’. I have embraced the British way of life and have very few French friends in the UK (just one in fact). I am not one of those expats who hops on the train every month for a quick trip back. I know nothing of the trends, fashions and interests of my countrymen, I have not kept a close eye on political and cultural matters in France, other than what I have read in the media here and discussions with my family.

I am currently investigating whether it is possible to put a Translate button on these pages to allow translation into French, however there are complications in WordPress.com and I am not as ‘techy’ as I would like to think, so it may take a while.

All this to say that this blog is going to continue to be in English because it’s easier and I’m lazy.


Ceux qui ont lu les quelques entrées de ce blog se seront rendus compte que je suis française et que je vis en Angleterre depuis plus de 13 ans. Ma famille est toujours en France et on m’a demandé pourquoi mon blog n’est pas en français. La question ne me surprend pas; cela parait logique puisqu’il serait plus intéressant pour les français d’en savoir plus sur la vie en Angleterre, plutôt que d’infliger mes histoires au monde anglophone.

J’ai considéré tout ceci quand j’ai décidé de commencer ce blog. J’avais pensé avoir certaines entrées en français et d’autres en anglais selon les thèmes, mais plus j’y réfléchis, moins cela me parait faisable dans le long terme;  cela complique le format et transforme le blog en méli-mélo moins intéressant.

En réalité, la raison principale est calculée; écrire en anglais apporte une audience plus large et j’espère attirer une variété de lecteurs autre que ma famille immédiate et la communauté française qui vit dans les îles britanniques.

De nos jours, je me sens plus comfortable à exprimer mes pensées en anglais. Après autant d’années ici, je pense et rêve en anglais ; ma vie active a été passée en sa totalité sur le sol britannique, en fait je ne connais pas du tout le vocabulaire du monde du travail en français. Bien que je m’identifie comme française et que je n’ai pas le projet de prendre la citoyenneté britannique, j’habite en Angleterre depuis trop longtemps pour me sentir entièrement française. J’ai embrassé le mode de vie britannique et j’ai très peu d’amis français au Royaume-Uni (juste une en fait). Je ne suis pas de ces personnes qui sautent dans un train tous les mois pour passer un petit weekend sur le sol français. Je ne sais rien des tendances, des modes et des intérêts de mes compatriotes, Je ne suis pas restée informée sur les sujets politiques et culturels de la France, autre que ce que je lis dans les médias ici et les discussions avec ma famille.

Je suis en train de voir s’il est possible de mettre un bouton sur ces pages de blog pour permettre la traduction en français, toutefois il y a des complications dans WordPress.com et comme mes connaissances techniques ne sont pas aussi bonnes que je le pensais ça pourrait prendre un moment.

Tout cela pour dire qu’écrire en anglais, c’est plus facile, c’est plus pour moi que pour autre chose et que donc, ce blog est en anglais et va le rester.


UPDATE: if you want to translate the blog into another language, click on the Translate tab in the top header and select the language of your choice. If your preferred language isn’t there, let me know!

MISE A JOUR: Pour traduire ce blog dans une autre langue, cliquez sur le mot ‘Translate‘ sous le titre principal du blog et choisissez votre langue.