13. International Schools in France
In this section of our guide to school education in France we offer a review of 'international schools'.
We will only consider students in the age range 14-18 attending a lycée. However, many such schools also offer education for younger students.
13.1. What is an 'International School'?
The description 'international school' is used very loosely (often incorrectly) by the general public in France and particularly foreign residents and expatriates.
It is commonly heard being used to describe what are, in reality, a number of very different educational propositions:
i. French lycées teaching what is called the 'International Baccalaureate' or more correctly, to avoid confusion, the “OIB” (Option International Baccalaureate);
ii. Typically, entirely private schools teaching a syllabus based largely upon the standards set by another country, such as the US, UK or Russia etc. This study may lead to a formal certified and recognised national qualification from the countries concerned;
iii. Those schools teaching towards the achievement of an international qualification, recognised in many countries, which may permit students to enter into higher education within those countries. Most confusingly, this is also called the 'International Baccalaureate' but it is abbreviated to “IB” and it is entirely different to the OIB;
iv. Schools which may be state or private, teaching a standard French syllabus but with heavy emphasis (possibly only initially) on foreign languages and cultures. These are sometimes called 'bi-lingual schools' (section bilingue or classes bilingues), when they are normally located with a lower secondary school (collège), and lycées with an international section or 'International Lycées'.
These distinctions regularly cause confusion for both foreign residents and French nationals alike.
Technically, only establishments under 2-3 above plus specifically the international lycées in section 4 should be called international schools but an explanation of the other types of schooling is included here for completeness and clarity.
The schools offer different types of qualifications, and care is needed in distinguishing between them.
i. Option International Baccalaureate (OIB)
This is a standard French baccalaureate and part of the formally structured French State education system. It may be offered as an option by state or private lycées.
The OIB places a significant extra layer of study and exams on top of the basic baccalaureate syllabus. OIB students study the arts, culture, languages and history of other countries in considerably more depth than would normally be associated with a standard baccalaureate.
Students select from one of a number of OIB options based around aspects of their chosen language and culture. Tuition and testing in that selection will usually be in the appropriate language, which students will need to have as either their mother tongue or to an advanced level.
Some lycées offering the OIB may have a minimum language capability admission test and students with little or no French may struggle to gain admission if that is the case.
In 2018-19, there were approximately 17 different language/culture selections available, although not all will be offered by every lycée offering the OIB.
The scoring of academic achievement in the OIB is different to the standard baccalaureate. The optional language and cultural studies are more heavily weighted, consequently reducing the weightings in other more traditional areas.
The OIB is popular with both French and non-French students and parents who wish to develop a wider global perspective in their studies.
While some tuition may be conducted in English and even more in the specific language/culture option selected, this route is not primarily aimed at students seeking a full education in their own non-French mother tongue. The principal tuition language will be French, even if initially another language is also heavily used.
It is also worth noting that lycées offering a standard baccalaureate might have an 'international section'. This essentially entails students studying and being tested on either history or science in their chosen foreign language. This does not mean that the school is necessarily offering an OIB.
ii. Non-French Syllabus
There are a number of international schools in France which teach a largely foreign syllabus. Tuition is often conducted partly in English/French, though the primary focus will be on the native language of the syllabus under study.
This can lead to the achievement of non-French specific qualifications. Examples might include Cambridge IGCSE, English “A” levels or US SAT/PSAT.
If the family’s intention is to stay in France the qualifications obtained at this type of international school are not as readily recognised in French higher education or employment circles as the traditional baccalaureate.
This option is popular with non-French groups such as foreign diplomats, business people on a medium-term secondment to France or some potentially permanent expats. All of these groups may wish to keep their options open for a possible return to their home country at some time in the future.
These schools are usually private and not directly related to the French state system and its standards. Substantial fees will be payable, although these are frequently met by the employer of a parent who may be temporarily seconded to France.
The examinations conducted will usually be subject to marking and verification by the examination boards of the originating country.
The advantage of these schools for children who may be spending only a few years in France is that they do not necessarily require an advanced level of French in order to progress academically. It also keeps open their easy entry into higher education options for when they return to their country of origin.
On the downside, international schools of this type might not fully immerse students into French culture, language and life.
iii. International baccalaureate (IB)
There are currently approximately 18 lycée-level schools in France offering the international baccalaureate.
The IB is not a French qualification. It is based upon the academic standards of an organisation headquartered in Geneva.
The IB offers students the chance to obtain an internationally recognised qualification that may facilitate their entrance into higher education levels in any of the 100+ recognising states.
However, holding an IB is not necessarily an automatic guarantee of entry into university. Although many national coordinating bodies, such as UCAS in the UK, officially recognise this qualification, admission acceptance criteria are often controlled by individual universities. It’s therefore difficult to be specific about how this qualification will be viewed by any individual university.
If parents and students have a specific university or universities in mind, it would be prudent to contact them to discuss their particular views on the IB before committing to this route.
There is a widespread misconception that international schools offering the IB in France teach exclusively or largely in English.
In fact, such schools may have significantly diverse policies and options relating to the percentage of tuition that is conducted in English, French or Spanish. You should investigate this with the individual school if your child has a minimal level of French and you are seeking a solution providing education primarily, even if initially, in another language.
The IB is popular with families who may be unclear as to where they will be living in a few years’ time. As a portable qualification, it does allow a theoretical degree of freedom to move around the globe. It is also popular with some French families who wish their children to have a more international and bi or multi-lingual perspective.
If you plan to stay in France, it is perhaps worth noting that some French employers may not be familiar with the IB (even though it has formal recognition in France) and they may have a natural if unspoken predisposition towards qualifications they know and understand from their own background.
iv. Bi-Lingual Schools and International Lycées
Some French lycées (and collèges)may offer bi-lingual options, where elements of study will be conducted in French and another language. The underlying core curriculum though will continue to be French and taught in French.
A slight complication here is that although state education is largely free, bi-lingual options may or may not be. You would need to discuss that with the specific lycée offering this option.
There are also entirely bi-lingual schools, where the curriculum will be taught in French and another language or languages. These schools/lycées may also be described as international schools, though again this is arguably technically incorrect.
To confuse things even further, there are some state/private lycées operating as 'International Lycées'. They were originally set up immediately after World War II in order to help educate the large numbers of foreign children then arriving in France as part of overseas forces and organisations assisting in European reconstruction.
These lycées may teach the French curriculum but in the initial 1-2 years, they will have substantial components taught in the appropriate foreign language for overseas students and with more emphasis on studying the history and culture of that country.
During that time, it will usually be mandatory for students to take an intensive French language immersion course, with the objective that towards the end of pre-university study, the students will be ready to complete their work and exams in French.
These schools may focus on the OIB but some may offer the IB. Some may also offer overseas accredited exams.
At the outset you may need to think about:
• Your budget.- Any school that is not state or state-contracted (which means the majority of international schools) will bring with it potentially very significant fees, although they are often lower than those in many other EU states;
• Your location. - There are few international schools outside of Paris, in which case you will need to seek one offering boarding facilities (internat) – which might not be common for many such establishments;
• Language Skills. - Placing a 14/15-year-old with little understanding of French into a lycée progressing towards a standard French BAC or BAC-OIB, may be very challenging for them.
In such cases, you may be better seeking an international school offering an IB with large parts of the tuition in your language or perhaps specific qualifications relating to student’s language/country of origin;
You might also look for a genuine international lycée teaching in your language in the first 12-24 months but with intense French studies to prepare for the final year or two and BAC.
• Evaluation - Although all schools in France are subject to government inspection on a regular basis, it is difficult to find information on the performance of those schools that operate outside of the State system. You will therefore need to undertake your own evaluation, perhaps using forums that discuss the topic.
The French government does publish 'Pisa' results, which do show the privileged nature of schooling in France, as we covered in our Newsletter at Inequality in French Schools.
Children have an automatic right of entry to free state education if they are within the qualifying age ranges. Language limitations do not affect that.
Some public lycées may have specific admission procedures and programmes for students with a poor command of French but your access to public lycées offering routes such as the BAC should be relatively straightforward.
If the lycée is private, but contracted with the state, admissions may be selective. Fees will also be payable, in most cases at least several thousand euros a year and more if it is necessary to boarder your child. In truly 'private schools fees are upwards of €10,000 or even €20,000 a year.
Some may be reluctant to accept students who cannot speak advanced French. They may feel that the student’s language limitations will inhibit their potential for academic progression and most private lycées jealously protect their academic achievement figures.
Truly international schools are largely entirely private and their individual admissions procedures are therefore more difficult to comment upon. The best schools in the city centres are likely to be significantly over-subscribed and they may have certain minimum academic standards they would expect students to have achieved before they will be admitted.
Genuine international schools as well as international lycées, probably would not reject a student based on their French language limitations, given that helping such students is their raison d’être.
You will need to verify the exact admission requirements for the international school or international lycée you are interested in.
With the level of variation that exists, these this review cannot be a comprehensive guide. You will find many exceptions, 'grey areas' and overlaps between types of school so you need to do your research with care.
• The term 'International School' may mean many very different things in different situations and you cannot take anything for granted from that designation alone. You must look closely at the individual school’s offer to understand what it offers and how;
• There is no option for studying in France for the BAC or BAC-OIB, where the main tuition language will be permanently and exclusively something other than French. All students following this path will need to quickly learn and become proficient in advanced French. The possible interim exception - some specifically-designated international lycées may teach largely in other languages in years 1-2 of the 3-year study period to help students gain time to learn French.
• International schools offering the IB may teach largely in English or Spanish but substantial components will probably be in French in some cases;
• It is only in those private schools specialising in academic qualifications for other countries, where tuition might be exclusively in a language other than French for the entire duration of studies.
13.5. Where are the Schools?
Most of the schools are based around the Paris region. The main schools in France are:
- Bilingual International School of Paris (BISP)
- Bilingual Montessori School of Paris
- American School of Paris
- British School of Paris Junior/Senior School
- Ecole International Bilingue
- International School of Paris
- Ecole Jeannine Manuel
- Lycée International Montessori
- Lycée-Collège Edouard Branly
- Lycée International-American Section
- Lycée International-British Section
- College International De Fontainebleau
- Ecole Internationale Malherbe
- Lycée de Sèvres, International Sections
- Marymount School
- Rise International School
- United Nations Nursery School
- American School of Grenoble
- Cité Scolaire Internationale de Grenoble
- Ecole Internationale Active
- Le Pain d'Epice
- International School Nice
- Bilingual International School of Strasbourg
- Lycée International de Strasbourg
- Strasbourg International School
- Ecole Internationale de Lille Metropole
You can find more information about English speaking international schools at ELSA, the site of English Language Schools Association in France.
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